July 23, 2016 by John Wilcock
Once it had been America’s Major Road, “the Mother highway” as John Steinbeck had termed it, but it has been largely forgotten since 1958 when the extensive network of Interstates made it almost obsolete. Of course, most of it was still there, although often buried deep beneath newer roads. But there were small towns and strange sights a-plenty still to be seen, and—mainly because of growing interest from overseas, particularly Germany—it had been undergoing a revival.
I was a travel writer, right? So I determined that I would be the latest (of many previous writers) to document Route 66 with the place-to-place milestones that I had used for so many foreign countries.
How long would this trip take? Obviously it would depend on how many diversions I took, but some amusing estimates were presented by the highway’s more-or-less official historian, Tom Snyder, in his invaluable Route 66 Traveler’s Guide with such definitions as late starter… get loster… honky tonker… sensitive browser… coffee hound… museum freak… postcard looker. A minimum of eight days would be needed, he suggested.
One TRADITIONALLY begins, with a 5:30am breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s restaurant (opened in 1923, three years before the highway) on Jackson Blvd. in Chicago. This is where dedicated enthusiasts excitedly muse on the 2,448 miles ahead of them, a nostalgia trip into America’s past.
Of all the still-existing landmarks in the eight states the road traversed, a handful were in Illinois itself. At McClean, the Dixie Truckers Home, but formerly a full fledged restaurant, began in 1928 when John Geske and J.P. Walters rented part of a gas station to serve hamburgers to passing truckers. Within a couple of years there were cabins at the back and a pen where any animals they might be transporting could get out and stretch their legs.
Further on, at Springfield, part of the old road is now under the lake and can sometimes be seen when the water level is low. This town was the home of Abraham Lincoln and his memory has been so much exploited that Snyder remarks: “If you can find some place where Lincoln is not advertised to have worked, stayed, or stood, you might want to phone the Tourist Police with the tip”.
A surprising number of old landmarks still stand, among them the Old Chain of Rocks steel truss bridge (5,353 feet long) which separates Illinois from Missouri. When it was supplanted by I-270 in 1968, it was too expensive to pull down and preserved for pedestrians and cyclists. In 1981, it was repaved to star in John Carpenter’s film Escape from New York.
Staying on Route 66 is harder than it looks. Some maps don’t mention it, others fail to show where it joins or leaves the Interstate. Here and there it is an unmarked highway running side by side with the parallel major (and faster) roads. But there are continuous stretches that meander through little towns that have known tranquility (but not much business) for almost 50 years since they were bypassed by the interstates.
The Ariston restaurant moved to Litchfield in 1935 and has served Route 66 travelers ever since. In recent years some of those have been on motorcycles which initially caused alarm. “Customers immediately thought ‘Hells Angels’ and expected the worst” reminisced Demi Adams, the owner’s wife. But so many of them turned out to be “as nice as anybody could be—European bikers who knew four or five languages fluently”. When it first opened, it celebrated the end of gasoline and food rationing after WW2. In those happy days, a set of Allstate tires cost $43.80, and gas was 17c a gallon.
National magazines called the first national highway a speed trap, and warned of the small hamlets where cops and judges had their palms out for bribes. In fact Route 66, Snyder reported, was a highway of “flat tires, overheated radiators, motor courts, cars without air conditioning, tourist traps, treacherous curves, narrow lanes, detour signs, Burma Shave signs, ribbons of neon, mom ‘n pop diners, 5¢ cups of coffee, 25¢ haircuts, lemonade stands, blue plate specials, homemade pies, waitresses who called everyone ‘honey’, winked at the kids and yelled at the cook”.
In Missouri, I-44 has replaced Route 66, but at exit 261 a lovely old stretch of the old highway houses the Red Cedar Inn (1934) and the section along Manchester Road that follows once crossed farms where drivers were reminded to close the gates behind them.
At Stanton, Meremac Caverns where Jesse James and his gang hung out, was opened as a tourist attraction 75 years ago this year (2008) by roadside entrepreneur Lester Dill who’s credited with inventing the bumper sticker.
Cuba (pop: 3,200) is definitely Republican country. It used to have a sign reading “Cuba, No Castro, Missouri” but Cuba Free Press editor Rob Viehman describes it as “a friendly place” and says it’s no surprise that the community is known as the unofficial epicenter of the social networking movement. Brad Greenspan (MySpace founder) and Jonathon Abrams (Friendster founder) both vacationed at Indian Hills Lake while they were developing their respective social networking sites.
There’s a vintage eatery at Lebanon, the Munger Moss Motel (1946) whose manager, Ramona Lehman, was interviewed by a radio station in Tokyo about hosting some of the early Route 66 meetings.
Springfield, birthplace of Belle Starr, the Stetson-wearing, pistol-wielding outlaw who hung out with the James’ gang, calls itself “Queen city of the Ozarks”. It was here that the notorious Wild Bill Hickock killed a fellow poker player on Central Square (the verdict was ‘self defense’).
Once a rowdy mining town Galena, whose main street was lined with saloons and bawdy houses open around the clock, achieved new fame as the Rainbow Springs of the Pixar movie Cars. The “Springs” may be derived from Baxter Springs, ten miles to the west, a town where Murphey’s Restaurant was once a bank from which Jesse James extorted $3,000 at pistol point.
