I was surprised when my phone dinged one Friday evening in late September, alerting me to an unexpected text from my friend Mark.
“You riding tomorrow?”
“I don’t have a plan… Whatchagot?”
“Nothing except looks to be an exceptional day to ride.”
Mark and I are both seasoned motorcyclists who appreciate how quickly the riding season can conclude as the fall season progresses toward winter. We texted back and forth a few times, sharing possibilities, and then decided to meet up near my home for a familiar run down old Route 66.
Technically, the Mother Road began at the intersection of Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Me, I’ve always picked it up from Joliet and turned around in Pontiac. It’s a nice little day ride for motorcyclists. I’ve written about various aspects of this little stretch of the Mother Road before and for the sake of not being redundant, I strive to share some different angles each time. Please, enjoy the ride…
After meeting up with Mark and part of his family near my home in Plainfield, we picked up old Route 66 in the city of Joliet, as part of modern day Illinois Highway 53. As we rode out of Joliet and south toward Elwood, I thought about my mother-and-father-in-law, who drove out to California via Route 66 on their honeymoon, back in the late 1940’s. While on their trip, Jack (my father-in-law) shot some footage using an 8mm move camera that he had. Some years ago, as a gift, my wife and I had the films transferred onto VHS tapes, the modern technology of the day. I enjoyed watching all that footage and listening to my in-laws tell stories about their trip. That experience is what sparked my genuine interest in the Mother Road. Prior to that, Route 66 was just the name of a TV show from the 1960’s when I was growing up.
The first time I ever ran this part of Route 66 was via motorcycle, following a gentleman named Jim, who had ridden the entirety of the Mother Road on an organized tour. Jim took great pleasure in sharing this local portion of Route 66, from Joliet to Pontiac. He frequently included a stop at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, to which he referred as his future home. We briefly rolled through the cemetery on this run, but did not stop and took no photographs. I will say it’s a solemn site to behold.
Where we did begin taking photos was in the town of Gardner, which is home to two structures of historic significance. One is a two-celled jailhouse that was built in 1906 and used until the 1930’s. The other is a streetcar-style diner that has been preserved and donated to the town. I had been to the jail once before but for some reason hadn’t walked over to look at the diner. Both structures are worth stopping to see.
We also stopped at a restored Standard Oil station outside of Odell. This is a must-see for anyone into historic filling station architecture. I should also point out that there is another significant gas station in Dwight. Although that one isn’t as architecturally interesting as this Standard station, it holds its own place as the last operating Texaco station on Route 66.
There is another interesting stretch during which you will see segments of an older road running parallel to the current two-lane blacktop. That’s the original Mother Road and there is at least one spot where you can legally pull onto a piece of it and take photos. There is an old barn off in the distance with a Meramec Caverns ad painted on the side of it. We didn’t stop this time but it’s there and you’ll see it.
I frequently conclude my excursions on this portion of the Mother Road at the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame & Museum in Pontiac. It’s worth stopping for, if you’re at all into this sort of thing. With two floors of exhibits inside and a few goodies outside as well. Check out the VW bus as well as the hippie land yacht that once belonged to the late artist Bob Waldmire. Or the 1960’s radio station replica. Or the 1940’s home display. I just eat this stuff up every time I go there.
It’s not that there isn’t more to see further downstate — or across the rest of the USA to California, for that matter. I’ve seen other bits of historic Route 66, including an excellent museum down in Lebanon, MO. But the stretch of it that I’ve described here is my little bit of old Route 66.
Before heading back toward home, my friends and I walked over to the square in downtown Pontiac for a bite of lunch at the Acres Inn. Although the dining room was closed due to pandemic precautions, they did offer curbside ordering and outdoor seating. For a relatively small café and beer bar, Acres Inn offers a nice variety of items on their menu. I thoroughly enjoyed my smashed double cheeseburger, accompanied by house-made potato chips — I’m a sucker for homemade chips — and washed down with a lovely craft lager.
The sun was shining and there was much laughter in the air as we enjoyed our meal together. After that, we walked back to the bikes, rolled out toward Interstate 55, and headed for home. Before the rest of my group peeled off, a couple of exits before mine, I immersed myself in the sensations of riding the open road on a sunny and warm afternoon realizing that Mark had been right all along. It really had been an exceptional day to ride.
As always, thanks for hanging with me.