Last week we drove to Springfield, the state capital of Illinois. We had no pressing reason to go there but it has plenty to see, including one of the very best Frank Lloyd-Wright houses and Lincoln museums galore. I had thought we would take the train but when Lucy reminded me that we could drive there on Route 66 I was more than eager to hire a car instead.
I’ve had a thing about Route 66 ever since we drove along a stretch of it fifteen years ago. We were driving from the south rim of the Grand Canyon to the Hoover Dam and rather than take the obvious route we took a detour, past faded motels and parched diners. There was even a radio station you could only pick up on the Route, playing tracks like “Riding Along In My Automobile”. To the south we could see cars and trucks hurtling along the boring highway, but Route 66 was empty and interesting. Fun, even. I wanted to see more, all of it. I bought a guide to driving the entire “Mother Road” hoping one day to travel the entire route, from Chicago to Santa Monica in California.
I have a theory that the urge to undertake long journeys just for the sake of the journey itself is somehow instinctive in Man, a primal urge; that pilgrimages fulfil some innate need to go vast distances with no better reason than having endured the trip. Or perhaps it’s just me.
In the last few years I’ve seen various chunks of the road – a good stretch in California, some of it in Arizona and a few miles in Missouri – and every morsel has whetted my appetite for more. For a while it looked like we might drive the 4000 miles round trip to Phoenix this summer, which would mean doing the lion’s share of the road, but we decided against it. 4000 miles is a heck of a long way, especially when your destination is Phoenix.
I’ve never been able, despite many hours of googling and browsing, to work out a truly satisfactory way of getting my hands on a car to drive long distances in one direction only. Car hire firms usually charge a huge one-way fee. We paid that once, driving from Phoenix to Austin in Texas, which was galling, given that the car we were given in Arizona was registered in Texas and we were basically paying Enterprise to return their car to where it belonged. The fantasy is that you buy an old Chevy, drive it across the country and then sell it when you arrive on the other side, but this would be incredibly difficult and complicated. How would you register and insure it? Well, I suppose I could actually do that, as a “US Resident”, but it seems a palaver. No, I think what most Europeans do – and I sometimes wonder if driving Route 66 isn’t something that tourists do more than holiday-impoverished Americans – is swallow hard and pay the enormous one-way charge, ending up with a boring old Toyota Camry rather than their fantasy vintage car.
For our drive to Springfield we had a Chevrolet Knobhead, or something like that. It was quite good, except that I wouldn’t want to drive thousands of miles in it. Springfield is about 200 miles away, so the Knobhead was perfect.
The tricky thing about Route 66 is that they’ve built massive highways either over it or right next to it, and no-one can seem to decide absolutely where the original road went. Whenever you’re in a town of any size, there seem to be several roads which claim to be The Original Route 66. It’s easy to get lost, especially as many of the signs which are designed to help you find the road turn out to be misleading. In one town, while we were on a road marked with historic, brown Original Route 66 signs, we crossed another road at right angles which called itself Old Route 66. It was very confusing. We used the Knobhead’s on-board compass to find our way out of a few dead ends. The guide book was no help at all.
On the drive south, we decided to avoid the complexities of leaving Chicago on what’s left of Route 66, which may have been a slight loss in terms of sight-seeing, and went on the highway instead until we’d passed the quaintly-named but ugly town of Joliet, home of a massive state prison and neighbour to another town called Romeoville. Truly. As soon as we left the highway and were on the old road we saw a promising diner, outside of which stood a massive 1960s movie-style astronaut clutching a rocket, but the accompanying Gemini Family Restaurant was closed. It was the last interesting thing we saw for quite a while. Many businesses along the road can surely only rely on tourist traffic for trade and there’s really not that much from the mid 20th century left, in Illinois at least, to raise the pulse. We stopped a few times, trying and failing to find “must-sees” from my out-of-date guide book, pausing for some blueberry pie and coffee in a diner, and to check out the towns of Pontiac and Lincoln. Lincoln, named after Abe before he was president, was depressing – a once-thriving Victorian town centre built around a fine city hall, which had had the life sucked out of it by strip malls and Walmart. Even the splendid-looking soda fountain had died.
The highlight of the five hour drive south was the Funks Grove Maple Sirip (sic) Farm. The sirip (that’s really how they spell it) was delicious and we bought a bottle, but my Post Office credit card was frozen immediately afterwards. I guess the Post Office thought the name sounded dodgy, though they didn’t say so when I spent twenty minutes on the phone getting them to un-freeze it.
Returning from Springfield next day, we took the highsay. We’d had enough of getting lost.
One day I’d like to cross the States by car but I’m beginning to think that Route 66 isn’t the way to do it.

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