Driving into Illinois, the final state for us on Route 66, it soon became clear that this was a part of America that is very proud of its links with the famous road. Much of the original route is still intact, providing the opportunity to drive along much of it while the masses of cars and lorries speed along the Interstate 55 which runs parallel just a few metres away.
After lunch in yet another historic venue, the Ariston in Litchfield, believed to be the oldest café on Route 66, we were heading north on the final leg of this particular part of the journey, aiming for Chicago and the shores of Lake Michigan, the historic end of the road.
It was a drive that gave us many opportunities to stop and take in the some of the historic locations along what was, many years ago, the start of the route for people heading to better times in the west.
Its for that reason, perhaps, that the state of Illinois celebrates Route 66 with such vigour. All along the route, signposts, information boards and points of interest are clearly marked, a huge contrast to some areas we had passed through where at times it was difficult to even work out if we were on the right road due to a lack of signage.
We arrived in the town of Atlanta shortly before nightfall, the quiet streets bathed in the soft yellow and orange hues of the setting sun. A town of just over 1,600 people, the town is very much preserved as it was in the good times gone by, when thousands of people would pass through every year on the road.
As Ian and I wandered through the small gardens in the town, looking at the relics and paintings that adorn the walls, we were approached by a young woman who was also taking photographs.
Her name was Stacy, and she told us how she works for the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway organisation, dedicated to preserving, restoring and promoting the famous American road. The fact that there is such a group is perhaps why the journey was noticeably more enjoyable through the state. We chatted about where we had already been, the places where we had stopped, and Stacy gave us tips on where to stop off.
We said farewell, and Stacy continued taking photographs while the two of us went to see the giant. That’s right – a giant. Its known as Bunyon’s Statue, a 30ft tall man holding a giant hotdog. He once stood for 42 years in front of Bunyon’s Hot Dog stand in nearby Cicero, but moved to his current site a while back. He now stands tall, if you pardon the pun, in the middle of the town, close to the old Greyhound bus stop.
Bunyon’s Statue is one of the old ‘Muffler Men’, fibreglass statues designed to be used as advertising around the United States in the 60s. The original design was of a man holding an axe, but that got changed over the years so he could be appearing as anything from a Viking to a chef and holding anything from tyres and exhausts, to, well, hotdogs, depending on the business.
As we made our way back to the car, Stacy came back over to us. She could tell we were so genuinely interested in all that Route 66 had to offer, that she had been back to her car and brought us both a gift – a Route 66 registration plate. There was also a chance for a few photos with a genuine Rt 66 sign, before we said a final goodbye and headed back out onto the road, complete with our special mementos.
By now, Chicago is firmly on all the roadsigns, the hundreds of miles slowly ticking down and the end of this long drive is in sight. We stopped for coffee at the Dixie Trucker’s Home in McLean,
another famous stop along Route 66 which has featured in many guides, books and historic accounts. Its still very much a popular stop for trucks, with the colourful cabs all lined up perfectly as the long distance drivers took some refreshments onboard. They seemed to be a friendly bunch, peering out of their cabs and waving at me as I snapped away, clearly proud of their mammoth machines that they call home. Its one thing to be doing this journey for fun, but a whole new ball game to be doing it for a living. I could tell there was a great camaraderie between them.
But we still had some serious distance to travel if we were to have a decent amount of time in Chicago the following day, and we drove on into the night. At Wilmington, just a couple of hours away from the end of the 66, there was one more sight to see – yet another giant. This one, another ‘Muffler Man’, is the famous Gemini Giant, named after the space programme and standing outside the Launching Pad restaurant. His space helmet may look more like a welding mask, but that is all part of the appeal.
After a stop at an old motel in Joliet for the night, it was just over an hour before we began hitting the outskirts of Chicago, and soon we spotted the famous SearsTower.
Except, its not called the Sears Tower anymore – it was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009. For me, it was the most recognisable structure in the city, having seen it on so many films and television programmes over the years. We knew the Route 66 ended somewhere near it, so we used the towering structure as a point of reference to guide us into the city centre.
It was strange pulling into the multi-storey car park we found, close to one of the city’s elevated railways with the noisy trains clattering by. We pulled into a space, and turned the engine off. For us, and the car, Route 66, bar finding the final sign, was over. A huge drive across the United States, from the southwest corner to the north east, had clocked up 2,789 miles on the car since I reset the trip computer as I pulled out of the hire car centre at LAX.
We let the car have a well-earned rest as we set off to see the sights of the Windy City for the day, starting off with a search for the end of the 66. It was a walk that was to take us to the edge of Lake Michigan – as that’s where I had been told there would be some form of sign or plaque – but to get there we had to walk through the main gardens where there was a huge food festival taking place. Amid the smells and sounds of cultures from around the world, Ian and I set about trying to find both the official end to the road, but also to find the silver ‘bean’, a nickname given to Cloud Gate, a sculpture by British artist Anish Kapoor.
Both were difficult to find, and we both found ourselves walking around for a while, asking police officers and marina officials for directions. There were conflicting views on where the official end to Route 66 was located, but firm directions to the ‘bean’ structure.
After dipping our toes into Lake Michigan, marking the furthest point we could go from Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the end of the road in Chicago, we followed the crowds to Millennium Park and easily spotted the shiny silver structure.
