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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 Illinois “Mow 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.
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 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.
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.
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.