Route 66 in the News

Couple Takes 66 Road Trip

2011-07-23 18:33:35

Rockin’ retirees Rita and Walt Danker got their kicks running Route 66.

On April 26 they took off from Chicago in a spanking new electric blue 430 horsepower six-speed Corvette ragtop.

Twelve days, 2,448 miles and many Kodak moments later they arrived at the Santa Monica Pier, where the iconic highway ends.

“Route 66 is a symbol of old-time America that’s fading away,” Walt says.

Not according to his photo gallery: gas stations with gravity pumps, monuments, bridges, museums celebrating local history — quirky and otherwise — preserved in real time, with docents on-site.

The couple ate in a bank-turned-bistro robbed by Jesse James and attended Latin Mass celebrated by a Zorro lookalike priest in a storefront church marked by a hippie Jesus mural.

They passed through Joplin, Mo., before the deadly tornado and outran storms — except for one that dropped softball-sized hail.

“That night we slept in our clothes under a bank drive-through (to protect the car),” Rita says.

Walt drove; Rita navigated by map and iPad.

Best of all, after close encounters of the Corvette kind, their marriage survived intact.

As Rita quips, “We got divorced in Vegas and remarried in L.A.”

Route 66 packs a double whammy for American folk-history groupies. Completed in 1926, the two-lane road, which follows the path of western migration through eight states, was intended as a commercial artery.

Urban legend has Al Capone wanting a paved road to transport bootleg booze to St. Louis.

As expected, service businesses thrived along its shoulders. The U.S. Highway Department eventually widened and diverted the road around population centers, leaving stretches of “old” 66, some cracked and overgrown yet sacred to purists.

Double-six captured the post-war spirit in l946 when Nat King Cole recorded “Get Your Kicks on Route 66.” The Rolling Stones released a version in 1964. By then “Route 66,” starring Martin Milner and George Chakiris, was must-see black-and-white TV. The acclaimed show involved its protagonists, traveling by Corvette, in human dramas along the way, assisted by greenhorns Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall and Rod Steiger. Watching episodes via Netflix was part of the Dankers’ preparation.

The song never appeared on the program but, nevertheless, became its anthem.

Corporate executives, golfers and grandparents of six, 60-somethings Rita and Walt Danker were living in Chicago when they discovered Pinewild through friends. They bought land, built a house (No. 44, unfortunately) and moved down in, you guessed it, 2006.

Recreational driving was a shared passion. The Dankers belong to a group of six (!) retired couples — three Porsches, three ’Vettes — who caravan North Carolina’s back roads.

“For years we drove to get somewhere,” Walt says. “Now we drive to enjoy the drive.” That means buzzing down to Holden Beach for lunch. Or meandering from lighthouse to lighthouse on the Outer Banks.

They brake for old houses and churches.

“Something interesting always finds us,” Rita says.

The Dankers have never gotten lost or had a bad experience on back roads, only interstates.

Route 66 — known as the Mother Road — seemed the ultimate pilgrimage. To make sure, last year Walt and Rita took a test drive from Chicago to Kansas City, Mo. Thumbs up. The trip was on.

“People said if you’re going to do it, do it right,” Walt continues. He had long lusted after a ’Vette.

Rita told him “This is the time. Stop talking and just buy it.”

Walt has a mind for details. Rita juggles logistics. They packed sparingly for the monthlong round-trip journey from North Carolina to California: jeans, shorts, T-shirts, hats, two cameras, a tripod and supplies for their nightly martini.

No golf clubs, no ties. When underwear ran out they hit the Laundromat.

How far they traveled each day depended on the terrain and attractions: ­average, 200 miles. At 3 p.m. Rita would locate a stopping place and arrange lodging. No matter how remote, with her 3g iPad she never lost contact.

Food was whatever locals recommended, from midwestern prime at Matt’s Steak House in Rolla, Mo., to Hot Dog Henry’s, Polka Dot Drive-In and Capone’s hangout, the Luna Café. They ate ostrich burgers but no Big Macs.

“If we heard the Palm Restaurant had great pie we’d forget what time of day it was and go,” Rita says.

Eateries often sported giant statues of Elvis, Betty Boop, whales, dinosaurs, lumberjacks, other kitschy characters.

Wayfarers find plenty of those elsewhere. Memories are made of places like the sacred Pueblo village that banned pictures, a tiny jail in Texas, Mickey Mantle’s homestead and the characters…..

“Remember Whispering Joe at the Joliet Museum….Melba the Mouth in Kansas….Bill the Philosopher in Oklahoma…?”

“Bill found us,” Rita says. “We got out to take pictures on a bridge; he came up and asked, ‘What are you doing running Route 66?’”

Forty-five minutes later the Dankers knew Bill’s life story.

In Springfield, Ill., they found a veteran in his 90s displaying not only gas ­station memorabilia but a pair of boots that landed on Omaha Beach — on his own feet.

The couple met Europeans participating in Route 66 junkets: Fly over, run the route on rented motorcycles, fly home.

Yes, the Dankers encountered tall-tale tellers and souvenir-hawkers in theme park general stores but for the most part, Walt says, “They’re proud people who try to keep the mystique alive.”

Walt’s smile fades as he describes the victory lap:

“From Barstow (Calif.) to San Bernardino is a boring three hours,” he says. “Then we got caught in L.A. traffic — one light took 30 minutes.”

He expected a sign on the Santa Monica Pier congratulating Route 66 warriors but found only an end-of-the-line marker.

The Dankers parked, splurged on martinis and Italian food and headed back.

“We had to get out of L.A., out of that madness,” Walt says.

They drove east by a direct route.

“We were racing home. It was no longer a journey,” Rita adds.

After 8,000 miles, a set of tires and a kaleidoscope of vignettes, the Dankers pulled into their driveway on May 26 with a sharpened awareness:

“What we went to see is America where we are now,” Walt says. “Meeting different people along the route took us back to the 1930s and ’40s. The trip was easy for us, but considering the weather and terrain it was amazing that they reached California at all. It restores your faith in this country. I have no interest in getting on a plane and going across the pond. America is spectacular.”

Ever-practical Rita exclaimed, “My own pillow! My own bed! My own shower!”

Not for long. In September the Dankers will gas up the ’Vette, turn up the rock ’n’ roll and head for the Pacific Northwest in search of … whatever.

~Deborah Salomon,


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