The March of Time

It’s been a little over seven years since I received that terrible phone call, the one that signaled a new age of my life. It’s a little surreal to look back at my world at the time of my father’s sudden passing. I feel like I was just a kid then, even though I was nearly 30; so much is different today.

None of my photography had ever been printed.  My knowledge of local history and tourism was limited at best.  Route 66 wasn’t even in my vocabulary. In fact, I hadn’t taken a single road trip in Oklahoma since returning home from my ten months overseas. It boggles my mind how much I’ve learned and accomplished since Dad knew me.

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On Father’s Day, I set out on a very familiar path; the road I know best, actually. Samantha joined me as I drove north from Tulsa into Osage County.  I’d wager that I’ve driven that stretch of road (Highway 75 to 20 to 11 to 99) more than any other two-lane in my life.  It was the road to my grandparent’s house (on both sides) and then it was the road to Dad’s. It’s still the road to much of my family. Some of it has changed, but much of it has not.

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I stopped in Barnsdall on the way up and took some time to walk Main Street.  At 8:30 in the morning in a town of 1,200 it was predictably still. Most of what I observed mirrored the town of my memory.  Bigheart Pizza, the resale shop, the post office, Andy’s Hamburgers. Several storefronts had burned down over the years (including my great-aunt Estelle’s beauty shop) and a few had been replaced with sheet-metal impostors. The grocery store I used to visit with grandma has been gone for decades; the “newer” store was recently put up For Sale, a victim of the Dollar General down the street. Overall, the town hangs on.

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When we arrived in Pawhuska, a brand-new service station greeted us on the edge of town.  The commercial impact of Ree Drummond’s Mercantile had continued to spread.  There were multiple new shops and restaurants downtown surrounding the Triangle Building, which itself is being beautifully renovated into a new hotel. I can’t believe how quickly it’s all happening. Most of the businesses were closed (it WAS still Sunday in a small town, after all) but I wonder how long it’ll be before these local-owned shops start operating seven days a week. My destination wasn’t the Merc or the Buckin’ Flamingo, though.

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The Pawhuska City Cemetery sits on a hill northwest of the city center.  Much to my surprise, even though Sam and I had been together for nearly five years, I’d never taken her there to visit Dad’s grave. When we got out of the car and approached the Martin plot I was surprised to see that the area was covered in beautiful little wildflowers. It was quite moving. I wanted to speak, but couldn’t, so we just stood there for a while. Eventually, I was able to talk a bit about all of my family members at rest there: Aunt Kim, Grandpa Hardy, Grandma Gail, and the Tony Martin.

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After we’d celebrated a few old lives, we visited my cousin Blakelea to celebrate a new one.  Blakelea and her husband Ora Brown are new parents, and little Conagher has been a part the world for about two months now. I’m not so great around babies, but Samantha was on Cloud 9. Ora took pity on me and drove us out into the ranch he works on for a little exploration. He showed me a few cattle pens they still use from the 1970s, when the railroad still ran out that way.

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We drove back into the deep pasture and onto the old rail bed itself, where you could see the path cut into the prairie to serve the Iron Horse. Today the path is overgrown and barely a road. We eventually made it to a dismantled bridge across Clear Creek: little more than a few bare concrete pillars in the wilderness.

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I did find an old date nail in a piece of the trestle, which Ora kindly dislodged for me. It’s labeled ’26’ meaning it was forged in 1926…the same year that Route 66 was formed. Ora also told me about a few other places in the area (including an old cave supposedly used by the Dalton Gang) that could be accessed on horseback. Guess I’m going to have to get over that phobia!

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Samantha and I bid farewell to our cousins and headed back to town.  We made a quick stop at Lookout Mountain before heading back to Tulsa. It’s not much of a mountain, really, but it does provide a beautiful view of the landscape.

It had been a good trip…a positive trip. Change isn’t bad; it’s an inevitable part of life. There’s a lot I never had the chance to tell my father; I never even got to say goodbye. But I know he would be proud of the man I am today and even more proud of the man I’ll be tomorrow.

