This weekend was the fifth annual Birthplace of Route 66 Festival in Springfield, Missouri. A lot of my roadie friends were driving hundreds (or thousands!) of miles to attend, so I felt I could at least drive 180 miles from Tulsa. In fact, I hadn’t spent much time in Springfield since my Route 66 passion surfaced; it sounded like the perfect way to spend the weekend. Since Samantha was also able to join me for this adventure, I was extra giddy when I pulled out of the driveway early Saturday morning.
The road from Tulsa to Springfield holds many memories for me. Growing up, my family drove to Springfield once a year to attend an annual grocer’s convention (known as a Food Show) for Associate Wholesale Grocers. We would stay in a nice hotel spend the weekend going back and forth from there to the convention center across the street. While Dad was behind closed doors, negotiating with companies to get the best deals on product for the grocery store company he worked for, I would wander the vendor booths on the floor, each one representing a major grocer product brand. I had friends (i.e. some of Dad’s colleagues that tolerated me) at M&M Mars, Proctor and Gamble, Sunshine Cookies, Frito-Lay, and so many more. When Sam and I arrived in Springfield, I discovered that same convention center was actually ON Route 66, and only a block from the vibrant downtown district that was hosting the festival. It was almost surreal.
We parked at about noon; by then, everything was in full swing and the turnout was amazing! Although we’d missed the parade and kickoff festivities on Friday night, the car show was on Saturday…so the streets were lined with classic automobiles. I was in heaven, kneeling next to shiny chrome fenders and looking closely at meticulously detailed pin-striping. I don’t know a thing about cars, but I sure like to admire them. The epicenter of the festival was Park Central Square, a lovely little pavilion with a fountain that is surrounded by old-school Springfield. There is a museum (complete with great rooftop sign), a movie theater, several dining options, and scattered shops. The main part of the square had bands booked all day and tents of various vendors hawking their wares. As we walked down St Louis Street (Route 66 itself), we encountered more retro cars, a motorcycle section, more scattered vendors, and an inflatable play area for the kids. Interestingly, there was a giant inflatable house on fire that encouraged kids to climb around inside it…which seems counter-productive to me.
Near the east end of the festival area, a renovated glass-plant-turned-event-space beckoned us into the air conditioning. Once inside, I realized this building housed nearly all of my roadie friends. I spent the next hour greeting, catching up with, and introducing Samantha to my Route 66 family: authors, jewelers, artists, collectors, and representatives of various roadside sites and state associations. All of them are passionate about preserving, growing, and sharing the Route. It’s crazy to think I only met them this past March; it feels like I’ve known them for years. Some I’d met up with when I traveled out west this past June, others I hadn’t seen since Gary Turner’s Memorial March, and others still I had only heard of and met for the first time. By the end of our booth circuit, they all knew Sam’s name and had welcomed her to the family with open arms.
We headed back to the car at about 4:15 PM; we hadn’t checked into our motel yet and were a little dehydrated from walking around in the heat. Although I hadn’t planned the trip far in advance (I only booked the room a week ago) I had lucked into a room at the mostly-sold-out Rail Haven Motel, a 1950s Best Western on the Route that just had their neon sign restored. As luck would have it, not only were nearly ALL of my roadie friends staying at the same place but my room was literally the closest room to the vintage sign. I couldn’t come or go without taking at least one picture of it each time. Dinner that night consisted of sixty or so folks in scattered camaraderie around a steakhouse on the south side of town. Several people asked about the Tulsa calendar I recently released, and I brought one with me to show off. When I mentioned I was working on a version for Route 66 specifically, everyone reacted the same way: they wanted one! It made me feel proud to not only be accepted into the group but also a contributor in a creative way.
After dinner, we were all treated to an improptu acoustic concert by the fabled Route 66 band ‘The Road Crew’ in the public area of the Rail Haven. We sat, drank, and visited while the band played a mix of covers and originals; everyone was having a wonderful time. As the night slowly wound to a close, Samantha turned to me and said, “Everyone is SO NICE!” I smiled and nodded. As the late Gary Turner would say, a friend on Route 66 is a friend for life. I beamed as Samantha’s words echoed the same feelings I had when I first met the gang at the Gasconade Bridge Rally. They are all amazing people, every one of them armed with passion, empathy, kindness, and the common thread of the Mother Road.
Sunday morning, we wandered the festival early to checking out the cars once more and say goodbye to our friends. We took the slow road home, where I was able to show a few of my favorite sites to Sam for the first time, including Gary’s Gay Parita station and the shops at Spencer, Missouri (both of which have sadly been the victim of recent vandalism.) We walked around the recreated town of Red Oak II, just east of Carthage, which Samantha absolutely adored. When we drove through Carterville, I pointed out the little Superman museum/ice cream parlor without thinking much of it. After a few miles, I decided it would be a good idea to turn around and get some ice cream. That turned out to be a GREAT decision!
We meet Larry Tamminem and enjoyed some truly delicious ice cream from a company I can’t remember in Wisconsin, including a Superman flavor. As we were admiring Larry’s 30 year collection of Superman memorabilia, a couple from England came in with the same idea we had. I struck up a conversation and discovered they were traveling the Route end-to-end! I really enjoyed learning about their experience so far, as it was also their first time in America overall. I caught Samantha smiling at me as I talked passionately about Sixth Street in Amarillo and the the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, encouraging them to savor as much as they could in the time they had. I gave them my card and encouraged them to reach out if they needed anything. They had Jerry’s E-Z Guide with them, so they were already in good hands.
What a fantastic trip! Next weekend, I’m heading to Chicago to attend the wedding of two dear friends of mine, right across the street from the beginning of the Route. On the way home, we’re taking Old 66 through Illinois…which will complete my Route 66 journey. Of course, that will just complete my first full run. After that, I get to pick and choose where I want to explore further. And, of course, visit my friends scattered across this great landscape. I can’t wait!