It really is quite a spectacular structure. Its far bigger than I imagined, the backdrop of skyscrapers seeming to dwarf if, but up close it towers above the hundreds of tourists who gather below. Its impressive for more than just its size and appearance, which raises questions as to how such a shape could be built, seemingly without joins and construction marks, but also because of the unique views of the city reflected on the surface. As a result, from some angles the sculpture appears to blend in to the background, the edges blurred as the reflection blends into the horizon.
Underneath, you can walk through and take in the way the polished surfaces distort the reflections, sometimes making it hard to actually work out where you are when it comes to spotting yourself on the structure. It also provides for some peculiar photographs.
Said to have been inspired by liquid mercury, to me it resembled something that had landed in Chicago from outer space, something more fitting to a huge prop from a sci-fi movie blockbuster, but I loved it. It was welcomed by people in the city from the moment it was unveiled, and overall its loved by tourists. And that’s one of the reasons why it has to be cleaned down and polished twice a day – trying to find a nice spot for a fingerprint-less photo was easier said than done. But we’ll let Anish Kapoor off for that – he had other things to get on with, including a design for the huge red tower at the Olympic Park in London.
As we took the walkway towards the Art Institute of Chicago, we noticed the sky was rapidly turning a deep, dark shade of grey. A view down one of the long streets stretching into the distance revealed a bright haze at the end of it. It was a sheet of rain, accompanied by a loud clap of thunder. We knew it was time to move, and quick. We headed back to Grant Park and towards the huge water fountains, the wind picking up rapidly and ensuring Chicago lived up to its nickname. Suddenly, another loud succession of thunderclaps, flashes of lightning, and huge blobs of rain began to fall.
It was a storm that came from nowhere, but drenched anyone without cover. The busy park quickly emptied of food festival-goers, all of whom had no dived for cover under marquees and tents set up around the site. Ian and I joined them, watching as wave after wave of heavy rain lashed down, and forked lightning lit up the sky. It was a storm that seemed to hover over Chicago, swirling around the skyline for around half an hour before slowly drifting away.
It was time that Ian and I didn’t really have to waste, but we made the most of the predicament by buying a couple of burgers from one of the park stalls and doing the best we could to shelter out of the storm by cowering under the small shelter provided by the stall’s roof and guttering.
As the rain slowed, our search for the end of Route 66 continued, again with various people struggling to show us the right way. After crossing the busy Lake Shore Drive for a second time, and with no sign of the elusive sign, we gave up and decided to head back towards the Willis Tower. We walked back up the road where we’d walked along a couple of hours before after leaving the car, and we paused to use some free wifi outside a coffee shop to do one last search to see where the road officially ended. After all, we probably won’t be completing the drive again anytime soon.
“It says its down here, in this street,” I said to Ian, trying to juggle a laptop, a phone and bag in the middle of a path full of business people and tourists.
And then we saw it. Up on a lamppost, about 12ft above the path, and what we’d managed to walk underneath completely oblivious just a few hours before.
“END – Historic Route” it said, the familiar brown sign we have been following from the Pacific Ocean.
We’d done it, we’d completed one of the most famous drives in the world, and we marked it with a photograph below the famous roadsign as proof. Our destination was reached, and we celebrated with a trip to the top of the Willis Tower.
It was yet another tall building to add to my list of tall buildings visited during this trip around the world, but this one is among the most impressive. At 1,730ft tall, it’s the tallest building in the United States, and with it being just a bit taller than the World Financial Center in Shanghai, it’s the tallest building I will have the pleasure of visiting during this trip around the world.
Particularly enjoyable as part of the visit is the history of the building, being fed to visitors from the moment you first walk through the doors. There are a number of incredibly high speed lifts that whiz you to the top, to an observation deck 103 floors above the city. The view is understandably spectacular, offering views across Illinois and Lake Michigan to Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin on a clear day. Amazingly, people at this height can even feel the building sway on a windy day, but thankfully the earlier storm had well passed by the time we reached to top of this iconic building.
Now, I’ve previously mentioned how the novelty of going to the top of tall buildings can wear off after a while. Well, the Willis Tower has done something to interest even the most hardened observation deck visitors – they’ve installed retractable glass cubicles that jut out over the ground some 412 metres below.
And, even better, it costs no extra to step out onto the glass, watching as the edge of the building disappears below you, leaving just a thin surface of transparent molten sand between you and certain death. It is quite a feeling to actually step out, mainly as, with a fully transparent glass canopy around you, it genuinely feels like you are stepping out of the building and into thin air.
It provoked some humorous, staggered, nervous walks from others as they gingerly walked out over the drop. I looked down as the edge of this famous building stretched down to the ground below me. Ian managed to overcome his apprehensions about it too, and we got some great photos of us both in opposing pods. Stepping out of the side of the third tallest building in the world was certainly a memorable experience.
But we had to get back down to Earth. Our journey along the Route 66 was complete, but our roadtrip across America was far from complete. The Atlantic Ocean beckons – and there is plenty of driving to do if we are to make it on time.
We got back into the car and set out through the Chicago rush hour to meet the Interstate, and a long drive into the early hours across Indiana and Ohio. But on the way to the East Coast, there’s a special place that’s close to our hearts we need to visit…