Part 3 – Riding in the Rain

Torrential downpours weren’t just a Chicago thing.  The whole Midwest was experiencing record rainfall and was quickly flooding over.  After only one dry and sunny afternoon in Springfield, we woke up the next morning to grey skies and heavy clouds dripping with drizzle.  Breakfast recommendations had been collected from Driftwood staff last night, and the “Incredibly Delicious” bakery café did not disappoint!  

“Incredibly Delicious” – the best breakfast in Springfield!

Not only was it situated in a grand old mansion in a fancy part of Springfield, but the food on offer was amazingly tasty, and the portions were human.  There is something about America, “the Land of Plenty” that nation-wide calls for humongous portions, especially for breakfast.  I have long learned that ordering a set breakfast anywhere was a feat not for the faint-hearted, and an average-sized European was much better off ordering just sides – one boiled/poached/fried egg, and a side order of hash browns were a safe bet.  They would in any case come with a pile of toast and bottomless coffee refills that would keep one sated till the end of the day.  “Incredibly Delicious” warmed out hearts and stomachs with freshly made quiche and hot teas, and the staff did not blink an eye at us first taking 4 layers of clothing off when we arrived, and after breakfast repeating the process in reverse order and adding rubber rain suits on top.

Warmed up by the delicious food and hot tea, we set off on our way in the pouring rain.  This time, it was not a drizzle – the water was seriously rushing down from the skies.  After about an hour of riding in torrential rain, some of the dents in our gear started making themselves known.  My seemingly long rain trousers gathered up, leaving the bottoms of my jeans exposed to the elements, and soaking up the rain.  My hardy Harley boots treated with all the waterproof solutions we could find before the trip did a good job of not letting the water through, but the zipper on the side betrayed all efforts and was leaking in rain like nobody’s business.  The uncomfortable feeling of sitting in a pool of water (Harley seats are especially handy for collecting whole buckets around one’s ass and crotch), was now paired with a lovely squishy sensation of cold water collecting around my feet.  Great!  Just what one needs on a cold rainy day!… Queen of the road, my ass!…  I felt very far from regal, and very close to a drowning rodent in soaking wet socks with bad hair…  A quick look at Nic, with streams of water running down his cheeks (his helmet did not have a visor) proved that I was not alone in my misery.

On the positive side, there was absolutely nobody to admire/mock/commiserate with us (choose the most fitting option) in all our glory – we were riding through nowhere, with miles and miles of farm fields stretching to the horizon.  Not even cows were seen out in this lovely weather.  The South-Western part of Illinois did not seem to be as rich in the roadside memorabilia, as the North of the state…  The GPS confirmed that we were on the right track, but the country roads were quickly downgrading to B, C, and finally D-list tracks, covered with mud and grass.  All I could think of was “Please, please, please, please, no gravel!”  The memories of our feats on the Ring of Kerry in Ireland a year earlier were still fresh in my memory, and the questionable pleasure of riding on gravel paired up with pouring rain would be too much to bear…

Ariston Cafe

Our first planned stop for the day was some 50 miles South of Springfield, at the Ariston Café in Litchfield, Illinois.  In continuous operation on since 1924 (first opened in nearby Carlinville, and then moved to Litchfield in 1929), it has been in the hands of the Adam Family (do not confuse with the Addams Family!) from the start, and has long become one of Route 66 iconic places.  We were all in for history!  Besides, after just under an hour on the road we were getting seriously cold.  Our friend Fletch’s words were circling in my mind “I ride in the rain.  I ride in the cold.  Just not in both together.”  And he’s got serious bike mileage and experience under his belt!…  Here we were – two fair-weather bikers, riding in the inclement weather that the seasoned professionals stayed away from…  Please, please, please, no gravel, and let the fucking rain stop!!!!

Wet, cold and miserable, with our teeth doing the Morse code messaging all of their own accord, we pulled into the Ariston’s Café parking lot, fantasizing about hot coffee and cake, only to see that the door was locked.  What the fuck?…  We consulted the plaque with the opening hours at the door, looked at our watches, and realized that in our stubborn idiotic strive to get away from the rain, we were too early – the place was not going to open for another 40 minutes.  Well, what can we do?…  I was intent to at least take a photo of the place, before starting to search for alternative warm-up scenarios, when the door opened, and a prim and proper old lady rushed us in.  We apologized profusely for not watching the time, and for dripping all over her floor, but she did not blink an eye.  Yes, the café was opening only in 40 min, but she was there, the coffee was brewed, so we might as well come in and warm our wet sorry asses inside.

