After riding 850 kilometers the previous day from Ajax, Ontario to Chicago, through heat and rain, I woke up tired Sunday morning in a low budget motel. Much to my chagrin, I discovered the night before that my brand new camcorder microphone was defective. If I was going to interview people, I need a decent microphone as the in-camera microphones are crap. I spent over an hour on the internet looking for a store in Chicago where I could purchase a new camcorder microphone.
After almost 90 minutes of searching, the only place open on a Sunday where I could buy a new microphone was Best Buy, right in the heart of the city inside the Hancock Center. I really dislike dealing with Best Buy and the morning ahead would serve to remind me why. According to their website, they had one in stock, so all I would have to do is show up at the store, give them the model number and buy it. Simple, right? It’s never that simple with Best Buy.
Chicago Nightmare Traffic, Parking and Best Buy Hell
Driving through downtown Chicago was awful. The traffic was insane and there was nowhere to park. There seemed to be a lot of tourists and events that day. I located the Best Buy and none of the adjacent parking lots allow motorcycles, since they are valet only. I went around several blocks to look for street parking, no luck. An empathetic doorman at a high end hotel (The Drake?), said I could park out front for a half hour. So, I walked to Best Buy, just two blocks away and figured I would be in and out in 15 minutes. Ha! Not so!
I went into the store and waited 10 minutes for a clerk. I showed him the item number and naturally, they could not find it on the shelves. Next, they dispatched another employee to look for it in the stock room. 20 minutes later, nothing. I was losing patience and then asked again for the item, again, no one can seem to locate it, despite it showing in stock. About 40 minutes in, I gave up. They would not even sell me the floor model. Same bullshit service they give you right here in Canada. I did not want to risk a $120 parking ticket, so I left the store frustrated with no microphone.
Finding Mile Zero of Route 66
Half my day was already wasted, it was time to get back to business! Before leaving Chicago, I was determined to find the beginning of Route 66. Over the years, this location has been bumped around and it is currently situated near the intersection of Adams St and South Michigan Ave, just down the street from the Art Institute of Chicago. I had also planned to eat lunch at Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant on Route 66, one of the oldest classic diners still thriving in Chicago. Alas, that was not meant to be. When I got to the diner, there was nowhere to park and there was a line out the door. It did not make sense to waste another hour or two. So, it was back to finding the “official” start of Route 66.
My GPS was having a field day in Chicago. It refused to believe I was traveling on the right roads, the damned thing kept trying to put me on road I’m already on. Every 5 seconds or so, it just brain farted and said “recalculating”. I went old school and referred to a paper map I sketched in the morning. Eventually I found my destination on Adams St: a little park with the Route 66 begins sign, but the park was closed! If that was not bad enough, there was a gaggle of beggars around the park. Trust me, I’m not the sort of person to give those bums any money.
One should not laugh at the misfortunes of others, but that day I made an exception. No, I was not laughing at the bums. Some fool was trying to take a selfie at the Route 66 park with his iPhone and dropped over the fence! He tried to climb over the fence and nearly face planted. This brought a smile to my face and helped alleviate the frustration I was feeling from the morning’s misfortunes. Idiocy is always good fodder for comedy.
Despite the park being closed, I managed to take a few photos and make a short video of my visit. Mission accomplished, I found mile zero of Route 66 and would continue from there. Somehow this legitimizes a cross country trip to California.
I had a quick lunch across the street at a little Italian Cafe. Quite a nice meal actually, Tuscan Chicken sandwich, San Pellegrino soda and an Espresso. Very tasty, very reasonable. After this nice treat, it was time to get the hell out of Chicago towards greener pastures.
Onwards To The Magical Mother Road
It took me a while to get out of Chicago because of congestion on I-55. I kept asking myself, “Where’s the magic of the Mother Road?” I really needed to get away from urban environments and traffic, I was at my wits end. What kept me going was the promise of small towns, open roads, quirky places and kinder people who live life at a slower and simpler pace.
The magic of the Mother Road started to take effect in Joliet, a little town with some good roadside attractions and no traffic. Instead of minvans crammed with kids, this town attracted more bikers than soccer moms. This was more like it! I cooled down with a sundae and root beer from the Joliet Route 66 visitor center. I felt like a kid again indulging in this simple pleasure.
After I finished the sundae, it was time for a brief stop at the Joliet Area Historical Museum to get some photos of kitschy figures and Route 66 related objects. The museum also warehouses some authentic Route 66 memorabilia.
Joliet Prison And The Blues Brothers
I have motorcycled through Joliet twice before, this time around I was going to visit the Joliet Correctional Center. Cue the Blues Brothers intro and all manner of paraphernalia associated for this legendary movie. I arrived at the prison after 4 PM, so it was too late to go inside on a guided tour. Nonetheless, it was worth the time to see it from the outside and get a sense of the place.
Something I did not expect on the way to the prison was a little taste of Mexico on Route 66. The road leading to Joliet prison is a predominantly Hispanic neighbourhood. All the businesses and shops cater to this community. In fact, it was the only ethnic place I recall seeing on Route 66 before entering Texas.
Feeling Good in Wilmington and a Japanese TV Crew
The magic of Route 66 was going to really reward me later in the day. Things were taking a turn for the better and my perseverance paid off. The next stop was in Wilmington, to visit one of my favourite roadside attractions, the Gemini Giant at the now defunct Launching Pad Cafe.
I met a Japanese TV crew shooting a documentary on Route 66. I chatted with them for a bit, they took a few photos of me as well as some video footage. I gave them my personal business card. Who knows, I may be on Japanese TV one day when they finish their documentary. The director kept my card and said he would let me know. My mood was changing, the Chicago traffic and the morning’s failure to locate a new microphone, were now fading in my mind’s rear view mirror.
Making a New Friend
After the Japanese TC crew departed, I saw this tall guy checking out my Harley and looks at my license plate. He says in a German accent, “You are a long way from home!” I said, “So are you!” He notices my Olympus OMD and says, “Nice camera!”. His name is Markus Foerster, a freelance Swiss photo journalist touring Route 66 before heading out to Nebraska to cover an international volleyball tournament. I thought this fellow would make for a good interview and he obliged. I had to use the crappy microphones built into the camera, but they were “good enough”
My next destination was the Polk-a-Dot diner, a classic 1950’s styled roadside attraction in Braidwood. I suggested Markus should check it out as well. Not only is the food good, the place is decorated with iconic figures from American Folklore. We sat down for a drink and snack, as we talked, I realized we have a lot in common and a friendship started to develop. He is also a Harley guy with three vintage bikes back home in Switzerland and he is also a shutterbug. As this was my third time traveling Route 66 from Canada, I was happy to show him the sites and also give him the benefit of my experience.
Our next stop was a brief visit to Gardiner to see the two person jail built in 1906. You had to be pretty tough to last a few nights in this spartan place. Your only bedside companion was a bucket and I don’t need to tell you what that’s for.
Ending The Day on Route 66 with Markus
The sun was starting to set and we made another stop in Dwight to photograph the famous vintage Ambler’s Texaco Gas Station, built in 1933. We got there as the sun was setting during the golden light. It was a real treat to get the warm tones and we had just minutes to get out our cameras and tripods to make some long exposure shots. The sun dropped below the horizon around 9 PM and all the local restaurants had closed their kitchens by then.
Dinner had to wait until we got to Pontiac and we settled for Subway. Only fast food places stayed open after 9:30 PM. We checked into a local motel and called it a night. As it turns out, Markus would be my traveling companion over the next few days.
Leave it to Route 66 to turn a shitty day into a great one and make new a friend!