Blastoff Start from Chicago

Let’s set the stage.  Friend Maury flew home to New York City Sunday afternoon.  New friend Erica prepared for foot surgery Monday.  Sister-in-law but like a sister, Dee, arrived by train mid-afternoon Sunday from Ft. Worth, Texas, a 23-hour trip.  While Dee napped,  I did a fast survey of the mammoth Chicago Art Institute, lingering the longest in the Impressionist rooms and the new wing’s modern art.   Dinner was an easy choice: Chicago deep dish pizza streetside at an Italian outdoor cafe, people watching as a side dish.

Monday, September 17 — Day 1

We hopped out of bed to start the Route 66 journey.  You have to start at legendary Lou Mitchell’s Diner, like the one in the old TV series, “Alice”, and right behind the Route 66 starting marker.  We went in style, in a limo, totally by accident.  When I asked for a cab, a chauffeur asked where we were headed.  He heard Lou Mitchell and told us to jump into his sleek black Cadillac limo.  And off we went with Louis, Mr. Personality Storyteller.  He said we could pay him whatever we thought fair.  Good on ya, Chicago.

Lou’s is one of those places everyone loves.  The waitresses have been there for ages and they got lip, great fun lip.  Ladies, as soon as you enter, you get complimentary mini-boxes of Milk Duds, and only ladies get them.  Now that’s a way to start the day!  There’s 66 signs everywhere, old photos, mementos and a huge case of fresh produce and fruit at the front.  Darla was our waitress.  Starting the day with another dame with the initial D was the second good omen of Day One 66.

The raisin toast is homemade.  The coffee was good.  The portions, big surprise, were huge.  My one scrambled egg covered the plate and was an inch thick.  We sat back with happy tummies, then Darla brought the clincher, a tiny cup of vanilla soft-serve ice cream.  She suggested we put a tad of their homemade orange marmalade over the ice cream for that old-fashioned orange Creamsicle flavor.  Did it, loved it.

Since it was Dee’s first trip to Chicago, we did a trolley tour.  It was a beautiful Autumn day with a breeze, perfect for sitting atop a doubledecker trolley and seeing the city. Too soon, time to leave.  We checked out and did the big city litany of shelling out money.  The valet parking was $46 per night, yes $46, not a typo.  Tip the valet who brought the car up from underground parking.  Tip the porter who collected our bags from the room.  Tip a different porter who took our luggage from the lobby to the car.  Mere persons cannot use luggage trolleys, only porters and bellmen.  No, mere people must tote their luggage or pay, and because I am a crazy person on a six-week road trip, I had a mishmash of bags and a cooler.  No brainer: I paid.

The Great Gods of Travel blessed us with good directions from the hotel and we whizzed out of Chicago with no problem.  Open road, so in went the CD:  “Get Your Kicks on Route 66.”  Some long driving, some heavy rain, dark earlier than usual, and hotel check-in at 9pm.  So much for trip plan to get off the road before dark and settle down for R&R.  Little did I know this scenario would become more or less normal.

 Tuesday, September 18

The real deal day, the start of the 66 icons.

In Joliet, Illinois, we stopped in front of its downtown Rialto Theatre, turned on the car flashers, and asked at the box office if we could take a fast peek into the theatre.  It looked gorgeous through the locked glass doors, marble and gilt galore.  The box office gal steered us to the administrative offices upstairs, and I worked some word magic.  Bingo, a staff member would give us a quick tour if we each contributed $5 to its restoration fund.  OK!  When she saw how impressed we were — and how could you not be with its dazzling architecture and lofty floor plan — she took us into the theatre, turned on all the lights, let me stand center stage and sing off-key, opened the dressing rooms, led us to the Green Room where performers relax, and most especially, a stairwell and walls covered with signatures, wishes and autographs of every famous performing artist you can think of.  The quick peek turned into a half hour, and we thank Sandy for the impromptu tour.

Pushing on through Illinois, the next stop was our first icon, the Gemini Giant in Wilmington, one of three “Muffler Men” in Illinois, fiberglass, hollow and mighty impressive.  In nearby Odell, we visited the Standard Gas Station, lovingly restored and manned by an elderly volunteer couple. The little town of Pontiac was a goldmine.  We ate at the Old Log Cabin Restaurant, where 66 signs and memorabilia covered every surface, including special fabric backs on dining chairs.  The waitresses twisted our arms for homemade pies, blueberry for Dee, butterscotch for me.  Pontiac also boasts the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame and Museum.  It was amazing: four floors of museum with plenty of display reading, memorabilia galore, a Volkswagon van stuffed with 66 items easily numbering in the thousands, but the best was the Forties Floor, typical rooms from the 1940s and a wartime USO theatre with instruments sitting on the stage and recorded music by Big Band greats.  As if that weren’t enough, there was an adjacent series of shops full of terrific antiques and collectibles.  Next up: Atlanta with another gigantic muffler man and murals done by signmakers who call themselves Letterheads.

We raced dusk to find Lincoln, which claims the world’s largest covered wagon.  It sat in front of a Best Western Hotel, convenient for two tired gals.  The hotel recommended the local Blue Dog Cafe for dinner, which sported dozens of dog photos, paintings and one giant blue plastic dog over the bar.  There were lots of locals, classic home-cooked dishes, and really nice folks who took care of us.  I sp0tted several pieces of German chocolate cake on the counter, my favorite cake in the world, and asked that they save me one.  No, those were for the waitresses from a customer celebrating a birthday in the restaurant.  When the birthday folks left, I asked where they bought the cake.  A pert woman, daughter of the birthday man and a flight attendant, told us where to go, but when she heard how disappointed we were that the cake wasn’t for sale, she insisted that her son cut two pieces for us on the spot.  We ate every delicious crumb.  As we left, the waitress called out, “Goodnight, sweeties.”

Chicago and Illinois are full of wonderful, gracious, and helpful people.

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