We spent well over an hour in the café, thawing off, having endless cups of coffee and some seriously good apple pie, chatting with the old lady, her husband who showed up later (they must have been the Adams’!), and a couple more elderly ladies preparing the place for customers.  They were all exceptionally friendly, homey and chatty.  One of the ladies had a pin on her spotlessly white apron, saying she had been working for the establishment since the late 1960-es.  At second glance, the place seemed to be much more than the modest name of “Café” seemed to suggest.  The front room with a coffee bar had a couple dozen tables with full lunch and dinner menus, all ready for service, and the back of the building opened up into a full-fledged white table cloth restaurant that could easily sit a couple hundred people.  We mentioned this disconnect to Mr. Adams, who philosophically remarked that “Café” was a much shorter word than a “Restaurant”, and by calling the place “Ariston Café” one of his ancestors had probably saved a buck or two on the neon sign back in the day.

We signed the guest book, thanked the kindly owners and staff for saving our asses, and went back into the rain.  There was no sign of it thinning down, let alone stopping.  Well, we were on schedule, and had a route to continue on…

Soulsby’s Service Station

Soulsby’s Service Station in Mount Olive, IL, was the next on our list.  Opened in 1926, it was in continuous operation and was pumping gas for the passing by motorists till 1991, even after Interstate 55 came into operation in late 1950-es, pushing Mount Olive that ended up a mile away from the new thoroughfare almost into oblivion.  Even though the station has not been pumping gas for a good 15 years, it was restored to its original shape, and while closed at the time of our visit, seemed to be serving as a gift shop in better weather.  We stopped for a photo opportunity, proud of the fact that we did find the place in the obviously under-populated rural areas of the state of Illinois.

We gave a couple other sights on our list a miss – some were situated down dirt tracks that I would not risk on a bike even in better weather conditions, others were quite a bit out of the way, and with the torrential rains following us we did not feel overly adventurous.

The Pink Elephant Antique Mall

One place did call for a visit, though – the Pink Elephant Antique Mall, which looked exactly like it sounded!  The address put into the GPS turned out not exactly correct, so we circled around for a couple of minutes, but the mall was hard to miss, due to the life-size statue of a pink elephant, perched in the middle of a lawn next to the road leading to the place.  Only in America!…

We took the pictures of the elephant, and the green UFO inconspicuously sitting next to it on the lawn, posed with the figurines decorating the mall from the outside, and tired, but happy, moved on direction St. Louis, MO.  We figured it was time to call it a day.  120 miles done on the 2nd day weren’t really record-breaking, and barely took us out of the state of Illinois, but we were done with the rain, and needed a hot shower and dry clothes.  Besides, I had fond memories of downtown St. Louis, and we had a bit of a sightseeing program in mind.

St. Louis

While thawing off at the Ariston Café, we also enjoyed the free WiFi the place had to offer, and having no intent on going further than St. Louis, booked a hotel there for the night, using my thoroughly prepared route planner that listed several options in each potential stop on the way.  Feeling miserable and wet we decided to splurge a bit, and set our eyes on the Union Station Hotel in downtown St. Louis – a converted train station, conveniently located within walking distance to everywhere we wanted to see in the city. 

The Union Station

We pulled in at the doors soaking wet, and I immediately impressed the doorman not only by being able to reverse park my huge motorized sofa all on my own, but happily informing him that only 2 days earlier we were experiencing similar lovely weather in Chicago.  He gave us directions to the hotel parking on a side street, and agreed to us leaving our bags at the front door.  He also went as far as to inform the front desk of the arrival of two soaking wet water rats, so when we showed up for check-in, the lovely lady at Reception was ready with heaps of snowy-white towels to dry our hair and clothes!  We cautiously took one towel each for the hair, but politely declined the rest, saying that we would sort everything out on our own.  When we returned the 2 used towels to the still smiling lady, they were far from snowy-white, but she did not seem to mind.

