Reflection on the Journey

The coast-to-coast road trip that my brother and I completed was a special one because of many reasons. It was the first road trip for both of us that covered the entire span of the country from the West Coast to the East Coast. It was the first road trip where the journey and the route we took was the star attraction in itself. And for my brother, this trip marked a closure of the California chapter in his life and the start of his second New York City chapter (not long after this trip he ended up meeting his wife, purchasing a home, and now expecting a child — so pretty much settling down as a New Yorker now).

Looking back at the trip to complete this blog series, I have some thoughts that came to mind. On planning for such an epic trip, here are some things to consider:

  • Transportation Options: Many people would do a coast-to-coast or other long distance trip like this as part of relocating from one place to another. In such cases, the transportation option is given (e.g., using one’s own private vehicle). Otherwise, you need to consider either driving round trip (double the distance to cover), or perhaps driving one way and then flying the other way (in which case you need to think of what to do with the car for the road trip part). In our case, since my brother was going to sell his car in CA before leaving and he was relocating, we decided to fly to LA from our respective city, meet there, and rent a car one way.
  • Drop-off Fee: Beware of the fine prints when looking for rental car options. Some rental car companies institute a ‘drop-off fee’ when you plan to pick up the car in one city and returning it in another city in a state that is not adjacent to the pick-up place. The drop-off fee would be calculated by distance traveled, and it was about 25-40 cents per mile at the time of our travel. Not a big deal if you travel short distance, but when you go for more than 2,000 miles like us, that drop-off fee ends up being even more expensive than the quote for the rental car itself. We ended up using Hertz, which had slightly higher rental cost but no drop-off charge.
  • Theme for the Trip: To make the trip memorable, think of a theme for the trip and plan the places to visit along the way based on the theme. That would allow you to come up with a nice story about the journey rather than simply a long drive from one place to another with rest stops in between. In our case, the theme was obvious once we selected the particular route, Route 66. To make it even more fun, we decided to also do a ‘scavenger hunt’ and locate the places that inspired the animated movie Cars.
  • Time Management: When planning the trip itinerary, my tendency is to try fitting in as many activities as I can to make the best use of my limited travel time. When planning for a long road trip, you need to take account several factors. Consider the drive for each segment of the trip. That would consume part of your available time that otherwise you could use for sightseeing. If you choose to be more efficient and start the day early and/or end it late so you can cover longer distance and do more things, but keep safety in mind and ensure that you do not drive when fatigue sets in. Make sure whoever is driving has enough rest (or stop if you need some). Also consider allocating some buffer time for traffic if you go through major metropolitan area especially during the rush hours. Lastly, consider time zone change if you are traveling across time zone boundaries. If you go east bound, you will gain an hour every time you pass a time zone boundary, and conversely you will lose an hour if you travel east bound.
  • Places to Stay: When you are doing a multi-day road trip, you need to consider places where you stop, get some rest, freshen up, or even visit as a destination. The options can range from stopping at a rest stop or parking lot and sleeping in your own car, camping at a camp ground, staying at a budget motel, staying at a boutique hotel / bed & breakfast, staying at a luxury resort hotel, or if you happen to know someone along the route, staying at their place. Consider your budget (time and money), how important is the place itself as a destination or part of the experience of your trip, and also how easy or difficult it is to make reservation. In our case, we ended up staying at budget motels because we wanted to drive as far as we could on the first couple of days and only needed a place to rest and freshen up. And then for one night we stayed at my brother’s friends’ home, and on the last night, we stopped at my home.

