Two thousand five hundred eighty nine miles. That's the ground we covered on our recent road trip. And what a lot we packed into those miles!
We stood among giants; we heard legends of the road and tales of travelers who'd come before us; we revisited old haunts, finding some unchanged and some transformed in creative ways; we rejoiced over a young couple's marriage, celebrated a special teenager's birthday, succumbed to a zippy one-year-old's charms and reconnected with family members we see far too seldom. Through it all, we somehow managed to feel unhurried and to savor every moment (and quite a lot of road food).
We experienced far too much to relate in one blog post (so be prepared for a few installments), but I'll hit some of the highlights here.
Planning the trip, I realized the location of the wedding we were attending was near several old Route 66 attractions, and I added those to our itinerary. I've been fascinated with Route 66 nearly my whole life—from childhood trips with my parents, to the 1960s TV series with Martin Milner and George Maharis roaming the country in their Corvette, to the resurgence of interest sparked by Michael Wallis's 1990 book, Route 66: The Mother Road.
Once we got on the road, we discovered our route paralleled many more stretches of old Route 66, all with their own attractions, so of course we had to hit as many of those as time and interest allowed.
An early stop was the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame & Museum in Pontiac, Illinois. In addition to admiring artifacts, we learned about the travels of artist and Route 66 enthusiast Bob Waldmire, whose 1972 VW Microbus and school bus "land yacht" are displayed there. The VW bus was the inspiration for the character "Fillmore" from the 2006 animated motion picture Cars. (This was the first of several Cars character inspirations we encountered on the trip).
Farther down the road, we toured motorcycle museums and car collections, visited old gas stations—some restored, some abandoned—and took in other longstanding points of interest.
It was heartening to see how many landmarks have been preserved or restored in my home state of Oklahoma: Rock Café in Stroud (whose owner, Dawn Welch, was the inspiration for the Cars character Sally Carrera), Lincoln Motel in Chandler, the Arcadia Round Barn, the Blue Whale in Catoosa, and Ed Galloway's Totem Pole Park in Foyil.
A fair number of new attractions have sprung up along the old route, too, complete with typical Route 66 oversized objects to lure tourists in. Even though I gave up soft drinks years ago, I couldn't resist a photo stop at Pops Soda Ranch, with its giant pop bottle out front and its offerings of more than 700 varieties of soda, many colorfully displayed on shelves in floor-to-ceiling windows.
Speaking of large, I also had to seek out a number of so-called Muffler Men—fiberglass giants created in the 1960s and '70s as attention-getters for businesses such as muffler shops and drive-in restaurants. On this trip, we saw the Lauterbach Giant (who was decapitated by a 2006 tornado but recapitated once his head was found about a block away), a Harley Guy, a pedicured Beach Guy, a Hot Dog Giant, and my favorite, the spooky spaceman Gemini Giant.
Lotsa big guys. Impressive as they were, though, it wasn't the giant people I'll remember most from this vacation. It was the real people. I loved spending time with my sister-in-law, my nephews and their families and some of the cousins I grew up with. Not only did we share memories, but we also deepened our relationships by learning new things about one another.
New acquaintances from the trip made lasting impressions, too. In Arcadia, Oklahoma, we wandered into an interesting-looking old building that now houses GlassBoy studios and Tourist Trap Tees. That's where we met Joel Rayburn, neon artist and Route 66 enthusiast. You'll hear more in a future blog post about Joel and his endeavors, so for now I'll just say I was excited to hear his thoughts about getting younger generations interested in Route 66 by preserving some of the highway's most intriguing stories and legends.
On our way back to Michigan, we stopped to take pictures at Devil's Elbow on a stretch of old Route 66 in Missouri. Ray struck up a conversation with two couples from the UK who were touring the old highway by motorcycle on their way to New Mexico, where one couple was to be married. What a memorable trip that will be!
As the four rode off across the old steel truss bridge that crosses the Big Piney River, another motorcycling couple came up to talk. It turned out they were from France, and they were fascinated with our pickup truck. Such vehicles are rare in their country, they said.
Also rare in France: friendly strangers, the man said. "It is so easy to talk to people in America," he said. "In our country, you have to be introduced. People do not talk if they do not know each other." Eager to support his observation, we chatted for some time about motorcycles, trucks and travel. Then he made one more remark that, for me, summed up our road experience as well.
"This country has many beautiful landscapes," he said, "but the best thing is the people."
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.