Happy Route 66 Birthday Week! And happy birthday to Route 66: today is the 89th anniversary of the day our favorite U.S. Route opened for business, providing all us roadies with that most iconic American road trip … but not right away. It took years for the route to reach all the way to Los Angeles. Illinois was the one place in which Route 66 was actually up, running and being driven on Day One. In other states, the route was mostly theoretical, a line on a map and not much else. Even two months later at year’s end, only about 800 miles of the route were paved, and half of those were here in Illinois. So it seems only fitting that we celebrate the man who made Route 66 possible in Illinois – and helped to bring the rest of the route system into being.
How is it that Illinois alone was 100-percent operational when the route came into existence on November 11, 1926? It was largely one man’s doing: state highway engineer Frank T. Sheets. He had already been engaged in a very active program of road building within the state for several years by the time the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) asked the feds in late 1924 to help create a real network of interstate and transcontinental highways. Sheets would be a key figure in that process, too.
It’s happening: Schustek Pond will be officially dedicated to a hero of Route 66 next Monday, July 6, 2015, on the 85th anniversary of the selfless act during which Bruno Schustek lost his life. The pond was named by the USGS’s Bureau on Geographic Names in April (that’s when we received the notification). There are so many wonderful stories that have happened along Route 66 over the years, and it’s time for this one to be told to the larger world.
Starting at 10am, we and the staff of the North American Spine Society (NASS) will remember and honor this fallen pilot on the western shore of the pond. The NASS headquarters stands next to the pond, about two miles northeast of another Route 66 point of interest, the historic Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket on Joliet Road/N. Frontage Road in nearby Willowbrook.
Schustek Pond in Burr Ridge, seen from Joliet Road/N. Frontage Road (Google street view)
(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.
Route 66 is known around the world as the iconic American road trip – so why, you wonder, would anyone want to see it from the air? The truth is an aerial viewpoint can give you a much better grasp and appreciation of the surrounding terrain, as well as a different perspective on our favorite road.
In northern Illinois, March is that dead space between the end of winter and the real start of spring, when the weather goes haywire and you never know what it’ll be like from day to day (never mind the calendar: we locals know all too well that just because the thaw starts in March, that means nothing; we can get unexpected snowfall right up into May sometimes, even after the traditional April showers have brought out May flowers).
Nevertheless, it’s a better time to travel the route than you might think. Even though March weather is highly changeable, March is, paradoxically, also when you might get a better view of the land itself (the same applies to early April; don’t let the rain stop you). The fields and trees are barren, sure, but the lack of foliage lets you see the contours of the land and the rivers and streams more clearly, especially from the air. Then there’s the fact that – let’s face it – flying low enough to see the layout of the ground beneath you in beautiful detail is just plain fun. That is, assuming you don’t have a fear of flying (we do not).