The Blues, Steinbeck and Burma-Shave: Route 66, IL

I leave Chicago the only way there is to leave (aside from that other time, when I just left on the freeway): Route 66. It is a legendary piece of Americana, serving as an artery from Chicago to Santa Monica, a distance of nearly 2,500 miles. It goes through eight states (Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada and California) and was a major part of American history during the Dust Bowl era when families migrated west. The Mother Road is enshrined in such classics as “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” and the always upbeat The Grapes of Wrath.

Route 66

I drive the Illinois segment, picking it up in the outskirts of Chicago and trailing it all the way to St. Louis, Missouri. It’s quite an odd journey, as it is a combination of parts of American history that have been preserved and kitschy parts that have been added. Within the span of a few miles you go from an ice cream store with Blues Brothers mascots:

Blues Brothers Ice Cream

To a 50s diner that actually has been here from the 50s:

50s Diner

Special mention to the latter place for having the men’s bathroom decked floor to ceiling in Marilyn Monroe pictures.

Monroe Room Not creepy at all.

Then there are also just things like this guy:

Gemini Giant

Route 66 more or less dried up with the development of the Eisenhower Interstate System, which plonked down broad 4-lane roads connecting the major cities and rendering Route 66 yesterday’s news. Some towns are close enough to be connected directly with the interstates, others have been bypassed and left out in the cold.

Speaking of cold, when I pull over at the side of Route 66 to listen to President Obama’s second inaugural address, it is -13C, with the wind chill making it a breezy -25C. I hop out of the car for about half a minute to take pictures of the Burma-Shave signs, by the time I get back in I’m basically a cryogenics experiment.

Burma-Shave was a brand of, unsurprisingly, shaving cream. What keeps them in the cultural memory is not their product, but their advertising: starting in the 20s, Burma-Shave posted a series of signs along roads, forming a little poem and ending with “Burma-Shave”.

05-burmashaveproper(Click to enlarge)

They end up being a surprising recurring element in my trip across America, with them turning up on roadsides and tourist attractions across the country. I do want to share one that, sadly, I didn’t manage to take pictures of in the wild:

The wolf is shaved / So neat and trim / Red riding hood / Is chasing him / Burma-Shave

By the way, rural Illinois, like most of the Midwest, is a decent, moral place. It doesn’t have divorce, or gays, or vegetarians. If there is ever some scandalous activity, which of course there isn’t, it is handled in a discreet, dignified manner. By which I mean:

Who's Your Daddy

I did find one house that was as outraged by this as I was. They wanted no part of this paternity-mystery America. But they were a little undecided as to which way to go:

CanfederatesThe South will rise again, eh?

These Canfederates, frankly, are going to have to get a lot weirder if they’re to match either of their brethren to the south or the north.

Route 66

Despite being lovingly stuffed into my camera bag, Bertie has managed to attract the attention of the law:

Bertie and the Law

What’s that Bertie?

“They got me killed for forging and I can’t even write my name.”

But Bertie, what about all those bad cheques you wrote?

“They got me killed for murder and I haven’t even harmed a man.”

But Bertie, what about that guy you beat up in Miami?

“He had it coming.”

Oh Bertie.

Route 66

Okay, while I sort out Bertie’s bail, here’s some Route 66 to enjoy:

Route 66 Route 66 Route 66 Route 66 Route 66 Route 66 Route 66 Route 66 Route 66Route 66 Route 66 Route 66Up next, the mighty Mississippi.


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