In Chicago, it’s North Avenue. In Sycamore, it’s State Street. Farther west, in Oregon, it’s Washington Street, and in far western Savanna, before it hits the Mississippi, it’s Main Street. While the 139-mile patch of concrete known as Route 64 doesn’t have the same star power as Route 66—and as a terminus Savanna lacks the luster of Los Angeles—if you want to get the full flavor of the Land of Lincoln, you can do no better than a day’s drive out 64. My wife and I covered every inch, eating, drinking, and observing pure Illinois.
We started on the shore of Lake Michigan, at North Avenue Beach in Chicago, and headed west through the city and into the suburbs. But our adventure truly began at Olde North Pancake House in West Chicago, decorated in a style best described as early-American Midwestern Grandma. Rick Horan is the second-generation owner of the 48-year-old restaurant, fashioned after Boston’s Old North Church, and he’s watched the road change. “They took out several thousand oak trees along North Avenue,” he says. “People used to drive west just to see the colors change. It used to take 20 minutes from our place to I-355; now it’s ten.” We took an extra 30 for caramel coffee and delicious pumpkin and gingerbread pancakes.
Conventional wisdom says that south of I-80, Illinois becomes another state, but west of Route 47 also lies rural America. Our trip paused at the intersection of Routes 47 and 64 at Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs, where the refrigerator boasts bumper stickers like “Imagine There’s No Liberals” and the broad menu includes the Pizza Dog, a surprisingly successful creation consisting of a hot dog split, seared on the flat-top, stuffed with gooey cheese, nestled in a bun, and ladled with pizza sauce. It was also our ceremonial gateway to western Illinois.
Jay’s Drive-In opened in Oregon (population 3,721) in the late 1960s as a Dog ’n Suds and in 1986 transformed into its present incarnation, which features carhop service from March to November. Oregon is halfway to Iowa, so it’s no surprise to see huge fried-to-order pork tenderloin sandwiches alongside Chicago-style dogs on the menu. Life on 64 isn’t quite what it used to be, says Terry Wilken, the owner of Jay’s. “It seems like people are more into franchises now, afraid to take the chance when they get out somewhere they don’t know.”
Fast-food outlets populate Oregon and nearby towns, but as we traveled farther west, we saw only the occasional Subway or Pizza Hut. We counted but a single golden arch on the 80-mile stretch between Sycamore and Savanna. The majority of eateries were hardscrabble family joints nestled among John Deere retailers and corn bins in single-stoplight towns: places like Grubsteakers Restaurant, Li’l Jim’s Country Tavern, the Shakey Rooster, and the Fiesta Palace, which advertises Mexican cuisine next to nightly specials of baked lasagna. What could be more American?
Route 64 ends in Savanna, a town of just over 3,000, with maybe the same number of Harleys. Judging by the names of the local bars (Iron Horse Social Club, for one), Savanna appears dependent on motorcyclists—and destinations like Chopper’s Come Back Inn seem to prove it. We stopped at Hawg Dogs, a tavern inside an old opera house. One might call it a multiuse facility, as it’s a combination biker joint and antiques dealership that also hosts martial-arts-style cage fights. (The nearby Poopy’s Pub n’ Grub multitasks even further, offering food, tattoos, piercings, motorcycle parts, and campsites.) The fare at Hawg Dogs is functional—a no-frills puck of a burger and humdrum chicken fingers—but hunkering down among bike parts and fight photos at a pristine turn-of-the-century bar is worth the $2.50 price of a High Life.
It’s easy to think of North Avenue as strictly a means to an el stop or a freeway exit. But follow it west, and you’ll discover that Route 64 is our state’s main drag. From urban to rural, from lake to river, and through seas of corn, Route 64 is Illinois, America, and most definitely “us.”
Illustration: Jacqui Oakley