On the road trip itself, here are some thoughts from reflecting about it:

  • Authentic Americana: When we started with the idea of going through this route, I was wondering exactly what kind of experience we would have as we seem to be going through mostly small town and rural areas of the US that on my previous trips I would drive past as fast as I could to get to the destinations of my trip. The perspective changed once we looked at these places as the ‘star’ of the trip; these are places that authentically represent the American culture, especially in the rural areas. The people were not pretentious, and many of them had been living in the same place for a long time that they represent the culture and heritage of the place.
  • Local Cuisine: You can find fast food chain restaurants along the way, but you can also enhance your experience by eating your meals at local restaurants that focus on regional cuisines that also highlight the ingredients grown locally. Within our route, we could find fish tacos in CA, prickly pear salad in AZ, Mexican food with red and green chile sauce in NM, steak and barbecue in TX and OK, snoots in MO, and red hots (Chicago-style hot dogs) in IL.
  • Story Behind a Place: When you visit a place, try to find out the story behind it: the history how it came about, the people associated to the place past and present, and how it impacts the culture both locally and beyond. We learned some interesting history about a ghost town that was founded after a gold rush, a hotel built as a home away from home for Hollywood stars coming to shoot western movies, and the place that claimed to be the origin of a food/snack that is now popular around the country.
  • Route 66 Characters: Along the journey on Route 66, you can also learn and meet some people play an important role in keeping the Route 66 story as an important part of the American culture. The folks treasure the history and culture that was shaped by the existence of the Mother Road and they work tirelessly in promoting and preserving the history for future generations, and we have them to thank for.
  • Enjoy the Journey: In the end, the most valuable lesson about life I was reminded of by this trip was to enjoy the life journey and not just focus on the destination. While getting to the destination or goal is important, the majority of time spent is in the journey to get there. It makes life richer and rewarding if we can also enjoy the moments and the steps along the way.

The photo below was taken in Santa Monica, CA, at the beginning of our trip. This is the official marker of the West end of Route 66 (traditionally people would travel the route from East to West). We took this photo to mark the beginning of our journey. Unfortunately we could not find a similar marker in Chicago, IL, at the East end of Route 66, but we did get another photo taken to mark the end of our journey in New York City.

West End of Route 66

The End (or the Start) of the Route

After three long days of driving, we finally reached Chicago. We had a great time catching up with my brother’s old college friend, but we were quickly reminded to get at least a few hours of sleep before we had to leave again in the morning to continue our journey.

We left quite early in the morning as we’re planning on meeting up with some more friends in the suburb of Toledo for lunch. I wanted to make sure we could get out of Chicago without getting caught in morning commute, and we also wanted to make one more stop to complete our Route 66 journey. We started the journey three days before at the plaque near the beach of Santa Monica, CA, that marked the west end of Route 66. We thought it would be appropriate to also stop at the east end of Route 66 in Chicago.

Both my brother and I had been to Chicago many times, and we were somewhat familiar with the downtown Chicago area. But neither of us ever noticed seeing any sign there that marked the east end of Route 66. I looked through guidebooks about Route 66, and I found information about either it’s located at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Jackson Street, or it’s somewhere near the nearby Grant Park. So we decided to just drive to that area, park our car, and perhaps walk around a little bit to find the marker.

We parked at the underground parking on Michigan Avenue nearby our destination, and we were greeted by something unexpected that we should’ve known and anticipated better. When we got out of the elevator from the parking garage, we were greeted by a cold and windy Chicago autumn weather. Here we were, wearing light jacket and sweat and sandals. That was fine when we were traveling in California and the Southwest, but not in Chicago. So my brother’s comment was about finding this Route 66 marker quickly and then perhaps get hot coffee and leave.

We reached the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Jackson Street, and we couldn’t find that end of Route 66 sign. The only other info I had said the official east terminus of Route 66 was the Grant Park. Well, that’s not really helpful as Grant Park was quite a large park. I told my brother, ‘how about walking around the park a little bit to look for the Route 66 sign’. My brother said, ‘why don’t you go ahead and do so; I’ll just wait at the coffee shop around the corner because it’s way too cold to walk around outside.’ So I did go to Grant Park and walked around looking for the Route 66 sign, but couldn’t really find it. Finally I ran out of time (and it was getting too cold out there), so I decided to just cut my losses and took the photo of the Chicago skyline to show that we did reach the east end of Route 66. It would’ve been nicer to bookend the trip with another photo of a Route 66 plaque, but unfortunately this one would have to do.

