“Searching for Ghosts” a Route 66 Journey by Steve Miller

Searching For Ghosts: Feral Tourist Explores the Past on Route 66

Miller KS_2INTRODUCTION: Steve Miller, blues musician and longtime member of the NA Maintenance Department, ventured on a week-long motorcycle exploration of historic Route 66, also known as ‘Will Rogers Highway,’ the ‘Main Street of America’ or the ‘Mother Road.’ Built in 1926, Route 66 served as a major path for those who migrated west, especially during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. In 1985 the road was decommissioned and replaced by a new Highway Interstate System, causing many of its businesses to fall into ruin. Portions of the road have been designated a National Scenic Byway known as “Historic Route 66,” open to exploration by curious travelers such as Mr. Miller.

The Feral Tourist:

FTmainpic1There are places people go to get away from it all. So many places have just become tourist traps, based on the simple principle that America shops. They seem to become more generic and interchangeable as time goes on. Eventually, the only way to know where you are, will be the name on the tee shirt. This is not about those places. It’s about where people leave, where they come from. It’s about striking up a conversation in a local eatery, not about paying an entrance fee for the privilege to stand in a long line for overpriced coffee. Going feral is taking an unknown road on impulse. It’s finding the America that’s disappearing and the America that isn’t. It’s seeing the world from the seat of a motorcycle and not from inside the bubble of a car. It’s stopping when something catches your eye or your ear. It’s the cowboy heading west, looking for a place to hang his hat for the night, take his boots off. It’s the wolf staring curiously at the rustle in a stand of trees.

Three Days to Go:

Miller MotorcycleI’m looking for ghosts. No, not the kind that nibble on your toes when you dangle your feet off the bed in the middle of the night. I’ve always had a soft spot for abandoned buildings and the people that once occupied them. A curiosity for things that once were, and things gasping their last breath, and the mother lode to experience that is the Mother Road—Rt. 66.

Eisenhower started the interstate highway system in the early 50s. The plus side is you can get from A to B quickly. The negative side is the loss of local color and culture. Why get off the highway when you can grab a quick meal from a chain at the rest area? The mom and pop is disappearing. It’s being bypassed and what isn’t aleady gone may not be around much longer. Hitchcock alluded to that in Psycho when Norman mentioned the loss of business when they built the highway. Creep factor aside, who doesn’t want to at least drive by the Bates Motel? Who doesn’t want clam fritters in Rhode Island, or gumbo in Louisiana, or ribs in Mississippi? Who doesn’t want to see the world’s largest frying pan, or listen to the small talk in front of some Main Street barbershop?

Saturday morning, September 17, 2016, I’ll be climbing on the Indian and heading for Rt. 66. It was decommissioned back in 1988, but a large part of the route still exists. I’ll only have time for the section between Tulsa and Chicago, but that’s okay. I will get my kicks on that section and leave the rest for another time.

I will post as much as I am able along way. The countdown is on. Can’t wait to see if someone else has lawn flamingoes that light up at night. Maybe find the corner store that sells headache powders, Liquid Heat, and sodas in a variety of colors.

DAY 1:

Late start because of a late night performance with the Pale Boys. That’s okay. Still got in the first 600 miles and made it to my target destination. The bulk of the ride was on I-81, a highway I must have taken hundreds of times – to Clifftop, to Memphis, to Clarksdale, to Mt. Airy, and so many other places. You slice through a pair of mountain ranges at a breakneck pace. You marvel at its beauty, but you still abuse her, passing her by, because you have places to go and things to do.

DAY 2:

Another ‘no time to stop and smell the roses’ day. Got in just under 600 miles, with only 200 miles more to get to Rt. 66. Lost time searching for a code for the ‘check engine’ light that came on. Seems the bike is running rich. Could be a bad sensor, could be something got wet riding through n the Cumberland Gap. With luck, the Indian dealer in Broken Arrow can ease my troubled mind. It was easier in the old days when you just rode, and no nagging message lights to scare you.

Stayed in Clarksville, Ark. Basic room with a bed, a shower, and Wi-Fi. Oh, and a fried chicken joint down the road.