A hot shower and a change of dry clothes and shoes (luckily, our dry bags packed in the saddlebags of the bikes did not leak!), and we were human again!  Four more hotel towels were inevitably ruined by being pushed into our riding boots to try to soak up all the water that collected there during the day, and armed with a huge umbrella borrowed from the still impressed doorman, we continued with the tourist program.


Even though I was in St. Louis only for half a day 4 years ago, I was eager to introduce Nic to both places I remembered and enjoyed back then – the Citygarden and the Gateway Arch.  Conveniently, they were located not far from one another, or from our hotel, but even so, we ended up freezing cold and wet from the toes to the knees (the rest was protected by the giant umbrella).  Both sights were as great as I remembered them to be – the wacky sculptures in the Citygarden were still there, and even though the giant TV screen in the wall was gone, and so were the homeless, this did not spoil my reunion with St. Louis.

Views of downtown St. Louis from the Gateway Arch

We grabbed some nondescript food in an Irish pub next to the hotel, and finished the day at the lobby bar (formerly the main railway station hall) with lovely drinks and a fantastic light show on the ceiling.

The two scruffy Swiss guys were nowhere to be seen…

Our modest 103 miles for the day – all in the pouring rain

Part 2 – Treasure Hunt Begins

Not every tourist walking the streets of Chicago downtown realizes that the train propped on metal stilts over the streets in The Loop area is not the only additional midtown transportation layer.  There is a whole Underworld of streets hiding under the pavement, complete with multi-lane highways, passage bridges and sidewalks.  The locals obviously know, but they don’t need the GPS to navigate this “underbelly”.  We did.  Trying to do so on two heavy bikes with no idea where we were going definitely contributed to the excitement of the start of our Route 66 adventure!  The GPS did not work underground, and the amount of steel in the nearby constructions confused the fuck out of it for miles after we found our way out of the underground maze.  At least it was dry underground.  On the surface it was pissing down with rain.

At the start of The Mother Road

The stretch of Route 66 going through the state of Illinois has some of the highest concentrations of wacky memorabilia along the way – Joliet, Wilmington, Pontiac, Atlanta, Springfield – it seemed that every little town the Route has ever touched not only sprouted their own collection of giants, figurines and other roadside memorabilia, but went to great lengths to carefully preserve them. 

Old Joliet Prison

Joliet was the first on our list and on the way, with its famous former prison, commemorated for posterity in “The Blues Brothers”.  The younger audience might remember the prison as the set for the first season of the “Prison Break” TV Series.

Old Joliet Prison – waiting for Jake…

By the time we reached Joliet, the heavy rain thinned into a drizzle – still going strong to keep our rain gear on, but weak enough to actually allow us to see the surroundings.  Located in the outskirts of town, the former prison was hard to miss due to its sheer size, and even in its closed-down state was quite intimidating.  It looked exactly the same as when Elwood was picking up Jake at the big gate.  Built in 1858 and operational up to 2002, the building was in a surprisingly good shape, even though there was no sign of renovations, announced as ongoing on the former prison’s website.  The place was completely boarded off, but hopefully one day the Joliet Area Historical Museum that has been pitching to establish guided tours of the premises since 2014 will prevail.  Having seen the grand building first hand, our thoughts on the main obstacle to such tours for the moment was the need (and cost) of repairs, which most probably would be a little out of the affordability limit for a country-side museum…  Maybe they will come across some rich investors.  Or win the lottery.

Rich’N Creamy

Another Blues Brothers site in Joliet, was the Rich’N Creamy ice cream shop, with Jake & Elwood statues dancing on the roof.  I joined the party posing for a photo, although stayed away from the ice cream – the weather was not really calling for it…

Joliet was also the sight of our first ever Route 66 sign.  No, I have to correct myself here – the first one was in Chicago.  Much sought for, and found on the day of our departure in the pouring rain, it marked the start of the Route, and was a must-selfie stop at the start of our trip, before the downtown traffic lanes lured us into the underground world.  The sign in Joliet was technically the 2nd, but the 1st one on the Route itself, so obviously called for another selfie.  If things continue unfolding at the speed they have so far, by the end of the trip we would be able to run a master-class on selfies with road signs!