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Uncommon Attractions

When I woke up early on Sunday, I was eager to get back on the road.  The EconoLodge in Hays, Kansas was fine, sure, but why lie around when I could be out exploring?  Besides, it’s cooler in the morning. However, I was shocked when I walked outside and discovered it was only 58 degrees.  I had dressed for the blazing afternoon heat!  My coffee served as a wake-me-up AND a warm-me-up as I hopped on the interstate and headed east.

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My first stop was not far away at the Cathedral of the Plains in Victoria. Technically, it’s called the Saint Fidelis Catholic Church…and since it’s not the home of a bishop, it’s not even a cathedral.  But in 1912, William Jennings Bryan gave it the grand title that has stuck to this day.  Although it was Sunday morning, it was still quite early.  The congregation had not yet stirred and I had the streets to myself.

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I didn’t have a very defined route for the day’s travel, but I had plenty of Google Maps markers to guide me down old US 40. I weaved through several small towns like Russell and Dorrance…I doubted my early visitation had anything to do with their empty streets.  By the time I arrived in Wilson, I could finally see signs of life.  A shopkeeper was tidying up her storefront, a couple talked over coffee in front of the Midland Hotel, and the little gas station diner had a full parking lot. On the east end of downtown, I was surprised to discover a giant colorful egg in a little plaza.  I investigated.

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Wilson is known as the Czech Capital of Kansas. In the 1870s, a group of immigrants settled in town to work on the railroad and brought their culture with them. There’s a big festival every summer and the World’s Largest Hand-Painted Czech Egg.  It’s 22 feet tall!  The Midland Hotel across the railroad tracks was used for filming in the 1973 film Paper Moon.  That’s a lot for a town of less than 1,000.

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From Wilson, I briefly detoured north.  After a lovely drive through the rolling hills surrounding Wilson Lake I arrived in Lucas, home of S.P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden. Samuel Dinsmoor was a Civil War veteran that became something of a social commentator through his art, which decorates the land around the cabin he built in the early 1900s. For twenty years, he built a sculpture garden that represented what he considered the Story of Man.  The house is surrounded with amazing concrete artwork; its a see-it-to-believe-it kind of place.  Alas, I was still running pretty early and the cabin was not open for a proper visit.  I must return someday.

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I started to think about home after I finished looking around Lucas and plotted a course to the southeast.  Of course, a straight shot was unacceptable…there was plenty to see as I headed back to Oklahoma.  I stopped for a walk at Mushroom Rock State Park, one of several natural wonders in central Kansas.  It’s the smallest state park I’ve ever heard of at 5 acres; I could walk end-to-end very easily.  The handful of significant rocks that give the park its name are unusual and magnificent.

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I weaved through a few more communities as morning became afternoon: Brookville, Abilene, Woodbine, Enterprise.  I stopped for a few minutes on a gravel road to watch a crop duster do his thing.  I didn’t make another proper stop until I was enticed into the town of Lost Springs thanks to a Santa Fe Trail highway sign.  Sure enough, a small stone monument stood proudly in the “city park”. I don’t think the town had a single functioning business, but there were a few abandoned buildings that were lovely to photograph. Thanks, National Historic Trail sign!

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As the afternoon wore on, I became weary.  I drove through Marion & Augusta with less desire for exploration; I took some photos of neon signs and a few old buildings, but didn’t dally long.  When I entered Winfield, the town of my father’s birth, I just drove through.  I had considered taking photos of the old hospital, but it’s now part of a large correctional facility and inaccessible. Oh well.

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When I re-entered Oklahoma in late afternoon, I figured it would be a good idea to finally eat something. Since I’d be passing through Bartlesville anyway, I stopped in at Murphy’s for dinner.  And let me tell you, that’s never a bad idea.  GRAVY OVER ALL! By the time I got home, I was tuckered out.  It was a great weekend of new sights – I hope you enjoyed following along.

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Rock, Chalk, and the Land of Jayhawks

Early Thursday morning, I took Samantha to the airport so that she could spend a few days with her family back in New York.  The house is awful quiet when it’s just me, so I made plans for a little Route 66 trip with a friend on Saturday.  When those plans fell through, I decided to modify my plan and set out on my own. That’s the chain of events that lead me to spend thirteen hours in the driver’s seat on Saturday!

