Steven Monahan traveled pretty much all of Route 66 as a young "Army brat" moving from assignment to assignment with his paratrooper father, Delbert. In those days, before the massive U.S. interstate highway system was built, the Mother Road was the way people drove cross-country.
"I traveled along 66 a lot growing up, going to different states and Army bases and stuff," Monahan said, sitting on a park bench along Route 66 outside a house in Carthage, Mo., where I spotted him smoking a cigarette, watching cars go by. "There's a lot of interesting things to see along Route 66. My opinion is, it's the heartland of America."
Indeed. I had the same thought as I've driven the past four days through so many small middle-America towns beginning in Chicago and heading west through Illinois, Missouri, a slice of Kansas and today into eastern Oklahoma. Neat, manicured lawns, people mowing grass, lots of U.S. flags flying. The heart of America, and what makes this country great.
Monahan agreed. Now 65, he spent most of his life in Pella, Iowa, a town founded in 1847 by Dutch immigrants, and home since 1935 to the Pella Tulip Festival.
After graduating high school, the draft board came calling and so he joined the Air Force, where he managed to land a nice assignment as a general's cook. He served from 1970-74, and then went to work maintaining Brunswick bowling equipment. Now divorced after 35 years of marriage, the father of two came to Carthage to be near family after health problems forced him to retire and go on disability. He recently bought a house in nearby Baxter Springs, Kan., and looks forward to moving there after he finishes remodeling the place.
"It's been an interesting life, if you like traveling," Monahan said. "I was an Army brat most of my life. Been a lot of places -- Okinawa, almost all 50 states. When I was 14, I went and started living with my dad in Iowa, then he passed away when I was 16. I was on my own after that.
"Baxter Springs has a nice little river, (and) lots of lakes down there, so I'll be able to do lots of fishing," he said, with a smile.
It was a good day today on Route 66. After spending the night in Rolla, Mo., the road turned through the countryside. At one point, there was Route 66 in the middle, paralleled by railroad tracks on the left and Interstate 44 on the right. For a long time, though, it was nothing but driving beneath a shaded canopy of trees on both sides of the road, the same way folks did it way back when, since Route 66 was established on November 11, 1926.
See y'all on down the road.
Cruising toward the town of Cuba, Missouri -- named after the island of Cuba, and once visited by the likes of Harry Truman, Bette Davis and Amelia Earhart -- I saw the sign for Skippy's, a small wooden building near Interstate 44, and I knew I had to stop and go inside.
The sign read, "Good Food For Good People," so I was expecting a little café type of place, but when I walked through the front door, it was more like a roadhouse bar. A young lady wiping off tables smiled and asked, "What can we do for you?" and so I told her I was traveling Route 66 and looking for interesting people to interview along the way.
She said, "Well, you can interview Skippy."
Turns out there really is a guy named Skippy, and he owns the place. Skippy was talking to a couple of tourists from England, and then he walked over to where I was standing, stretched out his hand and said, "You're not from the FBI, are you?"
"Not today," I said, and he laughed and we walked over to a table and sat down for a chat. Skippy said he gets a lot of traffic from Route 66 travelers, including people from all over the world. He is a people person and enjoys meeting everyone who comes through the door. His one regret is missing out on a chance to greet Sir Paul McCartney, who was spotted in various places along Route 66 in summer 2008. It seems Paul bypassed Skippy's place on his way through the Show-Me State.
A lot of today's travel was interstate driving, and it rained a lot, plus I spent half a day waiting to be interviewed at noon by a radio talk show host from California about my new book, so I made it a short day and stopped in Rolla, where I found a drive-through Chinese restaurant, so I whipped in there. In front of me, in an old Buick, was an elderly couple, she driving and he riding shotgun.
It became apparent pretty quickly that it took both of them to drive the car.
At the pickup window, I guess she had put it in park, and Pops was helping her get it back in gear. I decided to give them some room and back up a ways, just in case she slammed it into reverse. Sure enough, she backed up a couple of feet, then hit the brakes. Pops reached over to help, but apparently found neutral, as Moms vroom-vroomed a couple of times, then the old man finally got it into drive for her and they slowly pulled away.
Nothing like teamwork, I reckon.
I forgot yesterday to post a photo from Springfield, Illinois, of Lincoln's Tomb, a state historic site in Oak Ridge Cemetery. I thought that was pretty cool, and I'd like to come back to Springfield sometime, where there's a whole lot of Abe Lincoln historical sites.
See y'all on down the road ...
Heading along Route 66 today through tiny Girard, Ill., population around 2,150, I was buzzing a little bit from an excellent interview I had earlier in the day with a former U.S. Marine cooking grilled pork chop sandwiches along the side of the road in Lincoln, when I spotted a sign advertising a place called Doc's Soda Fountain on the town square.
I had to stop.
After I parked the car, I hesitated for a minute or two, wondering if I should just drive on, but something told me to go inside. Sure enough, I struck gold.
