May 2, 2018. We head out of St. Louis toward Springfield, Missouri on a route that takes us through the Ozarks. Themes for the day: thousands of tiny attractions, bridges that memorialize corporals rather than generals, and wonky navigation units.
The Garmin, which served us so well in Chicago, decides to ignore all my painstakingly set shaping points for leaving St Louis by the old road and dumps us onto the freeway. The freeways of St. Louis are a particularly unpleasant place to be at 7 am on a weekday. We pass one Route 66 historic byway sign, but far too late to jump across lanes to the exit. We eventually get off and find a parking lot where it takes me 20 minutes to beat the Garmin into submission. Then five more minutes to persuade it that we don’t want to go back downtown and start over.
We also miss the exit for the Route 66 State Park Visitors center, not realizing that the exits are counting down, not up. It would probably have been closed anyway at this hour. One of the things that we have already reconciled ourselves to on this trip is that you can’t stop at everything. Route 66 is not a journey with a handful of must-see major attractions. It is a journey with thousands of tiny attractions and if you stopped for them all, you would never get to LA. What we learn is that which ones you actually do visit is sometimes down to serendipity rather than planning.
The Ozarks are lovely. Waxing rhapsodic about the delights of the countryside does not seem to be part of my writer’s toolkit. The Ozarks are lovely. There is hardly a better place for a leisurely country drive on the old road.
We stopped in Cuba to look at the murals. There are quite a few mural stops on Route 66 (part of the thousand tiny attractions). I suppose it is a fairly inexpensive way for a town to set up a tourist attraction, requiring little more than basic art skills, a few blank walls, and a few buckets of paint. The Cuba murals are disappointing, as murals tend to be. Either the pictures in the brochure were taken years ago or they have been heavily photoshopped, for the murals themselves are dingy and faded where those in the brochure are bright and shiny. I find that we did not snap a single picture of the murals, but the ones you find online look a lot nicer than the ones you see in person.
Cuba bills itself as “mural city”, which seems a slender reed to hang a municipal identity on. This civic pride in minor distinctions, though, is part of the ordinary eccentricity that is characteristic of Route 66. Still, if this is the thing you choose to hang your municipal identity on, you might want to spring for a little touchup paint now and then. (This, it turns out, is not the only time this thought will occur on this trip.)
We are stopped in the street by a woman apparently assigned to greet strangers, ask where they are from, chat them up, and point them the way to the murals. She has no kind of ID or uniform to suggest that she is employed by the city or the chamber of commerce. She may be doing this entirely for her own amusement. Ordinary eccentricity.
The lady at the Crawford County Historical Society Museum that we visit, mostly in search of washrooms, is similarly gracious and chatty. There are several notices saying they have no public washrooms but when we asked where we can find some, she immediately lets us use the staff washroom. This is the ordinary kindness of people not hidebound to the employee handbook. Perhaps at a busier time of year they are forced to enforce the rules, but here they do the human thing rather than the regulation thing.
The emphasis on the military in the museum is striking. It is rich in uniforms and medals and other forms of military paraphernalia, each with careful notes on their history and provenance. All the displays are extremely well done. Visit Cuba for the museum, not the murals.
The devotion to the military and to its veterans is very public in Missouri. Canada does not celebrate its military or veterans in this way. Due honor is given to the return of the dead, but that is of the moment. There is no permanent pervasive memorialization and celebration the way there is here. Perhaps that is because Canadian forces don’t serve overseas so much as the Americans do. And yet they serve quite enough to give Canada something to celebrate. We just don’t. Perhaps in the towns associated with military bases in Canada they do? But in Missouri it is everywhere.
Why this depth and breadth of reverence for military service here? Is it because the US is reacting against the shameful reception given to the troops returning from Vietnam? Were Canada and the US different in how they welcomed home WWII vets? And if not, when did their customs diverge?
The museum also has a room dedicated to the local Indian tribe. Quite well done for such a small town museum.
Moving on down the road, we stopped to snap a picture of the worlds largest rocking chair. This is an example of the thousands of tiny attractions problem of Route 66. So many of them originated as outlandish and outsized commercial advertisements and eyecatchers and so what one business did, the next must emulate, until every neon sign and fiberglass saint becomes a tourist attraction. We snap a picture of the rocking chair from the car window as we pass because, honestly, what else are you going to do with it? (It doesn’t look very comfortable, either, if I’m honest.)
We stop for lunch at the Elbow Inn in Devil’s Elbow. It is completely authentic – no paint at all.
Anna is again nervous of the place, but we are greeted cheerfully on entering by a young woman who tells us the history of the business and all about the giant flood of May 2017 that came up to the ceiling of the building. They were closed for six months to let the place dry and then restored and reopened. All this we learn as she is showing us to a table. (It has since been closed, with plans to restore it to its original appearance and function from the 50s. In other words, to pick up a theme from the previous post, it is going to go from being kept to being preserved. This may be a necessary thing, but I’m not sure it is a good thing.)
We seem to be the only tourists there. There is a handful of locals – all working men who have parked various large working vehicles outside. There is a ton of space to park but I must have been living in the city too long because I get rattled if there is not a nice painted box to park in. They just pull of the road and stop. They are all at the bar.
