The Ultimate American Sustainable Road Trip: Part 1
Before interstate highways sliced through America, before cheap flights took off daily between O’Hare and LAX, it was US Route 66 that linked Chicago to Los Angeles. Ranging from the shores of Lake Michigan to the Pacific coast, Route 66 was America’s Main Street. Ever taken a transformative road trip full of the greatest cultural heritage in North America? We’ll show you how to experience it in an eco-friendly series we call The Ultimate American Sustainable Road Trip. As most journies, we’ll start at the beginning. Welcome to Downtown Chicago, Illinois.
An epic Route 66 odyssey truly begins in the heart of Chicago, where road, rail, and air traffic converge. If you’re not up for driving to your starting point, you can catch a an eco-friendly flight to O’Hare and rent an environmentally vehicle on arrival. For an even more sustainable alternative, consider riding Amtrak into the city—Chicago Union Station’s downtown location is the perfect place to begin your transformative journey.
The Art of the Sustainable Road Trip
Route 66 began at the corner of Adams Street and Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, one block east of the elevated tracks that form the famous Loop, where you’ll see the “Begin Historic US 66” sign that marks the start of this great American artery. Turn 180 degrees, and you’ll see the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the world’s finest museums. Before you head west, set the tone by viewing some of its famous Americana, including Sky Above Clouds IV by Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper’s diner-noir Nighthawks, and the dour family farmers in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.
The Wright Stuff
West of the Loop, Historic Route 66 cuts through Chicago’s industrial Southwest Side, which locals call “the Bungalow Belt” for its expanse of modest but solid brick houses. You’ll find more sophisticated architecture in the western suburb of Oak Park, where the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright perfected his Prairie School designs. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trail provides a tour of his finest works in both Chicago and this cultured leafy suburb. In Oak Park, you’ll find the Unity Temple, a modernist Unitarian chapel that perfectly fits the town’s sophisticated sensibilities.
A Springfield Stopover
As you resume your journey, the industrial scenes and leafy suburbs of Chicagoland give way to the corn and soybean fields of downstate Illinois. Here, most of what was once Route 66 now carries the designation of Interstate 55. But as Route 66 continues, so does Wright’s work. Springfield’s Dana-Thomas House stands about halfway to St. Louis, representing the Prairie School at its most ambitious, with nearly 12,000 square feet of clean right angles under low-slung roofs. While you’re in Illinois’s sleepy capital city, perk up with a visit to the Old State Capitol, where Presidents Lincoln and Obama began their long roads to the White House.
Cahokia Mounds in Illinois
Near St. Louis lie some elevations that seem out of place in an otherwise flat state. These are the Cahokia Mounds, the remnants of a pre-Columbian mound-building culture that thrived for centuries before contact with Europeans. Today, over 2,000 acres are open for visitors to take in this archaeological marvel.
After Cahokia, I-55 crosses the Mississippi River into St. Louis, Missouri, the Gateway to the West. It takes more than a sign to mark this moment. Instead, it is the Gateway Arch, a landmark of Route 66 in Illinois and Missouri, that towers over the St. Louis skyline and the eastern floodplains of the Big Muddy. To its west, a new green roof over the adjacent I-44 has expanded the park and renewed some much-needed verdancy downtown. Celebrate sustainability by enjoying this bigger and better Gateway Arch National Park, which has finally realized the original plans of the famous architect Eero Saarinen.
Continuing from St. Louis, Historic 66 winds through the Ozarks, passing through some of the American heartland’s most beautiful scenery en route to the American West. Campsites and classic motor hotels around Springfield and Joplin will allow you to make low-footprint stops along the Mother Road. If you’re traveling by camper van, using the right solar battery will make your trip just a bit greener.
In the next part of our series, we’ll keep getting our kicks as Historic Route 66 takes us through Oklahoma and Texas.