After explaining my situation to the pretty girl at the counter, I was directed to the owner, Bob Ernst, who was in a back room helping moving tables with one of his employees. When I introduced myself and told Bob what I was up to, he quickly agreed to sit down and chat for a few minutes. That's him in the photo above, standing in front of a massive map of the world on one wall of his dining area, which he has stuck with red and blue pins representing people who have stopped by his place from not only all across the United States, but all over the world.
Doc's is a place now to sit for a spell and have lunch, a slice of homemade pie, some ice cream or maybe a root beer float, but for 117 years, it was a drugstore founded by Lewis C. Deck and B.F. Clark (no relation, that I know of). The Deck family kept the business going until Bob and his wife, Renae, took over, and along with the soda shop, the building includes an amazing pharmacy museum filled with original items from the old drug store.
As we sat and talked, Bob mentioned that people traveling Route 66 come into the shop every day they are open, Monday through Saturday. More people come in during "tourist season" than during the winter months. He told me that he likes to take advantage of the slow season to tell stories about the wide variety of people who step through the front door.
Stories? Well, well, well, do tell, Bob, do tell.
"We had four Germans who came in one time," Ernst said. "They wanted a root beer. Well, they took a swig of that root beer, and they about spit that stuff across the room. The only thing they saw was 'beer.' In Europe, they don't have root beer. They had no idea what root beer was. After we got done explaining it to them, they got to laughing, because, boy, you don't mess with a German and his beer."
It was a very cool day today, and I couldn't help comparing the trip again to walking the Camino. I think Route 66 is America's Camino de Santiago, albeit driving instead of walking. It's an historic journey, pretty much all the way across the country, with lots of historic landmarks along the way, mostly taking you through small towns and villages filled with friendly folks.
See y'all on down the road ...
A mostly uneventful first day along Route 66. Starting off in the craziness of downtown Chicago, I found Lou Mitchell's Restaurant on Jackson Boulevard, open since 1923 and serving the historic Mother Road since it opened three years later. Lots of traffic, lots of construction downtown, people everywhere, so I decided to just head on out.
As I started to drive across a bridge over the Chicago River, suddenly a city pickup whipped across the street and parked in the middle, blocking traffic. What the hell is this? Then, railroad-type crossing gates came down, not only across the road but also blocking the pedestrian walkways across the bridge.
People started whipping out cell phones and taking pictures, and then the bridge slowly started to rise. Not long after that, a couple of tall sailboat masts crossed right to left. Bridge comes back down. Life goes on.
So, with the help of my trusty GPS, I escaped -- I mean, found my way out of -- downtown and took off, winding my way here and there, out of the city and through a network of small towns with names like Joliet, Chenoa, Braidwood, Dwight, Normal, Towanda and Romeoville.
Pretty cool stuff, really. The kinds of places that make this a great country.
Traveling the first leg of the old highway that starts in Chicago and runs 2,448 miles through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Santa Monica, Calif., strangely enough reminded me some of walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain.
I was driving instead of walking, obviously, but I'm on a long, historic path that was replaced by a more modern network, a guidebook in hand, and looking for signs along the way to help keep me from getting lost. On the Camino, it was mostly hand-painted yellow arrows, while on Route 66, it's the brown and white signs. But just like on the Camino, there were times when I wasn't quite sure I was headed in the right direction, and then I'd spot a sign. OK, good to go.
I'm really not sure exactly where I am right now, other than a little ways down the road from Funk's Grove, about halfway through Illinois, maybe. Time to go lie down.
Many, many moons ago, I drove straight through from Houston, Texas to Rockford, Illinois, to pick up my sister and her little boy -- roughly an 18-hour drive. It was early in the morning when I got there, and we loaded the back of my Chevy pickup with stuff and immediately took off back for Texas. By the time we hit St. Louis, on the freeway in heavy traffic, I started hallucinating. I was sober as a judge ... sober as a deacon ... sober as a minister's wife ... OK, well, I was completely sober, but after nearly two days without sleep at that point, my eyes started playing tricks on me.
I pulled over and told my sister she was going to have to drive.
Cross-country driving ain't as easy as it used to be, but I made it today it to the outskirts of Chicago -- 1,100 or so miles -- in two days. Not too bad for an older guy ...
Things got a little interesting the closer I got to the city. I'm on a bit of a budget, as I prepare to traverse Route 66 from start to finish, so I'm trying to stay in cheap but decent motels along the way, even though my dear wife has spoiled me forever with high-end suites and other luxurious-type accommodations.
Well, my GPS directed me to the south side of Chicago, and believe it or not, Obama Avenue, or Obama Street, or Obama something. I think it was 169th Street. Whatever it was, it was not a comfortable neighborhood. I went into a Walgreens, bought some stuff, and asked the very nice girl at the checkout about the motels up the road to which my GPS had directed me. She shook her head. I asked someone else there, and she suggested I 'google' someplace else.
So I headed back south on I-57, away from the city, and found myself a nice Holiday Inn about five miles away. As I suspected, it was beyond my budget for lodgings for this trip, but if a clerk at Walgreens shakes her head when you ask about the hotels just up the street, well, you gotta pay attention.
