On this day it ends where it started. On September 4th, 2013, we had come full circle on our Route 66 trip since the day would end in Joliet, IL, where Route 66 begins. It was going to be a bittersweet day indeed. I knew that on the following day, the magic of the Mother Road would now become memory and the full weight of the soulless modern world would be upon me.
I was still looking forward to the day since was a chance to visit some great Missouri sites we missed on our way to Arizona. The main attraction is the famous Meramec Caverns near Stanton, MO. Nobody who travels though Missouri can ignore this place, over 60 billboards advertise it along the Interstate.
Our morning departure from Cuba, MO was a pleasant one and by mid-morning, the temperature had climbed to 100 f (38 c) accompanied by high humidity. Suffice it say, it was not long before we felt the heat. When we arrived at Meramac Caverns, we noticed dozens of Harley-Davidsons parked outside. This is not an uncommon scene along Route 66, however, this group had a twist: they were all from Europe. A tour company had organized a Route 66 excursion complete with rented Harley Davidsons and multilingual road captains. The deal is you land in Chicago, get your rented Harley and take Route 66 all the way to the pacific ocean in Los Angeles. I was surreal to see dozens of people who look every bit the classic American biker, yet hear German, French, Italian and Dutch spoken. If English was spoken it was with Scottish accent.
Meremec Caverns is steeped in history, folklore and kitsch. It has been a popular destination of Route 66 travelers since the 1940’s and is still going strong today as a privately owned business. From Wikipedia:
The Meramec Caverns have existed for the past 400 million years, slowly forming through deposits of limestone. In centuries past, Native Americans used the cavern system for shelter. The first cave west of the Mississippi River to be explored by Europeans, it was discovered in 1722 by a French miner.During the 18th century, the cave was used for extracting saltpeter for the manufacture of gunpowder. In the Civil War era, the Union Army used the caves as a saltpeter plant, but the plant was discovered and destroyed by Confederate guerrillas, likely including the future infamous outlaw Jesse James. According to local legend, James and his brother and partner in crime Frank used the caves as a hideout in the 1870s. However, there is scant historical evidence to support this tradition. One legend in particular claims that a sheriff tracking the Jameses sat in front of the cave, waiting for Jesse and his gang to emerge; however, they had found another exit.
In 1933, the extended cave system was discovered, revealing the present 4.6 miles (7.4 km), and was introduced to the public as a tourist attraction in 1935 by Lester B. Dill, who invented the bumper sticker as a means of promoting the caverns.
This was my third visit to the Caverns and Elaine’s first and she was duly impressed. There’s no shortage of impressive stalactites and stalagmites and other geological formations. One of the most impressive features of the caves is the crystal clear water which acts as perfectly flat mirror. Quite the sight and I am glad my camera could capture it.
After the tour of Meramec Caverns we rode into St Louis through a blast furnace of hot summer air. I had promised Elaine that we would stop by at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard on Route 66 in St Louis. There’s no better way to cool down and there’s no other place I know of that serves flavoured frozen custard. This is a treat truly unique to Route 66 and St Louis.
Ted Drewes is always busy and during the summer expect line ups, but it is worth the wait. It all started when Ted Sr. opened his first ice cream store in Florida in 1929, followed the next year by an other store on Natural Bridge in St. Louis and the South Grand store in 1931. In 1941 the family opened a second south side stand which is the current Chippewa location, old Route 66. By 1958, the south side stands were all that remained.
Our final destination of the day was Sweetie Pie’s Upper Crust restaurant in St. Louis. It specializes in Mississippi style soul food and was founded by Robbie Montgomery (“Miss Robbie”) a former background singer for Ike & Tina Turner. Each week, OWN network records a TV show called “Sweetie Pies” in a small studio built into the restaurant.
It was years since I enjoyed some decent soul food and it was Elaine’s first time. The food was fantastic, hearty portions and very reasonable prices. Perhaps the best thing about this place is the people that work there. In my travels, I found that people from Missouri are among the most friendly and warm anywhere. We met a remarkable man, a retired police officer who is now the security guard for Sweetie Pies. We chatted at length about his days in the force, his retirement, his family, St. Louis and more. He is everything a decent cop should be, it’s a shame there are not a lot more like him.
One of the perks of riding a Harley with a foreign license plate is that you invariably attract the attention of strangers and the conversation usually begins with “You are a long way from home”. So began the conversation as we were leaving Sweetie Pie’s. The gentleman who inquired about our travels is the brother in-law of “Miss Robbie” Montgomery. After our chat, he invited us to attend Miss Robbie’s birthday next June. I will definitely take him up on his offer should we have the good fortune to be in St. Louis.
It was back on the Interstate for a long, cold ride to Joliet, IL. In just a few short hours we had gone from sauna like heat in Missouri to below seasonal temperatures for Illinois. Both the hot weather and the Mother Road were now consigned to memory. Sadly, our last encounter with Route 66 was in the middle of the night. Moreover, our motel was not actually on Route 66 since Joliet is not exactly the safest place. We settled for a Red Roof Inn along the interstate. The cold weather, the corporate logos and the absence of decades old family businesses meant our journey had come full circle.
I love Route 66, I really do. There’s no place like it and for me it represents the best of America and the innocence of a simpler time. What makes it special is not necessarily the history or the echoes from the past, instead, it is the unique, sincere and decent people who keep it alive. Every few years I must reconnect with the Mother Road to find my soul again. I will keep coming back again and again as long as I can. What a great trip this has been and in my heart, I relive it everyday.
It was going to be a long ride tomorrow back to Canada.