Our hostess shows us to a deck that sits at a 45 degree angle to a concrete patio. Before the flood, she explains, it was flush to the concrete, but the river turned it around 45 degrees to where is stopped against a tree. They shored it up, filled in the gap with gravel, and left it there. It provides a nice view over the valley of the Little Piney River below. There is much evidence of flood damage and ongoing reconstruction work below us, but there are trees all around us coming into leaf. “It will be beautiful in a couple more weeks” the server says. “It’s beautiful now”, I say. It is. It is also sublimely peaceful.
Their specially is brisket cooked on site. I have a brisket sandwich and Anna a brisket salad. Billy Connally was wrong after all; you can get good food on Route 66. Alas, however, they have zero ales available. It’s all lagers out here, she tells us. I settle for the safety beer: Sam Adams.
A camper van drives up, stops to take pictures but not to eat. The server seems unperturbed by this. No one seems to resent tourists here, even when they spend no money. People put up roadside Route 66 monuments. The house opposite the turkey tracks in Illinois put up a sign and a model turkey that make them easy to find. (Another of those thousands of tiny attractions.) They make no money from this. It is just traffic through their quiet streets, but they don’t seem to mind. They seem to encourage it.
The camper van pulls onto the one lane bridge across the Little Piney River and stops in the middle of it. Taking pictures, I suppose. I could not be like that. The road is not remotely busy and I don’t think a single vehicle is inconvenienced while the camper van sits there, and they probably wouldn’t mind terribly if they were. But I could not be like that. I hate being in the way, even for a moment.
The peripatetic patio is decorated with flags of all the US military services and we later overheard our server saying that she is military herself and will be shipping out on deployment soon. In Ottawa, where we lived for 20 years, a military uniform is just a variation on standard office attire. The Canadian Armed Forces seems just a job like any other. I’m sure in Petawawa or Greenwood much more is made of serving soldiers. But the general devotion to the services and to veterans that seems pervasive in middle America has no parallel in Canada that I have seen.
Still, I get no sense of jingoism in it, no glorification of war. It strikes me as at heart a profound respect for, and dedication to, service itself. There is definitely a garish flag-waving aspect to it and a certain boastfulness, but that comes across as more high school spirit rally than jackbooted parade. (It is notable how rare military parades are in the US.) They celebrate the service and those who serve, not the size or number of the weapons. It all seems a part with NASCAR races and outdoor country music concerts, not party rallies and harangues. They name highway bridges after corporals, fallen corporals presumably. This is vastly different in spirit from naming them after generals. These too, for me, are part of the thousands of tiny attractions of Route 66.
Along the road I am struck, as I always am in the US, by the frequency with which one sees signs for bail bonds. I have no idea how Canadians awaiting trial get out of jail but I have never seen an ad for whatever service there may be that helps them do so. Ditto loans. Canadians are apparently the most indebted people on earth, but you don’t see loans advertised by the highway the way you do in the US. These I do not count as an attraction, of any size.
The last stop of the day is the Route 66 Car Museum which we choose to visit today rather than tomorrow, as originally planned, to avoid arriving at the hotel at 3 pm with nothing to do until dinner time. It seems to be essentially a private collection on public display. The guy behind the desk is not the owner but chatty and welcoming anyway. He is clearly in love with the cars and everything that goes with them. The whole place smells like the service depot of a dealership and there is active restoration work going on on one of the cars on display.
The cars are not roped off. There are “please do not touch” signs everywhere, but no barriers. It seems tacitly understood that we are all enthusiasts here and naturally respectful of the collection.
There are some wonderful cars here as well as some delightful oddities such as a replica 1960’s Batmobile, a ghostbusters ambulance, and a huge safari car used by Winston Churchill. And the burned out car that the owner borrowed from his wife to race. It sits in the museum in exactly the condition in which he returned it to her. Crispy. (You can see it in the background of the picture above.)
The signs are short on detail but heavy on enthusiasm. Practically every car in the collection runs and is a delight to drive, the signs assure us. (The guy at the desk reinforces this message). There is a separate workshop that is also open with cars awaiting restoration (these are roped off).
The gift shop is full of old toy cars. Telling antiques from junk would require a better eye than mine.
The Garmin makes a complete hash of navigation to the hotel – taking us in the wrong direction and then suddenly announcing “navigate off road” with a displayed instruction to “leave the highway”. It did this once before on a freeway on ramp in Chicago, but reversed itself almost at once. Here not so. It just abandons us. I pulled over and pulled out my cellphone to use Google maps. Making navigation devices is all Garmin does. How, after all this time, can they not be better at it?
The hotel is the Best Western Rail Haven – a classic Route 66 motor court, tastefully and respectfully updated. It is the nicest place we have stayed so far. Not the plushest, but the nicest. Above all, it is the quietest, despite a busy street corner location. There are a couple of classic cars out front, a standard Route 66 touch. (A thousand tiny attractions, again.)
Supper is at a food truck. Mexican -Thai fusion, of all things, on a residential street just behind the hotel.
We have Mojo Green Burritos. Very tasty but ridiculously large. We slice them open and eat the filling, leaving the shell. There is good food to be found on Route 66 – Billy Connally must have been looking in the wrong places.