Gray Summit: The Gardenway Motel

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If you started your Route 66 journey in St. Louis, as I did, then Gray Summit will likely be the first place west of the city that you truly start to get the flavor of the Mother Road.  A couple of old motels with funky signs and a boarded-up restaurant help create the atmosphere that continues for nearly two thousand more miles.

Gray Summit marks the point where early Route 66 (1926-1933) rejoins the later alignment (which follows I-44, passing through Times Beach).  If your time is unlimited, make a loop, so that you’ve covered both alignments.  The Pre-1933 alignment follows MO Rte. 100, which parallels I-44 several miles to the north.  Headed west from Gray Summit, Old 66 is often frontage road, occasionally straying away from the superslab.

It’s hard to miss several signs pointing toward the Gardenway Motel, just a short distance west from the Gray Summit exit.  This is one of the smaller ones, the larger one towers over the side of the freeway, with huge individual letters.

I’ve read on other Route 66 websites that the Gardenway Motel was closed, but it appeared to be open, and have quite a few overnight guests, when I passed by.  The sign may be funky neon, but the building itself appears to be well maintained, making the Gardenway a definite possibility for an overnight stay.

Just beyond the Gardenway is the Tri-County Truck Stop Restaurant, formerly the Diamonds Restaurant (another business that advertises with big, funky neon signs at the Gray Summit exit).

The Tri-County Truck Stop is out of business, and all that remains of the old “Truck Stop” sign is the last three letters.

Back when the Tri-County was the Diamonds Restaurant, it billed itself as the “World’s Largest Roadside Restaurant”.  I must admit, the old building is surprisingly large.  Here’s a website with some old pictures and advertising.

Another mile or two beyond the old Tri-County, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, you pass the Sunset Motel.  A couple of great old signs are slowly falling apart by the roadside…

… while the building itself appears to be in fairly good condition, in use as apartments.

After that brief departure from the Interstate, Route 66 rejoins I-44 at the side of the freeway, curving its way along a delightfully indirect path (notice the Meramec Caverns barn in the middle, and another Meramec Caverns sign at the side of the road.

Meramec Caverns is one of Route 66’s most enduring and successful roadside attractions, touting itself as a former hideout for Jesse James.  I appreciate these old-style tourist attractions, but I chose not to go, for a couple of reasons.  One, I didn’t want to use up the time (guided tours take about 90 minutes, and leave every half hour, so it could have used up two hours or more, and I simply didn’t have that much to spare), and two, I’m convinced that I’ve already seen the most spectacular caverns in America — Carlsbad Caverns.  Any time I’ve visited a cave since then (such as Ruby Falls in Chattanooga), I’ve been disappointed.  So, I passed by Meramec Caverns, adding it to the list of places I’ll visit along 66, the next time.

Caves and caverns are plentiful in this part of Missouri.  Among your other choices: Meramec State Park (I-44 Exit 226 – the next exit westbound after Meramec Caverns), and Fantastic Caverns near Springfield, which bills itself as America’s only ride-thru cave (instead of walking, you take a jeep ride underground).

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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