Gemini Giant

The dark clouds, menacingly gathering on the horizon spooked us from Joliet, we mounted our mighty motorized sofas, and tried to if not get away from the rain, but at least not get any wetter than we already were.  The riding gear kept us relatively dry inside, but sitting with one’s ass in a pool of water gathering in the bike seat for hours, albeit in a rubber suit, cannot by any stretch of imagination be considered one of life’s little pleasures…  Continued to be chased by the inclement weather, we had to give several sightseeing spots a miss, but did make it to Wilmington, IL with its Gemini Giant

The main sign for the Launching Pad Drive-In that has long ceased to exist, the 500 pound fiberglass statue of an astronaut, was purchased by the former hot dog & ice-cream shop owners in 1965 for an exuberant price of $3,500.  Although poorly suited for space travel with his short sleeves and an open helmet, the giant did bring luck to the place, attracting trade that allowed the modest drive-in to expand into a full-service restaurant that survived till 2011.  The tiny town of Wilmington (or at least whatever we saw driving through it) did not seem to be overpopulated or crowded with attractions, and looked sleepy and deserted.  The Giant definitely stood out.  We took the obligatory photo of and with the fiberglass astronaut, and continued on the way.

Pontiac, IL

The next planned stop was the town of Pontiac, IL.  It was named not after a long-gone Pontiac cars of General Motors (as one might think), but in honor of a much longer forgotten Native American leader, who as far as anyone knew had never set foot in the area.  To add to the confusion with the name, the whole of downtown Pontiac was peppered with tiny-tiny toy cars, painted in cheerful yellows, reds, dots and all, inviting the visitors to sit in and play.  Apparently, the locals would rather be associated with the derelict giants of the automotive industry, than the long forgotten Indian tribes.  Can’t blame them, really – in the vicinity of Route 66 cars sell much better, than Pocahontas…  

In addition to toy cars, downtown Pontiac has a collection of murals depicting events, people and places from the history of the town and advertising The Mother Road.  The town seemed to be capitalizing on Route 66 to the full.  We had nothing against this – after all, the giants, the murals, the wacky sights was exactly what we were doing the trip for! 

A huge Route 66 mural covering the side of the building by the parking lot where we left our mighty steeds presented a great photo opportunity, which we jumped right at.

We were cold and wet, and decided there was some coffee and food with our name on them in Pontiac.  A friendly old lady pointed us in the right direction, and even offered to take a photo of the two of us in a nearby toy car.  The coffee shop/diner/restaurant was warm, absolutely empty with the exception of a young waitress and an older woman behind the till, and was everything we were looking for.  2 coffees and 2 teas later, we thawed out enough to contemplate a snack.  Two more customers came in, looked at us funny and settled at a table furthest from us.  Both were middle-aged men, on the wrong side of 50, with outdated mullet haircuts, looking scruffy like out-of-luck truck drivers, not local, but annoyingly familiar.  They continued giving us funny looks all the while looking through the menus, and ordering their own coffee and snacks.  What the fuck?…  The guys were definitely not local (we overheard them speaking to the waitress, and their English sucked), so the outrage at the tourists invading the neighborhood was out of the question.  Besides, the old lady on the street earlier was definitely local, and not only was NOT outraged, but quite chatty and happy-go-lucky. 

Another reason for funny looks could have been the biker thing – there are a lot of preconceptions floating around about people in bandannas, leather gear and scull & crossbones T-shirts, who tend to be loud and swear a lot.  Again, an old lady would have been the right candidate for indignation here, but definitely NOT the two scruffy guys, who looked like they could do with a wash and whose acquaintance with hairdressers and barbers obviously dated back to the 1970-es.  Besides, they DID look familiar!  Where the hell had I seen them?…  When the food arrived, it hit me – Chicago!  The same two dudes were sitting in the breakfast place near our hotel in Chicago just two tables from us this very morning!  What a co-incidence!  I scared the shit out of them by loudly shouting across the room “So, are you two following us, or what?!”  They mumbled something incomprehensible and tried to look away, but there was no stopping me.  After a lot of one-sided shouting across the room, the guys managed to confess that they were from Switzerland, and were travelling in the US. Really?… This was the first time I saw Swiss hillbillies.  I was impressed.  Not only did the guys defy every idea one might have of a Swiss person, they did manage to make it as far as Pontiac, IL with just a handful of English words.  We switched to German, which made both blokes visibly relax and after I explained that we were sitting next to each other just that very morning in Chicago, they finally stopped with the funny looks.