Off to Oklahoma.

Miller TN_horsemenMet a couple of guys between Nashville and Memphis while getting gas. Station had a hitching post for horses.

Miller AR_motelLast stop in Arkansas. I’m the sole customer. Note to self: don’t watch Psycho tonight.

I did bring the hobo chateau (tent and sleeping bag) with plans to camp and use for emergencies, but this time of year, it gets dark early. Too many miles to get under my belt and still set up a tent. So, creature comforts it is.

DAY 3:

Crossing the Mississippi into Arkansas, you are in the Ozarks. And, just as quickly as you cross that bridge, it becomes flat and wide open. Steven Wright once joked that he wasn’t afraid of heights, he was afraid of widths. After riding the mountains and into the flatlands, you don’t notice the transition at first. But when you do realize it, you get a bit of a start. What happened? What did I miss? It’s like looking for a pair of glasses for an hour before it dawns on you that they were on top of your head the whole time. Sometimes, it’s not the obvious that is of prime importance—it’s the subtle things that sneak up on you.

Miller AR_ExxonPretty sure this place is out of gas. The bike has a three-gallon tank that will get you 150 miles in the best of circumstances. I’ll usually go up to 110 miles and gas up, stretch the legs, but I’m where places to stop are few and far between. You get nervous when you hit 90 miles. The GPS seems to excel at finding stations that no longer exist. Chalk it up to part of the adventure.

Miller AR_Biker Miller AR_Chicken_Lee

DAY 4:

When you get out of the metro area, the first thing you notice is that everybody smokes and everybody wears a baseball cap. The other first thing you notice, is how much corn and cattle.

Indian dealer was closed, but no matter. Check engine went out by itself. So, if it comes back on, so be it.

Finally made it to Rt. 66 in the afternoon, and the first stop had to be the Blue Whale. Lovely talk with Linda, the lady that oversees the site. She has four different Facebook pages—for Rt. 66, the Blue Whale, a personal page (where she vents on things), and a fourth that we never got to. The anti-social network seems to take up a lot of her time.

Afton, Oklahoma epitomizes all the small towns along the way. You could sense a once vibrant community, bypassed by the highway, and holding on if only for the few curiosity seekers like me. There are a lot of abandoned places up and down Oklahoma and Kansas, and so far, Missouri is the same. Rolling Stones song comes to mind. Raise a glass to the hard working people. Raise a glass to the salt of the earth.

One, maybe two days left on the route. Just want to suck it all in. Just want to see where we came from.

Miller OK_RestAreaThis rest area is along the Trail of Tears. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something mildly disturbing about eating under a structure that represents a people forced to move and face starvation and death.

Miller OK_totem_1I remember a water slide that I saw some time ago. It had a Titanic theme, sliding from a blowup ship into the water. The distance of time makes us numb to the reality. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s just a survival technique that allows us to carry on.

Totem Pole Park was the creation of Ed Galloway, who carved totem poles back in the forties. He also build 300 fiddles, each one made from a different type of wood

Totem Pole Park was the creation of Ed Galloway, who carved totem poles back in the forties. He also built 300 fiddles, each one made from a different type of wood

Miller OK_BlueWhale_3The Blue Whale was built as a present for a wife that loved whales. It became such an attraction, it was opened to the public.

Miller OK_BlueWhale_1

Miller OK_Avon_3 Miller OK_Avon_2

Avon Motel, just one of several abandoned structures along 66.

Avon Motel, just one of several abandoned structures along 66.

Miller OK_AftonStation_1 Miller OK_AftonStation_2

The station was built in the 30's and currently maintained as a museum. The view across the street looks like any town, USA, hanging on as people left. It's a bit more noticeable here, where towns are farther apart, and the interstates passed them by.

The gas station (right & left above) was built in the 30’s and currently maintained as a museum. The view across the street (directly above) looks like any town, USA, hanging on as people left. It’s a bit more noticeable here, where towns are farther apart, and the interstates passed them by.

