This is the last installment of the “recollections.” Not really sure why I stopped writing about it, but I did. The one I posted yesterday was disconnected and too long. Maybe today’s is as well.
As I threw the starched covers from me, waking up in the third unwanted motel room in a row during what was supposed to be a camping trip, I resolved to get a little tougher. I could have looked harder for a campground last night. And tonight, I had plans – a campground in mind. Tonight’s home would be in Edwardsville, an Illinois town on the Mississippi, across the river from St. Louis.
After several miles of Springfield’s finest parking lots and stripmalls, I hung a few rights and lefts and was on the 1926 alignment of Route 66. There are two through this area. It’s said that most folks like the 1930’s alignment. On it you’ve got Our Lady of the Highway monument and Mt. Olive with Mother Jones’sou’es gravesite.
Though it’s a fine alignment, it lies right next to the interstate for the entire time. It’s basically a frontage road and while it’s very nice that the Department of Transportation allowed it to remain, I was looking for a more rural flavor.
Illinois Route 4 South through Chatham immediately took on that rural feel. Though only a handful of miles separated it from its state capital, the sprawl had yet to take it over. It was a larger town, probably due to its proximity to Springfield, but still retained a weathered-rebuilding appeal. I rode through clusters of housing developments, chains of fast food joints and pre-fab office buildings before coming to where the downtown should have been. Instead, the development peters out to farmed prairie land. Chatham was a scattered collection of buildings surrounded by cornfields. If there was a town, I missed it as I rode through.
I was generally following State Route 4, renamed so after Route 66 was moved a bit east. This was a modern road that sometimes cut through the land, cut curves and sometimes wandered away from the original 66 roadbed.
Just south of Chatham, Route 66 took a strange curve to the right, following the flow of the land, while modern Route 4 continued ahead. There, for a couple of miles along this old stretch of road, the original brick pavement is preserved. This dark red oddity curves and rises and falls with the land, just like any concrete alignment of 66 would. As it curved and sloped, the bricks seemed like an over-sized garden walkway winding between pea patches and out buildings.
The silence around me and of the road surprised me. The bricks had been worn smooth and were softer than asphalt. I could almost feel their segmented breaks in my hands, vibrating through the front tire to my handle bars, but we rode frictionless and alone along this too short and unremembered path.
I pulled to the side and dismounted Ruby next to a small grain silo with a faded “Hell Awaits” spray painted on its front. The weather had worn much of the paint away, but the words could still be read. I snapped a photo of it and then of the road, a gentle ‘S’ curve that slips back onto the busier Route 4. Not exactly hell, but not the heaven of quiet bricks.
Route 66 skirted another town before delivering me into the heart of Virden’s town square. A park was planted in the middle and on four sides, two and three story stone and brick storefronts lined the streets. Above them all hovered grain elevators planted next to the rail line just a couple blocks away. I pulled Ruby into a stall and ate a small granola bar for breakfast as I wondered the town park.
Sometimes parks can tell you all you need to know about a town. Here, it was history. I saw a granite monument stretched on one side of the park and went to explore.
This was the site of the famed “Battle of Virden.” I had heard of this, but didn’t connect the two until now. In 1898, this was a mining town. The companies refused to pay the workers a higher wage, even after a settlement and so the workers went on strike. Having none of this, the company hired a mob of strikebreakers armed with brand new Winchesters to either force the miners back to work at gun point or bring in poor black workers who were deceived with promises of high pay and good working conditions.
As the train carrying the armed strikebreakers arrived in Virden, a shot was fired and a gun battle erupted. The company men fired from the train as the workers fired from an open field. After ten minutes, 40 miners were wounded with eight dead. The train pulled away and headed for Springfield with four dead company men.
The monument depicted this battle and its aftermath: A grieving widow huddled next to the dead miners’ gravestone, a family making do without the support of their beloved husband and father, but above them all was Mother Jones, labor organizer.
The churches of Virden would not allow the miners to be buried in their cemeteries so the union purchased a plot of land in nearby Mt. Olive and laid the eight dead to rest. Mother Jones was so touched by the Battle of Virden that she asked for her own body to be buried there with the miners.
I should have asked around to see if I could find the actual site, but I didn’t. Not wanting to take up more time than I already was, I mounted up and rode on down the road.
Time is a strange thing when you’re traveling. It gives you the opportunity to discover things you’ve always wanted to see and even things you never dreamed of seeing, but you’re always afraid there isn’t enough of it. So you skip these things, gambling for more over the next horizon. Even this trip, which was never about getting some place specific, could sometimes devolve into a typical vacation, complete with destinations and time tables.
With that simmer in the back of my brain, I rode on.
Not two and a half miles down the line was Girard. Though Old 66 cuts through the center of town, it still feels like it’s bordering something bigger. Towards the south side of town, I passed a park that still had all of its old playground equipment. Its old sliding board was attached to an old steel swingset, next to an old wooden merry-go-round and near old pipes threaded together to form monkey bars. I was surprised this relic was allowed to survive.