Grant Park

Cozy Dogs

Corn dog is a variation of hot dog where you have the hot dog wiener stuck on a stick, coated in corn batter, and deep fried. In the US, you can often find corn dogs at festivals or local fairs. If you ever had a corn dog, have you ever wondered who came up with the idea for a corn dog? When we looked for interesting places along Route 66, we found out a place that claimed to be the first to come up with corn dog. The place is called Cozy Dog Drive In, and it’s located in Springfield, Illinois.

Ed Waldmire Jr. and his wife Virginia opened up the Cozy Dog Drive In in 1946 after Ed came up with the idea for the corn dog and made it popular among the armed services after World War II. The place has been serving the corn dog that is called the Cozy Dog ever since, and during the heyday of Route 66 in 1950s, it became a popular landmark along the route.

Later on, Ed and Virginia’s son Bob ended up becoming a famous character along Route 66 as he open a restored store along the old Route 66 in Arizona where he lived during the winter time, and spent his summer driving up and down Route 66 on his VW van. Bob and his VW van became the inspiration for the character Fillmore in Pixar’s animated movie Cars.

We passed Springfield area around dinner time. We already planned to stay at my brother’s friend’s place in the suburb of Chicago for the night, and we wanted to meet up for dinner when we get there. But knowing that we wouldn’t be reaching Chicago area until close to midnight, we thought we would stop quickly at Cozy Dog Drive In in Springfield for some snacks.

We found Cozy Dog Drive In on the busy business street in Springfield. Today it looked like just another busy road in a city, but back in the day this was part of Route 66 that would likely be among the first stops traveler made when traveling from Chicago to Santa Monica.

The restaurant was similar to many local fast food joints, except that you could find some Route 66 memorabilia that would tell the story about the past. We ordered some Cozy Dogs and decided to take them to go to save time for the night.

The Cozy Dogs themselves tasted like what we expected of corn dogs. What made them special was the story behind the place where we got them. Now we could say that we’ve eaten corn dogs from the place that originated them all.

Cozy Dog Drive In

Gateway to the West

St. Louis is the second largest city in the state of Missouri. It is located on the northeastern border of the state, on the bank of the Mississippi River. The city was founded by French explorers (thus the name), and it was also the city where Lewis and Clark started their expedition to explore the western part of America. In 1904, St. Louis was the site of the World Fair and the first Summer Olympic Games held outside Europe. The city reached its peak in population size in the 1960s but sinmce had been in decline. Today it is still one of the largest inland ports in the US and is the home of several Fortune 500 companies, though its influence was not as prominent as it was in its heyday.

Our visit to St. Louis during the coast-to-coast road trip was very brief. After lunch at Smoki-O’s in the North Riverfront area of the city, we drove downtown to briefly visit the Gateway Arch. The downtown area seemed to be a nice place to visit, and you can actually take the elevator up the Gateway Arch. There was also a neighborhood that seemed to be a happening place with stores and restaurants. We didn’t have time however, so we just found spots at the nearby park to take photos of the Arch, and then left before the rush hour started.

The city reminded me to Pittsburgh, where I lived for a couple of years when I went to graduate school. Both cities thrived in the 19th century and in the early part of 20th century due to manufacturing industry, but went on decline in the last few decades. But now both cities enjoyed a little bit of renaissance with the biotechnology and medicine industry related to the local research universities (Washington University in St. Louis and University of Pittsburgh). Both cities have nice downtown areas that are nice to visit, but driving through the suburbs you could feel the ‘blue collar’ nature of the cities.

The photo below was taken at the park near the Gateway Arch. This was the closest we could get where we could still get the whole Arch within the frame.

