Seeing Route 66 by air in Illinois: Romeoville to Springfield-Decatur, part 2

Previously:  part 1 – Takeoff at O’Hare to Coal City

(Editor’s note:  As in part 1, for the convenience of readers unfamiliar with the route, I’ve added a few details here and there about precise locations and what else of interest to travelers is in the area that Keith visited; but this is Keith’s trip and his story, so we’ll let him finish his travelogue.  Here you go!)

From 8,000 feet up, the enormity of the Illinois prairie is really striking, with only occasional groves of trees scattered here and there amid the emptiness, which in summer will be covered with waving fields of wheat, corn and soybeans.  How startling to imagine that these empty fields will be different shades of green barely two months from now.  No wonder that the earliest settlers saw the enormous sea of grass that was the virgin Illinois prairie as the perfect place for farmland.  In fact, Decatur and Springfield lie in the center of Illinois’s agricultural heartland.  It’s no accident that Decatur is also home to a major outpost of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, aka ADM.

Although our path over the prairie still paralleled Route 66, it drifted increasingly southward instead of heading straight southwest as the route did, making towns like Gardner, Dwight and Odell harder to spot in the distance.  Somewhere between Pontiac on the Vermilion River and Bloomington-Normal, the Cessna veered south-southwest for Decatur in Macon County.

6 - aerial view of Decatur approach (Photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

6 – Aerial view of Decatur approach  (Photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

Flying into Decatur from the northeast, we could clearly see the winding curves of the Sangamon River east of town (photo 6).  Decatur is about 30 miles east of Springfield and half an hour away along Interstate 72, which curves around the city limits from the northeast to the west, just as the Sangamon curves around the east and south of town.  Decatur Municipal Airport is on the eastern edge of town, just off U.S. Route 36 and east of the river.  The most direct way to get to Springfield from the airport is simply to take U.S. 36 straight through the center of Decatur and head west for I-72.  That takes you past the Children’s Museum of Illinois and the Scovill Zoo, both of which are on Lake Decatur; Nelson Park on the other side of the lake; the Civic Center downtown; Millikin University; and Fairview Park.  Lake Decatur, by the way, is a reservoir in the middle of the Sangamon, formed by damming the river on the south side of the city.

Our landing was uneventful; the flight had only been about an hour long.  I immediately rented a car at a combined Avis/Budget counter at the airfield and headed out to Springfield for a few hours.  Having been to Springfield many times before, I decided to just spend my time at Abraham Lincoln’s Tomb and around the Old State Capitol.  The tomb is on the north side of the city, near Oak Ridge Cemetery and east of Walnut Street.  The plain limestone monument with obelisk and the austere simplicity of the tomb’s interior (photo 8) befit a man of Lincoln’s sober humility.

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The Old State Capitol State Historic Site (photo 9) is about two miles south, on Monroe Street in the heart of downtown Springfield.  It’s located within a few blocks of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the headquarters of the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway, the Illinois State Museum and Illinois State Library, the Abraham Lincoln Home National Historic Site, and an equally historic but quite different home:  the Dana-Thomas House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  A day trip like this would give a visitor more than enough to see before even attempting to make traditional Route 66 stops such as Shea’s Gas Station Museum in northeast Springfield or the Cozy Dog Drive-In south of downtown.

Lunch was directly across from the Old State Capitol at an eatery called The Feed Store.  A jam-packed restaurant with quick service but horribly overpowering wallpaper (see photo below), this little soup-and-sandwich shop is a wonderful lunch stop.  I had the spinach salad with orange segments, sliced raw mushrooms, red onion, and raspberry vinaigrette and a bowl of the shop’s homemade mushroom bisque – simply outstanding.  With an iced tea, the total bill was $9.98.

12 - the Cessna Caravan at Decatur airport, ready for our return trip (KYearman)

12 – Cessna Caravan at Decatur Municipal Airport, ready for our return trip  (Photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

At 4:15, I made my way back to the Decatur airport for the return flight.  Our flight was only slightly more crowded this time, with a fifth passenger and a copilot for the trip.  After takeoff, we took a northeasterly course that soon put us just east of Bloomington-Normal, Towanda and Lexington.

13 - Bloomington-Normal metro area in the distance, looking west  (Photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

13 – Bloomington-Normal area, looking west, seen from NE of town; the view of tiny Towanda, IL is blocked by wing strut at right  (Photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

Despite the haze and low cloud cover, which washed out the colors, visibility to the ground was high.  From the air, one could clearly see the way I-55 bypassed Towanda and Lexington in bow-shaped curves west of the towns while one of the earlier alignments of Route 66 continued straight through the towns along their east sides.  It was also clear that Lexington had expanded eastward (away from today’s I-55) during the nine decades since Route 66 had come through.  Just visible among the trees along an arrowhead-shaped patch of dark greenish-brown was Memory Lane, Lexington’s short preserved stretch of the original 1926 path of the route.

14 - aerial view of Lexington, IL (KYearman)

14 – A perfect aerial view of Lexington, IL (upper center left), with the bow-shaped curve of I-55 (a later alignment of Route 66) west of town and most of the original 1926 path of Route 66 through town clearly visible; note the darker arrow shape north of town (to the right of town) between the two roads:  the lower edge of this arrow shape is Memory Lane, a preserved stretch of old Route 66 pavement.  Also noticeable are the paths of dry stream beds, where water flows through the fields during wetter seasons.  (Photo copyright 2015 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

From Bloomington-Normal, we followed Route 66 home again, just as we had on the way down; but after Lexington, the plane altered its heading slightly and the route was on the other side of the aircraft, to our east.  Our flight path then gradually took us farther and farther away from Route 66, headed north-northeast to Marseilles, Sandwich, Plano, Aurora, Geneva and West Chicago along the Fox River.

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Interestingly, just as we had flown over Argonne Lab on the way down, we overflew the other national lab in the area, Fermilab, on the way back.  Fermilab, aka the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, has its west (main) entrance on Kirk Road in Batavia; it is bounded by Kirk Road/Farnsworth Road on the west, IL 38/Roosevelt Road on the north, Butterfield Road on the south, and the farms and subdivisions of unincorporated Winfield and Warrenville on the east.  Finally, we passed Elfstrom Stadium near Geneva (better known these days as Fifth Third Park) before turning east-northeast – over DuPage Airport in West Chicago – toward O’Hare and home.

All in all, this day trip by air and car was well worth it.  Unfortunately, I was only using my cell phone’s camera onboard, thus the poor quality of the images here.  Still, it was a great way to see Illinois and allowed me a nice aerial view of familiar parts of Route 66.  In fact, I plan to make the trip again later this year and take my four-year-old daughter with me next time.

Air Choice One runs some $65 round-trip specials from Chicago to Decatur, usually during the early part of the week.  Check the service’s website for details.  That flight route also continues on to St. Louis; the round-trip fare from O’Hare to St. Louis via Decatur is $150.  (Editor’s note:  I’m betting that the flight path south of Decatur angles back closer to Route 66 and rejoins it somewhere around Litchfield, following the route toward St. Louis and Lambert Field at least as far as Edwardsville; a glance at a road atlas makes that the most logical flight path, but I could be wrong.  You’d have to check with the air service to be sure.)

Until next time,
Keith (and Marie!)



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