The first time I tackled Route 66 was over 4 years ago. On that trip, we started in the little town of Amarillo, TX (searching for a route map that we never did find) and skated on through to New Mexico and Arizona full of desert back roads, ghost-like ruins, and vast expanses of open highway and mountains. On this trip, we caught a stretch of Route 66 from St. Louis to Carthage, MO, a trip that cut southeast and had us ending near both the Kansas and Oklahoma boarders. We didn’t make the map mistake twice, and went armed with a $5 (old edition) Route 66 Road Trip book full of sites, tips, and road-by-road directions.
Our first stop was food, because I was already starving by the time I had opened my eyes. We grabbed some breakfast at Spencer’s Grill as we drove out of St. Louis. Spencer’s was quintessential Route 66—brightly colored bar stools squeezed around a plastic-covered counter, big breakfast plates, and lots of locals. The guy next to us dug into a pile of crispy potatoes smothered in ketchup:
“See that girl working the grill? She makes the best hash browns on earth. If you see her working, you order hash browns”
The hash browns were a religious experience, seared with seasoning and awesomeness. I also got a pancake-the-size-of-my-face made the Spencer’s way—fluffy in the middle with an extra crispy, buttery edge. Is anything better than butter? Not before noon…
The ghost town of Times Beach was our next stop—an old Depression-era town that inadvertently poisoned its own soil by oiling the town’s dirt roads with a dioxin-contaminated product. After being decontaminated, it became a state park and nearby visitor’s center, where we perused some Route 66 memorabilia and received an over-sized stack of pamphlets from the really-eager-to-chat attendant.
Passing through some little towns and merging onto a 2-lane road, we ended up at Meramec Caverns in Stanton. The limestone caves offer tours through deep levels of dripping walls and stalagmites that outlaws like Jesse James used as an escape route and treasure hiding spot. The caves maintain a constant temperature in the 50’s, which is why the open space in the front section was used as a dance hall in the late 1800’s to escape the hot Missouri weather outside.
The sites along the tour walkway were incredibly cool. Formed by water that drips slowly over time, some of the cone-shaped formations are over 100 million years old. 100 million years. Guides carefully flick on light switches as we walk and shut them off as we leave an area, as continuous lighting attracts moss and damages the cave’s integrity. The final room is outfitted with seats that view a “stage” of cave formations. The owners project a short homemade video onto the rocks to the tune of “God Bless America” which had kitschy religious undertones that pushed my comfort level to the edge….points for character though.
Further down the Mother Road comes the tiny town of Cuba that boasts a series of murals on building walls meant to attract road-trippers. We only passed through, snapping pics until reaching the next town of Fanning, where Katie was a little too eager to pose in front of the “World’s Largest Rocking Chair”. It sat next to a general store that was no longer operational.
Down the road, Bob’s Gasoline Alley is a privately owned collection of rustic, Americana memorabilia that will make your road trip heart flutter into oblivion (think rusty signs and old gas station pumps). Nobody was home for a tour, so we circled the gravel in our truck for a moment before moving on.
The road cuts through empty spaces and towns, over hills and through the Ozarks. It’s a slow but methodical journey.
Beyond Springfield, we hit the ghost town of Plano which has little remaining other than a store from 1900 nestled on a vacant corner. We stopped on the silent road, peaking inside the brick pillars that had trees growing inside like vines. It was too narrow a road to pull to the side, but too empty for it to matter that we stopped our truck in the middle.
It’s funny about Route 66. Before the interstate, people passed through small towns and went to small businesses every day. That allowed them to thrive. So many have since been forgotten, becoming threadbare. But travelers are now revisiting this old journey, awakening towns that had once been long gone. It’s come full circle. The pull of the road, like a magnet, breathes life into it.
We made it to Carthage with very little time to spare before the start of the drive-in movie we were hoping to catch. Checking into Boots Court Motel was a bit like entering a time warp. The “office” was a small, stand-alone structure with brightly colored neon lighting outside. An exceedingly friendly host welcomed us in and continued to chat away even as we were halfway down the driveway towards our room.
“We just got that office bathroom working—people really seem to need it right after coming off the route!”
The motel was preserved in all its 1940’s glory. Half of the rooms were structured so that you park in a skinny alleyway between two doors and under a rooftop. There are no TV’s in the rooms, but you do get a radio complete with bunny ear antennas and a dial you can turn. We listened to Oldies.
A lightning fast change of clothes and we were off to the 66 Drive-In, which we heard gets crowded early. For $8 you get entry for a double feature—Cars 3 (a day before general release!) and Guardians of the Galaxy. We reverse parked in between two metal poles in the front and stocked up at the snack bar on popcorn, hot dogs, sweet tea and nachos with real BBQ beef slathered on top. The whole spread set us back a mere $13, which is about the cost of popcorn and a water bottle at the movies back home. We set up shop in the back of the tailgate as kids played in the playground ahead of us and the sun disappeared. The movie began, and we relaxed in the dark as heat lightning flashed in the distance and illuminated the screen every so often. The summer breeze was warm, whirling through the trees and over our heads as we lay on our stomachs with popcorn kernels dancing around the tailgate.
As soon as Cars 3 finished, it started to rain and the wind kicked up. Immediately, parents whisked their kids into cars and flung lawn chairs into trunks. We made a B-line for the exit, scared to be stuck in a thunderstorm like the one that stranded us on a highway a few days prior.
Towns like Carthage always pull me in. They’re so sleepy and small, half frozen in time and half new. People just want to talk and tell you things about their town. Everybody waves. It makes you want to stay and figure out every secret eccentricity of that little place. Every secret. Pick apart the town and find everything it hides.
But that’s the point of traveling, especially road tripping. You get just a taste, staying just a night or two. You learn a few unknowns about this little hidden way of life, then leave it to remain just a little bit of a secret.