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Lost route

Joshua Boydston July 20th, 2011

It seems that only on the rarest of occasions could you be separated by such a small distance, yet feel worlds apart.

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.

Out West
This 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 through.

After 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Little 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.

One 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.

The 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.

The 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 activity.

Getting 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 begins.

Out East
The road leading from Edmond onward is more defined and easy to follow than its counterpart west of Oklahoma City.

You 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.

Grab 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.

Pass 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.

After 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 bridge.

On 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.

Shortly 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.

Then 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
These 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.

Somewhere, 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.

Sure, 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.

Much 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.

It 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.

The 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.

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