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Instead of spending a day on the Mother Road as I’d originally planned, I ventured northwest into Kansas. Back in April, I learned about a few old Phillips 66 stations at the NCPTT symposium; I wanted to see them for myself. My first stop was in Wellington, where a beautifully restored station sat under a big shade tree.  Although a lot of care went into making the station look authentic, it’s currently empty.  I sure hope it gets a tenant soon so all that work doesn’t go to waste.

From the seat of Sumner County, I headed west.  I zigzagged through several small towns such as Argonia (home of Susanna Salter, the first woman Mayor in the United States), Danville, Harper, and Duquoin.

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Outside of Duquoin, there’s a small Marsh Arch Bridge over Sand Creek.  The name of the tributary is appropriate, as I didn’t see any evidence of water at all. The bridge dates back to 1929 and I would be shocked if it saw even 5 vehicles a day in modern times. As such, it’s in excellent condition. I really love this bridge design and I’m glad Kansas has so many to see.

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My next stop came in Kingman. I’m familiar with Kingman, Arizona but this was my first time to visit the Kansas variant. The town was named after Samuel Kingman, a former chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court (the Route 66 Kingman gets its name from a railroad engineer.) I walked around the beautiful downtown Main Street and waved at the few pickup trucks that passed by while I snapped photos of the architecture. Of note is the historic Kingman Theater, which dates back to 1920.  I’ll have to come back at night so I can see the marquee all lit up!

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By lunchtime, I had arrived in Pratt.  Not only was there another Phillips 66 station to capture, but a great sign for Donald’s Serva-Teria out on the highway. The business dates back to the 1950s and has changed owners a few times…but the Googie neon still stands proudly out front mostly intact. I don’t know if it still lights up, but I sure hope so.  Satisfied with my stops, I continued west.

I passed through several more small communities before I entered Mullinville.  It would’ve gone without mention had I not encountered a large Metal Art installation on the west edge of town.

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I was shocked to see all kinds of provocative symbols and blatantly political attributions mixed in with whirligigs, windmills, and other sculptures.  It’s all the work of the late M.T. Liggett, which is a whole story on its own.  Read all about him and his work at Roadside America. It’s something else.

My next stop was out in the middle of nowhere. Since Samantha’s Nissan gets better gas mileage, I left the Mustang in Oklahoma…and boy am I glad I did. The dirt road that lead to the Mulberry Creek Bridge was carved INTO of the dadgum earth, with portions of it enclosed on both sides by walls of earth as tall as the car.  Some of the ruts would’ve surely high-centered Dad’s old two-door Ford.  With a little hopeful muttering, I made it to the abandoned bridge with no real issues.

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The bridge itself has been closed since 2012.  A local landowner won a fight with the county to keep it from being demolished…but it’s still closed off to traffic. The two spans were originally part of a larger Arkansas River crossing in Dodge City and date back to 1906; they were moved out into the country in the 1950s. Today, they rust in solitude under the prairie sun, hoping to one day be of use again.

Speaking of the Dodge City, that was my next stop.  I’d planned to explore the downtown district and possibly a museum, but a huge event that had the whole area cordoned off.  It looked like a car show had just wrapped up as the roads were full of vintage automobiles literally getting the hell out of Dodge.  I opted to keep going rather than wait for the commotion to die down. I’ll just have to come back!

After Dodge City, I took another dirt road (a less treacherous one, thankfully) to visit the site that inspired me to drive to western Kansas in the first place: Monument Rocks.

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Also known as the Chalk Pyramids, these beautiful rock formations were selected as a National Natural Landmark in 1968. Although they’re on private land, the owners graciously allow visitation free of charge. When I turned the engine off and got out of the car, the world was quiet save for the breeze, my footsteps, and the click of my camera. I marveled at the 70 ft tall buttes and arches and took my time exploring.  Just south of the rocks, a small obelisk marked a stop for the Butterfield Overland Despatch, a mail and freight service from the 1860s.

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It had been a long, enjoyable day…but it wasn’t quite over.  My final stop (and where I opted to bed down for the night) was Hays, the town where ‘Buffalo’ Bill Cody earned his nickname.  I explored the charming brick streets downtown (which included one more old Phillips 66 Station) and dined at Al’s Chickenette, a roadside restaurant that would be right at home on the Main Street of America.  They, too, have a beautiful neon sign…but hail damage from a few years back has kept it dark for a while.  The waitress I spoke to was hopeful that they’d have it relit later this year. Regardless of signage, though, the food was heavenly.

