I never feel like I have enough time when I’m visiting somewhere, even if I’ve been there dozens of times. I definitely felt that way in Chicago, especially considering it was Samantha’s first time. Alas, the drive home would take a lot of time and I didn’t fancy driving all 11 hours straight home in a single day. In fact, I was eager to take a slower path with Route 66 and drive a section of the historic highway I’d never experienced before. When we pulled out of the parking garage in downtown Chicago and onto the Route, my anxiety from the morning’s mental issues were replaced with the giddy excitement of new discovery.
Although Chicago streets are a bit crazy, I am more comfortable driving them than I am the streets of Los Angeles. I love how Route 66 is capped with these two amazing cities that feel completely different from one another. Los Angeles is a sprawling concrete jungle, whereas Chicago feels more centralized. As the skyscrapers of downtown receded into the cityscape of western Chicago and the suburbs, I could feel the Midwest temperament returning to my surrounding environment. Samantha gleefully guided me from the passenger seat, consulting Jerry McClanahan’s EZ Guide to help me follow the Route along the winding streets, though Illinois does a GREAT job with signage. My first stop was Henry’s Hot Dogs in the suburb of Cicero; not to eat, but to take a few photos of the sign. The mediocre sandwich from Eataly was still with me, but I did plan to stop a little further down the road and get a little something to eat, just to say I did.
When we arrived at Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket in Willowbrook, I wished that I was starving. The restaurant has been in operation since 1946 and is famous for their chicken (obviously). As a completely unexpected bonus, they serve RC Cola from the tap! I hadn’t had fresh RC in about five years; I audibly gasped when I saw it on the menu. While we waited for our food, I wandered the restaurant (which was mostly empty due to the odd time of day) and read various newspaper articles about the history of the establishment. The building had a lovely vibe that really spoke to me about the love the locals clearly had for it. I tried not to stare as an old couple came in, both on walkers, smiling ear to ear as they sat in what I imagined was their usual table. The chicken was, indeed, tremendous….as were the homemade biscuits! I almost ordered more To Go, but decided I’d just have to come back another time.
It was a shame that I was still full by the time we drove into Joliet; I once again took photos without eating at the Rich & Creamy Ice Cream shop. Joliet is not only home to a nice stretch of 66 through their lovely downtown (and the GORGEOUS Rialto theater), but it’s also the home of the old Correctional Facility that was featured in the 1980 film ‘The Blues Brothers’. I happily detoured to take a look around the now-closed stone enclosure, taking photos in the afternoon sunlight. When we headed out of town, there was even a Bluesmobile on a Pole at a gas station, right on the Route. I will definitely have to re-visit when I have more time.
After Joliet, I discovered the landscape of Illinois Route 66: cornfields. Every state has a unique look and feel along the Route, and most of Illinois’ roadway is populated by old barns surrounded by tall stalks of corn. Many of them also call out the major companies behind the farming operations. The grain silos that dotted the landscape reminded me of the desolate Texas two-lane portions of the Mother Road, but the surrounding farmland was anything but. When we reached Wilmington, we stopped to admire the Gemini Giant, one of three ‘Muffler Men’ statues on the Illinois Route. This one is retro-fit to look like an astronaut to tie in with the nearby Launching Pad restaurant, which has since closed.
By the time we entered the town of Dwight, the sun was beginning to set. The light turned gold as I took photos of a restored Texaco station, complete with an EV charging stand. I heard a horn in the distance while I was wandering about and looked up to see an honest-to-goodness passenger Amtrak train pull into the station. Tulsa doesn’t have any passenger rail service and it still fills me with awe to see passenger cars in use. A few miles past Dwight is the small town of Odell where I found another restored service station, this one a former Standard Oil building. It was unlike any other station I’d ever seen; the design was almost like a cottage that had gas pumps added as an afterthought. The light was magnificent as I wandered the grounds, capturing images and admiring the roadside architecture.
When I planned the weekend road trip, I deliberately didn’t select a motel for Saturday night. Since I had no idea what the day would bring, I didn’t know how far we’d get before nightfall. As it turned out, Pontiac IL was the stopping point. It was almost full dark by the time we arrived. I knew Pontiac was the home of the Route 66 Hall of Fame and a downtown district dense with associated activity, but I was surprised to find there were no motels. There were a few Bed & Breakfasts just outside of their town square, but they all appeared to be closed. In fact, I was starting to get a little worried about finding lodging. Neither of our phones were cooperating with mobile internet in town, so Samantha literally phoned a friend. We ended up bedding down in a Best Western by the interstate, which was fine. I would’ve rather stayed at a mom-n-pop operation, but you take what you can get.
I was overly excited for the next day. Not only would Sunday provide me with a new roadside experiences, but it would serve as a major milestone in my travels. If all went to plan, we would reach St. Louis by taking Route 66 exclusively, completing the last major stretch of Route 66 I had not explored. My journey from Chicago-to-LA would be complete. I’d been building to this since my first Route 66-centric road trip in the summer of 2013. It’s a wonder I could sleep at all…but sleep came easily after a long day of walking and driving.