I don’t sleep very well at all and am down for breakfast at 8.45 am. Just cereals, eggs and bacon plus pastries are on offer: typical US hotel fare, but it starts the day OK. Back upstairs after eating I’m soon packed up and ready to go. I drive off after checking out at 9.30 am, so a very early start for me. It is however a longer day’s drive today to Cuba in Missouri so an earlier start is no bad thing.
Once on my way, just like yesterday, it’s a constantly changing experience throughout the day. There is no way I can write up everything that happens or I see like I have done on previous trips: namely in a usually sequential order, describing what a 2 or 3 hour section of road might be like.
Literally minutes after driving on what was clearly a very old section of original Rt 66 – which I’ve had today – I could be on an Interstate because Old 66 has disappeared. Or there might be a prolonged section of Rt 66 where the ages of the roadway regularly change as I drive along. There might be a resurfaced section, almost new, where the road is still in use today, it’s just not called Rt 66 anymore. Which might be quickly followed by something clearly 50 years or so old. Or even older, that is rutted and patched to hell. It’s changing all the time, and far too regularly to remember all the changes the following day when writing my diary. It is certainly very varied and full of changes.
I do though remember most of the views along the way, both countryside or roadside, like the Muffler Men. Or like when I stopped today at the famous Soulsby Shell gas station in Mt Olive. And, no kidding, this was just as the song Route 66 (Get Your Kicks On) came on the radio! There were some famous signs such as the Luna Café plus loads of other relics of a bygone age that are not highlighted by the app. There are many signs and buildings obviously past their best that the app just does not reference for whatever reason. Yet the app does highlight many others. It’s a bit inconsistent, as these ‘missing’ POIs, as the app calls them, were clearly part of Rt 66’s history.
What is becoming clear though by seeing all of this history in today’s times is the economic devastation caused by the decision to decommission Rt 66. The impact on the communities bypassed by that decision, and the attendant Interstates, is very clear, and sad, to see, even today.
It is great though that the likes of Ambler’s and Soulsby have been restored to their former glories. I hope that many more failed businesses will be similarly resurrected in future. I’ve definitely picked up on the passion of the ‘resurrection community’. There’s even a goal by some of these folks to get Rt 66 classified as an official Scenic Highway. My first reaction was ‘good luck’ to resolving the ongoing arguments today about which of the multitude of alignments will be agreed upon as “the Route 66”. As mentioned before, there are places today where no-one knows where Rt 66 actually ran.
Chain of Rocks Bridge
I also visited the Illinois end of the Chain of Rocks Bridge. Many ’66 guides have warnings that the Missouri end of the bridge is notorious for car break-ins as visitors explore the Bridge. It was described in one as a “no-go zone”. Yikes. The advice was also to keep an eye out at the Illinois end and lock away all valuables in the car out of view.
As I pull up in the Bridge’s car park there are only 2 or 3 cars in it, so it’s quiet. The Bridge was closed to cars years ago as it was deemed unsafe. It’s only open to bikes and pedestrians. So imagine my surprise – and concern – when I approach the start of the Bridge to see the Road Closed moved out the way to the side, and 3 cars parked about 400 yards up on the Bridge. And lots of people milling around them.
What’s going on, I wonder to myself. Police? Ambulance? But I can’t make anything out in any detail. I walk onto the Bridge and as I get nearer they appear to be ‘ordinary’ people. Or perhaps not, having driven 3 cars onto an unsafe and closed bridge.
My antenna now pricks up. This seems a bit dodgy to me. What sort of people do that sort of thing, driving on a bridge closed for safety reasons? Maybe not the sort of people I’d like to get to know I decide. Plus, if the Bridge is truly unsafe, the weight of the cars might cause some tragic accident or damage. Around 100 yards up the Bridge, I turn round and walk back.
Now, given it’s just gone noon and the temperature is 89º F, with clear blue skies, this is maybe not a bad idea as it’s damned hot walking in the heat. Walking up I caught a glimpse of the Mississippi River through the trees. But what I didn’t realise until I get back to the Bridge entrance and read the info board there, is that the Bridge is nearly a mile long! So to even get halfway across, and see the River in all its glory, would be a good 20 minute walk, plus the same back.
As I turned to walk back, the cars ahead drove off. Further onto the Bridge! So there was another reason not to carry on. What are they thinking? Who knows. At least I got to see some of the Bridge.
After leaving Springfield the scenery was mostly flat countryside, with a few trees here and there. Now, after the Chain of Rocks Bridge, I enter a very industrialised area. It’s not yet St Louis but is clearly part of that city’s economic hinterland. Over the McKinley Bridge and it’s welcome to Missouri and the city of St Louis. The first part of the drive through the city is through some run-down areas that are clearly in need of re-generation. The routing of Rt 66 through the city stays away from Downtown, which I visited for a full day on my Highway 61 trip, so I only get glimpses of the Gateway Arch in the distance.
I did a get a clear view of it a few miles back when I came over the brow of a hill, but it was way in the distance, standing loud and proud on the St Louis skyline. Rt 66 guides had warned the traffic through St Louis would be bad but I sailed through today without problems. I enter the suburbs as I leave the city and in Lindenwood Park I stop at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. Right on Rt 66, this location, the third, opened in 1941 and is now the flagship store.
It’s 1.30 pm and so for lunch I have a Banana Split. It’s so huge I don’t finish it, but it was very good. There was a constant stream of people coming to the store all the while I was there to get their fix of frozen custard. Clearly business is good!
The scenery after St Louis becomes a bit more green and the road is up and down in places, not as flat as before. When Rt 66 tracks the Interstate as a frontage road it is often straight as an arrow for miles, and the surface is generally good. It does deviate away in places though, and here the road often twists and turns when back in the countryside.