Right now, I'm on the third floor of a beautiful Holiday Inn that is very much like the places Katie and I are accustomed to staying when we travel. It's more than I wanted to spend, but would I rather be staying in the Armpit Motel? Of course, not. I am fortunate to have the means to stay in such a place. I know this.
Tomorrow, it's on to Lou Mitchell's Restaurant, downtown Chicago on Jackson Boulevard, at the beginning of Route 66. Then, I'll be headed west ...
Boy howdy. Ten hours of driving is enough to wear an old man out ...
I'm sitting at the desk in a cheap, stale-smelling Days Inn room on Interstate 55 about 200 miles south of St. Louis, in front of a large, framed mirror, and I don't mind at all admitting that I look a little rough. Did pretty good, though, after leaving the house around 9:30 this morning in a rented Volkswagen Jetta and heading for Chicago, to start my journey along historic Route 66, also known as the "Will Rogers Highway" and the "Main Street of America."
When my youngest daughter and I drove cross-country several years ago to visit my oldest daughter, we stopped for breakfast at a barbecue place in Memphis, Tenn., and ordered a couple of barbecue sandwiches. Yes, barbecue sandwiches for breakfast. I tell you what -- mouth-watering, tender, smoky barbecue meat with just the right amount of sauce on top of a bed of crispy cole slaw -- by the time we unwrapped those sandwiches and took a bite a little ways down the road, we both said we should have ordered two each. Fantastic.
Well, I had another one of those amazing sandwiches about an hour ago, back in Marion, Ark., just up the road from West Memphis. Melt-in-your-mouth pork, slightly vinegary sauce, on top of cole slaw and a home-baked bun. To top it off, a cup of sweet beans laced with barbecue meat. Good grief ...
So now, all that's left is a warm shower and some sleep, to get ready for the drive into Chicago and finding the original beginnings of Route 66, somewhere near Lake Michigan. From there, I'll head west, following one of the original cross-country highways to its finish in Santa Monica, Calif.
I'll be interviewing and photographing people and places along the way, so if you ain't got nothing better to do, follow along. I'll try and make it interesting.
Ciao, y'all ...
"I will believe the truth about myself no matter how beautiful it is." -- Macrina Weiderkehr
Trying to figure out what I would write about today, I happened upon a Facebook post from a woman I know who used to be a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh, Penn., and now lives in a tiny village in northern Spain along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Her name is Rebekah, and I stopped by her house and had tea during my first Camino in summer 2011.
Rebekah writes a blog about the goings-on in and around her place, as pilgrims from all over the world pass through her village and sometimes stay overnight at her house. She does a lot of volunteer work for pilgrims and different Camino-related organizations and such, and was recently recognized for her efforts. In her blog today, which I went to after seeing her Facebook post, she talked about being embarrassed and not feeling worthy of the recognition. "I am only myself," she wrote. "And myself is really nothing remarkable."
Then she writes: "... I have really impressive friends who love me. Not because I do things. They love me because I am me, and I inspire them to do good things. I need to learn to love myself the same way they do. I need to learn to accept praise without feeling I somehow don't really deserve it." Then she quoted Macrina Weiderkehr, an author of books about prayer and spirituality who also writes a blog that I now plan to follow.
Rebekah's words struck a familiar chord with me.
I have really impressive friends who I admire and respect and love -- and for some reason, they love me. Sometimes I ask myself why? The answer to the question is: they love me because I am me. No other reason. They don't want anything from me, except to spend time with me, be around me, hang out, do stuff.
The problem is, I don't love myself. And because of that, I have a hard time understanding why other people would love me.
I don't know why I have a hard time loving myself. Something about the way I was raised, I guess. Like Rebekah, I need to learn to love myself the same way they do.
Last Friday was the last official work day for teachers until the middle of August. As one of our assistant principals was inspecting my classroom to make sure I'd properly packed everything away for the summer, so custodians could clean and polish the floor and maintenance crews could get to the air conditioning system for repair work, my colleague across the hall asked him when we would be able to get back in our rooms to get ready for next school year.
She was completely serious.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" I said, laughing.
Other than a few teacher workshops over the summer, I don't want to think for even one second about school for the next 10 weeks or whatever it is, much less worry about coming in over the summer to get ready for next year! I haven't even begun to recover yet from this year. Good grief ...
Right now, I'm getting ready to drive to Chicago, then follow Route 66 from there to Los Angeles. I'll be taking pictures, shooting video and interviewing people along the way for a new book on the historic highway, and people and places along the way. I'm a little nervous -- I don't know why -- but I think it's going to be another interesting adventure.
Meanwhile, I have seven books out on amazon right now -- check 'em out by clicking here.
If you've read any of my books, first of all, thanks! I hope you enjoyed it/them. If you don't mind going to the listings page for anything you've read and writing me a book review, that would be outstanding. Reviews increase a book's exposure and gets it out there in front of more people.
So as I get ready to hit the road again, let me leave you with this:
"There are seven days in the week, and someday isn't one of them."
Not an original quote, but a good one. I tend to be the king of procrastination, but I'm workin' on it. That and a whole bunch of other stuff I'm working on this summer.