Miller KS_4Miller KS_3

Got through OK, KS, and into MO. Time to find a Cheap B Me motel and a place to eat.

Got through OK, KS, and into MO. Time to find a Cheap B Me motel and a place to eat.

DAY 5:

Rode through Missouri and into Illinois, finally packing it in for the day in Lincoln. Abe statues and references everywhere, but no easy way to park for a photo or two. Having rode through some of the larger cities, you notice what they all have in common. As the cities got bigger, they just threw a bandage on the problem, and created a sprawling, uninviting mess. It’s as if some city planner aimed a paintball gun at a map, then patted himself on the back. The locals know the quirks. If you’re an outsider, expect a lot of U-turns.

Met several visitors from other countries here, just to see and travel Rt. 66. The unknown intrigues—familiarity breeds a lack of appreciation. Ask a New Yorker where the Empire State Building is and you might get a blank stare. They see it every day, it melds into the background, and what’s the big deal anyway? I’m sure some locals look at the abandoned motels on 66 as eyesores—they see them every day. But to an outsider, they offer a step back in time, a slice of history, and maybe a spark or two of childhood memories. In some regard, it was a brilliant move decommissioning 66. Now it’s a must see. Now, you pay attention.

Miller MO_2 Miller MO_3

Miller MO_4This stretch through Missouri is dotted with classic cars and trucks. You can find rusted out junks to finely refurbished and maintained vehicles. I’m not much of a car person. If I look under the hood, I most likely have no idea what I’m looking at, but I can see the beauty and grace of it all. For some, it’s a puzzle piece that takes one to a different time. For me, I see art.

Miller MO_HugariansMiller MO_RedRocker I Knew about the Red Rocker and it was easy to find. In fact, it’s almost impossible to miss. The surprise was spending some time with a group of bikers from Hungary, here in the US just to ride 66 from Chicago to LA. Along the way, I’ve met people from England, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Mexico. All here to experience the Mother Road, America’s Main Street, in our big back yard.

MILLER IL_5You don’t have to get far out of St. Louis before you’re back in the corn fields. Seems quite a lot of land is being multi-purposed with wind turbines generating energy in among the corn. And, you get a close up look at some of the original route, undrivable and forgotten, running along side. There had been several changes to the route through the years. Some of those changes eliminated dangerous curves, some bypassed downtown areas, and some of the highway lay buried under the interstate. Long hours in the saddle and miles between towns, you see the ghosts on those exposed, 19 foot wide crumbling sections.

DAY 6:

At some point along the way, you lose track of time and what day it is. So many miles over so many days, it’s as if you’ve crossed a mystical vortex. It wouldn’t be the same by car. On the bike, it gets personal and intimate. You see something interesting, you stop. You double back much more freely. You talk to everybody. You listen. No matter what you write or how many pictures you take, the trip itself is the only true experience. A photo may inspire or it may bring back some memories, but it’s the ride that locks into your brain cells. Riding through Illinois on the latest version of 66, you see on one side the railroad tracks, on the other, the Interstate and the abandoned stretch of the original 66 in between, now overgrown and rutted. You see the history of transportation side by side. You imagine all the people traveling that road off to a wedding, a funeral a graduation. Whiskey runner. Bank Robbers. Migrant workers. Or maybe just off to find a better life in a new place where life isn’t quite as hard. A place where everyone smiles, birds chirp above you, and the streets are paved in gold. But at some point, you realize the only thing that’s different is the location. You imagine how many flat tires and busted radiator hoses occurred miles from even the closest farmhouse. How many crying babies in the backseat while you cross your fingers you can make it to the next gas station—and hope it’s open. It’s all those miles of roadway where the experience of 66 happens.

MILLER IL_18This was another must stop. They produce maple sirup (they insist that spelling indicates the real stuff and not some over processed goo). I knew it wasn’t the right time of year, but it’s a great place, and they produce honey as well.

MILLER IL_old_station_2 MILLER IL_3

MILLER IL_12These large statues are called Muffler Men, after the first one used to promote a muffler repair shop. They caught on as a great way to know you were coming up on a shop or a restaurant.

