That’s the sensation one gets cruising down the stretch of Route 66 between Weatherford and El Reno. The interstate travelers speed by, dozens of cars jostling for position as they squeal past billboards. It’s a race with nothing in mind but the finish line.
You can witness the prix clearly — separated by little more than a half-mile-thick strip of grass and trees — while making your way down the Mother Road. Gone is the road rage, the constant visual and audible stimulation. Instead, it’s a quiet rush of air, lined with trees instead of advertisements and only the occasional passerby. Those traveling down Route 66 are welcomed into historic downtown districts, vibrant diners and quirky roadside attractions. Instead of hurry and anxiety, it’s calm and anticipation of another new discovery.
Roughly 400 miles of America’s Main Street are remaining in Oklahoma, some stretches with the original cement — paved in the early 1930s — still intact. It’s a trip worth taking, in more ways than one.
trip begins on the western border with Texas in the relative ghost town
of Texola (in the 2010 census, the population was 36) and ends in the
northeastern corner in Quapaw. The stretch west of Oklahoma City is
sometimes hard to follow, but careful attention to twists and turns — as
well as concessions to a few miles on Interstate 40 — will get you
Texola comes Erick, a small city that hosts the wonderfully weird
Sandhills Curiosity Shoppe, which itself houses an explosion of Route 66
memorabilia, along with colorful characters and conversations. The road
passes through Hext and Sayre before landing in Elk City, where a
traveler is immediately greeted with the National Route 66 Museum and
Old Town Museum Complex.
property is set up as a quiet, quaint faux-village, housing a museum
and working pharmacy. The buildings are brightly painted in a row of
rainbow pastels, dotted with antique Coca-Cola coolers and Conoco gas
pumps. The museum holds a walk-through of all eight states through which
Route 66 passes.
Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton comes soon after, but instead of
celebrating the simple and cozy city life, it instead focuses on the
bright and exciting life of the road. Each room commemorates a different
era, from the initial paving to its mid-20th century heyday to now. The
relatively small museum is packed from floor to ceiling with massive
neon signs, old gas pumps, vintage cars and model motels, repair shops
and diners. The restored signage and marquees are remarkable; true works
of art with character for miles.
other than a wind farm and a sadly dilapidated drive-in movie theater
stand between Clinton and Weatherford. If hunger is panging, Lucille’s
Roadhouse is just east of the city. Open but five years, it may not be a
long-standing feature of Route 66, but it is dedicated to one. Lucille
Hamons — known as the “mother of the Mother Road” — operated a simple
gas station just outside of Hydro for 59 years, weathering the inception
of the interstate and becoming an icon of the highway in the process,
before passing away in 2000. A replica ’50s diner serves as one of two
dining spaces Lucille’s offers, and the massive (and delicious) burgers,
fries and blue-plate specials — like sizzling fried chicken — feel
right at home among the buzzing pink and turquoise neon and chrome accents.
passes by Hamons’ old service station south of Hydro on that heavenly,
transformative road between Weatherford and El Reno. The quiet turns and
hills propel drivers past abandoned truck stops and wheat fields,
slowly making one’s way through Bridgeport, Geary and Calumet before
being met just west of El Reno with a vivid — and huge — mural of a
scissor-tailed flycatcher in pinks, blues and oranges that grab your
attention in a welcomed way.
road then leads its way through a charming downtown that’s largely
clear of the chain businesses that pop up through the more modernized
stretches Route 66 traverses in the cities to the west. There’s a trio
of awesome onion burger joints jotted across the district, as well as
the Oklahoma Vintage Guitar Shop and Museum, an old trolley station, a
renovated playhouse and lots of Victorian architecture.
trail then heads toward Yukon, although much of the city lies south of
the road, before moving through Bethany and Warr Acres. Although 66 Bowl
(and its gorgeous sign) is sadly removed, numerous old businesses, bars
and restaurants — like Ann’s Chicken Fry House — still buzz with
through Oklahoma City on 66 is quite the task; it’s not well-marked and
the few signs are easy to miss. Catch sights, like the Milk Bottle
building, Kamp’s Grocery and the Capitol building. Edmond is much the
same, but after exiting towards Arcadia, the confusion ends and more fun
The road leading from Edmond onward is more defined and easy to follow than its counterpart west of Oklahoma City.
are quickly greeted by a mammoth soda pop bottle — lit up like
Christmas at night — and an equally impressive and astounding wall of
color-coordinated pop bottles arranged in a gradient at Pops.
your bottle of choice to sip on while stopping to marvel at the Round
Barn a short distance away. It’s not much more than a barn that is round
… but it reeks of 66 kitsch and fun.
through Luther, Wellston and Warwick before stopping just west of
Chandler to view the Meramec Caverns Barn, an advertisement for the
Meramec Caverns in Missouri that used to grace the side of dozens of
barns across the state (and country). It’s one of just a few left on the
Mother Road, and the last one in Oklahoma.
Chandler and Davenport comes Stroud and the sensational Skyliner Motel
sign that screams ’50s travel. Sleepy towns Kellyville lead to Sapulpa
and then Tulsa, home to wonderful Art Deco buildings and the 11th Street
the outskirts of town is the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. The imposing
building and the brightly lit neon guitar sign serve as reminders of how
the comparatively conservative buildings and signs that trace the rest
of the road must have felt in their heyday. And although a corporate
offering, the casino is a reminder that new blood can thrive here.
up the road comes Catoosa and its iconic Catoosa Blue Whale. It’s just
the sort of quirks you should have come to expect at this point.
comes Verdigris and Claremore — the home of the Will Rogers Memorial
Museum — before reaching Foyil and its bizarre Totem Pole Park just east
of town. Ed Galloway began constructing the clutch of 11 carvings in
1937 and finished 11 years later. The park claims to have the “world’s
largest concrete totem pole.” (And what trip down Route 66 would be
complete without a world’s largest something?) It’s more tiny towns from
here on out, moving through Chelsea, Vinita and Afton, before coming
into Miami and its majestic Coleman Theatre Beautiful — which has stood
since 1929 — and then exiting into the southeast corner of Kansas
through Commerce and Quapaw.
The mother road
travels weren’t built upon being greeted with the standard Applebee’s
and 7-Eleven at the entrance of every town. Each town has a specific
flavor, so much so that it’s easy to tell Davenport, Luther and Clinton
apart after one drive through.
we traded excitement and individuality for the comfort of being
welcomed by the safe and familiar. We are assured no bad experiences,
but we lose the good and new ones. The thrill of the journey is gone for
the desire to reach the destination as fast as possible, and it’s easy
to forget to look around to see what makes each city — and its people —
unique and worth remembering.
there was just as much branding and advertising on the Mother Road as
the interstates, but it felt genuine and helpful rather than empty and
confrontational, and those chains and name brands coexisted right beside
one-of-a-kind diners and shops instead of overshadowing them.
of that is gone now, however, whether in junkyards, private collections
or rusting on the side of the road. Landmarks and attractions close
with each passing year and will continue to do so.
would be easy to mourn all that’s been lost, but what’s important now is
to remember all that it was and enjoy it for what it is now. Continuing
to do so ensures a life that will go well past our own.
beautiful buildings, buzzing neon and quirky roadside attractions all
still live here, if muted, and it’s just as much a trip down memory lane
as it is one from city to city. Certainly, this is a past worth
revisiting, if not reconstructing entirely.
All photos by Joshua Boydston.