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Route 66/Pig Hip Restaurant
Bloomington to Springfield, Illinois

In Bloomington, we made our road trip cred solid by picking up a portion of the classic Route 66. We traveled about 30 miles on the two lane blacktop, enjoying a mix CD Rick made of groups ranging from the Yardbirds to Depeche Mode to Sammy Davis Jr all crooning the delights of traveling to St. Louis precisely as we were doing.

It was fascinating, because we could see how the original road twisted and turned, and at certain points in its history was bypassed for straighter shots that ran alongside the original, only to have the upgrade bypassed in favor of a multilane highway. But if you stick to the original route - which is very well marked if you pay attention - you get to experience the charms of adorable, faded small towns, like the melodiously named Funk's Grove.

No more than pop. 50 at its peak, the population is now negative, because there are more people (most of them named Funk) in the cemetery in the woods than in the town itself. The drive through the forest was unexpectedly beautiful, and demonstrated how much land must have been cleared to make room over the decades for those endless cornfields.

We were disappointed to find the Funk's Grove Maple Sirup (sic) store closed but that wound up being a theme for the day so we should've just gotten used to it right up front.

Next up was Atlanta, a veritable teeming metropolis compared to Funk, home to a giant former Paul Bunyon muffler man who now holds something more appealing to us, as you can see from the photo. Atlanta is a fine example of the kind of small town the Pixar flick "Cars" was so sentimental about; once it was obviously a place where one would stop on one's motor trip west to have a "cuppa joe" or a sandwich or even more, but now it's a shadow of its former self, though better preserved than might have been feared.

The first town named for President Lincoln while he was still alive (he christened it himself with watermelon juice) still looks like a thriving place, but we weren't there for the sights. We were there for locally famous Mel-O-Cream donuts. Oh, my. Admire that oozing bismark in the photo. It goes up there with the HOG FEST sandwiches as memorable road trip food.

We nearly bypassed the former Pig Hip restaurant, now a museum to Route 66, because if it no longer serves its famous pig sandwiches, what's the point? Even worse, when we did turn up, we noticed something was missing: the entire museum.

A bronze plaque on a rock explained that just six months ago, the thing burned down, right around the time of the proprietor's 90th birthday. Dismayed, we went into the former office and found the man himself, Mr. Ernie, self-proclaimed "The Old Coot of 66" still holding court along with much accommodating wife Frances. The time we spent with them made the stop entirely worthwhile.

We heard the thrilling story of the fire-it happened while they were out getting some medication for Miz Frances, and they returned home to find their place in flames. An electrical fire, said the authorities, and probably started by a squirrel chewing on the lines. Mr. Ernie said, not without a certain glee, that they found the body of the culprit, with a blackened mouth, nearby.

At first, he was despondent, because his life's work, chronicling the highway that's the best and that brought him considerable business over 50 years of serving pig hip sandwiches (at his peak he went through a 20 pound ham a day!), was gone. But now he's decided there is something poetic about losing it all near the likely end of his life.

His nine children-all of whom have graduate degrees of some sort, he said with justifiable pride-don't want their parents' small house ("They all live in mansions!" he exclaimed) and there was no one to really take on his collection when he passes away. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, it seems. But we hope he's around to tell his stories for a long time. Take that drive and go say hi, why don't you?

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