Danielle Wall

The little slice of Route 66 that you can tackle in 24 hours

The little slice of Route 66 that you can tackle in 24 hours
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Blake Shelton’s ‘God’s Country’ plays on the radio as bolts of lightning tear through dark clouds, illuminating the corn fields of the Midwest. ‘Slow down,’ demands Mum, clutching her seat. It’s clear she’s grateful the rental company did not give me the muscle car that I was hoping for.

We’re on America’s ‘Mother Road’, otherwise known as Route 66. Or what’s left of it that is. The original highway ran 2,448 miles cross-country from the city of Chicago, Illinois, to the beaches of Santa Monica in California, but was replaced in the 1950s by the Interstate. Although 66 is no longer still officially a highway, and you can’t drive along the entire original course, the majority – around 80 per cent – of the sections have been preserved and renamed ‘Historic Route 66’. Criss-crossing no fewer than eight US states, it’s now one of the world’s most iconic drives, attracting tourists from all over the world.

Start: Lou Mitchell's Diner, Chicago 

We begin our own 24-hour trip with breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s diner, on Jackson Boulevard, Chicago’s official start to Route 66. After a stack of pancakes, not to mention multiple coffee refills, we’re ready to hit the road. As we leave, the waitress fills our pockets with sweets for the journey – Milk Duds (caramel balls covered with chocolate), a Lou Mitchell’s tradition.

The first 200 miles takes us through the state of Illinois, from Chicago to Springfield. We ignore the satnav, which is issuing dire warnings of flash floods and trying to tempt us back onto the six-lane Interstate-55 superhighway, the 66’s modern replacement. The I-55 pretty much runs parallel to the original route, but we’re here for the bumpy roads, small town diners and Americana gas stations, so we ignore the tech and follow the small brown signs of the historic course.

The Gemini Giant (iStock)

The Old Joliet Prison, Joliet

With the storm finally behind us, our first stop is the Old Joliet Prison, the fictional home of Joliet Jake, John Belushi’s character in the 1980s film The Blues Brothers and the setting for US TV hit Prison Break. But to the bewilderment of Mum, it’s not my love of dramas that has brought me here but a fascination of a different sort: true crime. From 1858 to 2002, this limestone fortress held some of America’s most prolific killers: murderers Leopold and Loeb, serial killer Richard Speck, Martin Luther King’s assassin James Earl Ray and John Wayne Gacy, the killer clown.

The light from our phones guides us through the dark, damp corridors of the prison’s hospital wing, where Gacy once spent a night. Rooms are still stacked with dust-covered files, medical equipment and X-ray machines; iron bed frames sit rusting in the cells while the washing machines in the laundry room are smashed and broken. Across the yard, sunlight streams through a broken stained-glass window, illuminating a huge graffiti-covered altar in the prison chapel. Tickets for a 90-minute tour costs $20 and are run by local historians and former prison guards.

Gemini Giant, Wilmington

We’re back on the 66… and soon enticed off again by the Gemini Giant, a 28-foot-tall statue of an astronaut that has become one of the route’s iconic markers. Created in the 1960s to advertise the Gemini space programme, it is now instead used to lure ­drivers off the road to the Launching Pad diner, where the price of everything on the menu ends in 66 cents. I’m tempted by the Vienna beef hot dog on a steamed poppy seed bun, I instead order a liquid lunch: the cherry pie milkshake ­­­­­– a whole slice of pie blended with ice cream and garnished with the crust. Chatting to husband-and-wife owners Holly and Tully, I discover the restaurant has a mini museum out back - a tiny room filled with guitars, a 1950s jukebox, signed celebrity memorabilia and a life-size model of R2-D2.

(iStock)

Pontiac

Fifty more miles, a few wrong turns and photo stops later, we arrive at the historic town of Pontiac. After a walking tour of the 24 murals depicting its history, we pop into the Route 66 Hall of Fame, filled with artifacts and photographs that capture years of adventure on the old route.

End: Springfield 

Next up, Springfield, once the home of Abraham Lincoln. Here you can visit the Lincoln family mansion (for free) and the Abraham Lincoln Library. The impressive holographic show at the Abraham Lincoln Museum (yep, everything is named after him) tells the story of the US president’s rise from axe-wielding rail splitter to the White House. The museum alone is well worth the road trip.

We time our arrival to coincide with the town’s annual Route 66 Mother Road Festival, where, over three days, hundreds of Hot Rods, Camaros and Mustangs line the streets hoping to be awarded best in show. Male owners stand looking on proudly nearby, while women dressed in 1950s regalia dance to country and rock music and compete for the title of Miss Mother Road. Food trucks serve corn dogs and beer, with the sound of the crowds filtering through between motors revving and tyres exploding. It’s every petrol head’s dream – and a lot of fun.

Welcome to the Mother Road Festival (iStock)

Neon signs illuminate the Route 66 Motorheads bar and grill. For dinner we share a giant pretzel the size of a steering wheel served with Fat Tire beer cheese, and an Illinois delicacy, the Horseshoe: an open sandwich of thick toasted bread, topped with your choice of meat, and piled with cheese sauce, chips, and more cheese sauce. Owner Ron insists we have a drink with him – Ole Smoky Moonshine. I’ve been watching him sink glass after glass for an hour as he does the rounds, making his customers feel welcome, and I’m not sure how he’s still standing. I sip at my own drink as we listen to Ron’s tales of the Mother Road. Mum sticks to Diet Coke – it’s her turn to drive.

Car hire in Chicago with Hertz.co.uk starts from £28 per day. To get behind the wheel of an iconic American vehicle, see Hertz’s new American Collection. For more information about Route 66 visit www.enjoyillinois.com. The International Route 66 Mother Road Festival is on from 23-25 September.