GETTING KICKED BY ROUTE 66: Part Seven – Detours & Signs

Monday, May 5, 2008

When the Interstates muscled across the American West, Route 66 became a detour. Today, Route 66 features detours within detours. Isn’t the best stuff in life off the main road? Before Stephanie and I continue south from Wilmington, we make a side-trip to Kankakee to see the first prairie style home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

We pass a fifties-style root-beer drive-in.

Our guidebook only says it’s on “Harrison St. at the river.” We ask around town and receive vague directions. We pass a fifties-style root-beer drive-in with an orange-and-white striped awning. Remember when American optimism was Popsicle colored? Just past that, we turn and find the Bradley House where the street dead-ends at the Kankakee River.

The 1901 house is an L-shaped two stories of glass etched in geometric patterns, surrounded by earthy trim, wheat walls, and double roofs. I tend to feel ho-hum about the way most ranch-style homes attempt to immitate Wright’s visionary designs. But this real deal has a subtle flow and natural elegance that I appreciate.

The 1901 house is an L-shaped two stories of glass etched with geometric patterns, surrounded by dark brown trim, wheat walls, and double roofs.

A sign on the lawn identifies the place as a Frank Lloyd Wright home, and advertises a number to call for a visit to the “Carriage House Gift Shop” by appointment. I call, but only reach a man’s voice on voicemail. Then a middle-aged woman steps out of the house and approaches. I step onto the lawn to meet her. Her look is not welcoming. I explain that I’ve just phoned in hopes of seeing the house. “This is a private home,” she says, her voice haughty. I point out the inviting sign on her lawn.

She remains chilly. “That isn’t going to work today because I have somewhere I need to go.”

“That’s too bad. We’ve driven thirty miles out of our way just to see this beautiful house.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she says, though her tone says she’s not.

“May I take photos of the outside?”

“As long as you stay on the street.”

So I do, seeking the lovely views Wright optimized, blending the lines of home into the natural rhythm of river and trees. The owner peers at me through her windows, drapes thrown wide. I thought she had somewhere to go. Does she think the two forty-something women in the rental car will break in?

I wouldn’t want a parade of sightseers invading my life either, but as I tell Steph, “If she doesn’t want visitors and she’s going be so unfriendly about inquiries, she shouldn’t put up a big sign announcing her home, her business, and her phone number.”

Steph says, “I’m predicting a marital argument in that beautiful home tonight: ‘How many times have I told you I want to take that sign down?!’”

But by then we’ll be far south on Route 66.

We spend much of the day within sight of Interstate 55, watching small towns connect the dots between stretches of farmland. We’re riding what was once a four-lane highway, reduced to a two-lane frontage road. The other two lanes are returning to nature, overgrown with grass. Our road isn’t in much better shape, cracked, patched, and repaired with concrete slabs that ka-whump-ka-whump under our tires.

We stop a lot, so Steph can humor my enthusiasm for American anachronisms. In Gardner we pretend to be prisoners in the frontier jailhouse, a hewn-stone hut built in 1906, barely big enough for two cells and a jailer.

In Gardner we pretend to be prisoners in the frontier jailhouse, a hewn-stone hut built in 1906.

In Odell, we stop at a defunct cottage-style gas station: white-painted clapboard with a vintage, round, red-and-white Texaco sign on a pole. The red pumps advertising Sky Chief and Fire Chief gasoline remind me of 1950s robots. They recall a more innocent time, when gas stations represented the freedom of the open road instead of our addiction to easy energy.

In Odell, we stop at a defunct cottage-style gas station.

On our way to Pontiac, we stop at the black barn with the giant ad for Missouri’s Meramec Caverns painted on the side. These barn-side ads once went on for hundreds of miles.

These barn-side ads once went on for hundreds of miles.

In Pontiac, we visit the old brick firehouse, where the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame & Museum has set up shop. Downstairs is loaded with Route 66 memorabilia and upstairs are photo exhibits from all eight states on the Route: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Those rooms lead into an antique shop, where Steph points me toward nirvana: an old manual Remington typewriter. It’s only thirty bucks, so I pick it up like a baby and carry it to the register. I doubt it works, but “I have to have it.”

Steph points me toward nirvana: an old manual Remington typewriter.

In Lexington, we pass a string of old Burma Shave signs:

The signs line a median where half of old Route 66 is now a footpath.

We stop in Normal to see the 1937 art deco Normal Theatre. “This is the closest to Normal I’ve ever been,” Steph says. Given that her cold has blossomed into an alarming cough, her joke is a little scary.

“This is the closest to Normal I’ve ever been,” Steph says.

Her humor is exhausted by the time we reach The Mill Restaurant in Lincoln. The stout wood building once had a revolving windmill with lights. But the large windmill blades are gone.

But the large windmill blades are gone.

“Most of these so-called sights are actually eye sores,” Steph says.

I should cut her slack because she’s sick, but it isn’t her first complaint and my patience is wearing thin. Then again, maybe hers is too. Maybe after thirty years we’ve known each other too long. “I’m looking at it with a sense or irony,” I say.

Steph snorts laughter.

I’ll admit, if I owned a Route 66 business, I wouldn’t emphasize “Remember to pack your irony” in my brochures.

A sign says Route 66 Rescuers plan to restore The Mill. I wonder: how do we decide which parts of our past to cherish and which to let overgrow with grass?