Get Your Kicks on Illinois Route 66

The 300-mile section of Route 66 angling across Illinois lures road-trippers seeking throwback gas stations, Muffler Men and the pleasure of taking their time.

in Road Trips, Local Experts
January 27, 2017

Courtesy IOT.

A vintage Pontiac in front of the Route 66 sign in Pontiac, Illinois.

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At a little park in Joliet, Illinois, you’ll find a selection of delights: a roadside path lined with honeysuckle; stands of red birches, white oaks and ash trees casting shade; the Blues Brothers dancing on the roof of an ice cream parlor…

Well, about that. The park sits along Route 66, aka the Mother Road, born in the 1920s and ever since a neon-lit showcase of unique restaurants, quirky motor inns and kitsch. Like most National Scenic Byways, Route 66 today carries travelers more interested in the going than the getting there. The route symbolically begins at Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain and continues for 300 miles southwest through Illinois (or about 435 miles if you take all the original side roads). It crosses the Mississippi outside St. Louis and heads west to Santa Monica, California. Much of the Illinois section runs just a few yards from Interstate-55 traffic. But in towns along the way, the road feels more like the two-lane sojourn that lives in memory—American and otherwise.

Journey the state’s iconic road with more than a weekend’s worth of stuff to see. Set aside ample time to buckle in and head out on the highway on your curated Illinois Route 66 road trip. 

Global Appeal

“We get people from all over the United States and overseas, too—Britain, Australia, New Zealand,” Bill Gulas says through the walk-up window of the Blues-Brothers-topped ice cream shop, Rich and Creamy, on Broadway Street in Joliet. “One guy found a Route 66 sign, and he was having everybody sign it.” (Why the Blues Brothers? In the film, Jake served time in Joliet Correctional Center.)

Some autographs may have been noteworthy. At Joliet’s Route 66 Welcome Center, Elaine Stonich admits she once made Paul McCartney move his illegally parked car. “One lady said, ‘Is that who I think it is?’ I said, ‘Yes, but we’re being low-key.’ ”

Low-key isn’t common on this trip headed south from Chicago. In Wilmington, Barbara Siegel-Holmes, Michael Holmes and their two teenage kids scrunch together for a snapshot under a towering fiberglass figure called the Gemini Giant. It’s one of a handful of statues installed roadside, many of them known as Muffler Men, which were used to advertise car repair—though the Gemini Giant dons a space helmet and carries a rocket ship instead of a muffler. “We’ve had people tell us, ‘It’s just a road,’ ” Barbara says. Then she laughs.

A little over 40 miles south, in Pontiac’s town square, 23 vintage-advertising-style murals burst with colorful images of old-time firefighters, trompe l’oeil antique storefronts, historical figures, even an irreverent soda-ad homage to French painter Édouard Manet. Many were created in 2009 by 150 artists called Walldogs.

Between stops cars cruise the string of two-lane roads at a leisurely pace. Open windows bring in a cooling breeze scented with growing alfalfa and rich prairie topsoil. Above, an endless ocean of sky; on the ground, waves of grain rolling out to the horizon. You could get lost and not mind.

A big part of the Route 66 fun is the tribe you join en route. Because most people travel at about the same pace, you may run into the same folks over the course of several days—at restaurants, museums and motor inns—and end up swapping tips about must-see statues and diners and sharing stories about your experiences.

Vintage Gems

One stop most drivers buzz about is in Dwight, where the Ambler-Becker Texaco Gas Station displays a circular red and white Texaco sign. Inside, a vintage fire engine fills the service bay, and a volunteer recommends other stops. Though the station no longer sells gas, hybrid and electric cars can refuel at a charging station. Ten miles south in Odell, a rehabbed Standard Oil Gas Station displays vintage car-repair tools and sells a variety of Route 66 memorabilia.

The Bunyon Statue in Atlanta stands in mute contemplation of a hot dog outside Palms Grill Cafe, a revived 1930s diner. Inside, travelers sample the blue-plate special while surrounded by Art Deco light fixtures, checked linoleum floors and local girls in diner-waitress garb.

Illinois’ stretch of Route 66 ends where the Chain of Rocks Bridge (with its famous 22-degree bend in the middle) crosses the Mississippi River outside St. Louis. Downriver, the Gateway Arch stands, a monument to America’s journey west, marking an iconic route that will still carry you all the way into the past.

Three-Day Itinerary

Day One: Chicago & Pontiac

Begin at the beginning: Buckingham Fountain in downtown’s Grant Park. Grab a selfie with one of the commemorative Route 66 signs nearby. Then stop for a diner breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s, a Chicago landmark that opened on Jackson Boulevard three years before Route 66. Enjoy a free doughnut hole and orange slice, and order an omelet or some pillowy pancakes. Head southwest to the Joliet Area Historical Museum’s Route 66 Welcome Center to plan your trip and get the scoop on the route’s Muffler Men.

Gas pumps, motel signs, photographs, maps and other items pack Pontiac’s Route 66 Association Hall of Fame and Museum in an old fire station. Comfort foods await at the fave Old Log Cabin. An often-changing lineup reveals rare Oakland autos, Firebirds and more at Pontiac-Oakland Museum and Resource Center. Pontiac’s 24 outdoor murals showcase the local cultural scene, and three swinging bridges cross the Vermilion River to connect Chautauqua Park and Play Park.

Day Two: Springfield

In the capital city, meet your food-on-a-stick quota at Cozy Dog Drive In, a mainstay dating from the 1940s. Ed Waldmire Jr. created a batter-dipped hot dog on a stick, now known as your standard state fair corn dog. While at the drive-in, be sure to wander the Route 66 memorabilia collection.

Restored 1930s service stations filled with vintage tools remain at Ambler-Becker Texaco Gas Station in Dwight and at Odell’s Standard Oil Gas Station. Tours of Atlanta’s 1904 J.W. Hawes Grain Elevator Museum (open summer Sundays and by request) raise interest in agriculture. The decor at Route 66 Hotel and Conference Center in Springfield consists of miniature cars, gas pumps and motorcycles.

Then head over to Abe Lincoln’s stomping grounds. Check out the Old State Capitol to see where Lincoln served as a legislator and delivered his famed “House Divided” speech on slavery. Examine the vast artifact collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Pay respects at his tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery—for good luck, rub the well-worn nose of the bronze Lincoln bust.

Visit cutely compact Mahan’s Filling Station at its home outside Fulgenzi’s Pizza and Pasta. It’s about 100 years old and believed to be one of few such examples still standing. And cap your day with a throwback jaunt to the friendly (and affordable) Route 66 Twin Drive-In movie theater, which shows outdoor double features every summer night. 

Day Three: Carlinville, Collinsville & Madison 

The Million Dollar Courthouse in Carlinville proves interesting for its tales of corruption as well as its architecture. Ask to see the guest books of Route 66 travelers and sample the fried artichoke hearts at The Ariston Cafe in Litchfield. In Livingston, a 1940s schoolhouse contains the Pink Elephant Antique Mall, where you’ll find vintage clothing and furniture. Thick pork chops satisfy diners at Weezy’s Route 66 Bar and Grill in Hamel. In Collinsville, check out the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle (a cleverly designed water tower).

If you drive the entire Illinois stretch from Chicago, your journey may conclude at Chain of Rocks Bridge. The mile-long span famous for its 30-degree bend once carried Route 66 drivers over the Mississippi River. Now open only to cyclists and pedestrians, the bridge proves an apt (if not particularly subtle) symbol of where we’ve been, how we got there and where we’ll head to next. Which, really, is the essential magic of Route 66.

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