Missouri, Sunday, March 23, 2008

Typically I awaken sometime between five and six (though much earlier on occasion), so I was delighted to find that my morning clock is advancing a little. Getting up at around seven, I thought I'd enjoy a quiet morning in my room, reading or catching up on the news. But as it often happens on these trips I quickly felt the pull to get back on the road. So after a quick photo of Wrink's Market (now reopened!) and a tasty breakfast at the counter of Lebanon's Bell Restaurant, I began to thread myself through windy roads headed southwest. I snapped a quick picture of Abbylee Modern Court, being a sucker for the "modern" and "moderene" craze that swept through motel nomenclature during the 30s and 40s, and slowed down in Springfield long enough to photograph the Rest Haven Court and the Rancho Court.

At this point I figured it wouldn't be practical to aim for a long-sought destination, a night in Tulsa's Desert Hills Motel (featuring a neon sign I'd always wanted to photograph at twilight), since I was likely to stop by a few spots between here and there relatively quickly. How wrong I was. Cruising a quiet stretch of road marked with ghost buildings, I spotted a brightly painted Sinclair gas station in Paris Springs and and read the sign: Gay Parita. The gate was open, though no one was around, so I walked around a little. Before long a fellow stepped out of a nearby house and advanced toward me; I felt that familiar twinge. Was I trespassing? Nodding appreciatively at the station, I said, "It looks like a labor of love!" He broke open into a broad smile and asked if I'd like a tour. Before I knew it, I'd just met Gary Turner, a guy who rebuilt a gas station that burned down in 1955 just so he could greet travelers passing through. Gary showed me lots of pics of how the place had changed, beaming with pride at his glorious reproduction, but more than anything, he was thrilled at how many people have visited him since he rebuilt Gay Parita. Visitors have mailed him souvenirs from all over the world, all expressing their joy at chatting with this guy. I suppose the way best to describe Gary is to point at the poster of Cars over his desk. Remember Tow Mater? Imagine that beloved character in human form: that's Gary.

After asking my profession, Gary expressed that he had nothing more than a ninth grade education, though he'd made a million in the car business in California. He told me that he'd have been "dangerous" if he'd continued his schooling. I gently replied that education is hardly the only mark of intelligence, but he was having none of it. Showing me every square inch of his station, Gary added pictures, postcards, and other knickknacks to a pile of stuff he wanted me to take on my journey. I saw a button and said, "Oh, I've got to get this. How much?" But he didn't want a dime. Before long I knew I had to ask for his photo. I'm always a little awkward at this part. I read too much into it, I suppose, but taking a person's picture in a touristic context is laden with symbolic meaning to me. It just doesn't seem like a fair exchange. But Gary has done this before. He grabbed a cap and put a phone to his ear, just like a gas station attendant in 1955 (for all I know).

Gary is one of those amazing people who understand our need for simulacra of Route 66. He didn't just refurbish an old place on the road, he built a new one on the ruins of the old, a better one than could have existed back then. Like a showman, he's got snappy patter, well-worn jokes, and ready props to assist in the creation of a Mother Road experience. Yet, and this is the part that amazes me, he doesn't seem to trade in currency. He only wants folks to send him postcards or books or videos or other mementos of their visits when they return home. Writing this, I commit to sending Gary a copy of that Road Trip America book I wrote a few years back, regretting that I didn't feature him. If I ever write a sequel, I'll do the job right.

As I'm planning to depart, Gary insists that I take a minor detour into the fields off the road. He says, "You'll burn your camera out on this place." He gives me a small map and marks off the turns to Red Oak II and promises me that it will be a highlight of my trip. He says something about a welder who's made some cool gadgets, and I'm not too interested. But I agree to go in honor of our visit. Again, how wrong I was. Gary steered me straight into one of the coolest displays I've ever seen on the road. Red Oak II is a town, a whole town, gathered from a nearby part of the state and moved to a cornfield -- all the vision of Lowell Davis who was saddened by the decline of his hometown into a ghost of its former self. He's spent years refurbishing, painting, and organizing the place of his memory: a gas station, a church, some homes, a general store, a diner, some tourist cabins, and lots of other sites.

I was the only person wandering the streets of Red Oak II when I visited, but I wasn't alone. Dogs barked and kids played the coolest version of Cowboys and Indians you could imagine, hiding around an actual marshal's office located next to a graveyard. Wandering the streets were chickens and geese, and a peacock strutting with outstretched plumage. Interspersed among the buildings were placed some of Lowell's clever and whimsical art pieces. I chatted with him for a few minutes, petting a stray dog that he'd named Fido, so as to avoid getting attached (six years later, Fido is fat and happy on the front porch). Since it was Easter, I didn't want to take much of Lowell's time, but he was happy to lend me the keys to the church, and I enjoyed a moment of spirit and calm that did me good on this trip. Throughout my visit, I seemed to continually shake my head in disbelief. Like the Field of Dreams, Red Oak II is so cool that it seems unreal: a cornfield mirage. Leaving at last, I stopped at a crossroads, gratified to see a metal sign for the place. It is real. And if you're within two hundred miles of the place, you'd better get gassed up for a drive.

A quick stop in Carthage to photograph Boots Motel and I was heading for Kansas. [Continue...]

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All text and photos copyright Andrew Wood