Route 66 in the News

Rambling on Route 66 in Illinois

2010-03-14 07:49:42

MADISON COUNTY, Ill. - When it comes to traveling Route 66, Jerry Law is a purist.

"Some people think they are 66-ing by going from big city to big city on the interstate," Law said. "That's missing the point of the whole thing."

Call it Law's First Law of 66-ing: If you don't travel by back roads, you aren't really traveling at all. You're just moving.

I wanted to get a taste of Route 66 travel. But constrained by time and budget, I planned to cover only the last few dozen miles of the highway in Illinois.

To prepare for the trip I sought help from Law, a member of the Route 66 Association of Illinois.

Law is a 66-ing veteran -- he's driven the entire length of Route 66 twice.

He's also a great advocate for the beauty of the road that leads from Chicago all the way to the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, Calif.

"I'm a fantastic lover of 66," Law said.

Law's 1,000-strong group shows its affection through a never-ending campaign to rebuild and maintain Route 66 in Illinois.

And they've been successful -- this stretch of the almost 2,500-mile highway is considered well-preserved.

So Law was the go-to-guy to help plan the logistics of the trip. But along the way I hoped to find out something else: Why does Route 66 exert such a pull on people from across the globe?

A guiding light

Accompanied by photographer Andrew Jansen, I started the trip about a mile outside the village of Hamel. Our precise starting point was the historic St. Paul Lutheran Church, known to 66-ers as the home of the "neon cross."

We stopped inside to speak with Joanie Mertz and Shirley Lueker, who have worked at the church and its school for a combined three decades.

I asked about the large neon cross perched on the top of the church. Is it a beacon, drawing in road-weary travelers?

Mertz said it has its practical uses.

"Quite a few truckers use the cross as a marker," she said.

I asked about the history of the cross. Mertz told me the congregation chipped in to build it in honor of a local man, Oscar Brunnworth, who was killed during World War II.

We went to examine it. Given that it was mid-afternoon, we had to use our imagination a bit.

Before we left, we asked Mertz and Lueker where we should go next. The answer was immediate: Weezy's.

World travelers

About a mile down Route 66 in Downtown Hamel, we pulled into Weezy's Route 66 Bar and Grill. Formerly called Scotty's Bar and Grill (one of several Route 66-centric incarnations the place has seen over the years), Weezy's is steeped in roadside history.

Owner Karen Wiesemeyer welcomed us in for a tour of the house.

Route 66 memorabilia appeared everywhere.

"We've been getting gifts," Wiesemeyer said, pointing to Route 66-style signs that came from the Alton Belle Casino and classic diner furniture from the hamburger chain Johnny Rockets. "I'm always looking for things."

Wiesemeyer pulled out a vintage sign reading "Tourist Haven" -- the bar and grill's original name.

"There was a boarding room upstairs," she said.

A map on the wall invited 66-ers to stick pin their home country. Russia, China and just about every European country had pins.

I wondered why they were drawn here. History? Myth? Nostalgia for American car culture?

Wiesemeyer retreated to the bar and pulled out a log book for Route 66 visitors. We opened to a random page. I read an inscription -- an Italian 66-er complimenting the kitchen for its ravioli.

"That's high praise," I said.

"People really eat big when they come here," Wiesemeyer said. "I think word gets around."

I asked Wiesemeyer, who bought the place just last year, if owning a well-known outpost on Route 66 had provided any surprises.

"I've been surprised by the number of young couples," she said. "A lot of them rent Harleys and ride from here to California."

I asked her where to stop next. She told us to check out Springer's Creek Winery.

Onward

Walking out of Weezy's, we spotted a Route 66-themed tanning and nail salon across the street.

Hamel clearly gets into the whole Route 66 thing, I thought.

After a drive of about 8 miles through some pleasant countryside, we saw a Route 66 sign welcoming us to Edwardsville. We identified a small, funky looking building on the right as Springer's Creek.

To our dismay, we arrived on the wrong day -- the winery was closed.

Regrouping, we pushed onward through Edwardsville, stopping to photograph some relics from the highway's heyday.

Near Mitchell, we passed the rusting sign for the old Bel-Air drive-in theater. Once a busy landmark on Route 66, time has reduced it to an empty lot. We looked around, but there wasn't much to do (aside from lamenting the passing of a bygone era and perhaps an impromptu reading of Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias.")

A little way down the road, we passed the Apple Valley motel, with its time-capsule architecture largely intact.

We were now just a few minutes away from our final destination -- the Luna Cafe.

Gansters and broken laws

A rough-around-the-edges (and not much softer in the middle) Route 66 roadhouse, the Luna Cafe has a glorious history. Gangsters, gambling and women with their virtue constantly in danger gave the place a reputation for debauchery.

Owner Larry Wofford welcomed us in.

"We get people from all over the world in here," Wofford said. "And they always ask about Al Capone."

Legend has it that Capone and his henchman hung out at the Luna Cafe when in town conducting business along Route 66.

According to the story, when the maraschino cherry in the cafe's roadside sign was blazing, the bar was open for games of chance and ladies of the night.

After showing us his antique, '30s-era telephone booth, Wofford retrieved his Route 66 log book from the bar.

"I'd bet you get some real characters in here," I told Wofford.

He agreed, and told us about a visitor who came in and displayed a body full of Route 66 tattoos.

Right on his back was the Luna Cafe sign.

We said our goodbyes to Wofford and continued down the road, where we were temporarily waylaid by some confusing road signs. Like a pair of true amateur 66-ers, we took a radical detour through Granite City to reach the end of the Illinois Route 66 line, right on the Mississippi River.

I had violated Law's First Law of 66-ing, albeit inadvertently.

To make up for it we doubled back along the Chain of Rocks Road, passing the Route 66 Flea Market. The route was complete.

We were now 66-ers.

~Chris Campbell, StLToday.com

 

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