With the exception of Branson, few associate the state of Missouri with vacation, adventure or getaway. This is not the case for the die-hard Route 66 enthusiasts, as they know that just off the interstate lie some of the best the old highway has to offer.
Over the years, the Route 66 shield has appeared on many streets in St. Louis, so there is some difficulty when driving through the city categorically to say you are driving the Main Street of America. However, regardless of chosen alignment, landmarks from the pre interstate era abound. A few, such as two veterans found along Chippewa Avenue, Ted Drewes Frozen Custard and Garavelli's Restaurant, have transcended the realm of mere roadside eatery to become icons of the legendary highway.
For the communities between St. Louis and Springfield, the opening of Route 66 in 1926 was rather anticlimactic. Much of the route through the Ozarks followed a road established by the federal government some 20 years before the Civil War. Even this road was a relative newcomer as it followed the Great Osage Trail, a major trade route for tribes in the area before the arrival of European explorers.
In the war, the road was an important link in the supply chain for federal as well as confederate troops. It was during this period a telegraph line was strung along the road with primary stations at St. Louis, Rolla, Lebanon and Springfield and the old trail became known as the Old Wire Road.
West of the city, much of old Route 66 serves as a frontage road for Interstate 44. Other portions serve as the business loop through small towns decorated with remnants from when this was the main route, often presenting the illusion you have stumbled into a lost world.
Enhancing the illusion are the dense stands of native hickory, oak, sycamore and dogwood that border the old road and the hills that squeeze it. Shortly before the advent of World War II, for 30 miles west of St. Louis, the state planted all of this and other native trees and shrubs in honor of Henry Shaw Gardenway, the founder of the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis.
Near the old railroad town of Pacific, a quiet community almost erased from the map by Confederate raiders in 1864, the Jensen Point scenic overlook provides a panoramic view of the forested hills that border the wide valley. The strip of asphalt that is Route 66 and the railroad that parallels it stand in stark contrast to the rich greens.
Leaving Pacific, old 66 noticeably begins to climb from the valley toward Gray Summit. It was here on the banks of the Meramec River that, in 1936, the Missouri Botanical Garden Arboretum and Nature Preserve, now a national environmental education landmark, was established.
About midway between Grays Summit and Rolla, near Stanton, about three miles off the highway is a true Route 66 icon, Meramec Caverns. The caverns have been an attraction for centuries, and legend claims that one of the first European visitors was Hernando de Soto in 1542.
However, it took the traffic of Route 66, the desperation of the Great Depression and showmanship of Lester Dill to give the caverns, in a state with more caves than Minnesota has lakes, worldwide recognition. To entice tourists and travelers from the highway during the bleak days of the Depression, roadside promotion encouraged visitors to park their cars in the cool of the cave, and in the evenings, huge dances were held in one of the great rooms.
As with Rock City, barns along Route 66 and in surrounding states became billboards. Further promotion came with large cardboard Meramec Caverns signs tied to each bumper in the parking lot.
Between Stanton and Springfield, like a necklace of tarnished beads, little communities lie nestled among the trees on the hills and in the valleys along the old road.
Vestiges of the highway's glory days abound, but it takes a stop, a stroll to discover the shine beneath the tarnish.
Sleepy little Sullivan is hometown of George Hearst, father of publishing czar William Randolph Hearst. Rosati and St. James are home to several fine wineries. Martin Springs is where The Old Homestead, one of the nation's first truck stops, opened in 1925.
The beauty of the Devil's Elbow at a bend of the Big Piney River belies the horrendous accidents that made this a dreaded part of any drive on old 66. The lay of the land twists and turns the highway over hills and through scenic hollows to the Queen of the Ozarks.
For decades, this small metropolis has served as a base camp for those seeking the wonders of the Ozarks.
Today, it is a Mecca for the Route 66 enthusiasts as scores of vintage eateries and motels, garages and other roadside businesses await rediscovery.
After Springfield, the landscape takes on a distinctly different look as the highway rolls out onto the Springfield Plateau.
Again, a string of quiet little roadside and farming communities with long, rich histories, such as Carthage, home of the bandit queen Belle Star, are easily overlooked on the drive west. Then comes dusty, all-American Joplin, along the jumping off point for folks headed out onto the plains and points west as well as one of the last stops on the highway before entering Kansas.
Here, Main Street was, fittingly, Route 66, and, though the old down town is a bit down at the heels, it should not be rushed, as there are more than a few diamonds in the rough.
Getting your kicks on Route 66, especially in Missouri, is as easy as slowing the pace and letting curiosity have free reign.