Just shy of the Kansas border, six miles north of I-44 and right on old Route 66, Carthage (pop. 14,378) 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.)
Across the street from the courthouse there’s a good place to eat: the Carthage Deli (301 S. Main St., 417/358-8820, closed Sun.), 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 Motel (107 S. Garrison St., 417/310-2989, $72) welcomed Clark Gable and hundreds of other weary travelers over the years. Local preservationists and Route 66 fans had renovated the property and reopened a few rooms for retro-minded overnight 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, weekends only).
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.