Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Greetings from the Sooner State!

A welcome indulgence. As it closes in on mid-afternoon, I’m savoring in a slice of French Silk Pie at Country Dove – a Victorian tea room in Elk City, OK. The calm of of this brick and clapboard house and its lovely grounds enriches a sweet and restoring moment. My gosh – it feels like we’ve traveled more than just the miles since I last checked in. Our elation at having the car fixed amplified the Oklahoma leg of our trip. From Baxter Springs we headed on to Tulsa, ravenously taking in both the road and the inviting attractions served up by the towns and way stations along our route. We made a late afternoon detour beyond Quapaw to Devil’s Promenade Road, but with darkness yet to set in we had no chance of sighting of the Spooklight – an unexplained phenomenon said to look like a moving ball of light in the night sky. TJ and I agreed that it was likely similar to the Marfa Lights, which we’d had the fun of experiencing on a Big Bend trip some years ago. Our luck wasn’t much better in Vinita, which we heard was the oldest village in the state. The Eastern Trails Museum closed around 4:00 pm, so again our timing was off. However… a consolation prize came our way when we stopped for a snack at the McDonald’s spanning the Will Rogers Turnpike (I-44). The restaurant (along with a number of other food service and retail spaces) sits above the highway, and in the past claimed to be the largest McDonald’s in square footage. Nice to have a bird’s eye view over the center highway lanes while we munched on salads. Fortified, we drove on to Foyil – site of Ed Galloway’s tremendous totem pole. We had just enough light to get the full measure of the structure: 60’ tall, and is 30’ in circumference. Images adorning the pole include colorful lizards, owls and Indian chiefs.

Wit and wisdom. Our Route 66 odyssey hardly would have been complete without a stop in Claremore to pay our respects at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum. Artifacts, memorabilia, materials from Rogers’ performing and film days – plus a saddle collection – vividly tell the story of his life and legend. We were awash in he humor and showmanship of this American master as we resumed our drive down the aptly named Will Rogers Highway. Tulsa held a special stop for us – time with TJ’s aunt Emily. As a boy, TJ lived with Emily ‘s family for a number of years while his parents were working abroad. I hadn’t realized that Tulsa was part of his past, and wondered how he would like the city he found today. It had been years since his last visit. The plan was to stay at Emily’s house, but a water line upgrade on her street put the kibosh on that. Flooding and back-ups had displaced Emily to TJ’s cousin Mark’s place. We made due with our usual accommodations (budget chain – cheap but clean). TJ was psyched to have dinner at the Metro Diner – and again we were too late for the show. Emily shared the sad news that the Metro closed in 2006 when the University of Tulsa took the land for its campus. The Route 66 Diner was satisfying substitute. Between the four of us (Mark included), burgers and plates filled the table, and memories from TJ’s Tulsa years filled our conversation. As with Trolley and Russ, this confirmed my belief that your family is the friends you make along the way. Over the course of our stay, Emily graciously served as our tour guide, taking us to the Philbrook and Gilcrease museums of Art, pointing out handsome Art Deco Buildings known to be built by oil barons in the 1920s-30s, and carefully tracking down segments and sites original to Route 66. We’d hoped that Mark could join us, but he was on long duty stretch at one of the local hospitals, where he’s an ER doc.

