GETTING KICKED BY ROUTE 66: Part Six – What Would Kerouac Do?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Stephanie wakes with a cold and a fever of 100-plus. She wants to sleep it off so we can still hit The Mother Road this afternoon. We’re planning to take Route 66 all the way to L.A., but now I’m wondering if we’ll ever make it out of Chicago.

The Clarke House is Chicago’s oldest, built in 1836.

I leave Steph snoozing while I hit the Prairie Avenue Historic District. This is where the city’s millionaires lived in the late 1800s to early 1900s. A few of these grand old homes survived the Great Chicago Fire. The Clarke House is the city’s oldest, built in 1836. I’d hoped to peek inside the charming Greek Revival, but Sunday tours are at noon and two, too late if we mean to leave town by 1:00.

Instead, I hit the Art Institute to see the Monets. Claude Monet’s water lilies fill me with tranquility. In fact, I yearn to climb into all of his melting hues and sit quietly by pond, river, or sea. Maybe my subconscious doesn’t want to hit the road.

Claude Monet’s water lilies fill me with tranquility.

I leave at 11:30 to catch a bus or taxi to the hotel. No luck. After an hour of walking, I run for it. At 12:45, I fly panting into the lobby, where Steph lies napping amid our bags. She claims to feel better, but looks just sick enough that I feel guilty about commiting to hit the road, apparently even if it kills her.

At 1:00 we head up Lake Shore Drive for a final look at Lake Michigan. I exclaim at the beauty of the blue ocean mimic sparkling in the sun. Steph grumbles, “The wind hurts my ears,” and climbs back in the car.

We head up Lake Shore Drive for a final look at Lake Michigan.

At 1:45, we turn from Michigan Avenue onto Adams Street: the one-way starting point of Route 66, Westbound. Route 66, Eastbound is a one-way street the next block over, called Jackson. Most people don’t travel Route 66 east. The spirit of the thing is to head west.

We’re in the spirit of the thing for just a few blocks before we park and walk to West Jackson Boulevard to eat lunch at Lou Mitchell’s, a downtown Chicago eatery since 1923. The Route 66 clock above the swinging kitchen door says two o’clock. But hey, we’re finally on the road…or at least, in a diner on the road.

We eat lunch at Lou Mitchell’s, a downtown Chicago eatery since 1923.

Unlike Jack Kerouac, we weren’t too busy howling all night to leave early. Not that I want to walk in his footsteps. I found On the Road’s Dean Moriarty selfish, thoughtless, and self-absorbed. But I appreciate his balls-to-the-wall attitude: throwing himself against the world to see what comes out the other side. Maybe this road will take us to LA in time for Steph to get back to work, maybe we’ll have to cheat and race across the Interstate to the finish line, maybe we’ll catch a plane in New Mexico. I’m a little tightly wound for a what-the-hell attitude, but I’m trying. As for Steph: she looks ready to crawl onto one of Lou Mitchell’s two 1950s counters to sleep.

jack kerouac

Unlike Jack Kerouac, we weren’t too busy howling all night to leave early.

Our hostess pokes tongs into a basket and drops donut holes into our hands. Then she hands us trick-or-treat boxes of Milk Duds, before showing us to a booth. This place bakes fresh bread, so we order tasty sandwiches: meatloaf on Greek for me, barbeque beef on a bun for Steph. We leave moments before closing time at 3:00 p.m.

We leave moments before closing time at 3:00 p.m.

On the road again, afternoon sun points the way to Chicago’s South Side, Jim Croce’s “baddest part of town.” Somewhere in the sepia, Bad Leroy Brown wanders with a razor in his shoe. But we never spot him, or the Carmack Plaza, where cars sit impaled on a spike. Neither is technically a “Route 66 Roadside Attraction,” but we’re on the lookout for weird Americana. My feverish sidekick is juggling a EZ66 Guide for Travelers, Route 66 Adventure Handbook, and Route 66 Traveler’s Guide and Roadside Companion, and it’s not easy. We finally spot a giant hot dog atop Henry’s Drive-In: very Route 66.

We finally spot a giant hot dog atop Henry’s Drive-In: very Route 66.

Next stop: Joliet, Illinois, on the lookout for the first-ever Dairy Queen location, established in 1940, but no longer owned by Dairy Queen. We never find it. Instead, we spot life-size statues of The Blues Brothers dancing atop the Rich and Creamy ice cream stand. We opt not to buy inauthentic, non-DQ frozen dairy product, though I hear it’s excellent.

In Joliet, Illinois, we spot life-size statues of The Blues Brothers dancing atop the Rich and Creamy ice cream stand.

We roll into Joliet’s humble downtown to admire the elaborate Rialto Square Theatre, a restored 1926 Vaudeville theatre on the National Register of Historic Places. Its architecture is Greek, Roman, and Byzantine, but the yellow, red, and green carvings of human figures amid the columns look almost Mayan. It glows in the golden hour like unearthed treasure, a reminder that once upon a time a visit to the theatre was a big, big deal.

Shortly before sunset, we pull into Wilmington and spot the first fiberglass “Muffler Man” I’ve seen since childhood. The Gemini Giant is one of many 20-foot statues that used to advertise a variety of businesses in the sixties — not just Muffler Man. These muscle-bound men’s-men still dot the west, Ken dolls dressed up by mischievous children. This one wears a space-helmet and wields a rocket advertising the property’s food stand: The Launching Pad.

The Gemini Giant is one of many 20-foot statues that used to advertise a variety of businesses in the sixties—not just Muffler Man.

Wilmington’s main street of clapboard, brick, and an old red-and-white soda fountain, is either a quaint slice of history or an alcoholic ghost town. Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte is reproduced on the side of a brick building.

Wilmington’s main street of clapboard, brick, and an old red-and-white soda fountain, is either a quaint slice of history or an alcoholic ghost town.

We check into the Chester Manor B&B, an Italianate Victorian built in 1871. She’s a gorgeous old broad with wood floors, a wood staircase, and elegant furnishings. Still, we’re nonplussed by our room’s décor, featuring seafaring prints and a ship’s bell engraved with the name “Titanic.”

“It’s not encouraging when ill to be surrounded by reminders of a sinking ship,” Steph says.

What would Kerouac do? Ring the bell, I guess…and wonder where to ditch his sick travel partner. I leave the bell un-rung.

2 thoughts on “GETTING KICKED BY ROUTE 66: Part Six – What Would Kerouac Do?

  1. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    I didn’t know about that film, Billimarie. Thanks for the heads up. I’ll be interested to see it. How is your own film project going?

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