Gettin’ Our Kicks

Wednesday, July 9, 2003

As often is the case, we had a bit of trouble deciding what to do for our Fourth of July holiday. We had both arranged for an extra day off, and we knew we wanted to take a trip… but where? After avoiding the decision all week, we finally settled Thursday morning (before leaving Thursday night) that we’d go east on Route 66. No particular destination… just east. We packed our bags, looked up a few Route 66 landmarks that we’d be interested in hitting along the way, grabbed our GPS & laptop with map software (which proved invaluable) and headed out.

Since we left straight from work, our first stop was for dinner. We chose Hillbillee’s Cafe, formerly a Phillips 66 station and now a roadside cafe in Arcadia. It had a very nice small-town atmosphere and good food — I suspect we’ll visit there again. We’d done most of the Route 66 trip to Tulsa before, but we hadn’t seen the Blue Whale, an 80-foot whale-shaped dock built as an anniversary present. Must’ve been quite the swimming hole in its day! We explored the whale, sharing the moment with a pair of motorcyclists also making their way down Route 66. The nodded at us, and I felt a connection with these fellow explorers. Noticing the free-spirited simplicity of their Harley, I felt a little embarrassed as we climbed into our over-packed SUV. Maybe someday…

We hurried through the trip to Tulsa so we could get to the Admiral Twin Drive-In theater for their 9:15 showing of Charlie’s Angels. It’s one of only a handful of the Route 66 drive-ins that are still open, and we enjoyed the experience. A little bug spray wouldn’t have been a bad idea, but we enjoyed it just the same. We opted to stay the night in Tulsa.

We hoped to start our Fourth of July travels with breakfast at a historic Route 66 cafe. Instead we found Eggbert’s — not historic, but still delicious. We decided to make a side-trip to see the world’s largest Totem Pole, an interesting sight with a friendly gift shop curator. In fact, we were impressed with how friendly everyone was on our various stops. We had hoped to stop at a few small-town July 4th events during the day, and having not seen any signs for anything, we happened to ask one of the gas station cashiers. She informed us that a bunch of folks were coming out to her house at 9:00 and we were welcome to join them! It sounded like fun, but we had to keep truckin, so we declined politely.

We did come across one event finally, an “I Love America” event in Springfield. We were ushered into the parking lot before we really knew if we wanted to join in. Since it appeared to be free — and since it was well past lunchtime — we decided we’d check it out and grab some food. It was apparently put on by a local church and had free games for kiddos, free watermelon (yum!) for everyone, and various fair-food vendors for folks that don’t like watermelon (Billy got a corn dog). They even offered us free bug spray on our way in. Nice folks. Of course, the mid-day temperatures of around 100 degrees meant we didn’t feel like staying long.

We saw various other Route 66 sights Friday, including the Coleman Theatre Beautiful in Miami (Oklahoma) and a strangely-worded public sign in the Tar Creek area saying “Don’t Play on Chat Piles.” We wondered briefly if this was some kind of kinky chat room, but later read the locals call the piles of mining waste “chat.”

[Billy might tell you about another nice local we met in a small town in Missouri… but you shouldn’t believe a word he says.]

We reached Rolla, Missouri, around supper time. We had planned to eat at Pinga’s Tortilla Flats in Rolla, but they were closed for the holiday. After trying several other local restaurants and finding them all closed, we settled on a Ground Round near the interstate. The food was good (although I don’t know why I even try “Tex-Mex” food when we travel north), and our waitress gave us accurate directions to a local fireworks show. Expecting the show to start about 9:00 like all the other fireworks shows, we hurried downtown only to find out this one started at 11:00. Deciding we probably couldn’t make it to the next town in time for any other fireworks show, we decided to stay the night in Rolla. We chose a brand new and very nice Comfort Suites — I honestly think they’d never had anyone else stay in our particular room, and I had the hardest time not scrubbing it clean before we left. With the nice room and the free business center with internet access, we considered staying in Rolla the rest of our trip.

After relaxing a bit and getting our email fix, we headed back to the fireworks show. In our ignorance (?), we picked a different side of the park than everyone else. We found a good parking place (i.e., we found a spot without driving around the lot 30 minutes), then found a nice picnic table with no one else in sight. We had a perfect view of the fireworks — it was almost like we had our own personal show. The fireworks were beautiful and the traffic wasn’t too bad on the way out. A great way to spend the holiday.

We stopped by Wal-Mart after the show to pick up a few essentials, including a cassette tape converter for our iPod. After we finally tweaked the volume to eliminate most of the distortion, it worked great. I doubt we’ll ever do another road trip without our iPod. It’s way better than picking out a new CD every hour or so.

The Comfort Suites had an excellent continental breakfast (served on breakfast trays, to boot), so we ate there on Saturday. We had wavered between going on to St. Louis and making a side trip to Branson, but we decided to stick with Route 66 and head toward St. Louis. On our way we stopped by the historic roadside 4M Vineyard, and then the 4M Rosati Winery. The winery had samples of some delicious Cajun Mustard dip, but they were all sold out of it, so we made our way back to the vineyard and bought the rest of their supply of the dip. We’d hoped to hit the Red Cedar Inn in time for a late lunch, but they were (surprisingly) closed. Hoping for a nice St. Louis BBQ experience, we decided we would wait.