On the way I see all the small towns that Rt 66 was created for, linking them into Main Street USA. Driving through them, I wonder what they would have been like 50 or more years ago. For a while there’s not a lot of roadside stuff to see. The next attraction up ahead is Meramec Caverns but I’m becoming concerned about time, in respect of have I got enough to visit them and not arrive too late in Cuba tonight.
Going Underground **
The Caverns tour is 80 minutes long and I churn it over in my head as to what to do. But then I realise something is wrong. I feel I should have passed the Caverns by now. Signs by the road a few miles back indicated they were nearby. But I’ve not seen anything.
After pulling over, I realise I have made a mistake. I assumed the Caverns were directly on Rt 66. They are not. It’s a side trip. The app kept me on Rt 66 heading towards my destination of Cuba. The Caverns are a reasonable distance off 66 and the POI marker did not appear on the scale view I had the app screen on. If I’d had a wider view I might have seen the marker, but I can’t be sure.
So I must have missed a sign to the Caverns somewhere a mile or so back. And this little episode has not helped my time issues. This just illustrates that despite tons of research pre-trip, when you get on the actual road there is so much that is unclear. Like whether a mentioned attraction is actually on Rt 66 itself or requires a slight detour. Some other guides have not been helpful in this regard either.
This came up a couple of days ago when I discovered a much mentioned attraction, the Lauterbatch Muffler Man in Springfield IL, was not on Rt 66 but was nearly a mile detour off it. So I didn’t bother.
A quick calculation and I think if I’m lucky in getting on a Caverns tour quickly – they depart every 30 minutes – I should get to the hotel in Cuba around 6.45 pm. I may never come this way again I reason to myself. The app tells me it’s 15 minutes to the Caverns from where I am. So I decide to go to the Caverns and assess when I’m there what to do, depending on tour times. If I blow it off, then I’ve only wasted 30 minutes. If I can get on a tour quickly, I’m good to go.
Into the Caverns
Setting off again, I use the app to direct me. The road to the Caverns is clear of traffic. It is lots of sweeping bends that I can negotiate quickly, to the extent that I get there in 7 minutes! I quickly go inside to the ticket desk. “The tour left six minutes ago. Next one in a half an hour.” says the ticket guy. Sh1t I think, and verbally express something a little less ‘fruity’. “But if you can go now, like right now, I can catch you up to the group that just left left.” Of course I say ‘yes’.
Then there’s some debate and doubt between the rangers. Apparently they can only catch up with the tour group up to a certain point on the tour, and they wonder if they are beyond that. “I can definitely go now,” I repeat. They agree to take me. So I pay for my ticket then one of the rangers escorts me at a quick walking pace through the start of the Caverns. Thankfully, we catch the tour up just in time. I thank the ranger who brought me and join the group.
Was it worth going to visit the Caverns? Oh, yes, I’m very glad I did. The Caverns are an amazing experience. There are spectacular formations throughout, and I see and hear from the guide how nature has moulded the underground landscape over eons. Weird and bizarre shapes abound as the stalagmites and stalactites erupt up and down in the caves. There are underground rivers that have carved through the rock and continue to do so today. You realise how different it all must have been thousands of years ago to create what I’m seeing today. It’s brilliant!
The tour concludes and I exit back into the 90º F heat and humidity from what was a very cool, temperature-wise, environment in the Caverns. Back at the car, I check the app. Because I got on a tour straight away – and it was clear there wasn’t much I missed at the tour’s start, there was little to see until you got further inside – allied with the fact that the tour was shorter in time than advertised, my ETA at the hotel is now 5.15 pm. Result!
From where I get back onto Rt 66 after the Caverns side trip, it’s a great drive all the way to Cuba. On a mostly always tree-lined two lane road, there are sweeping bends, gently rolling inclines and declines, and no traffic in sight. It’s a great, fast and brilliant end to a very good day.
It has in fact been an excellent day on the road overall. The variety of Rt 66 so far from a driving perspective is incredible. I never know what’s coming next! When you add into that all the stuff you see by the roadside, plus the scenery, it makes it a unique experience.
Wagon Wheel Motel and a BBQ in Cuba
On the northern outskirts of Cuba I find my accommodation, the Wagon Wheel Motel, one of the icons of Rt 66 lodging. I arrive at 5.20 pm, not quite sure why I’m five minutes ‘late’ but it is becoming apparent that the app’s timing estimates are not very accurate. It is certainly not close to Maps’ accuracy.
I check-in, get settled in my room, sort things out for tomorrow and get ready for dinner. The room is very simple but is clean and functional. A classic motel room. Dinner is literally next door, a short walk to the Missouri Hick BBQ. I asked the guy on the motel reception what I should order, or what would he recommend. He said to try the sampler plate.
It’s quiet inside the restaurant. The décor is rustic and the table I’m shown to is dirty, and I have to ask, nicely, for it to be wiped clean. Beer ordered, I peruse the menu and do decide to order the sampler plate. The food arrives and it is good and tasty. It’s not steaming hot just warm but the meat is cooked, so all is well. I did note earlier that the place closes at 9 pm and it’s 8.30 pm now. One of the waitresses has already started to shut everything down, so I tell her I’ll stay until closing with one more beer if that’s OK, and she can close down around me. That’s OK with her.
Nearing 9 pm I pay my check and also buy some take-out beers to keep me company in the hotel room. Unusual I can do this, but it’s down to different state laws. It’s OK in MO, not in CA. I did ask about bars in town but was told everything closes at 9 pm. Must be a fun place at the weekend…
Back at the motel I notice a table and chairs just outside the door to my room. It’s still very warm so I sit outside to write my diary and drink a can or two of beer. A great end to a great day. I am enjoying the trip, so far…
* Changes by David Bowie
* Going Underground by The Jam