I finally made a trip down a portion Route 66 in my ’64 Skylark. Making a cross-country road trip has been a dream of mine since I was a kid, having inherited the wanderlust from my father who had the same dream but sadly never got the chance to fulfill it.
While I was growing up all our vacation travel was done by car. Flying anywhere for vacation wasn’t a thing with my generation or within my family’s income bracket. One of the more memorable trips was the one we took from Paterson, NJ to Miami Beach in 1965, much of it via US 1 before I-95 was completed. Pre-interstate highway travel was at once tedious and full of things to see. While Route 66 has become famous for its roadside attractions and an icon of pre-interstate highway travel with its quirks and small towns, it was not at all unique in that regard. I vividly remember many of the sights along US 1 including kitschy roadside attractions and Burma Shave signs, many of which were still standing in 1965.
I decided long ago that if I ever got the chance to travel Route 66 it would be in a car that could have traveled the famous road back in its heyday, or at least before the road was decommissioned as a US highway. My Skylark would do nicely, being old enough to satisfy me and yet new enough to travel easily on modern highways when necessary.
I bought the Skylark nearly seven years ago and had been working on it up until last year. It needed only minor repairs and upgrades to make me feel comfortable taking it on a long journey. I replaced the water pump and thermostat, all belts and hoses, motor mounts, had the carburetor rebuilt by a respected specialist, rebuilt the power steering pump, installed new seat and shoulder belts, new alternator and regulator, completely rebuilt the brake system with new steel lines and hoses, master cylinder and brake booster with conversion to a dual-circuit system, wheel cylinders, and brake shoes and drums. About two weeks before I left home, I had a new set of tires installed. Anything that wasn’t broken that I could readily replace on the road was stashed in the trunk like a spare fuel pump, tune-up parts, spark plugs and ignition coil. I was ready as I would ever be.
Prior to embarking on the trip, I researched Route 66 to death to identify the alignments I wanted to take and the sights I wanted to see. I bought a copy of Jerry McClanahan’s Route 66: EZ66 GUIDE For Travelers, which is an excellent resource that provides a wealth of information with turn-by-turn directions. Because I would be traveling alone without the help of a navigator to read the directions to me, I needed something that would allow me to keep my eyes and the Skylark on the road. I found the Route 66 Navigation app that works on smart phones, and it worked very well for me. It uses GPS navigation to guide you along the route by giving verbal instructions just like any GPS navigation system. It worked like a charm.
I had limited time for my trip, so I planned only to go as far as Tulsa before turning around and heading back up to Auburn for the Buick gathering at the beginning of July. I didn’t feel the need to do every inch of ‘66 so I skipped the eastern terminus in downtown Chicago and started in Joliet.
Days One and Two
I left home on the morning of June 22nd and traveled I-80 to Austintown, OH where I spent the first night. On Day Two I headed for Joliet, IL where I would spend the second night before getting on ’66 the morning of Day Three. On the way to Joliet, I passed by South Bend where I made a side trip to visit the Studebaker National Museum. Having owned two Studebakers in the past I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to visit the marque’s hometown and tour the museum. It was smaller than I expected but well worth the trip.
Day Three: Getting on Route 66 from Joliet to Springfield, IL
The first Route 66 landmark I encountered was the Gemini Giant in Wilmington, IL. I stopped to photograph it only because it’s there. The luncheonette where it’s located was closed, otherwise I’d have dropped a little coin there. You’ll note that most of the photos include my car. My wife isn’t retired yet so I was traveling alone, and the car had to substitute for a traveling companion in the photos.
My next stop was Ambler’s Service Station in Dwight, which is a preserved vintage gas station that serves as a museum. The attendant was very friendly and informative, and I had a most pleasant time there.
My next stop was Pontiac, IL where I hit two museums, the Pontiac-Oakland Auto Museum and the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum. Both were fun to walk through, although the auto museum was of more interest to me than the bric-a-brac at the other one.
While at the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum I had the pleasure of meeting a couple and their young daughter from Hawthorne, NJ, a neighboring town to Paterson where I grew up. They overheard me answer the museum attendant’s question about where I was from, and a nice conversation about NJ ensued (if you can believe there are nice conversations about NJ).
The last stop of note for the day was in Atlanta, IL where I visited the Atlanta Museum. I arrived near closing time but one of the attendants offered to stay on and give me a tour. It’s not a Route 66 oriented museum, but instead focuses on local town history. I didn’t think I’d be interested, but as it turns out it was very interesting to learn about the town and share in the enthusiasm the attendant had for her home.
I traveled on to Springfield, where I spent the night.
Day Four: Springfield, IL to Fairview Heights, IL
I spent a fair amount of time in Springfield visiting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, his home, and his tomb. All were well worth seeing for those interested in this president.
I had lunch at the Cozy Dog Drive-In so I could try a much-celebrated corn dog. It was my first corn dog, and unlike other notable firsts in my life I will not remember this one fondly. I can’t really say if the corn batter tasted good or bad, for it needed to have a taste at all for me to have made that judgment. The best thing I can say is that it stayed down.
My next stop of note was Country Classic Cars in Staunton, IL. The welcome I received was colder than a mother-in-law’s kiss, and the asking prices vs the conditions of the vehicles left me with an impression that I’m at a loss to describe in polite terms. It’s well worth visiting, but only if you don't stop.
Henry’s Rabbit ranch was a short way down the road, also located in Staunton. The place was an absolute hoot, and Henry was a very pleasant and engaging character whose company I thoroughly enjoyed. I spent about a half hour there talking just about everything except for religion and politics. Another worthwhile stop, but for the conversation more so than the detritus outside.
