Famous though it may be, Route 66 is more a state of mind than a place. Finding it on the stretch from St. Louis to Springfield, Mo., took both a GPS and the Lonely Planet Route 66 Road Guide. And when I got to the Route 66 State Park, I bought yet another map with bigger type.
Once you get out of town, “The Main Street of America’’ is easier to find as it slips through pastures and forests, past state prisons and rusted-out auto body shops, around Wal-Mart Supercenters and the skeletons of once-beloved Mom-and-Pop motels that have now, literally, gone to the rats. In 1985, it was replaced by interstates, and often it parallels I-44.
Still, the roadway captures hearts. The volunteers at the Route 66 State Park near Eureka were busy selling fridge magnets and T-shirts and books on this Monday morning. The park is a biking-and-hiking center, but about 65 percent of the people who come in to the Visitors Center are looking for Route 66 info or memorabilia, one of the volunteers told me.
Many are foreigners beguiled by the spirit of the highway. While I was there perusing the exhibits, visitors included two girls from Spain, an Irish couple in a rented convertible, and a trio of young men who turned out to be Serbs.
I ran into the Serbs a few miles down the road, at a wayside souvenir stand in the shape of a trio of concrete teepees. The place looked appealing, and I’d been warned that they require you to pay a $2 fee. Turns out they require you to spend at least $2 on merchandise to even stand in their parking lot. None of us minded the $2 tariff, but the woman who owns the place was aggressive and downright rude, so personally, I’m boycotting.
We went inside, bought some rocks (cheapest things in the store) and then finally had a chance to chat. Turns out the guys are making a documentary about Route 66 for Serbian National Television. The talent is a handsome young man named Alex Marich; the roadtrip was his idea.
“I read a lot about Route 66. My favorite group is the Rolling Stones, and Route 66 is one of their songs. It’s great to travel coast to coast and meet people.’’
He and his two coworkers left Chicago five days ago and have 20 yet to go. Up to this point, he said, the best part of the trip had been the people he had talked with, all very friendly and hospitable. “It’s better than I expected because of the people,’’ – today’s experience being an exception. I apologized on behalf of the entire nation.
Marich and his crew had trouble keeping up with Route 66, and it’s no surprise. Often the Interstate eats it whole; at times the Historic Route 66 markers simply disappear, leaving you clueless. But I always made my way back on track.
A little background: Route 66 was officially created in 1926 at a meeting in Springfield, Mo. About the same time, the Phillips 66 gas company got started, getting its name from a company executive who drove to a pre-company launch meeting along Route 66. (The company originally employed six registered nurses to drive up and down the road to help any motorist in need, I learned at the State Park.)
The nurses and white-clad gasoline pump masters are long gone, but there’s enough of the charm and honky-tonk left to make for hard choices. I by-passed the Jesse James Wax Museum, Reptile Center and the Toy Museum in Stanton in favor of Meramec Caverns.
Having already visited Florida State Caverns on this trip, I was a bit caved out, but the attraction includes some true rarities – a 25-foot high stalagmite that is the world’s third largest, we were told – and a hokey-retro closing with Kate Smith singing America the Beautiful in front of a truly stunning curtain of formations. On top of that, the caves were used as a hideout by outlaw Jesse James and brother Frank, so who could resist?
Not the 150,000 people who come here annually, said owner Les Turilli. His grandparents started the attraction in 1933 with 12 paying guests. At one time the caverns were advertised in 30 states; today the billboards and painted barns all fall within a 300 mile radius, he said. Government won’t let him paint barns anymore, so when existing ones fall down, those advertisements are gone forever.
One of the highlights of this stretch of Route 66 was Cuba (pop: about 3,500). I stopped off at the newspaper, The Cuba Free Press. The owner and editor had gone, but two very nice ladies, Sandy Morice and Joy Brandenburger, gave me a flier explaining that Cuba was founded in 1857 “based on common sympathy for the island of Cuba, which was under the oppressive rule of Spain at the time.’’ In 2001, a community beautification group called itself Viva Cuba came up with a plan to commission a dozen murals depicting local history for the town walls; 11 are now complete. None show the other Cuba.
Monday, August 28, 2006
Posted by DARCOS CRUZ at 8:10 PM