“So, what do you remember about the road?” I ask.
“Traffic!” laughs Jim, and the rest of the table echoes the word.
“Traffic and more traffic! Real busy,” they add.
“Narrow as hell,” says Harv, and his eyes stop, thinking back to that time in his life traveling down a road that no longer exists.
“Lots of traffic” and “narrow as hell” are the first eyewitness accounts I’ve heard in relation to the original Route 66.
The five older men in flannel occupy the large round table at the window front of the Apple Tree Café in Pontiac, Illinois. Five white mugs hold five different shades of coffee and outside, the warm morning sun spotlights the Livingston County Courthouse, making it glow with red-brick resplendence.
Harold begins to reminisce out loud, “At this one place in Arizona, there was a sign that said, ‘Next 50 miles, Downgrade’ . . . so I dropped the gear real low—I was driving a ‘57 Chevy and sure enough, for 50 miles we were like this!” He holds one hand slanted down and the rest of the table nods, pulling at their caps, each hat bearing the logo for an auto-maker or farm machinery.
“That was 1961,” adds Harold.
I don’t have to say anything else—all I did was tell the guys I was driving down Route 66 and the five of them started an onslaught of tips and directions.
“OK, down in Chenoa—there’s Steve’s Café. Golly, that was the place to stop! Every politician and person of importance in Illinois would go get a bite at Steve’s.”
“Steve’s Café?” says Vince, “Well it’s somebody’s house now—but you can still go see it.”
The chorus of five offer me directions so detailed that even the most intellectually-challenged driver could get to the white-painted house formerly known as Steve’s Café.
“You guys are better than my guidebook,” I say, but they are too busy editing their own directions.
“Nah, that’s if you go down the new 66!” says Vince.
“The New 66? What’s that?” I inquire.
“Oh, he means the 4-lane road,” explains Jim. “That’s the new one—the old one was just two lanes.”
Other suggestions pour out onto the table. Am I planning to visit Pontiac’s Route 66 Hall of Fame? And the old car museum? Will I eat lunch at the Old Log Cabin? It used to face the Old Route 66, then when the road diverted to four lanes on the opposite side, they used horses to swing the cabin 180 degrees to face the traffic.
With every story and every establishment, I’m delivered a roster of first names.
“Tell Brad that Jim told him to show you around.”
“You got all the time in the world?” asks Harold.
“Yeah, I don’t wanna rush it—gonna take it nice and slow,” I announce proudly.
I’ve planned a whole month, but according to Jim, Vince, Harv, Harold, and David, this is simply not enough time.
“A month? You’re gonna have to hustle, boy!”
“Hell, you could spend a whole month just in Illinois!”
And they’re right, I could. The thing I’ve learned after two days on Route 66 is that whether you travel a hundred miles in a day, or just ten, you can’t see everything.
“We got the biggest above-ground swimming pool in America—well, it was the biggest back in the 1920’s when they built it—and now it’s just setting there.”
Yeah, I want to see what was once America’s largest above-ground swimming pool, but I also want to see all the murals in town. Pontiac is a clean and delightsome little Illinois town, painted with over 20 old-fashioned murals, some of which celebrate Route 66.
“You could do a whole day just here in Pontiac,” figures Jim.
“But did you see that old VW bus in the museum?” wonders Vince.
Yes, I did. A list of museum items is presented for me to go back and see again.
“Now when you get to Arizona, outside Kingman, you gotta stay in the Wigwam Motel!” says Harold.
It’s the hundredth time I’ve been asked if I’m staying the Wigwam Motel, and I tell them that I sincerely hope that I can. Most of these guys have driven the entire length of Route 66 back when it was the quickest option to California. These are guys who still refer to parts of Route 66 as “new”.
Most of the guys are in their mid-eighties, and I am saddened by the thought that all these fabulous personal memories of Route 66 will vanish in ten or twenty years. But I am also glad for this impromptu welcome by the citizens of Pontiac, Illinois—a town so small they know an outsider when they see one, and a town so big it has four different museums and twenty historic murals.
And a swimming pool—the biggest above-ground swimming pool in America in 1926.