Three for the road. Literally as we were saying our goodbyes to Emily, Mark called to say that he’d been sprung from work early, and asked if he could join us as far as Amarillo, TX. We eagerly said yes, and quietly agreed that we’d get the details on this unexpected development at a later date. Emily gave us a wink and a knowing smile… So, with Mark at the wheel (older cousin gets dibs) and TJ riding shotgun, we made our way to Catoosa. It was a rare treat to hear the two of them swap memories: youth soccer, riding bikes, hours at the movies and listening to Mark’s “monster” stereo, catching chili dogs and onion rings at the little drive-in near Mark’s high school, devouring comic books… and, tagging along with Mark’s dad, Fenton, when he made sales calls to doctors and hospitals in the surrounding towns. One of the side trips Fenton always made with the boys was the Tulsa Port of Catoosa – the furthest inland seaport in the US. As our first detour driving west, we took stock of port – but focused our collective attention on the true local attraction: the Blue Whale. The guys doubled over in laughter remembering their attempts to construct a scale replica of the mighty sea mammal for the pool in Emily and Fenton’s back yard. The merriment quieted when we admitted that none of us had read Moby Dick. Perhaps our epic tale of travel and whale spotting gave us a pass on that omission… Oklahoma City was our next major off ramp. Coming into town we checked out the Round Barn in Arcadia – a huge red circular barn that dates back to the late 1890s. So much to see here, but we were starting to sense that time was nipping at our heels. We covered some of the ground with our visit to the Overholser Steel Truss Bridge, and counted a good number of lively neon signs – especially the Route 66 Bowling Alley. West of the city in Yukon we cruised past the landmark Yukon Mill & Grain Company’s elevator.

TJ and Mark fondly remembered Pop Hick’s Restaurant in Clinton, which burned down in 1999. When the guys were young, this was a regular stop of the family’s when driving to Wichita Falls to visit his Fenton’s sister. Again, we were too late to the dance. As a substitute, we stopped for dinner Lucille’s Roadhouse in Weatherford. Inspired by Lucille’s Historic Highway 66 store and gas station in Hydro, this was another interpretation of the diner nostalgia – chrome counter, turquoise stools, and black and white tile floors. We slid in for their storied fried onion burgers.

What next? After a day of rest in Elk City, it seemed the trick to part with the boys while they went in search of a lonely road to “see what the ‘Stang could do”. Even though the pie is gone, I still have a few sips of tea remaining in my cup. That will pair well with the Fred Harris novel at hand, Easy Picken’s. It feels good to steal a moment and some solitude to reflect on all that we’ve encountered in Oklahoma. So many things gone, but not forgotten. No matter what your timetable, you’re never too late to revel in the mystique of Route 66. Take care, and be well!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Greetings from the Sunflower State!

The Kansas State Motto, “Ad Astra Per Aspera” (translation: “To the stars through difficulties”) has proven to be strangely prophetic as we pressed on in our journey. We had a rough start out of Joplin – those menacing storm clouds indeed came through with rain – but the persistent showers and thunder were the least of our problems.

Plan A: We’d intended to make pretty quick work of Kansas, given that Route 66 spans only a small portion of the state (13 miles…) – and that we had many stops in mind for Oklahoma. As soon as we got into Galena, it was obvious that the ‘Stang was in distress. After pulling into a local gas station/garage, TJ disappeared into the tollbooth-sized office for a 20 minute consultation with the mechanic on duty. Upon returning to the car, he reported that a new part was needed, but we’d have to try repair shops in Riverton or Baxter Springs. As we sputtered down the road, the rain was unrelenting – much like the look of defeat on TJ’s face. Luckily, we found what was needed in Baxter Springs – repair of both the vehicle and our psyches. Russ, the mechanic at a spruce but well-worn shop immediately could see what the problem was, and had a connection in Tulsa that could supply the requisite parts in about 4-5 days.

Plan B: Realizing that our fate was in the good hands of Russ and his people farther down the road, we were able to see beyond the darkness of the rain and our delay, and figure out how to make the most of this detour. It was a chance to be in the moment… to breathe and re-boot. Russ was intrigued by our trip, and could see how we were at a loss in defining our next steps. Being an expert diagnostician, Russ invited us to his house for coffee and some strategy. We could tell that Russ had a deep fondness for the car, and that he was trying to think of how he could entertain us during the wait for parts (or as we came to call it, “WFP time”). After countless cups of strong, home-brewed coffee and a few donuts (courtesy of Russ’s wife Fern’s early morning run to Daylight Donuts), we hatched a game plan:

1. Russ would make sure we had accommodations at The Little Brick Inn. Serendipity – this historic building is located on Route 66, and was a bank in the 1870s. Guess who made a memorable visit (and withdrawal) in 1876? A nice little restaurant, Café on the Route, is a companion to the B&B.

