SPRINGFIELD, Ill.---"The Great Diagonal Way . . . The Mother Road . . . The Main Street of America," taking folks looking for work or play from Chicago to L.A. Bobby Troup in 1946 wrote a song about Route 66, and celebrated singers from Nat King Cole to Chuck Berry to the Rolling Stones have covered it. CBS had a show about it from 1960 to 1964, where two restless young men drove the highway and helped troubled youth and dysfunctional families, with everything wrapped up within an hour.
We drove on Ogden Avenue past well-designed Christian community development projects in North Lawndale that I wrote about nine years ago. "Industrial Renewal on Chicago's West Side," one billboard proclaimed, but community development is tough when jobs are hard to find. We passed the site of the Western Electric Hawthorne Works, where 40,000 workers made almost all telephones made in the United States. (Former site, I mean.)
Later, Susan posed with the Blues Brothers and we drove past the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. (Former site, I mean, because its 18,000 acres are now the largest tallgrass prairie preserve in the United States.) Tom Teague writes in Searching for 66, "At its birth in 1926, this road was hailed as a great agent of progress---concrete ribbon tying the west coast to the rest of America. And for a wondrous half-century, it embraced and embodied this nation like few institutions can."
"Get your kicks on Route 66," the song proclaimed. In 1985 the U.S. highway system kicked off Route 66: The interstate highway system had turned the highway's decaying motels, gas stations, and giant Rocket Man and Muffler Man figures into relics. In 2008 the World Monuments Fund added Route 66 to its World Monuments Watch list of 100 Most Endangered Sites.
Now, an off-the-beaten track town like Odell features a series of Route 66 signs echoing the Burma Shave classics: "A small town / with a big heart / where everybody / is somebody." Time gained, times lost. We passed a 1928 truck stop that claims to be the first in the United States. But we also drove by a car dealership converted to a pizzeria and lots of windmill farms. Their thin, gleaming metal blades rotate over the plains.