In the Roaring Twenties, Route 66—Steinbeck’s “the “Mother Road” who wrote about the westward trek along it of the jobless Okies in his Grapes of Wrath—also served as a fast escape route for such hoodlums and bootleggers as John Dillinger, Al Capone, Bugs Moran, Bonnie and Clyde. In 1925, Pretty Boy Floyd began a nine-year crime spree in which he robbed 30 banks and killed ten people. Floyd, was a popular young outlaw. Often, he tore up whatever farm mortgages he could find in the banks that he robbed, and tended to seek out poor farms for a meal for which he’d pay with a $1,000 bill. After the FBI gunned him down, 20,000 mourners turned up for his funeral.
This memorable year, one year before Route 66 was christened, and when President Calvin Coolidge declared: ”The chief business of the American people is business”, saw the founding of the 15¢ weekly New Yorker magazine, the Scopes trial, also Hitler’s publication of Mein Kampf.
In tiny Riverton (pop: 600), a former mining town, Eisler Brothers General Store opened in 1925 and was originally a gas station. The quaint store still sells groceries and “home-made sandwiches” to hungry travelers.
The ‘20s were a time, Tom Snyder recalled, when people still drank Grape Nehi and summer lasted because of drive-in movies and miniature golf. There was always something to stop and admire: snake pits, caged wild animals, mysterious caverns. “By the mid-1930s, the highway had begun to create its own myth; it grew larger than life”.
Magazine writer Stephen Goode traveled Route 66 extensively a year or two ago and found that, despite the current climate, most people he met had a strong sense of community and were confident about the future. “In an agricultural society like we have here in Oklahoma”, he was told by radio talk show host Lanny Ross, “you have droughts, you have boll weevils, you have energy booms and busts. People are used to that. They know there are going to be good times and bad times. But when people work hard to raise the quality of life in their communities the camaraderie that develops when people work closely together, that makes the future better”.
At Clinton, the museum has a replica of a ‘50s diner complete with old-fashioned jukebox and walls covered with old album covers. There’s also a cluttered garage from the 1930s with a glass-topped Red Crown gasoline pump, as well as pictures of migrants, most in trucks bearing signs bearing California or Bust signs, and crammed with furniture, bedding, pots and pans, crated chickens. “We heard many years ago in New Zealand, Nat King Cole singing Get Your Kicks on Route 66” says one entry in the visitors book. “So we came to see it”.
To be continued next week...
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An authorized comic book biography of John Wilcock,
This IS a book-length comic series on John Wilcock. People who enjoy focusing on underground and alternative media are occasionally familiar with John's work, but most often the response is "who's that?" Outside of small press historians and collectors, John remains very unknown. Which makes no sense, the more you learn about him. We're very excited about the opportunity to tell his story. Art for THE STORY OF JOHN WILCOCK is by me and co-conspirator Scott Marshall. Story comes from an extended and ongoing year-long interview with Wilcock, himself. The focus is John's years in New York, roughly 1954-1971.
January 2, 2011
A way with Andy Warhol : John Wilcock recalls life in iconic pop artist's inner circle
During a journalism career that began when he was 16, John Wilcock has interviewed celebrities — Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Bob Dylan, to name a few — was part of enigmatic pop artist Andy Warhol's intimate circle in the 1960s, traveled to exotic locations all over the globe, has written dozens of books ranging from frugal travel to magic, was one of five founders (Norman Mailer was one of them) of the Village Voice and co-founded Interview magazine (still in circulation) with Mr. Warhol.
“The Return of the World's Worst Businessman”
John Wilcock is not what you would call a household name, and yet, he has had a measurable impact on art, journalism and culture-at-large over the last century. He co-founded Interview with Andy Warhol. He also was one of the co-founders of The Village Voice. He has written for countless print and online publications: Frommer’s, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The East Village Other, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Ojai Orange, etc. So why, one feels inclined to ask, is he relatively unknown? The answer seems simple: Wilcock has called himself “the world’s worst businessman.” This self-description makes sense because listening to him one hears the voice of a writer and a traveler and an enthusiast, not at all the voice of a businessman. In an age when it seems like everyone is all about business—art as a business, fashion as a business, everything as a business—it is refreshing to hear someone self-identify as “the world’s worst businessman.” It seems less like he has failed as a businessman and more like he has refused to become one. In addition to all his other accomplishments,...
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Jewcy Top 10 Art Books of 2010
This brilliant remake of a pop primary document is brought to you by John Wilcock, probably the Most Interesting Man in the World in the realm of writers. The Village Voice cofounder had also edited Warhol’s seminal mag Interview in the 70s. The fruit of the book is in the genius of its redesign. After 40 years out-of-print, the newly edited edition is “beautifully redesigned in a bright, Warholian palette” that surrounds a trail of Harry Shunk’s internationally Pop-art-informed camera as well as transcribed interviews with those closest to Warhol that ultimately make up an oral history of the artist’s Factory period. By looking at him through the scope of his peers, this book is the equivalent of Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum in illuminating qualities of Warhol’s warped mirror on which our American culture was briefly reflected.
Monday, November 15, 2010
A Reader Comment from the recent New York Times Frugal Traveler post
Not only did John Wilcock shake up staid publishing in the USA, from the Village Voice to the East Village Other, his influence extended to several continents, including Australia & the UK, where - in his mild mannered way - he pushed the boundaries of image and speech. The counter culture was nothing but a dull puddle, until John kicked out the jams and ignited the Underground Press, which attracted absurd prosecutions, that of course boosted circulations. An unsung hero of the sixties,
It was the first handwritten letter I’d received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I’d never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my Săo Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
“A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego.”