Right outside of St. Louis, we came across the Route 66 State Park, a nice big park that I commented probably had some caches in it. Sure enough, there was one in the list of Route 66-related geocaches I’d hastily compiled before our trip. Since we had wanted to try some caching on our trip, we started our search. It seemed like an impossible location (i.e., involving a quick dash across I-44), but we wandered around in the 100-degree temperature trying to figure it out anyway. We walked about 1/2 mile and climbed an impressively-massive rock pile before realizing where we should have started. Reading that the cache was a .3 mile walk from the recommended starting place — and considering that we’d already started to show the signs of heat exhaustion and dehydration, we reluctantly gave up on the cache. Maybe another time…

Then we got to St. Louis. We had a lot of trouble with downtown St. Louis. I’m sure it didn’t help matters that their main downtown exit was closed, but we got lost every time we got near downtown. And it wasn’t a particularly nice neighborhood to be lost in. We were definitely thankful for the map software on the laptop, as it told us where we were. Of course, this downtown — like practically every other big-city downtown I’ve seen — had more than its share of one-way streets to throw us off. After much stress, we finally parked by the Mississippi (on a slant of at least 30 degrees — I expected the car to fall in before we returned) and went into one of the riverboat casinos to have some dinner. The buffet at the casino was so-so but included no BBQ, so we were a bit disappointed. The city was hosting an air-show for their extended July 4th celebration. We saw some wonderful tricks and enjoyed the show.

Thinking anything would be easier to get around than St. Louis, we drove into Illinois to find a hotel room. We hadn’t had problems any other night finding a room — and it was only about 7:30 p.m. — but we tried hotel after hotel without any luck. Finally, we found a Hampton Inn that had one room left, an expensive but nice jaccuzi room. We were disappointed we hadn’t found a place with internet access, but grateful to find anyplace to relax after an exhausting afternoon. I decided to relax in the jaccuzi tub, while Billy decided to do a few things on his computer. Lo and behold, he found a very faint wireless signal. Turns out, the middle of our room was directly over an internet terminal the hotel had in their lobby. If we set our laptops on the carpet in the middle of the room, we’d get enough of a signal to download email and such. So despite having a fairly nice large room, we spent a good part of the time laying on the relatively uncomfortable carpet. We appreciated the access just the same.

After relaxing a fair amount, we got up the nerve to venture back into St. Louis. We started with a trip to Ted Drews Frozen Custard, a Route 66 landmark whose frozen custard we loved and whose efficiency amazed us. There were easily 100 folks out front when we got there, but we made it through the line in less than 5 minutes. When you start calculating how much business that must mean per hour, they must be making a fortune! Having arrived at Ted Drews with no major incidents, we decided to try downtown again. After all, we’d paid our mandatory $2/person fee for membership at the casino… we didn’t want to waste it.

It wasn’t easy this time either. We almost gave up when we unexpectedly found ourselves in Illinois. But we persevered and found our way to the same sloped parking lot. Did I mention the angle? I made Billy do the parking while I clung to the car for dear life. We played a few nickel slots, and won all of about $12. Then we headed out, managing to get lost once again. We were a bit nervous about the car behind us who insisted on following us despite all our confused circles (did we make the wrong driver mad?), but whatever they wanted, they finally gave up. We almost gave up too, but found a hidden entrance to the interstate and headed back to Illinois for the evening.

The next morning, we decided it was time to head back home. In order to make the trip in one day — and since we’d seen these particular sights already — we decided to take I-44 instead of Route 66. We had lunch at the Bandana BBQ joint in Collinsville, Illinois, before we got on our way. We stayed glued to the interstate through all of St. Louis. We weren’t just about to get lost again!

We saw a sign for Purina Farms just outside of St. Louis and decided to give it a whirl. The brochure promised we’d get to cuddle a couple of cats in the 28-foot tall Victorian-style cat house, and pet various rare and common dog breeds. I’d pictured a cat house with ramps and walkways, so I was a little disappointed with their version. Plus all of the animals were too sleepy to be the least bit interested in being cuddling or petting, even if you could get around the various cages to touch them. But they did have some Border Collies that were crazy about their tennis balls, as well as two little dogs (a Jack Russell and a Pomeranian-Border Collie mix) whose vertical jumps were amazing.

We did a good bit of driving without any major stops — a couple of souvenir shops and factory outlets — until about supper-time in Joplin. We wanted something fast so we could get on our way, and we had been noticing the Steak n Shake restaurants that we assumed were a regional thing. Since it had a drive-through, I reasoned that it must be fast. But since we wanted a restroom and a little break, we decided to go in instead of driving through. What an experience! And I don’t mean that in a good way. They were busy, at least when we first got there, so maybe it’s not always so bad. No one greeted us or cleaned off our table for a good 10 minutes… then our order took another 35 minutes to get there. They brought out our food without the shakes we’d ordered, and when we asked about the shakes, the waitress told us that they were probably still working on them. For 35 minutes? We quickly ate — we hadn’t intended for our “quick” dinner to take an hour. Still having no shakes when we finished, decided to go ahead and leave. Just before we walked out the door, 50 minutes after we ordered them, our waitress brought us the shakes, which she said she finally had to “go back there and make herself.” She did apologize for the wait, but then tried to make it all better by saying, “But wasn’t the food good?” Not that good!

We continued on our way, and eventually rolled into our driveway about 2 a.m. after a good bit of silliness and loud singing trying to stay awake. Dogs, cat and fish all seemed happy to see us… and we were glad to be home. We thoroughly enjoyed our Route 66 trip, and would love to travel the whole road sometime. We will not, however, visit anymore Steak n Shakes!