Sunday, May 2, 1999...

Howdy from the recording capital of Greene County, Missouri. 12 hours on the road and I'm still in Springfield...

Since today's Sunday, it was only appropriate to begin the day's drive with a religious landmark: the Our Lady of the Highways shrine near Raymond, Illinois, where since 1939 a statue of the Virgin Mary has greeted travelers. Adding to the effect, the propertyowner has erected "Burma Shave"-style billboards spelling out the entire Hail Mary prayer, so the devout need only read aloud while passing by.

Much of southern Illinois used to be mining country, but has reverted to farmland. The clearest reminder of the past is near Mt. Olive, Illinois, where legendary labor organizer Mary "Mother" Jones is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery among victims of the "massacre of 1898." Mother Jones herself escaped this and other incidents to live several months past her 100th birthday.

Route 66 originally crossed the Mississippi on the Chain of Rocks Bridge, one of the strangest structures of its kind ever erected. The narrow, two-lane bridge bent 22 degrees in midstream, practically inviting trucks and other large vehicles to cross the center line and cause accidents which would take hours to clear. The bridge has been closed for years, but remains safe and sturdy; an Illinois group is working to turn it into a bikeway.

With the Chain of Rocks Bridge closed, I crossed the Mississippi on 66's next home, the McKinley Bridge. This was also originally a two-lane bridge -- but was expanded to four by adding lanes on the outside of the support pillars so that they seem to be virtually hanging off the edge. To complete the disconcerting effect, the inner lanes are paved while the outer are basically bare steel grill. For once in my life I stuck to the middle of the road...

One Route 66 driving guide cautions travelers not to take this route: "These are not safe areas for traveling." I have two responses: "Hey, I'm from New York," and "There's no such thing as an unsafe area to drive through at 10:30 on a sunny Sunday morning." The trip passed without incident, as I followed a route which passed about a mile from the Gateway Arch. On the southwest side of town I stopped for a "concrete" at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, which has been a St. Louis institution longer than Stan Musial. It's called a "concrete" because a serving's so dense that it can be held, and eaten, upside-down without spilling a drop.

With no tape deck in the car, though, much of my time was spent trying to find something listenable. I was driving through Radio Hell, in which everything I had turned off for years was coming back to haunt me. One rock station was devoting the weekend to "hair metal" bands of the 80s. Another was proudly sponsoring concerts by Styx and Journey. A third station interrupted its interchangeable playlist of "Today's Country" (Robbie Fulks: "This ain't country-western, this is soft rock feminist crap") to declare that it was "not your grandfather's country station," without letting me know where Grandpa's country music might be found. Thankfully, at 1:00 I could simply turn on the Cardinals game.

About 20 miles west of St. Louis, the Lewis Road exit now ends abruptly. Lewis Road provided the only access to Times Beach, the most toxic town in America. 17 years after dioxin-contaminated soil forced the entire community to move, the State of Missouri is developing a new "Route 66 State Park" on land adjacent to the guarded, fenced wasteland. That sounds inviting...

Tri-County Truck Stop, Villa Ridge, MO
Meramec Caverns
, an hour west of St. Louis, lures travelers with the heaviest barrage of billboards this side of South of the Border. Of course I took the tour. The cave has considerable historic interest -- Union troops mined the interior during the Civil War, Jesse James hid some of his loot here, and by the 1890s locals were holding dances in the enormous underground auditorium room -- but of course mere history won't induce carloads of travelers to stop. You need colored lights, fanciful names for the most interesting formations, and a script which hasn't been revised in 30 years. (Our tour guide, who looked about 18, was asking who remembered the Art Linkletter show, and telling us about an episode of "Lassie" filmed there in 1966.) Not to mention a well-stocked gift shop in which to wait for the next tour to begin, and vending machines selling soft drinks for 50% more than nearby convenience stores.

Most of the 80-minute tour is pretty routine, but the last five are roadside genius. First the entire tour group sits on benches facing a truly impressive, but dimly lit, "stage curtain" formation. Then the guide turns up the lights so we can Ooh and Aah. Then she dims the lights again. Then a recording of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America" fills the room as our guide stages a light show -- which climaxes with the projection of an American flag onto the formation! And if Meramec Caverns isn't enough, its Interstate exit also features a Jesse James Wax Museum and an Antique Toy Museum.

West of the Caverns, 66 dips and twists around the Interstate, often several miles away. Every town along the route has at least one ancient motel or restaurant; most also have at least one newer business selling Route 66 bricabrac. Didn't buy much, but kept the camera busy. The weather held out until I was half an hour from Springfield, when the sky grew overcast. Despite a 30% chance of thunderstorms through tomorrow morning, it's on to Oklahoma City tomorrow...
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