Being a graphic designer in this digital age, it’s not too often I get to bust out my paint brushes from my college days. In fact, it’s been almost ten years since I’ve taken to a canvas that isn’t housed inside my computer screen. A few months ago via Facebook, we got wind of a contest held by the Atlanta Betterment Fund:
“Modeled on Chicago’s “Cows on Parade” exhibit, the Rt. 66 Reinterpreted Art Project presents artists the opportunity to create their own take on one of the 20th Century’s most iconic and recognizable symbols: The U.S. Rt. 66 Highway Shield.”
We obviously jumped on the project! Just a week or so after sending off $25 and an application to Atlanta, IL, a giant box, which held a 2 ft. x 2 ft. white-painted wooden shield, landed on our doorstep. The only question was, what did Route 66 Illinois mean to us?
We live 90 miles north of Chicago, so the Illinois stretch of 66 is obviously our most traveled slice of the route. Last year we hit the road four separate times on our “grassroots” book tour, and got real familiar with this particular stretch! One the things we noticed is how clearly they now mark Route 66 — even through frequent turns, like through small towns outside of the Chicagoland area and the southwest towns you traverse before you get to the outskirts of greater East St. Louis. In other words, Jerry McClanahan’s EZ Guide is indeed our bible on the route, but not necessarily required for turn-by-turn in Illinois.
Route 66 means many things to many people, but for me, what I love most is the cast of characters and Illinois has them in spades. Roadside oddities are a dying breed in America. Before there were Nintendo DS consoles, iPads and SUVs equipped with DVD players, the strange attractions that dotted the American landscape are what broke up the long stretches of road. To this day, however, people who still love cross-country travel know there’s just something about seeing a giant ketchup bottle in the sky and sitting down to a homemade slice of apple pie. And from Atlanta’s own Tall Paul the Hot Dog Man, to Livingston’s Pink Elephant, Illinois is jam packed with roadside oddities. So while my translation of Route 66 Illinois was quite literal, I decided a collage of these beloved characters, attractions and pitstops simply had to be the subject of this art project! So I got to work developing a collage on my computer. I printed it out and created a hand-drawn replica on the white shield. After a third attempt at rummaging through our basement, I finally located all my college painting supplies and got to work.
The general painting was pretty easy, like riding a bike. It wasn’t until I had to get detailed that I realized my creative limitations. I had a blast though! Over the next month, in about a half dozen 4-6 hour painting sessions, I finished up the shield with about a day or two to spare before the shipping deadline! (Just like college, working under a time crunch is clearly the only way I operate.)
The end result makes me happy, not at all because I think it’s the best painting in the world, because it has flaws galore, but because it is EXACTLY how I feel about Route 66 Illinois: familiar friends who will always be there to welcome us as we traverse the great plains, from dawn ’til dusk.
And as if my creation satisfied the travel gods, while watching TV few days ago, Chris actually caught this gorgeous ad put out by DiscoverIllinois.org:
“Route 66 was a highway like no other, and mile-for-mile, you can still discover more of it in Illinois.”
The ad’s final tagline couldn’t be more true. Even in the dozen or so trips Chris has made through this stretch over the past seven years since his Route 66 love affair began, there are countless hidden gems he has yet to uncover! And at only a hop, skip and a half-tank of gas away, a Route 66 Illinois adventure is always practically at our doorstep. Exploring its endless supply of characters and caretakers will probably be an annual tradition for Fading Nostalgia.
For example, the Red Carpet Corridor event is one of the Route 66-specific festivals we hit up last year when we did a book-signing in Pontiac, IL. During the first weekend in May, 13 communities sponsor a 90-mile stretch, from Joliet to Towanda, with activities, food and music. This year marks the 7th festival and we definitely look forward to traveling through once again! And just 30 or so miles southwest of Towanda sits Atlanta, IL, which will have freshly painted Route 66 Reinterpreted shields proudly displayed throughout the town. We can’t wait to see how others interpreted this project — from local Route 66 lifers, to young kids just starting to fall in love with the road, to newbies like me who have adopted it as their own home-away-from-home. Thank you Illinois for keeping Route 66 fresh, fun, alive and well in America!