2. Russ realized that we might get a bit restless spending the better part of the week prowling around the town limits, so offered us use of an old Wagoneer that he kept at his place. Not so good on gas mileage, but it would get us to the surrounding towns and back.

3. And, he said that we were welcome to hang out with him at the shop or his home whenever we liked.

All is not lost. Surprisingly, we fell into an easy routine as the week progressed. We were up at a reasonable hour for breakfast at the B&B – where we met a handful of people with all manner of life stories: German students hostelling along the Mother Road, a woman and her aunt visiting relatives, and retired RVers tanking up on coffee and local news before heading on to the Texas Coast. (We also were sure to catch either lunch or dinner at the Café, as well; TJ become quite enamored of the fried potato salad and smoked turkey pretzel.) After this leisurely time of sustenance and conversation, invariably we provisioned for the day at Eisler Brothers Country Store, a few miles away in Riverton. At this former Standard Station (built in 1925), we found good sandwiches and accompaniments packed up freshly and with generosity. The store’s owners clued us in on local history and geography as we placed our orders. It was a treat to inspect the souvenirs, and we couldn’t stop admiring the workmanship of the pressed tin ceiling.

Down Time. An immediate point of interest in Riverton was the Rainbow Bridge – a restored arch bridge complete with commemorative marker. Another of our day trips took us up to Pittsburg. Technically not part of our Route 66 experience, but a fine destination in its own right. We did our laundry there – you can imagine how pronounced the accumulations had become... Then back to play: Big Brutus more than caught our attention – “the world's second largest electric mining shovel.” We did the full inspection: walked its “cavernous body”, sat in the operator’s chair, and climbed all 16 stories to the top of the boom – quite a vantage point for viewing the tranquil Kansas prairie. Our favorite stop was the Pittsburg Public Library, which gave us an extended chance to read (TJ was working on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, while I was involved with Peter Cameron’s The City of Your Final Destination) and grab some WIFI time. The original library was a Carnegie, built in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright. In the course of these meanders, we found the Wagoneer to be a competent and dependable ride. Perhaps we had a getaway vehicle in case the ‘Stang met with an unfortunate fate…?

On the road again. Baxter Springs took good care of us. After a morning of local sites in our temporary home town – the Little League Baseball Museum, Bilke’s Western Museum (another mural – this one showing a longhorn cattle drive), and the Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum (plus some newspaper time at the Johnson Public Library) – we settled in for lunch at Café on the Route with Russ’s wife Fern. Just as I tucked into my cup of soup (cream of baked potato), Russ appeared at the table. Not only did he join us for lunch, but he also reported that the parts had come in from Tulsa a few hours ago… and the ‘Stang was now more than road worthy! We raised our iced tea glasses in celebration, and tried to train our mindsets back to the road. We were a bit wistful at saying goodbye to our new friends, but we were also feeling the clarion call of the road. Unlike Ulysses, we could not resist the sirens’ song along Route 66.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Greetings from the Show Me State!

Late afternoon finds us in Joplin, MO – a bit weary but in no way fatigued by the road! Storm clouds are on the approach, perhaps ready to abate the hot and humid days we’ve experienced since leaving Illinois. TJ has ventured into town for a coffee blast, and to track down some gear for the car. The ‘Stang seems to roll along with energy and power… but, based on the slightly anguished look on TJ’s face as we left Carthage earlier, maybe it’s time to expect the unexpected… I’m sitting by the motel pool just now, enjoying the sky, watching the cars speed by, and reflecting on our great discoveries in Missouri.

