Greetings, gentle readers and devotees of U.S. Route 66!
We are (most of us) low in profile but legion in number. The historic highway, once the only winter-safe road between Chicago and Los Angeles, retains its reputation and its romance with freedom and the allure of the open road despite having been officially closed by the mid-1980s. That both its myth and its appeal endure this long should tell you something of its importance, not just because it was one of two major cross-continental highways at the time (the other being U.S. 30, better known as the Lincoln Highway, now replaced by Interstate 80) but because of the indelible mark it left in the hearts and imagination of the American public.
The purpose of this blog is to introduce you to a new book on Route 66 that is being researched and written as you read this – namely, The Curious Traveler’s Guide to Route 66 in Metro Chicago – and to some of the interesting things being discovered in the process. The blog is also a partial record of our progress on this project, which we consider a labor of love but one that also has to be useful to other travelers. So this will be our way of keeping you up to date on our inquiries. But I’m getting ahead of myself; gentle readers, please bear with me.
We may not be quite as colorful (or fretful?) as Julie Powell was in making her way through Julia Child’s cookbook, but we’ll try to keep you informed and entertained.
Fans and aficionados, know that you have three fellow travelers with a passion for the route – and that we focus our efforts on that most neglected part of the highway, the original section between Chicago and Joliet. Most Route 66 guidebooks briefly mention the route’s start in downtown Chicago (though a few get some of the details wrong), and then conveniently skip over most of what lies between Chicago and its cousin to the southwest, Joliet, to move quickly on to that open road that beckons us all. But that skips some of the best parts of the road and some essential history. We maintain that Route 66 began in Chicago for very good reasons – and that the road itself was every bit as important to the development of metropolitan Chicago and to its residents as it was to cross-country travelers, interstate trade and the movement of manpower and munitions during wartime.
That’s why we’ve dedicated our efforts to telling the story of the original 1926 path of Route 66, from its beginning at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Jackson Boulevard – no, not Jackson at Lake Shore Drive as some incorrectly assume – through to the south side of Joliet, which got its start during the early 19th century not long after Chicago did. We aim to fill in the gaps, and … oh wait, I should introduce us; sorry about that.
In reverse order, we are two geographers and one journalist: Keith Yearman, Joseph D. Kubal and Maria R. Traska (that’s me; I’m your willing scribe for this journey). Keith and Joe are geographers and members in good standing of the Illinois Geographic Society, for which they frequently arrange field trips. Keith is also assistant professor of geography at College of Du Page in Glen Ellyn, IL. Joe is a university-trained geographer who somehow ended up doing research and data analysis in the health care field for most of his career, which is how we met. We became and remain friends because we like each other, indulge each other, and have many common interests, not the least of which is food. Keith is another foodie, which united us all immediately. I’m a freelance journalist by trade, a writer and traveler by avocation, and the one to blame because I got us all started on this.
We are all of us born and bred in or near Chicago and still live within shouting distance of its city limits. Having grown up here, we know full well the importance of the various streets that were designated as parts of the route. For full disclosure, I freely admit to being a Chicago chauvinist, too, though not a blind one, rather more a proud booster like Daniel Burnham, because I just love my city: despite its rude yet entertaining politics and its mercenary, often incompetent but not-quite-dead-yet political machine, it has much to recommend it. Besides, Chicago is too often unjustly ignored by the bi-coastal nabobs and always has been (hey, dudes: we invented the skyscrapers and the architecture and engineering that went with them that made modern cities possible. The Chicago School ushered in the era of truly American architecture and its descendants the era of super-tall skyscrapers, beginning with the John Hancock Building and the Sears Tower. We, not you, New York and L.A. That is forever our legacy. Eat your hearts out.). I’ll make my case on the importance of Chicago later as we proceed, because the history of Chicago and its energy and invention have very much to do with why Route 66 began here.
But I digress.
Our part in this business began just over a year ago this month with my idea for a day trip. At the time, I was underemployed whereas Joe, my friend of nearly 30 years and once and future colleague (we’d worked together at two different organizations during the 1980s) was officially disabled and unwillingly, prematurely retired. We were both born South Siders and raised in ethnic southwest sections of the city. We grew up knowing parts of the route and seeing it replaced by interstates, which were new when we were children but in fact had been planned for since the Eisenhower Administration.
Both of us had time on our hands last summer. When I mentioned that I’d never actually traveled the entire path of old Route 66 through the city and had a yen to do so, Joe admitted he hadn’t, either, and would be willing to accompany me. We certainly hadn’t followed it through to Joliet, so that became part of the plan. Neither of us knew what items of interest remained along the route; so, true to our training, we began doing research for our day trip … and soon realized that what guidebooks existed didn’t amount to much when it came to describing the route between Chicago and Joliet. At most they gave a page or two to the metro area, sometimes as little as a few paragraphs. Hmph. Not helpful.
In researching the trip, Joe mentioned it to Keith, who also had some free time during summer break and wanted to go. The three of us agreed on a date, and so it began: three foodies with an interest in history and travel, together On The Road, like Charles Kuralt. Or John Steinbeck with his dog Charley. What fun!
When we finally drove the day-long tour in early August, we realized we had the makings of a great field trip – and a book. After all, we’d already done a considerable amount of work just to amuse ourselves. Joe and Keith, of course, were already knowledgeable about field trips, having arranged so many for the IGS. I, on the other hand, write and edit for a living and had already published a book, so I was designated to organize our text, write the better part of it and prepare the manuscript.
It’s been highly interesting, to say the least. And on this, we all agree: we love doing this, and it’s been one hell of a ride so far. The only drawback is that it takes time to do good, thorough research, especially if you have to make a living meanwhile; but we all understand this and are willing to spend the time to do it well. It means hours in the library, online, or at home with references and repeat trips to different locations, plus interviews with people who have knowledge of specific locales or enterprises. Time spent in connecting the dots. Not to mention that we eat at as many new places along the way as we can discover (with the excuse that we must sample them sufficiently in order to review them properly for the book; honestly, give a foodie the merest excuse …).
All of us bring different skills to the project. We have each researched and written sections of the book, shared materials and insights, reviewed and edited each other’s texts – because as all professional writers and editors know, everyone needs an editor – even another editor. I’ve also given friends who are fellow journalists a peek at some sections for precisely the same reason … and to get expert feedback, before we make too many mistakes (thank you, my darlings, and you know who you are). Besides, once we give over the finished manuscript to an agent and a publisher, which is still months away, some book editor will no doubt give me my comeuppance by heavily cutting up my work. Yikes. So, I will yet pay for all the comments and corrections I’ve imposed on Joe and Keith, my very generous and kind collaborators.
But enough on that.
The bottom line for us is that we enjoy visiting and revisiting this section of Route 66 and want others to know about it. We believe that if you learn about it, you will, too – and we hope to give you some useful guidance and interesting background so that you can better enjoy it and tell your friends. We want to make this as entertaining for the armchair reader as for the person on the road. Last but not least, we want to keep you up to date about the progress of our book, which will be part history, part travelogue, and part practical guide to traveling the route. Our plan is to publish both in print and digitally so that you can use our text in whatever way suits you best, be it as a handy pocket guide or an iPad/tablet version that you use en route, if only to keep the kids busy with it between stops.
Does this grab you, Route 66 fans? Are you interested?? Tell us! We’d like to know how many of you are out there and still traveling (or are eager to travel) the historic road. It’s well worth the trip.
And we can always use the feedback. (I also promise to be not quite so talky in future installments. Working on that.)
Until next time,