MILLER IL_19Several towns have murals on their buildings. Some are incredible, like the one above. Notice the open door behind the waitress? Nope. It’s a closed door painted to look open.

Miller IL_13I’m a sucker for flamingos. Place was closed, but peeking through the window, they had a lot more than the run of the mill trinkets. Looked like original highway signs and period antiques. Oh well, next time.


Last leg of the route. As you get closer to Chicago, the towns and communities are closer together, still corn, and cattle, and soy fields connecting them. Last batch of Rt. 66 icons to see: Gemini Man, Polka Dot Drive-In, and Joliet Prison (made infamous the Blues Brothers). Highway 61 was often used to get to Chicago. Highway 66 was often used to leave. I chose I-80 to make tracks home, with Toledo as my stopping point. Just before Toledo, the traffic was stopped at mile marker 56. There had been an accident at marker 50. Shut down and dark, had to get some sleep but nothing moved. Tractor-trailers bumper to bumper for as far as the eye could see. Decided to do the bad boy thing, and rode the shoulder for five and a half miles before stopping. There was one tractor-trailer in the slow lane, banged up and askew – another off the road in a deep ravine between the east and westbound lanes. Sat for another half hour while police, tow trucks, EMTs, and cranes worked to get the road clear for a single lane. A shutter to think how long it would have taken to get through had I stayed behind a six mile conga line of trucks, and trying to stave off exhaustion, trying to keep my internal gyroscope from failing. But, made it just past Toledo and found the closest cheap motel. Boom—out like a light.

Miller IL_23 Miller IL_8 Miller IL_Gemini_Giant_1 Miller IL_7

Another Muffler Man. This one, known as the Gemini Giant, used to stand at the gate of the NASA complex in homage to the Gemini program.

Miller IL_Gemin_Giant_2

IL_PolkADot_4 Il_PolkADot_3 IL_PolkADot_2 IL_BB IL_Joliet_4This prison, now decommissioned, was famous for the opening scene in the Blues Brothers.

IL_Joliet_2Parked lot where Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) leaned against his auction purchased police car, waiting for his brother Jake (John Belushi).

IL_Joliet_1And the gate Belushi exited to leave Joliet behind… temporarily. Come on Jake, got to get back to Jersey. Why? Got a gig. Musicians, ma’am.


KS_1Five hundred miles of Ohio farmland and Pennsylvania mountains before touchdown. Seems like the bike had forty pounds of bugs. I’m sunburned, blurry-eyed and sore, and there seem to be parts of me that turned into beef jerky, but the negative side is, it’s over. A giant 3,000-mile loop: NJ to PA to MD to WV to VA to NC to TN to AK to OK to KS to MO to IL to IN to OH and back to PA to NJ. That’s a lot of refrigerator magnets.

I travelled with a tent and sleeping bag just in case, but this time of year it gets dark at seven, and there’s too much ground to cover. I also got lost in the moment and either forgot or it was too late to eat. Aside from one night of fried chicken and another meal in Missouri, it was gallons of water, iced tea, and chocolate milk. I guess that qualifies me to write a traveller’s guide to weight loss. Or not.

The trip was worth every second. From Tulsa to Chicago, you experience all manner of terrain. You experience the ghost towns, the close-knit communities, and the dreary overgrown cities. To be fair, I’m sure those cities have a lot offer, but as one just passing through, you can’t leave quick enough. It’s worth the experience to see the relics of an era long gone as well as the interweaving of old and new. Passing the old gas pumps, you realize that someday someone will seek out the gas pump you use today, the ATM machine you use today, and see it as a relic of the past. It will inspire a longing for the ‘good old days’. We are born to become relics.

Turning my jaunt through Missouri, I passed acre after acre of Black Angus cattle resting under trees, standing in ponds, grazing on feed and grass. You could almost imagine a gentle lullaby playing as the sound track, and they are completely unaware of the impending fate. Sitting on a bike for hours on in, you have time to think about such things. You become the environment as well as the outsider looking in. But as Groucho said, no time to say hello I must be going.

This entry was posted in Nonfiction, Photography and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.