It’s Day 4, from Springfield to St. Louis on old Route 66, and yes there are small town diners and plenty of old pavement to chew on. But we must talk about Henry’s Rabbit Ranch.
Scene: As isolated as any stretch of the old road. There’s a gas station along the road, and though the building seems intact, the items littering the yard are rusted and time-worn. The Rabbit Ranch sign declares “Hare it is,” eliciting nervous laughter. Funny, but also weird.
The place is deserted, and dead silent except for the shabby signs creaking in the wind. It’s the middle of the day, and a good thing: at dusk, this place would make for a terrific Halloween horror show. One parks the car carefully, with an eye to a hasty exit.
We’ve hit Route 66 in search of kitsch, and we’ve just found it. The travel guides tell you that Henry’s Rabbit Ranch celebrates rabbits — both the furry and the mechanical kind. While that’s technically true, it barely scratches the surface of this complex and fascinating stop on the mother road.
As we wandered the property taking pictures of the rabbit statues, half-buried VW Rabbits, rabbit semi trailers, and the rabbit signs, a rickety VW Rabbit pulled into the drive. Looks like all the others, but this one’s running, and there’s a person inside.
Enter Rich Henry, rabbit lover.
There’s a small shop inside the gas station (it’s a replica, we later learn), and Henry is quick to bring us up to speed on his story — loved the old route, wanted to build a visitor center, here we are. But wouldn’t you like to meet Big Red? Why yes, we would.
Big Red is the current rock star in the shop. He’s a big, flop-eared rabbit with a very mellow attitude, who settles immediately onto a padded carpet on the counter. For the next half hour, rabbits are all we could talk about. We learned all about Big Red — he’s a rescue, he really sleeps up there all day, guests love him (and they love all the other rabbits, too — just check the guestbook). Along the way, we learn about Montana, a previous and much-beloved rabbit/mascot. Montana ran for president in ’08 and has her own membership in the Route 66 club, so as cute as he is, Big Red is starting to look like a slacker.
Montana passed away before the election, and I guess that’s how Obama was able to carry Illinois. We’ve got to head out to the side yard, where the rabbit graveyard is. Each tombstone is hand-made and lettered, as unique as the bunnies they memorialize. You might not notice them right away, as they are overshadowed by the giant fiberglass rabbit, but Rich remembers. And if you’re interested, he’ll tell you about each of them.
Did we mention Rich Henry loves rabbits?