Day 50 -- Friday, June 19

It's easy to get lost on this old road. Even the guidebooks are sometimes confusing, but the state of Missouri has done its part to help pilgrims like me. They've placed road signs that read Historic Route 66 within a mile of each major interchange. More than once, I was none too sure I had chosen the right path when I came across one of these reassuring markers. Ideally, there would be signs every mile or so with arrows, when needed, pointing pilgrims in the right direction, but at least these signs let one know, albeit after the fact, that one has indeed made the correct turn.

Before I'd realized these signs were there, though, I somehow managed to get terribly lost coming out of St. Louis, so much so that when I finally did find my way to the old road and stopped in The Red Cedar Inn to get my bearings, they laughingly informed me that I was headed east, not west. Luckily, I hadn't come too far so it called for only minor backtracking. By the way, The Red Cedar Inn is quite a place. Not far out of St. Louis in the small town of Pacific, it's been there since 1934 and is still run by the same family who opened it way back when. The folks here couldn't have been nicer. They pointed me in the right direction, gave me a 66 in Missouri map (a $3 value!) and bought me a drink (Coca-cola, and excellent, too). Stop in here for a cold drink or even some barbeque when you're in the St. Louis area; they deserve your patronage.

Route 66 makes for delightful travel throughout most of the state of Missouri. Through the rolling farmlands and hills, it is as relaxing and peaceful a drive as one could hope for. Thirty or so miles down the road from Pacific is the town of Stanton, home of Meramec Caverns. The caverns are one of the better-known attractions along the old road; their familiar advertisements are seen painted on barns all along the route. The caverns were developed commercially in the '30s by a man named Lester Dill. As a young boy, he had explored Fisher's Cave, which was just across the Meramec River from his family's home. At the age of ten, he began to pick up a little spending money by taking tourists on guided tours of the cave. In 1928, after living in Oklahoma, Florida, and St. Louis, Dill returned to the area when his father was appointed head of the newly created Meramec State Park, where Fisher's Cave is located. Dill signed a contract with the state and began his cave-tour business.

When his contract expired a few years later, Dill began to search for a cave of his own to develop. He finally decided to lease Salt Petre Cave, a few miles downstream from his first cave. Dill felt that the cave's proximity to Route 66 would make it a success and he was right. In the early days, patrons drove their cars right into the cave and many of the early visitors found that if they left their windows open while they toured the caverns and rolled them up before they departed, they got to travel in cool cave-air comfort for a few miles!

Some say that the folks at Meramec Caverns created the bumper sticker. In the early days, they tied a little promotional Meramec Caves sign to each visitors bumper and, eventually, those signs were backed with adhesive.

Dill took full advantage of Meramec Caverns' proximity to 66, too. He and his workers drove up and down the road, searching for barns that faced the road. Dill would then pitch the barn's owner to let him paint the barn for free, providing that the owner allowed him to paint a billboard on the barn's roof. Occasionally free passes to the caverns and other enticements were thrown into the bargain. You can still find barns that read See Meramec Caverns, too.

As recently as 1990, there were 58 of them, along with 48 billboards, along the old road. When you visit this venerable old attraction, you'll likely hear jokes from the young tour guides that have been in use since the '30s as well. They also provide a patriotic moment much like Roadside America's (see Day 2 of the American Odyssey) with an American flag projected on a cave wall and Kate Smith's rendition of God Bless America blasting over loudspeakers. I, for one, wept unabashedly.

Dill passed on in 1980 but the caverns remain in family hands and are worthy of a visit. Just watch out for blood-sucking bats.

Also in Stanton is the Jesse James Wax Museum. This establishment espouses the theory that the famous outlaw was not killed in 1882, as historians have long claimed. Rather, they claim that the dead body identified as James was another man, that it was all a hoax designed to allow James to escape the long arm of the law. James, they suggest, lived to be over one hundred years of age, using the alias of Frank Dalton and spending his last years in Lawton, Oklahoma. The museum has several newspaper articles and signed testimonies from people who knew James as a young man and swore that the body, back in '82, was not his and that the man who appeared in the late '40s was indeed Jesse James. You be the judge!

Continue on the American Odyssey.
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