Perhaps because we both live in urban areas, and our trip’s point of departure was Chicago, we were very tuned in to towns and built environments as we made our way south through Illinois. The vintage structures, the signage – even the variations on asphalt – fed our curiosity and hunger for visual details. Happily, Missouri has taken us in a different direction. An anchor for this leg of the journey was a college friend of TJ’s who works at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. Our plan was to meet Trolley in St. Louis, and drive the state with him. Unfortunately, a last-minute crisis pulled Trolley off the Mother Road. Ever the gracious host, he provided us with tips for food and diversions from St. Louis to Rolla – where we were finally able to meet up. Of course, our stop in St. Louis began with a pilgrimage to Gateway Arch. Another nearby institution that we couldn’t pass up was the Eat Right Diner at 622 Chouteau. In the course of our walk to the diner it began to rain, which proved lucky for us. That meant very few customers for a late lunch. We found two stools next to each other (12 are available when Eat Rite is empty), and fortified ourselves with bottomless cups of coffee and a Slinger for TJ (2 eggs, hash browns and a hamburger patty smothered in chili or gravy). Ah – the true riches of cheap eats! When the weather cleared, we visited the historic Chain of Rocks Bridge, and also spied the old “66” Park In Theater. Although we were running late into the day, TJ insisted that (per Trolley’s suggestion), we stop at Ted Drewes for a concrete. As TJ dutifully flipped over his large cup with spoon inserted (contents and utensil indeed did not budge from the container), I laughed at the thought of him and Trolley doing macrobiotics and cleanses in their college days…

About that different direction. We’ve been so taken by the natural beauty of Missouri’s landscapes – and have wanted to be out of the car more than in it as we continued into the heart of this passage. Any chance we had to get out and explore on foot was more temptation than we could master. Another anchor on this stretch of the road has been a small collection of Route 66 guidebooks – and, we’ve been reading Mark Twain aloud to each other. Huck Finn, Jim, Tom Sawyer and Puddin’ Head Wilson have been tag alongs in the car. Eureka indulged us with a morning of history and hiking at the Route 66 State Park. The Bridgehouse Inn (a 1935 roadhouse), serves as the visitor center, and welcomed us with memorabilia and an overview of the the area’s environmental story. In Pacific we had a true taste of Americana at the Red Cedar Inn. Formerly a hotel, the structure now houses a restaurant that hit the spot for a late afternoon meal. Barn advertising near Caffeyville heralded the Meramec Caverns outside of Stanton. Learning that this was a hiding place in the 1870s for Jesse James and his crew added to the adventure of seeing Stage Curtain, a 70 million year-old “mineral cascade” (90’ H x 50’ W). Who could resist the Jesse James Museum and the Antique Toy Museum (… correct you are… not us!). In Rolla, Trolley made up for his earlier absence by showing us around the campus – including the local homage to Stonehenge (we all joked about feeling a sudden yen to watch “This Is Spinal Tap”…). Perhaps the best part of the day was hiking the trails at Lane Springs, and feasting on a picnic lunch. The hours melted away, and we felt like we could have been in an earlier decade, faithful roadster taking a rest while we took a deep breath of fragrant freedom. No schedules, no appointments and no commitments. To end the day, Trolley treated us to an evening repast at A Slice of Pie.

Onward next through Devil’s Elbow and the Big Cut area. The Elbow names a bend in the Big Piney River where tree trunks accumulate. One can easily understand why this was a favorite Ozarks resort spot in the 1930s-40s. After hiking (and some splashing in the river), we visited Wrink’s Market in Lebanon. Drinks and sandwiches in hand (not to mention some toxic but tasty eats for the road), we talked with the counter help and soaked in the lively story of this long-time oasis. Yesterday we toured around in Springfield, starting with a curbside view of the Shrine Mosque – Abou Ben Adhem. For some reason this reminded me of the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD. Why – I have no clue! We also did a self-guided public art and sculpture tour, and carefully tracked Route 66 through town. Trolley had recommended that if we were tentative about the local restaurant choices, our go-to spot should be Steak ‘n Shake. After a trip to Crystal Cave and a round of miniature golf at Fun Acre Miniature Golf, we fell into the first Steak ‘n Shake that crossed our path. At this regional favorite, we shared Steakburger Shooters, and had side by side shakes.

