GETTING KICKED BY ROUTE 66: Part One – Two Girlfriends Take a Road Trip Back in Time

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Stephanie has never cut out on her husband for two weeks before. My husband told me, “It’s okay, I’m getting used to it.” I recently returned from a three-week book-research trip to China, stayed home for two weeks, then split again today to start this road trip down Route 66. I already miss Dale, but this rare chance to hang with my longest-time girlfriend promises to be like crazy, man!

Stephanie and I met thirty years ago at Downey High.

Steph and I met thirty years ago at Downey High, in the sleepy Los Angeles suburbs, and we became tight friends. Though our lives have moved in different directions, it always feels comfortable to pick up our friendship again, like throwing on my favorite old leather jacket. It’s a relationship full of embarrassing confessions, unsolicited advice, and no-respect wisecracks, between two former non-joiners who joined each other. What better duo to share a time-machine trip down America’s Blast-from-the-Past Highway, Route 66, a.k.a. The Mother Road? I’ve dubbed this journey “Steph’s and Cara’s Mother F—ing Road Trip”:

What better duo to share a time-machine trip down America’s Blast-from-the-Past Highway, Route 66, a.k.a. The Mother Road?

We arrive at Chicago’s O’Hare airport on two separate flights and meet at Dollar Rental Car, where we immediately start teasing each other. At the sight of Steph’s Pepto-Bismol-pink faux-suede suitcase, I burst into approving laughter.

“That’s the most awful suitcase I’ve ever seen!” – which is to say that I dig it. I snap a photo.

She rolls her eyes. “Oh my God, are you going to be like my dad?”

Steph’s dad turned her early childhood into a bewilderment of obsessive photo-shoots and professionally-lit Christmas mornings that left her blinking and blinded. I’ll confess she might have picked the wrong travel partner if she wanted to avoid triggering post-photographic distress disorder.

“That’s the most awful suitcase I’ve ever seen!” – which is to say that I dig it.

We spend 45 minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-190. No, not Route 66 yet: Chicago sits at the start of the route, so we’re planning to make the Chi-town scene for a couple of days. We pull into downtown, where I’m horrified to find out it will cost twenty-nine bucks a day to store our car across the street from our hotel.

“Is there any in-and-out?” I ask the attendant.

“No. That’s why we charge twenty-nine dollars a day,” he says, in the kind of Chicago accent someone might use to say, “Da last guy who asked ’bout in-an’-out ended up in da river.” Hotel parking typically costs more than forty bucks a day. So we say “later alligator” to our car until Sunday.

Our room is small but luxurious: two comfy queen beds, lush quilts, fluffy robes, and a welcome-platter perfect for a girls’ getaway.

Our room at The Whitehall Hotel is small but luxurious, thanks to some travel points Steph cashed in: two comfy queen beds, lush quilts, fluffy robes, and a welcome-platter perfect for a girls’ getaway—truffles, chocolate strawberries, and more berries. We arrive after five and we’re beat, so we cool it for the night: just a short walk to grab a pizza. An acquaintance of Steph’s from Chicago insisted we must eat the Windy City’s famed invention, the stuffed pizza, at the best stuffed-pizza chain: Giordano’s. I’m not used to “chain” and “best” going hand-in-hand, but the concierge confirms that Giordano’s is, indeed, the best… and it’s only four blocks away.

Our first Route 66 neon!

We walk down Rush Street until we see the neon sign: our first Route 66 neon! Inside, the scene is totally boss: warm woods, old-fashioned glass, checked red and white tablecloths, sandwich-board menus, and more neon. The thirty-minute wait for a table is minimized by the fact that we can order our pizza while waiting.

I give our name to the hostess. “Schartz,” I say casually. “That’s S-C-H-A-R-T-Z.” Stephanie and I used to compete at making up fake names for restaurant hostesses. Sometimes one or the other of us gave the name out of earshot and made the other one guess when our name was called. Only later will I realize that I picked up tonight’s name from the movie Along Came Polly, in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman wants to leave a party because he “sharted,” meaning he farted and accidentally shit in his pants a little bit.

Maybe that thought is what throws off my first bite of stuffed pizza. At first I say, “It’s good, but I’m not sure what all the fuss is about.” Then, as I continue chewing, I realize I’ve simply had the same reaction I might have if I ordered a Coke only to be surprised by a mouthful of root beer: a moment of perplexity until the yummy-ness of the root beer takes over: “Ohhhhh, I get it…” This is a pizza revelation: non-greasy crust, crunchy outside, soft inside, not too thick or too thin, filled with generous helpings of cheese, spinach, and mushroom, enfolded in a two-crust pie, topped with rich, fresh tomato sauce, all in perfect harmony. This pizzas swings!

This pizzas swings! (Don’t let Steph’s face fool you. As I mentioned, she suffers from post-photographic distress disorder.)

After dinner, we stroll past the Old Chicago Water Tower, a fairytale castle of creamy stone, lit glowing-white against the flickering city night. This takes us to Ghirardelli’s, my favorite chocolatier, where we stop for free samples of killer chocolate squares filled with gooey peanut butter.

After dinner, we stroll past the Old Chicago Water Tower.

Back at our hotel, the Sears Tower (now known as Willis Tower) fills our window like the monolith from 2001: A Space Oddysey. We lie in the dark and giggle over the aimless conversation of two old friends who always become teenage girls the moment they’re alone. We’re shedding years for this ode to our parents’ day: Route 66 from Chicago to LA, where it just so happens we grew up. We’re taking the long way home: 2448 miles on what Nat King Cole called “the highway that’s the best,” before the super-highways took over and defined the America where Steph and I grew up. Today Route 66 is both the destination and the journey, and we plan to get our kicks…

To be continued…

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