Gateway Arch

Snoots at Smoki-O’s

As we continued our coast-to-coast road trip on Route 66 into Missouri, we decided to drive through the state and selected St. Louis as the one place in the state where we would stop and get photos to represent Missouri in our Route 66 journey. We only had time to stop in one city as we passed Missouri that day, and St. Louis has the unmistakable landmark to photograph, the Gateway Arch, so that settled the plan pretty quickly. Since we would be reaching St. Louis in early afternoon, we thought it would be a good place to stop for lunch as well. The only question then was what to eat and where we would go for lunch.

When I thought of St. Louis in terms of food, one thing that came to mind was barbecue. St. Louis is not as famous for its barbecue as the city at the other end of the state, Kansas City. However, it has its own style of barbecue, and there is a delicacy that is associated to this city and the surrounding area, the barbecued snoots (grilled pig’s nose). It may sound weird, but apparently not to the locals there.

My brother and I tried out snoots once a couple of years before our trip when there was a barbecue festival in New York City where my brother lived. They had barbecue joints from all over the country coming in to represent their regional style of barbecue, and we saw one vendor from St. Louis serving snoots. We did try it there, but we thought it would be interesting to try the St. Louis-style barbecue again when we passed St. Louis. The only question was where we would go and try this out. Just like in many cities known for a regional cuisine, the locals have their favorite places, so you have to pick one in the end among many potentially good places to go.

While my brother was driving towards the city, I did Google search on my smart phone to look for options and people’s reviews on them. We finally settled on one place called Smoki-O’s that seemed to be located pretty close to downtown St. Louis (so we don’t have to go to far out of the way from the Gateway Arch where we wanted to stop and take photos). The place was also characterized as a ‘hole in the wall’ that is a favorite of many locals — which means it’s a ‘real deal’ and unpretentious.

We followed the Google Map direction to Smoki-O’s, and we ended up in a warehouse area north of downtown St. Louis. The descriptions we read about the place were true; the place was really a ‘hole in a wall’; we were even a bit unsure about the surroundings thinking about leaving our car parked on the street with our belongings in it. But we thought we’ve already made it that far, and we shouldn’t ‘judge the book by its cover.’

When we went in the restaurant, we were greeted by a lady that we found out later was the daughter-in-law of the lady who opened up the barbecue joint years before. She was very nice and hospitable, and explained what they had on their menu. We clearly looked out-of-place compared to other folks there who mostly ordered the food to go. The lady asked where we were from, and we told her that we were in the middle of a road trip from California to New York. After we ordered, she told us to have a seat at their small eating area while our order was prepared.

Few minutes lates, a gentleman came out of the kitchen area with a styrofoam container full of meat — the sampler that we ordered. He introduced himself to us as the pitmaster there. He was told by the lady at the counter about our cross-country trip, so he wanted to stop by and chatted with us a little bit. He mentioned that he’s done a road trip to New York City himself a couple of years back, since they were selected to represent St. Louis in a barbecue festival. When we heard that, we asked him if it was the same festival that we went to, and it turned out that it was. So we actually had snoots from Smoki-O’s already in New York City; we just didn’t remember it.

The photo below was the barbecue platter that we had for lunch at Smoki-O’s. It was plenty to share between the two of us. The food was good, but I think the encounter with the store owner and the pitmaster that left a lasting memory. I posted this photo on my Flickr album, and a couple of years later, this photo was included in an online slideshow on Big-Cities Barbecue on Grubstreet, the online foodies site for the New York magazine.

Barbecue platter at Smoki-O's

Finding Mater

The Kansas portion of Route 66 is the shortest compared to other states, only 13 miles. I wanted to stop and take a photo of something unique that represented each of the state on the route, so this posed a challenge to find something to check out in Kansas within than short segment.

I couldn’t find any place that was particularly interesting for us to stop, until I read through an article about the inspirations behind Cars that mentioned about a 1951 tow truck in Galena, KS, that became the inspiration for the lovable character Mater in the movie. According to the article, the truck could be found outside a renovated Kan-o-tex gas station that is now becoming a gift store called 4 Women on the Route.