The pit stop helped, we paid the bill, shouted “See you two later!” at the Swiss rednecks, and went back to the bikes.  The rain has stopped, and although the skies were still overcast, we could finally peel the rain gear off and enjoy the elements through only 7 layers of clothing without the rubber finish.

Without the rain, Illinois country side looks almost idyllic – green fields, trees, the road snaking away through the hills and little towns sprinkled all over them.  We soon realized that that particular weekend must have been the national IllinoisMow Your Lawn” day, as every single home owner in every single town and borough we rode through was out and about, mowing their lawns!  The unfortunate side-effect of this activity, was that most of them were throwing cut grass onto the road still wet from the rain.  A big fat guy twice the size of the lawnmower he was sitting on, driving slowly up and down the roadside slopes outside of his house wearing only his boxer shorts will, regretfully linger in our memories for a bit longer than he was welcome to…  The grass his vehicle threw on the road made for very fragrant, but dangerously slippery tarmac.

Paul Bunyan 

We stopped for a quick picture opportunity with another roadside fiberglass giant in Atlanta, IL.  This time it was a menacingly-looking Bunyon statue, peeking out of the nearby bushes and holding a giant hot dog.  He turned out to be a relative of the Gemini Giant, manufactured by the same company as the spaceman. 

The mean sausage man

The information plaque next to statue said that most of the roadside giants traced their ancestry to a “Paul Bunyan” figure, originally done for the Paul Bunyan café in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1962.  The original ancestor was holding an ax and soon became so popular (the plaque failed to mention whether the popularity was at least partially attributed to an ax), that other business owners, especially those working in automotive business, started purchasing their own, and replacing the ax with car parts, put them in front of their service stations.  Due to this assortment of various spare parts given to the new-born statues, they soon became known as “Muffler Men”.

In 1965, a local entrepreneur by the name of H.A. Stephens, purchased one of the giants, swapped its original ax for a hot dog, and placed it in front of his sausage stand on Route 66 in Cicero, IL.  The thoughtful Mr. Stephens purposefully misspelled the name of his business, calling the restaurant “Bunyons”, in order to avoid potential claims from the Paul Bunyan Café in Arizona.  The ancestral ax definitely explained the menacing look of the sausage man, who soon became a Route 66 landmark.  Even though Mr. Stephen’s sausage stand closed down in 2002, the menacing sausage man survived, and in 2003 was moved to Atlanta, IL after they won a bid for the famous statue as part of the Route 66 preservation project.

Springfield, IL

Our first full day on the road finished after 227 miles (365 km) in the town of Springfield, Illinois.  Not the Homer Simpson’s Springfield, but the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln (which we were absolutely not aware of).  Our first digs on the road, Mansion View Inn & Suites, chosen solely due to its proximity to downtown (read: food & drink) looked quite grand from the outside, but were nothing to write home about.  We asked for the room (true to the nomadic nature of our travels we did not book a single hotel in advance), parked the bikes, took a quick shower, and warmed by the last rays of the evening sun, walked into town in search of the much needed food and drink.

Driftwood bar

We found all of this (and more!) in the Driftwood Cocktail & Eatery – fantastic food, great wine, and a friendly bartender, who told us stories of the place all evening long.  Just when we sipped our first drinks, the door opened and two scruffy Swiss guys came in.  Really?… They seriously must be following us!  We shouted at them from the bar in German, and I can’t say they looked pleased at being recognized or greeted.  They stayed for one drink in the corner, though, quickly paid up and left at the first available opportunity.  Maybe they were two lovers, eloping from the angry relatives on the Continent, and hoping for a peace and quiet on their romantic road trip?…  Whatever their story, two rowdy bikers speaking their language were definitely not in their plans.  We decided to give them a break for the evening, but after they left I swore to corner them and question heavily should we see their faces again.

Our approximate route from Chicago, IL to Springfield, IL – we obviously took a detour or two…