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Foreign tourists describe seeing ‘real America’

Fri, Sep 7, 2012

Alex Filipowicz

In the village of Odell, Illinois there is a gas station built to look like a house, with white shingled walls, an azure roof and a shingled canopy that stretches over an antiquated crimson gasoline pump. While the pump has long been dry, the station is still kept in immaculate condition. Behind the station’s doors is not the typical convenience store, but rather a large collection of Route 66 artifacts and merchandise. The real surprise, however, can be found on the back wall, which is completely plastered with foreign currency and business cards from Argentina, Japan, Mozambique, Russia, New Zealand and many other places. A veritable Parade of Nations has passed through this sleepy town with a population of 1,014.

Among their numbers are Line and Pierre Audin, a French couple who stopped by the Standard Oil Service Station on the first afternoon of what would turn out to be a 37-day journey from Chicago to Los Angeles along Route 66. Line, a former English teacher, said her longstanding fascination with America motivated her to take the trip.

“Not the real America and its present values, money, power… I am speaking of the myth that has grown through American literature, movies, music: the land of freedom, of true relationships, of adventure, hard work, the land where man and nature are one, the America of Jack London, John Steinbeck, Thoreau, Howard Hawks, John Ford… I wanted to look for clues, to see what was left of the myth and I easily convinced my husband to follow me,” she said in an email after her return home.

Though Route 66 was officially removed from the United States highway system in 1985, its influence in popular culture is widespread and many are still motivated to pursue the “American myth” along this historic road. For Janne Elsborg, a tour guide from Gothenburg, Sweden, this means a steady paycheck. Working for “the world’s largest Route 66 tour arranger and the only Route 66 tour promoter in the Nordic countries that is approved by Harley Davidson,” Elsborg runs tours from May to October and works the rest of the year as a salesman. Annually, his company takes over 1,000 Europeans on 17-day-long trips along Route 66, with most hailing from Norway and Sweden. Before coming here, the tourists are typically a bit wary of our country because “crimes, murders, that’s the only thing they see on television,” he said.
But Elsborg claims that after driving across the U.S., “they see that most people are helpful, social and kind. They come here and see the real America is very positive.”

Unfortunately, Elsborg’s tours do not leave much time for Illinois on their itinerary aside from the “usual tourist traps” in Chicago such as the Willis Tower, Millennium Park and Navy Pier. The rest of the state is relegated to a “transportation day” as they rush onward to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas: a blow to both Illinois pride and the state’s economy. Scrambling to reach these world-famous sites as quickly as possible while ignoring the detours along the way, they lose some of the magic of Route 66. They miss the pleasure of “driving through the cute peaceful towns with trees and flowers and capturing with our cameras the old colorful signs of restaurants and gas stations” as Line described them. In addition, Line emphasizes that on her trip, taking the time to speak to people was just as important as seeing any landmark, if not more so.

“There was not a day when someone –old, young, rich, homeless, did not share a bit of their lives, their dreams, their philosophy with us. They all talked to us just because we had come to them, a way of saying thank you for stopping by, for being interested in them. There are so many extraordinary destinies, faces and words I will remember.”

Alex Filipowicz, StreetWise Editorial Intern

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