On the Road: Get Your Kicks, Land of Lincoln Style–A Route 66 Journey

Historic Route 66 Sign. All photos by JT Newman. As everyone knows, Historic Route 66 gets its start at the corner of Adams Street and Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago and then winds its way through the country to Los Angeles. In its heyday, Route 66 was a once-in-a-lifetime roadtrip that was enjoyed by thousands of travelers each year. The actual route was decommissioned in 1985 and many miles of its roadway were left to decompose. But the mythos remains and so my partner and I—both dreamy sorts with a penchant for midcentury style and a wistfulness for road trips—went to see what was left, at least from Springfield to Chicago. So we set out, after a trip to see family in Quincy, to find what was left of Route 66 in Illinois. Armed with The Route 66 Navigation app—which was $10 for a week and well worth the money, given that signage is sparse these days—we left Quincy and took a bunch of backroads toward Springfield to try to connect with the route they call "The Mother Road." Ron's Redbird Cafe, Girard. Our first stop, for lunch, was Ron's Redbird Cafe in Girard, Ill. We were fairly hungry when we got there. (It was slow-going from Quincy to Girard across backroads and through cornfields.) All signs pointed to a yummy homemade lunch in quaint surroundings, as we pulled into the parking area across the street from Ron's. Boy, was that a mistake. My partner Toni, a "born and bred Iowanese gal", said she "should have known not to pick the only restaurant in a small town at noon on a Sunday." As we passed four churches on the way to Ron's, it wasn't surprising that the 30-seat place was packed with the post-church lunch crowd. And given the hardships of the last year and a half, they were grossly understaffed for the deluge. It took a long time to flag down a server and it took even longer to order. Toni decided on the Chicken Fried Steak special and I ordered the "Hobo", a hash dish with potatoes, sausage, and eggs, that usually comes drenched in country gravy. I asked them to swap out cheese for the gravy and asked to omit the bell peppers in the dish. Of course, when it came out 45 minutes later, it was smothered in gravy. (First Route 66 Pro Tip: Just order it the way they have it on the menu. ESPECIALLY on Sunday during the church rush.) "The Hobo" at Ron's Red Bird Cafe. It's unclear whether or not this dish was absolutely delicious (as I proclaimed when I started eating), because it was completely covered in gravy and I was so hungry by the time I got it, a paper napkin would have hit the spot. It definitely had its moments, with some nice umami flavors in the gravy/sausage/potato mix, but mostly I was happy to have food in front of me. To be fair, the wait staff at Ron's had a lot more to deal with than picky hipster tourists, so we didn't complain too much. They gave us a full punch card good for $10 off the meal "the next time" we went there and we were on our merry way. (I left the card on the windshield of some lucky local parked in front.) Then we turned on the nav and glided through cornfields toward our next stop. A flash thunderstorm soaked the car outside of Normal, after we switched drivers and Toni took a nap. The thing that I will say about the app that we downloaded is that it was incredibly detailed. I have a feeling that the makers of this app were interested in navigating its users through the business district of every small town along the route. I think there was an "A" and a "B" navigation that allowed for bypassing some of the town centers, but we couldn't figure it out and thus drove through every small town on the route: Sherman, Williamsville, Mount Fulcher.... You name it, we drove through it. At one point when we passed over 1-55 (the interstate that parallels Route 66 in Illinois) I caught my partner looking longingly at the traffic, flowing at a steady 75mph next to us. "BUSTED," I yelled, as she laughed and we made arrangements to make a stop at Gene's Dairy Delight in Bloomington. Gene's Dairy Delight in Bloomington.   Crunch Cone at Gene's Dairy Delight. That was the next stop: Gene's Dairy Delight in Bloomington. At the stop, we ordered Gene's signature soft serve (chocolate dip for me, crunch cone for Toni) and Toni gave a You Are Beautiful sticker from her wallet to the teenage cashier, who complimented it. (Then I told her the story of the public art project in Chicago and Toni said that she liked to hand out the stickers to make people happy.) It worked. Our cashier was utterly charmed and we sat on some benches in Gene's parking lot to consume our velvety and thick soft serve cones. Delicious! Highly recommended. The Gemini Giant at the Launching Pad in Wilmington. Our final stop along the route (before we hit the south suburbs and jumped on I-55 to get back to Evanston) was the Launching Pad, in Wilmington, Ill., which boasts the 28-foot-tall Gemini Giant. Lovingly restored by widowers Holly Barker and Tully Garrett from 2017-2019, the Launching Pad is a drive-in style diner with classic Chicago fare and a robust Route 66 Gift Shop. If you don't have time to stop anywhere else on Route 66, this place, about a half hour from Joliet, is worth the day trip, even just to visit the Gemini Giant. Souvenir haul from a gas station/truck stop near Normal. Overall, the trip from Springfield to Chicago (OK, Bolingbrook) on Route 66 was a little lackluster. It's possible that the bad weather we had, which greatly slowed the trip in part, had something to do with it, as did the lunch rush in Girard. But when it comes to Route 66, some of the shine has worn off. I think that my expectations were high, because I'm a sucker for Americana and all things vintage. I suspect that Route 66 won't go quietly from the American lexicon, though. And I think that part of its beauty is the beauty of the land itself. It winds through most of the different kinds of landscapes that our country has to offer. It is still a beautiful country and a trip down Route 66 is still a good way to find the hidden gems that Illinois has to offer.
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JT Newman

JT Newman (she/they) is a food and cultural reviewer, home chef and media maven who has been writing for a variety of Chicago publications for more than 25 years. They were one of the founders of Third Coast Review in 2015 and were a regular contributor to Gaper’s Block, Nightspots and Windy City Times. Their work has been published in the Chicago Not-For-Tourists Guide, A Field Guide to Gay and Lesbian Chicago, and Windy City Queer. They host a weekly queer food podcast, Lez Eat, available on Apple and Spotify, among others.