By Joe McCune
There’s a particular kind of restlessness in Americans, and throughout our history, that itch has led us from the first East Coast settlements to what author Louis L’Amour called the far blue mountains of the Appalachians, ever westward … wagon trains of the mid-1800s departing from Kansas City giving way to the smoke-blowing locomotives of the late 1800s and early 1900s … replaced by what mass producer Henry Ford wrought … leading finally to the late 1920s and a thin ribbon of concrete stretching from Chicago to California. The West was open, and Route 66 was the conduit, like the wagon trails and railroad tracks before it, of Americans’ unquenchable wanderlust.
The bug bit me early, and when I was 16, I left my rural Missouri home early one morning on a trip to see a friend in Nashville, Tennessee. As I was driving on I-70 through St. Louis, the Beatles sang “Here Comes the Sun” as our star broke over the eastern horizon. The wonder of traveling—alone—hit me, and I sang along, happy to be on the road, happy to be driving, happy to be just, you know, going.
Twenty-six years and several lifetimes later, I left the interstate behind and stepped into the past as present, traveling Route 66 across Missouri as millions before me had done, two lanes bridging the gap from the late 1920s to today. Americana was its lifeblood and nostalgia its currency, the first and last great American road. I began my east-to-west journey from St. Louis to Joplin, my long-hibernating traveling Jones awakened and ready for adventure. But first, I had to actually find Route 66 in St. Louis’s user-unfriendly maze of one-way streets and road construction.
Thank you, Rand McNally.
PART 1: Eat at Cash-Only Counter
I stayed with an old college friend in St. Louis the Thursday night before my trip began, and of course we had to go out for a little while that evening, drinking beer at some Southside bar or three. I slept in.
Before I began my trip, I decided that I didn’t really want an itinerary, preferring to go wherever the road took me, not exactly Kerouac — but also not a family vacation where Dad has everything planned down to the mile and minute, and what do you mean you have to go again? Besides, I was going solo, with no Dean Moriarty along to make things interesting. Because I didn’t have a plan, and because I got a late start, I decided to begin my trip downtown.
Besides driving Route 66, the plan was to sample cuisine from various restaurants and diners and little hole-in-the wall places along the way. And because I was already down town, that meant eating at the nearly 70-year-old Eat-Rite diner at 622 Chouteau Avenue. A squat white cinder block building, Eat-Rite is a 24-hour greasy spoon a blistered three-wood away from the Mississippi River. If you want something on the menu that isn’t fried, get a slice of pie. Or maybe a soda.
Eat-Rite (cash only) has no booths or tables, only fixed stools around its L-shaped counter. Where each stool stands, the counter edge is rubbed yellow where forearms and elbows have rested for generations. On the counter top, yellow ovals mark the spot where hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of plates have sat. There’s a cigarette machine and an ATM to your left as you walk in the door; to your right is a Lord of the Rings pinball machine and a CD playing jukebox, and the latter three stick out like an atheist at an Alabama tent revival. Eat-Rite, which isn’t exactly on Route 66 but close enough to be a way station, is almost like home. Ken Ort, a St. Louis stagehand, has been a meal-a-day regular for 20 years. Eileen Cottrell (fired at least once, she says) has been a waitress and cook for 39 of her 70 years. And 85-year-old Opal Henderson, recently deposed neighborhood salvage yard queen (she was meeting her lawyer there), has buried a husband and four of her seven children during her 66 years of coming to Eat-Rite.