I stopped at the old Chain of Rocks Bridge in Madison, IL on my way to Fairview Heights where I spent the night. There are several old bridges along Route 66, this being a fine example of one that’s now closed to vehicular traffic.
Day Five – Fairview Heights, IL to Lebanon, MO
First thing in the morning I crossed the Mississippi into St. Louis and headed to the National Museum of Transportation where I met Jim, who goes by the name Ohjai on the forums here with his beautiful ’62 Skylark convertible. The museum was a worthwhile stop with several rare and unusual cars on display. They also have a selection of rail cars on display. Afterward Jim and I had lunch at Uncle Bill’s in Manchester before I continued down the road. A very nice visit with a pleasant fellow.
I happened upon the Jesse James Wax Museum in Stanton, MO and did a self-tour. There were lots of interesting artifacts on display, and there was a video that provided interesting facts about the famous outlaw. Another worthwhile stop for those interested in such things.
My next stop was the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, another historic Route 66 landmark. I wanted to overnight there, but it didn’t fit into my schedule because I arrived much too early in the day to stop for the night. There was a local cruise-in going on at the motel, so I found an empty parking space and crashed the event.
I continued to the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon where I spent the night. I spent some time chatting with the elderly owner who had some interesting stories about surviving as a small motel operator during the height of the COVID 19 pandemic. She essentially runs the place by herself with some help from her daughter. The room cost me less than $60 for the night including tax, and it was worth every penny if you get my drift. Even though the motel isn’t likely to be featured among the world’s best in Conde Nast Traveler I’d stay there again, and I would encourage others to do so as well if only to help the place survive.
Day Six – Lebanon, MO to Carthage, MO
Springfield, MO is home to the Route 66 Car Museum. They had a fairly large selection of cars, both common and unusual. I was surprised to find a Horch on display since they seem to be quite rare, at least here in the US. I had only seen one other that was reported to have belonged to General Rommel, The Desert Fox of WW2 fame. A bit of useless trivia: Horch was part of the Auto Union and is represented by one of the four rings in the Audi logo.
The Gay Parita Service Station in Everton was my next stop along Route 66. I spent about an hour and a half on the porch having a cigar and talking with owner George and various other Route 66 travelers.
The ghost town of Spencer was a short drive down the road from Everton where I came upon a small gathering of local Corvair owners. We had some fun admiring each other’s cars and swapping stories.
My last stop of the day was in Carthage, where I spent the night at the Boots Court Motel. Honestly, from the look of the place as I drove up, I’d have happily gone right past it had I not already made a reservation. Fortunately, the look of the exterior gave no hint as to the wonderful restoration of the rooms. There are two sections to the motel, and the only one that has been restored to date is the rear section. My room was immaculate and was beautifully restored to its mid-1940s décor, complete with refinished wood floors and original furniture. I highly recommend the place.
Day Seven – Carthage, MO to Catoosa, OK
My first photo op of the day was at the Rainbow Curve Bridge in Baxter Springs, KS. This is one of several historic bridges along Route 66 that remains open to traffic.
Further down the road in Baxter Springs is the Kansas Route 66 Information Center in an historic Phillips 66 service station. That’s where I had the pleasure to meet Dean “Crazy Legs” Walker who was the inspiration for the Tow Mater character in the movie Cars. He has the rare (at least I think it’s rare) ability to turn his feet around to face backward. He gave me an unsolicited demonstration that was more uncomfortable for me to watch than it was for him to do. He was the attendant at the information center and was quite helpful and fun to be around.
There isn’t much of Kansas along Route 66 and I soon found myself in Oklahoma. Some of the travel guides mention the ghost town of Picher that was vacated in the 1970s due to chemical contamination. I made the side trip to Picher and regretted it. There’s nothing to see there but a group of gutted buildings in the middle of nowhere. There are a couple of still-occupied non-residential buildings, but the place held no interest for me and had a very sketchy vibe. Don’t waste your time going there like I did.
Miami, OK has the reported last remaining original 9’ section of original pavement on Route 66. It was built in 1922 and decommissioned 1937. I drove on it for about one mile before the road deteriorated to the point where I’d had my share of fun on it.
I couldn’t help but stop at the Blue Whale of Catoosa. The story goes that a local gentleman who apparently had a lot of time on his hands built it as a gift to his wife on their wedding anniversary. I hope he got a better thank you from his wife than I would have received from mine had I gifted something like that to her for our anniversary.
Day Eight – Catoosa to Tulsa, Final Day on Route 66
I managed to hit five museums that day. The J.M. Davis Museum in Claremore has a bewildering collection of firearms. A must-see for firearms enthusiasts.
The Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore is another must-see for anyone interested in the life, wit, and wisdom of this political commentator and satirist. He was a class act in every sense of the word, and we could surely use someone like him today.
The Catoosa Historical Museum is a small museum that focuses on local history. The attendant was pleasant and talkative, and it’s worth a stop to learn a little bit about one of the towns that Route 66 runs through.
The D.W. Correll museum was my next stop. It houses an extensive collection of minerals and a relatively small collection of cars.
My last museum stop was the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium. It wasn’t very large, but it had some interesting examples of aircraft. It was another stop worth making.
The final landmark I visited on Route 66 before heading to the hotel was the Meadow Gold sign in downtown Tulsa.
This marked the end of my Route 66 trek. The following day I hopped on the Interstate highway System and made my way up to Auburn, IN where I attended the Buick gathering on July 2nd and 3rd. I arrived back home on July 4th after 3,300 miles.
The trip was a complete success, and I hope to take the Buick on the road again next year to complete the stretch of Route 66 between Tulsa and Santa Monica. My wife will be retired by then, so I hope to have some company next time.