Just shy of the Kansas border, six miles north of I-44 and right on old Route 66, Carthage (pop. 14,309) is a perfect little town, looking for all the world like the model for the idyllic-though-fictional town of Hill Valley from the Back to the Future movies. The center of Carthage, three blocks south of Route 66, is dominated by the outrageously ornate, circa-1895 limestone Jasper County Courthouse, which features a local history mural and an open-cage elevator in the lobby. (On Thursdays and Fridays the elevator is hand-operated by a charming and friendly woman, Geraldine Bunn, who serves as Carthage’s unofficial ambassador.) Carthage was the boyhood home of naturalist Marlin Perkins, host of Mutual of Omaha’s long-running Wild Kingdom TV show, and a life-size statue of him stands in Central Park, three blocks southwest of the courthouse square. Carthage was also the girlhood home of Wild West outlaw Belle Starr.
Across the street from the central courthouse there’s a good place to eat: the Carthage Deli (301 S. Main St., 417/358-8820, Mon.-Sat.), which serves sandwiches and milk shakes in a 1950s-style soda fountain on the northwest corner of the courthouse square. Two blocks east is a bowling alley, Star Lanes (219 E. 3rd St., 417/358-2144). Also in Carthage is an old Route 66 landmark: the glowing pink-and-green 1940s neon sign of the Boots Court Motel (107 S. Garrison St., 417/310-2989, $66) has welcomed Clark Gable and hundreds of other weary travelers over the years. Local preservationists and Route 66 fans renovated the property and reopened a few rooms for retro-minded road-tripping guests.
A mile or so west of downtown on Old Route 66, enjoy a double feature of Hollywood blockbusters in the comfort of your car at the 66 Drive-In (17231 Old 66 Blvd., 417/359-5959, Thurs.-Sun.).
Finally, if you have a soft spot for hyperbolic sentimentality, don’t miss the Precious Moments Chapel (800/543-7975, daily, free), featuring the wide-eyed characters from the religious figurine series. The chapel is well signed, west of US-71 on the southwest edge of Carthage.
If you want to travel the old Route 66 alignment across Kansas, you’ll also pass through Joplin (pop. 52,195), a border town that’s the industrial center of the tri-state region. Formerly a lead- and zinc-mining town, in May 2011 Joplin made the national news in the worst possible way when it was hit by one of the most powerful tornados in recent U.S. history, 200-mph winds tearing a swath of destruction and killing more than 150 people in less than 10 minutes of terror. Before the tornado, Joplin was better known for its high-quality limestone quarries than for its history, though highway heritage is well served at Schifferdecker Park, west of downtown off 7th Street, a pre-Route 66 rest area that now has a mining museum, small historical museum, and a public swimming pool (417/625-4750, daily, $5) that is much appreciated on a sweltering late-summer day. Though the tornado destroyed dozens of homes and businesses, Joplin’s downtown area does hold one unlikely attraction, a vibrant mural by artist Thomas Hart Benton depicting life in Joplin at the turn of the 20th century. The over-70-square-foot mural, which turned out to be the artist’s final complete work, is in the lobby of the Joplin City Hall (602 S. Main St.).
Joplin has a number of good places to eat. Try the excellent barbecue at Big R’s (1220 E. 15th St., 417/781-5959). The smoky brisket and juicy ribs make it hard to leave room for the tasty fresh-fruit pies. The popular Eagle Drive-In (4244 S. Hearnes Blvd., 417/623-2228) serves up a delicious short-rib chili along with a wide range of burgers: veggie burgers, bison burgers, lamb burgers, tuna burgers, you name it.