So we set off to find this place. The Kansas portion of Route 66 is completely bypassed by Interstate 44 that unless you intentionally get off the Interstate highway and take the country highway, you wouldn’t even know that it’s there.

The drive through the Kansas Route 66 was like driving through countryside in the midwestern America. Nothing special on the surface, but I’m sure if one takes time to learn about the local communities in the towns we passed, we would find interesting stories about life on Route 66.

When we reached Galena, we had to turn into a side street from the main drag of the town to find the old Kan-o-tex gas station. The store was closed when we got there, but we found what we’re looking for… the old tow truck parked outside the gas station.

I learned that the real truck was named Tater as to avoid copyright infringement from using the Mater name. As how you get Tater, think of the origin of Mater’s name as he mentioned in the movie (‘Hi, my name is mater.. like tuh-mater. but without the tuh.’). So instead of tow-mater (rhymes with tomato), this one is tow-tater (rhymes with potato). Pretty creative.

After taking a couple of photos with Tater, we continued our trip. Several miles from Galena we entered Missouri, and we passed the downtown area of the city of Joplin before we entered Interstate 44 again. The city of Joplin was included in the famous song Route 66. The downtown area had some old buildings that might be considered as historical. We only passed the town and not thought much of it. A couple of years later, a devastating tornado passed Joplin and destroyed a significant portion of that downtown area we passed. It was one of those surreal thinking that we once drove passed the area of devastation we saw on the news.

Tow-Tater

World Largest McDonald’s

We left early in the morning on our third day of the trip with the goal to cover more than 800 miles and reach Chicago area before midnight. As such, we tried to to be efficient as we also wanted to stop at several places along the way. Since we decided not skip The Rock Cafe for breakfast, we looked for an alternative place to get a bite to eat without spending much time. As I looked for options along the way, one caught my eye as the ‘perfect’ place to stop given the situation. It was right on Interstate 44 that we would pass, very likely would be a fast service, and yet it sounded interesting… the McDonald’s in Vinita, OK.

What’s so special about going to McDonald’s, you might ask. Well, according to the Route 66 guide books that I had in hand, this particular McDonald’s at one point claimed to be the largest McDonald’s in the world. Formerly a restaurant called The Glass House and built in 1959, it occupied about 30,000 square feet. I learned that in 1990 there was a bigger McDonald’s opened in Russia that supposedly contended for the ‘largest’ title, and more recently another McDonald’s in Orlando, FL, actually beat both locations hands down as the largest restaurant. Oh well.. it’s a (former) largest restaurant — still some history to be proud of there I guess.

When we reached Vinita, we saw the familiar McDonald’s golden arches from a distance, and the restaurant actually sat like a bridge across the Interstate highway. It was pretty much like some of the rest area / travel plaza that you find in some Interstate Highways; except that typically it would be a shared space with many stores, restrooms, and a visitor center. I thought for a moment, the arch of the bridge was painted McDonald’s yellow, so I suppose if the whole bridge was one big McDonald’s then it would make sense that it’s the largest one you could find.

It turned out that when you get inside the building, the space inside the large structure was shared with several other stores, and the actual McDonald’s restaurant portion was about the same size as an average McDonald’s store you could find anywhere else. There seemed to be a lot of unused spaces as well. A little disappointing for those like me who were expecting something different given the ‘hype’ but I suppose business sense prevailed that you should only scale the restaurant to be as big as the demand, and it had probably gone passed its glory days.

We had our standard McDonald’s breakfast, served in efficient manner as a reminder to the modern ‘on-the-go’ culture. On the way out, at the parking lot we did see a group of colorful hot rod cars. They looked like the real life version of the Hot Wheels toys, and reminded me to the characters that Lightning McQueen encountered on the highway just before he veered off and ended up at Radiator Springs. So there was something interesting found at this stop after all.

Former largest McDonald's