It was two miles of concrete Old Road to the strange town of Nilwood. There’s not much that can be said for such a place as this. By all looks, it is a ghost town. It’s got an old, abandoned two story school building from 1927, a post office, rail road tracks and a very very very creepy blue one story house that seems sort of sunken into the ground. There are stairs that lead down to a door and a sign claims “opens automatically upon payment.” There is no explanation offered as to what you are paying for. You are just supposed to know. Also, the curtains in one of the windows are actually a child’s bed sheet with Disney’s 101 Dalmatians on it. Nilwood is really out in the middle of nowhere. I thought it best to continue on, curving back onto the Mother Road.
When the old highways were named, they generally didn’t make any new roads. All they did was pick out “main” roads, link them together and slap a name like Yellowstone Trail or National Road or, in this case, Route 66 upon them. Sometimes, like the two mile jaunt between Virden and Girard, they were straight. Other times, they worked their way south, like steps and like the Old Road to Carlinville.
Though modern Route 4 cuts off these right angles, they are still out there as crumbling concrete in farmers’ fields. They’re given names like Harvest Road. Here, you can tell when you’re riding on one. Route 66 through southern Illinios was concrete. It’s rutted and broken, but has this 1930’s look of getting somewhere. Frontage roads along the interstate, even if they are Route 66, don’t have this feel.
On one of these concrete segments, just north of Carlinville, are the famous Route 66 turkey tracks. In 1929, when the original concrete was being laid, a turkey came out of field, did a little dance and left his footprints forever upon our Mother Road. The site has been highlighted with white paint around the markings.
We rode the deteriorating concrete, making sharp lefts and rights, under rail road overpasses and all with newly tilled fields and light clouds. The possible rain of this morning had passed. A warm spring sun flushed the open prairie, deepening the rich brown soil and almost sparkling the new green leaves of the treeline against the tracks.
I left this wonder for the wide bricked streets of Carlinville, passed through their square and continued on. This was not the time for towns.
The Old Road moved from the right angled alignments to a more direct, but flowing with the land, route. The fields were typically flat and open, but the original road dodged west around a small valley that modern Route 4 carelessly slashes through. This old alignment can be seen to the right and then to the left as modern Route 4 cuts through that as well. Partially ridable and now called Deerfield Road, this old section laid itself through a thicket of trees and wraps around a slight hill. On either side of the road are curbs. This was an early attempt to keep drivers on the road and not wrecked in some gully.
A long straightaway of modern Route 4 and more open fields lead to another town, Gillespi. There’s strangely no town square, but a small downtown with a firehouse that was converted to a still operating movie theater. It’s strange to see such a change. Normally, towns convert old theaters into other things (or just tear them down), but Gillespi has converted something else into a movie theater.
The stretch between Gillespie and Hamel includes Benld. The towns were melting together and it was hard to tell one from the next. Normally, you’d remember the towns and forget the road. But it was turning just the opposite for me. I could remember each turn and curve, the color of the pavement, which side the railroad took and the open emptiness of it all. The towns, however, seemed even emptier.
From Hamil, it’s a descent into the Mississippi River Valley. The road rides atop a plateau and through the trees lining the road, I could see the land around me falling away into valleys. The descent into Edwardsville is quick and for a moment I could nearly make out the river before dropping into one of those valleys and into the town.
It was merely 12 noon. I was making excellent time, I thought. And that thought bothered me. Making excellent time to arrive where? When? The road I was riding, the towns I chose not to explore were my destination. It was noon and here I was in some small city with too much traffic and no real regard for Route 66. With each mile, I would have to remember to take as much time as I needed. There was no where to get to, I was already there. This whole trip was my destination. I could be neither late nor early. Slow down.
Route 66 between Edwardsville and Mitchell is weird and straight and seems to go on forever. It crosses a few highways, twists around some rail road yard and then dead ends at the Chain of Rocks Bridge. There are old motels and a drive-in theater along the way that kept me company.
In the spirit of slowing down, I stopped at Chain of Rocks Bridge. This was an old Route 66 bridge over the Mississippi. The steel bridge is most noted for a strange angle near its center. This caused a lot of problems on foggy nights and eventually the bridge was shut down. It’s now preserved as a pedestrian walkway.
I left Ruby next to an interpretive kiosk and noticed that the parking lot smelled like nothing but vomit. I tried hard to breath only through my mouth, even covering my nose to keep out the acidic stench. Still, I could hardly escape it. Why everything smelled like throw up, I couldn’t figure out. But it did and I picked up the pace, almost running to get onto the bridge.
I stopped writing here. The rest of the day involved a ride through East St. Louis and then St. Louis itself. I ended up staying on the west side of the city. The next day was Missouri. You can continue the story here, at Day Seven.
Maybe I’ll continue writing about all of this at another time. But probably not.