Posts Tagged ‘road trips’

An old stretch of Route 66 in Dwight, IL

I like roadside attractions. You know this by now. (See: Cabazon Dinosaurs for previous stop.) And in the US at least there is no place for roadside stops quite like Route 66.

Route 66 has become, in and of itself, a bit of a roadside attraction in its own right. Begun in 1926 and decommissioned in 1985, it nevertheless remains in the cultural consciousness of the US. It was the road that could take you from Chicago to Los Angeles, the Main Street of America, the Mother Road, and it embodies the automotive spirit of America like nothing else. Countless communities along it prospered as long as the traffic came. And did that traffic come! Especially after WWII, the whole stretch of Route 66 became one of the most popular road trips in the country, and the little towns and mom and pop shops along it became iconic stops. But the traffic got to be too much, and the Interstates were born.

You can still find most of Route 66 if you know where to look. It’s been recognized by Congress and the World Monuments Fund as a significant cultural site, and there is an organization committed to preserving what remains. The National Park Service even has a published itinerary with links to popular roadside stops and essays and maps. And there’s something really enticing about it, after all. Two lane roads and tiny diners and places ranging from the comfortable to the just plain bizarre.

I’ve been to the beginning, in downtown Chicago. I’d like to go to the end some day, in Santa Monica. In the meantime, I’m exploring the section that’s within a day’s drive of where I currently reside.

The Lily-pad Room in Onandaga Cave State Park‘s Cathedral Caverns.

For the July 4th weekend, we followed I-55 (which runs parallel to the old Route 66) down to central Missouri and the northern stretches of the Ozarks to meet friends who live in Kansas City. It was a lovely trip, but on the way down and again on the way back, we made a point of stopping on Route 66 as often as we could. Even our final destination, at Onandaga Cave State Park, is part of the cave system that includes one of the oldest stops along the famed highway, Meramec Caverns.

Jesse James Wax Museum outside of Meramec Caverns

Outside of the Meramec Caverns visitor center is a Jesse James Wax Museum that combines my love of roadside attractions with my love of interesting conspiracy theories: the museum posits that the famous outlaw Jesse James faked his own death and lived to be 103, dying in the 1950s. It was bizarre and entertaining and worth the price of admission (if you like that sort of thing, which I do).

The Mill on Route 66 in Lincoln, IL

On the drive home, we stopped at a site called The Mill which has just re-opened after about a decade of fundraising and refurbishment. If you look at some of the old photos, this place was brought back from near collapse by a dedicated team. I like that it sits right at the intersection of the train tracks and the old highway.

We’ve made a few other stops along Route 66 over the last couple of years, but these are the most recent. Have you driven any of Route 66? Do you have a favorite roadside stop that I should add to my list?

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So here’s the thing.

I’ve been trying to go to as many national parks (or historic sites, as the case may be) this year as possible. I’m excited about my passport stampbook (as I’ve previously posted) and especially since we now live in the half of the country with all of the huge natural areas, I want to see them!

One of the exhibits I’ve always loved at the North Carolina Zoo is their Sonora Desert dome, so when I noticed on my newly-acquired roadmap of Arizona that the interstate went THROUGH it, I couldn’t resist! On the way home from the Casa Grande ruins, we looked it up on our GPS and found a place labeled “Sonoran Desert National Monument.” That sounded promising, so we programmed it to take us there.

And we started driving.

And driving.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert sign

See that? PROOF we were in the RIGHT AREA.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert road

We took a couple of smaller roads, then wound up on a two lane highway going straight across the Sonoran Desert, generally back in the direction of I-8, which we would pick up on the other side after stopping at the monument. The desert was fascinating, with far more plant-life that I expected in a desert, and we drove between two long mountain reaches, watching for wildlife (though we never saw any) and grateful for the full tank of gas and water bottles.

It was interesting, too, that there weren’t many cars. Most of the “scenic” stops were closed for the season, but that didn’t bother us because we planned to stop at the monument.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert wide

At this point I want to note that there are not that many photos from this drive. That’s because I kept expecting to, y’know, GET to something. These photos of cacti?? Actually from BEFORE we got into the national monument area.

After a while, we reached the point where the GPS told us to turn and drive 11 miles to the monument. We slowed down to make the turn…

…and then stopped. We were facing a sandy track that crossed some railroad tracks that ran parallel to the two lane highway. On the near side of them was a VERY large sign that said: “DO NOT ENTER.” Oh, and some WILD COTTON BUSHES.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert wild cotton

I looked again at the GPS. We’d followed the directions correctly. But then I noticed that the 11 mile “drive” was supposed to take over an hour… across sand… And we realized then that the “Monument” was probably the DESERT ITSELF.

THANKS, GPS. We were now in the MIDDLE of the Sonoran Desert. Well, about 11 miles from the middle, as far as I can tell.

Arizona, Sonoran Desert cacti

To be fair, I DID say I wanted to properly SEE the desert, and not just drive past it on the interstate. And boy howdy, I SAW that desert.

We checked our map and discovered we were closer to I-8 if we kept going forward rather than backtracking, so that’s what we did.

I guess some monuments are bigger than others. I’m still bummed I didn’t get a stamp for it, though.

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