Saturday, August 3, 2002... Greetings from Rolla, Missouri, midway across this sweltering state.

The second trip of 2002 was originally scheduled for around Labor Day, but was moved up when my biggest case unexpectedly settled. The good news is that I'll have about 40 extra minutes of daylight each day; the bad news is that I'll also have 5 extra degrees of temperature and will be sharing the road with three times as many people. Usually I avoid that problem by choosing an itinerary no one else is likely to follow, but this trip's starting with yet another run down Route 66.

Yes, that again. Rather than scan several hundred Route 66 images for my Web site, I'm creating new digital images wherever possible. (Think of this as my Sniper Behind Enemy Lines Tour: keep moving, don't stop unless necessary, and shoot anything that moves.) With these photos as a base on which to build, the Route 66 Web site might actually be finished in 2002.

The first decision of the trip paid off big time. Rather than fly out last night from LaGuardia or Newark, I opted for a 6:15 AM flight to Chicago from Westchester County Airport. Last night's thunderstorms would have led to a reprise of last summer's disastrous beginning, but this morning's flight was on time, and the rental-car counter was so empty, that I was on the road in Chicago by 8:00 Central time.

Hertz must have been short of compact cars, as I was upgraded to a Mazda 626 with 240,000 fewer miles than the one I had until last October, and bearing license plates from Linn County (Cedar Rapids), Iowa. I've been called many things before, but never an Iowan -- maybe I should talk slower and chew a piece of straw while I drive...

Following 66 from its beginning opposite the Art Institute of Chicago, I passed several familiar landmarks -- the Berghoff, a Harold's Chicken Shack, streets on which various college friends had lived at one time or another. The radio helped feed the nostalgia, as a local station played three hours of music from 1981, when I was going to college here. The obituary segment explained how "game show host Allen Ludden discovered that the password was 'death,'" and described Natalie Wood's fatal accident over the strains of "Drowning in the Sea of Love."

Through Joliet, 66 feels no different from any other long road through a series of working class neighborhoods. Then the road opens up: two lanes of traffic (often reduced from four by letting weeds overrun the other half of the pavement), paralleling the railroad and a string of telegraph poles, with I-55 a few miles away. Much of the trip was familiar, but some elements were quite new.

For one thing, I encountered several Route 66 tour groups along the way. One such group, a caravan of four vintage vehicles, proclaimed that it was driving from Los Angeles to Boston -- in jet black cars with small windows and no air conditioning. Watch for their book, "Drive Your Way to Weight Loss." The Illinois Route 66 Association has also renovated/repainted several sights, including the gas station below.

Restored Sinclair station, Odell, IL

I also encountered the lethal Midwestern summer humidity. All day long moisture from the farmland evaporates from the plants and forms a haze in the atmosphere. The morning's clear skies give rise to afternoon clouds of condensation -- and with no breeze at all, the effect can overwhelm the car's air conditioner.

On the Chain of Rocks BridgeThe day's major discovery came late in the afternoon, as I approached the Mississippi River. The old Chain of Rocks Bridge, which carried two-lane Route 66 across the river, has been reopened for bikes and pedestrians on weekends. I parked at the entrance and began walking toward the bridge's signature feature, a bend in the middle of the river, but was soon soaked with sweat. When I got back to the car, a St. Louis radio station reported that the local temperature was 98 degrees, witih a heat index of 106. Unsurprisingly, there was a half-block-long line for ice cream and frozen custard at St. Louis's Ted Drewes.

More tomorrow -- I'm tired. I've been up since 4:45 Eastern time this morning. Tomorrow: Southwestern Missouri, a little corner of Kansas and most of Oklahoma...

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