The plan for the day was to make it to Springfield, MO before nightfall. Springfield is known as the ‘Birthplace of Route 66’ thanks to a chap called Cyrus Avery.
When Congress requested a route from West to East, Avery argued that it should avoid the Rockies, and suggested the familiar route that we all know today. This was accepted and given the title Route 60. To cut a long story short, the State of Kentucky disagreed with Avery, and wanted to join their Route 62 with Avery’s 60 and number the whole route ’62’. Avery didn’t feel that ’62’ was an inspiring number, discovered that ’66’ was free and in 1926 in Springfield, MO, his suggested Chicago to Los Angeles highway route was designated ‘Route 66’. A legend was born!
Appropriately, we began our day by visiting the Gateway Arch, a memorial to Westward Expansion on the banks of the Mississippi River.
The Gateway Arch in St Louis is one of those landmarks that you can spot from a million different places from around the city, but somehow we still managed to get lost on our way to the parking area. I kept missing the turning and although we could see our target, we just couldn’t get to it!
Eventually, we sussed it out and we got free parking as we had an ‘America is Beautiful’ card from our previous trip in the USA. Win!
You go into the arch from underneath it, where there is a well thought out museum outlining the history of the westward expansion of the United States. It felt a little strange looking around thinking of thousands of Native Americans being displaced from their lands by the settlers, but no one can deny the beauty and structural awesomeness of this landmark celebrating Westward Expansion.
You go up inside the arch in little pods, resembling ‘Star Trek-esque’ toilets that (just) fit 5 people. For 4 rather awkward minutes, several total strangers share that tiny little space filling the air with niceties. I asked the people where they were from – and then clearly when their answer meant very little to me, I received a free American geography lesson. These unusual little lifts are placed at number 5 of the World’s 18 Strangest Elevators here if you are mechanically inclined and interested in such things!
The arch is 630ft tall, and the observation deck provides magnificent views both eastwards across the Mississippi, and westwards in our direction of travel towards California thousands of miles away. If you want more (very detailed) information about the arch (including the complicated maths that allow it stand up and not get blown over!), you can read about it here.
My mathematically challenged brain preferred to simply take in the views from the top and gaze westwards where the rest of our trip would unfold. This is the view looking out of the East side of the monument over the Mississippi:
And the western view, complete with the shadow of the impressive arch.
Our next stop was the Old Chain of Rocks bridge. I know, I know, this seems a little backwards. However, we missed this bridge the day before due to meeting with our friends, and didn’t want to continue our journey without ‘officially’ entering Missouri the old fashioned way!
This bridge, a mile long crossing the Mississippi, is now closed to traffic. However, it’s still possible to walk along this impressive structure, complete with its unusual 22 degree bend in the middle.
And there are some Old Road artifacts along the bridge too (you can buy the following picture here).
And so, we entered Missouri on the Old Road.
Our next stop turned out to be a mistake given our short timeframe. Meramec Caverns is possibly the most advertised cave (or series of caves) in the entire world (I just made that up, but it felt true at the time). As you drive along Route 66 in Missouri (a large portion of which runs alongside I-44), there are countless billboards alerting you to the awesomeness of the Caverns.
In and of themselves, the caverns are beautiful; an incredible system of caves running a length of over 4.5 miles, an estimated 400 million years old, and with a rich human history: providing shelter for the Native Americans, being the first cave system to be explored by the Europeans during Westward expansion, and allegedly used as a hideout by the outlaw Jesse James (despite there being little to no evidence that this actually happened, it is the main tourist selling point of the caverns today, it would seem). As an interesting side note, the guy who first opened the caverns to the public as a tourist attraction, apparently an innovative advertiser himself, invented the bumper sticker to advertise the caverns (again, there is evidence to the contrary on this point, but it seems that he did indeed go around the car park of the attraction attaching an advertising sticker to the bumpers of visitor’s cars).
So, whilst there is an inherent beauty and fascinating history about the caves, it doesn’t lend itself to a 2 week tour of Route 66. It takes nearly 2 hours to go around, costs $20 each, and the use of lights, music and fake Jesse James artifacts dotted about (to quote our tour guide, ‘This isn’t a real Jesse James dish, someone found it outside and thought it would look nice in the cave so cleaned it up and brought it down here’ – I’m not even kidding) added a tackiness that we couldn’t get past. It felt like a waste of ‘road time’ and we had to catch up on the Interstate to make it to Springfield by nightfall.
Despite all of this, it is probably one of the stories we have told the most! Isn’t it always the way? The entrance to the cave should have given us a clue to the tone of the rest of the visit:
Cave Neon. My favourite. Next we were introduced to a series of rooms that had been creatively named. There was the Hollywood Room, where they had once filmed an episode of Lassie (complete with small cardboard studio portrait of the famous dog). The Crystal Ballroom (very beautiful):
The Subterranean Garden (which was basically the Crystal Ballroom magically transformed by means of the flick of a switch and some coloured lights).
The grand finale was priceless – we were seated in a small auditorium in a cave nicknamed ‘The Theatre Room’. A beautiful formation was in front of us, which loosely resembled the curtain in a theatre. We were played 2 musical numbers, while our guide stood behind us audibly flicking noisy switches to time a light show to the music. The second track, ‘God Bless America’ was even more epic than the first, and concluded with the projection of the American flag at the top of the curtain.
Overall, the Meramec Caverns are beautiful. If you’re staying for any length of time in Missouri, or have longer to travel the Route, go along and enjoy the ride – there are other things to do in the near vicinity too, so it could make for a fun (yet pricey) family day out. As a necessary appendage to a Route 66 tour – not so much. It takes too long, costs too much and is cheerfully tacky. The cave would stand alone as a stunning attraction without the added man made features and would be well worth a visit if you could pop in and tour it at your own pace (in our case, quickly).
We emerged into the fading sunshine far later than we would have liked and continued on our journey. We drove through the charming little towns of Bourbon and Cuba (with its Mural City and the famous Wagon Wheel Motel).
Fanning, MO was next, complete with World’s Largest Rocking Chair – totally ridiculous but great fun. We loved it. There’s also a big trading post here where you can pick up all kinds of Route 66 memorabilia.
Finally, we made it to Springfield – where it all began. In 1926, Cyrus Avery and his colleagues named the road Route 66 here. In 2013, two Brits from Nottingham arrived in the town after dreaming of travelling down the iconic Mother Road. And we are just 2 of thousands from all over the world who have been caught up in all the ’66 has come to represent. I wonder if Mr Avery had any idea what he was starting!