Travelling the Main Street of America
We think of 66 as the road west, but for the first few hundred miles it actually heads more south than west. Once you've negotiated the long-term road works that held me up in Adams and Ogden Avenues, you'll love the first day's run out of Chicago. The city's dramatic skyline recedes in the mirror as you roll through suburbs that were distinct settlements when 66 was created in 1926. There are lots of kitsch landmarks that scream to be photographed, and in every case I found safe and convenient pull-ins. Don't count on making too many miles in any hour; it's very much a stop-go affair as you pose by the art-déco Berwyn town marker, the Route 66 Raceway in Joliet or the Rocketman at the Launching Pad Café in Wilmington. Get your timing right and you can lunch on the famous fried chicken at White Fence Farm. Get your timing wrong and you'll be arrested for loitering outside the Blues Brothers' country seat, Statesville Prison!
One thing you'll learn on this opening section is to be on the lookout for STOP signs in the most unlikely places. They're often half-hidden in foliage and lack accompanying road-markings. You're bowling merrily along an apparently open road enjoying the ambience and sinking into cruise mode, when suddenly you catch a glimpse of a faded red octagon nailed casually to a post. But make no mistake, the locals know it's there and they obey it as they would the voice of Doom. What's more, the guy on the other road knows it's there and he places touchingly absolute faith in the notion that you will stop for him no matter what your approach speed. It's all part of learning to live on the real road away from the Interstate.
A couple of great old gas stations in Dwight and Odell will give you a taste for these essential remnants of the way we used to drive. Right here on day one you'll start your quest for photographs and souvenirs of the hundreds of disused stations you'll find along the Mother Road. You'll soon start to recognise the different periods of gas-station design and to pick out the old stations that have been put to new uses. The delivery of bulk fuel to the travelling motorist at the roadside originated on 66 and it has seen every phase of the concept's development. The trouble today is that all the oil companies and States have their own ideas of how a self-serve gas pump should work. I filled my Chevrolet Malibu 26 times in the course of the recce run and confronted 26 different combinations of buttons, levers, nozzles and payment systems. You need patience and persistence, but, hey!, at just over $1 per gallon (about 15 pence per litre) who cares?
Count the ways that money has been siphoned from the pockets of 66-ers. With thousands of cars and trucks driving past every day, there was always a buck to be made along America's Main Street. One favourite ruse was to build up anticipation with bill-boards to lure the traveller towards your cash-register in easy but irresistible stages. The owners of Meramac Caverns in Missouri started to whet the appetite hundreds of miles in advance, with regular updates on how far to go. If there were kids in the car, a frenzy of anticipation would build until only a visit to the Caverns would prevent open rebellion in the back seat. You'll have the option of visiting Meramac Caverns later in the trip, but right on Day One you'll see one of the legendary barn-side signs near Cayuga, more than 260 miles from ground zero. The story goes that the owners of the Caverns toured the newly-opened 66 in the 'twenties looking for barns close to the road. They then offered farmers a free paint job if they could put a Meramac sign on the side facing the traffic. A deal with no losers! The farmer got his barn painted for nothing and the Meramac Caverns got a free "billboard" - and a lasting place in the mythology of the Route.