By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi
We set out on a blue-sky morning full of anticipation for our road trip. Although Route 66 technically starts in Chicago at Buckingham Fountain, we decided to circumvent the Windy City since we were already familiar with Buckingham Fountain. We opted instead to begin at the Joliet Area Historical Museum and Route 66 Welcome Center. It proved a good place to begin. We encountered a chatty Welcome person filled with stories of the fabled Route and of the Joliet Jail. The Welcome Center includes couches made from cars’ tail fins, statues of The Blues Brothers, and a replica of a 1960 Chevrolet Corvette in which one may sit and pretend to drive. This light and airy starting point also boasts a sculpture at its entrance that pays homage to the storied Route 66. Although laden with information we had culled before our trip, the welcome man pointed us to excellent free maps that highlighted further points of interest. Hopping in our car, we set off Route 66 in front of the Welcome Center.
The road is well-marked with distinctive tan and white Illinois Historic Route 66 markers. We soon learned that those markers spring up suddenly with arrows pointing to a sharp, unexpected turn. Traveling on the two-lane highway, my daughter informed me, made her feel really American. I understood. As we drove, we talked about how Route 66 was “The Road” to traverse during the latter part of the Roaring Twenties, and how the Route had been the main artery for transporting bootleg liquor between St. Louis and Chicago during Prohibition. We noted a wonderful absence of semi-truck traffic and of road construction on Route 66, the National Scenic Byway. We hummed the theme song from the “Route 66” television program, and came to experience the sense of nostalgia the Route itself invokes: It embodies the concept of the open road.
We let the road lead us to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood. Uniform headstones and colorful floral gardens belie the fact that the cemetery sits on the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. As we were leaving, a funeral cortege was entering. It was a moving moment in this quiet, well-kept space. Our next point of interest on Route 66 was a far cry from the previous one: the Gemini Giant in front of the Launching Pad Drive-In of Wilmington, Illinois. The enormous fiberglass Giant pays homage to early Space Travel. The still operating Drive-In itself opened in 1960, before the blandness of corporate chain drive-ins emerged. We were feeling hungry by the time we hit Braidwood. We pulled up to the Polk-A-Dot Drive-In, which first opened its doors in 1956. Feeling the pull of those halcyon diner days of yore, we ordered cheeseburgers, chili fries and Green Rivers, very filling. The 1960’s era jukebox proved so irresistible that I had to feed it coins to play “Jail House Rock”, “Great Balls of Fire”, and “La Bamba”, three tunes for fifty cents. Outside we posed in front of Betty Boop, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean fiberglass creations. In Godley, reading Burma Shave Signs along the Route made us laugh as we continued to get our kicks on Route 66.
Ciao for now.