On the way into Joplin, we were thrilled to stumble upon an incredible Thomas Hart Benton mural at the City Hall. This was a great companion piece to the murals we saw in Cuba. As an artist, these exemplars of history and community definitely gave TJ the itch to pick up his paint brushes. Alas, it’s the web design work that pays the bills handsomely.

So, heartened by all the gifts that came to us in Missouri – scenic treasures, wonderful diversions, good friends and – of course – good food, we’ll be quickly through Kansas and then on to my beloved Southwest.

More soon – take care and be well!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Greetings from the Land of Lincoln!

Springfield, IL, 7:00 am: I’m sipping coffee and waiting for my eggs at the Filling Station Restaurant, part of the Route 66 Hotel and Conference Center (last night’s lodging). Mighty luxe after the more budget-minded accommodations we’ve been taking since departing Chicago! Our flight into Midway went without a hitch, and so began the odyssey that I alluded to in my phone message earlier in the week. My friend TJ got word on Monday that the children of a classic car collector in Cicero, IL, were willing to sell his mint condition 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback for a surprisingly reasonable price. The gentleman was moving to a retirement community, and no longer had space for his impressive array of vintage rides. Since the car is all about revisiting TJ’s youth and his nostalgia for summer road trips, he was inspired to drive the car back to the west coast along Route 66. So, I find myself riding shot gun – with vintage Ray-Ban Wayfarers firmly atop my head!

To keep within the spirit of the “Mother Road” experience, we agreed to a number of ground rules before setting out:

  1. No iPods, MP3 players, XM/Sirius, CDs or cassettes. When we’re driving, we rely on whatever broadcast stations we can pick up. This was a hard condition for TJ to swallow, but he won a round when I caved in on an hour of WIFI each day – wherever it turned up. We both agreed on no texting, and limited email (TJ looked a bit green at this decision, but is taking it bravely). Postcards are encouraged and allowed.

  2. No television or videos. For entertainment and diversion, we’re reading books about the places we’ll be visiting. We’re both keeping journals, so this should occupy us (and help me not to miss CSI and Top Chef too much…)

  3. When possible, eat only at local diners and restaurants. TJ is pretty psyched about this, and we hit the jackpot at the Filling Station – the horseshoe sandwich. He was munching antacid like crazy last night, but is undaunted, and ready to do it again for the breakfast version. Amazing how the allure of road food can make an ardent juicer and raw foods enthusiast cross over to the darkside!

Some highlights so far: TJ has been reading through The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg, which he picked up at a used bookstore we found near the University of Chicago. I’m revisiting Sara Paretsky’s mysteries and Stephen B. Oates’ With Malice Toward None: the Life of Abraham Lincoln for this leg of the trip. We’ve been able to follow some good jazz stations out of Chicago, and can usually pick up a daily dose of NPR. Lots of country and oldies on the airwaves, too! Many a strange and wondrous sight along the road, as well. A ways down the pike from Cicero, we were delighted to discover the “Gemini Giant” in Wilmington – a fine exemplar of a “muffler man”. Just north of Pontiac we had lunch at the Old Log Cabin – a Route 66 fixture of some years. A great selection of diner favorites populated the menu (sandwiches, plates) – but we ended up ordering numerous sides, with a slice of cream pie for dessert. Talk about a return to the foods of our childhoods! We’re seeing some good neon, and a variety of old gas stations. If only they remained active – and a battery of young men would race out to fuel and check the car…

Eggs are here, and so is TJ. Time to experience the awesomeness that’s the horseshoe sandwich one last time. More soon – from Missouri! Take care, and be well.