Oklahoma, Monday, March 24, 2008

Heading out of Tulsa, photographing the Rancho Grande and the Midway Trailer Court, I began to rail against the poor signage on Oklahoma's section of the Mother Road, signs that bring travelers into the middle of town before mysteriously vanishing at a critical junction. And I'm not talking about Oklahoma City; I'm dissing tiny burgs that kicked me out onto farm roads without a sign for miles telling me how screwed up I'd gotten. Next time I do a trip like this, I'm bringing a compass. No matter. The day was awesome all the same.

An early craving for a decent burger brought me to Rock Cafe in Stroud, owned by none other than Dawn Welch, the inspiration for Sally the Porsche in Cars. As the story goes, John Lasseter was drawn to Dawn's choice to leave a life of globe-hopping and run a restaurant in Stroud. She'd worked as a hostess on cruise ships but didn't know a thing about the restaurant business. But she fell for the friendly town and decided to stay. While so much of this trip is about the various simulacra that define Route 66, it was refreshing to meet an original. Returning to my car, I chatted briefly with a dude wearing a leather biker jacket who was cruising 66 with his daughter. I figured it was his idea, but he explained that his daughter loved Cars so much that she wanted to see the real road. Then I remembered that I'd seen them earlier that morning, the two in that brown pickup just ahead of me. We compared notes on places and guides of the road before wishing each other well.

After a quick visit to Chandler, home of the Lincoln Motel, my next stop was Arcadia, where I planned to snap a quick photo of the Round Barn on my way to Pops, that new gas station and restaurant that's getting so much attention. Instead I ended up staying about an hour after meeting an 82-year old local farmer who serves as a part-time docent of the barn. I'd just caught up with my new friends from Stroud and we were stepping into the barn when a tall lanky fellow welcomed us by asking, "Ya'll got time for a story?" We three nodded a little nervously and this fellow reared back and bounced on his feet, a broad smile crossing his face. He introduced himself as "Mr. Sam" and commenced to touring the rounded inside of the barn, telling us tales of the Oklahoma Land Rush, memories of his youth without running water, and the meanings of inscriptions found on the collection of bricks collected by the barn's restorer, Luther Robinson, who with a group of volunteers called the Over-the-Hill-Gang transformed the dilapidated structure into a regional marvel. Mr. Sam's stories advanced by inches as we slowly moved around the barn, but none of us minded. He clearly loves this place and his chance to share its history. I can't imagine a more perfect ambassador for Arcadia.

Further up the road, I finally found Pops. A number of times during this trip, I'd mentioned my plans to visit Pop's and I'd be reminded how that placed burned down. "Oh, I don't mean Pop Hicks," I'd explain. "I mean that new place near Oklahoma City." Generally '66ers, those who know the road well and personally, are intrigued by the potential for new business inspired by Pop's. But many aren't too happy about the place. It's not "real" 66; it's a version of the road designed for a brief detour from I-44. A fair critique, I suppose. But, come on! Pop's sells some 400 kinds of soda pop. 400! Honestly I have no idea how much they sell, but the glass façade of this striking googie gas station, with a cantilevered canopy that juts crazily toward the prairie is stacked with row upon row of bottles filled with colors often not seen in nature. It's hard not to smile at Pops. The place is a conflation of Route 66, most notably in plastic-framed photos of Mother Road icons ordered by all eight states through which the highway passes. You'll find all the standard Route 66 swag, virtually any kind of souvenir that can fit the ubiquitous highway shield, and plenty of Pops merchandise also: from rows of t-shirts to rub-on tattoos. Pops has quickly assumed its position as one of the central examples of Route 66 simulacra: illustrating more than most the role of self-referentiality as places meaningful only in their own contexts.

Snapping a few final pics of Pops -- and promising myself that I'll return at night when next in Oklahoma to see that magnificent soda bottle aglow with color -- I rejoined the road, bypassing much of the capital city's confusing downtown and rejoining 66 on the road heading west. Some famed motel signs still stand, but so many have vanished. Two favorites from our first trip, the Yukon and the Big 8, are long gone [clickable images are from 1996]. At least the 66 Bowl and the Western Motel endure. Soon thereafter I slipped off the main alignment and followed McClanahan's' advice to drive the older route from Fort Reno to Hydro.

What a ride. On this stretch the road is much narrower than today's highways, forcing the occasional truck to own the entire width itself. Today I found the road to be bordered with purple groups of wildflowers that stretched over the hills. From time to time I'd stop the car and stand on the road by myself as seemingly gale-force winds galloped over the fields. I rubbed my feet against the lip of the road. That divot was designed to keep speeding cars from careening off the highway. Cracks in the pavement, down the middle and at regular intervals horizontally showed the age of this section, adding a reassuring bumpty-bump that marked every few yards of my path toward Hydro. Along with my walk near Lexington and my return to Devil's Elbow, this stretch of road is easily the nicest part of '66 I've seen yet.

At this point, the afternoon was drawing toward evening, and I made a quick pilgrimage to Lucille's, the famed gas station just west of Hydro that closed up after its namesake, Lucille Hamons, passed away in 2000. Wouldn't you know it? An entrepreneur named Rick Koch has built a larger version of the station four miles west of the original, complete with name, glass-block, chrome stools, and old-timey gas pumps. The food was good and reasonably priced, but I had to wonder: How many people will visit Lucille's Roadhouse in the coming years without even imagining that the original place is less than five minutes away? Thinking wistfully about Lucille, a person I'd never met, I headed for Clinton, my last stop of the day.

I knew that the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum would be closed by my arrival, but I didn't mind hitting town earlier than usual and getting a decent night's sleep before the next day's long haul to Tucumcari. I figured I'd stay at the Glancy Motor Hotel or maybe the Midtown Travel Inn, but both had clearly gone to seed in the years since our family last drove through town. Even the Trade Winds Motel across from the museum looked pretty sketchy. But promises of free wireless internet convinced me to avoid one of the pricier chain places near the interstate. So tonight I hope to sleep soundly in a room that stinks of smoke (and goodness knows what else). The sound of cars is slowly giving way to a quiet night in Clinton. I've been on the road for four days now, and I have to remind myself that it's Monday. [Continue...]

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All text and photos copyright Andrew Wood