As the sun set, I ambled to a local motel and stretched out.  It was a long, lovely Saturday full of exploration…with a bit more to come on Sunday as I made my way back home.

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Along Route 66

I came across an old Tulsa World article in the archives at the library recently. It was written a few months after Route 66 was federally de-certified and I found it quite interesting.  I have transcribed it below (exactly as written) with the photos from the article.  I’ll chime in a bit at the end.


Along Route 66 by Nick Foltz / Tulsa World

September 23, 1985

Like a meandering stream, U.S. 66 wandered 2,000 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., crossing eight states.  Right in the middle of it was Tulsa, and many weary travelers stopped here to get their kicks on Route 66.

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For several decades, the 11th Street Bridge, above, has funneled motorists into downtown Tulsa. Small diners like the one in southwest Oklahoma, top inset, were designed to serve travelers quickly. Build in 1929, Vinita Conoco station’s trim, clean lines were meant to blend with residential area.

U.S. 66 dates back to 1926, and was the path for cross-country adventure for daring drivers of Tin Lizzies.  U.S. 66 had been in existence for years when Henry Ford started producing the Model-A, and gasoline was hand-pumped into cars that still had running boards, rumble seats and transmissions that didn’t know how to shift for themselves.

Like trees and vegetation hugging the banks of a stream, thousands of businesses spring up along the highway. The steady stream of traffic nourished diners, gas stations, hotels, garages and “tourist courts” as motels were called in the Depression years.

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In June of this year, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials voted to strip the trafficway of its “U.S.” designation and it became simply Highway 66. A victim of the interstate system, it had been replaced largely by I-40.

The 59-year-old highway still generates memories for motorists who traveled it in its early years: the aroma of frying hamburgers at a roadside stand, the dark, coolness of beer taverns, the mustiness of hotel rooms with evaporative coolers instead of air-conditions, cafe nickelodeons with faces swirling a rainbow of lights and ice cream parlors with marble-top tables and creaking ceiling fans.

Less romantic was the washboard surface of the highway that made it almost impossible for drivers to go to sleep at the steering wheel. As cars bumped along, they seemed to travel almost as far from side to side as they did forward.

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Park Plaza Court was built in 1930 with Alamo-style facade.

In Tulsa, U.S. 66 cut a swath down 11th Street and Southwest Boulevard in its 396-mile Oklahoma journey.  The Oklahoma leg has been the subject of an intensive research project by Oklahoma State University historians who have submitted a list of 33 structures as nominations to the National Register of Historic Places.

Tulsa structures in the list include the Brookshire Motel, 11017 E. 11th St.; Will Rogers Motor Court, 5737 E. 11th St.; a structure that has been an auto dealer-ship and is now Elgin STreet Auto Trim, 1401 E. 11th St, a filling station, now the Car Care Clinic, 209 W. 11th St., the 11th Street Bridge over the Arkansas River; Park Plaza Court, 3512 Southwest Boulevard, and 66 Motel at 3660 Southwest Blvd.

A former auto dealership, now the Claremore Tire Co. at 625 W. Will Rogers, Claremore, and the Rock Creek Bridge west of Sapulpa, are also on the list.

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Auto trip shop on East 11th Street served as auto dealership in early years, according to researchers.

Dr. Joseph A. Stout Jr. researched the road’s colorful history, conducted field research by interviewing old-timers along the famed road, and wrote the text of a 65-page survey, edited by Dr. Mary Ann Anders.

Stout said the work allowed him to make a nostalgic study of the buildings “that represent the beginning of Americans becoming a mobile society – when they started traveling cross-country by car.

“Life was a lot less complicated then – there were no nuclear bombs, for instance – and it represents a period that we don’t want to lose. The roads were narrow and abominable, but they also had Burma Shave signs,” Stout commented.

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Tall, steel superstructure above, marks old bridges like the Rock Creek span west of Sapulpa.

The survey was financed by a historic preservation grant of about $120,000. Stout said he did not know how long it would take the National Register of Historic Places to respond to the list of nominations.

 


Reading this in 2018 is a mixed bag of emotion.  This was written before any historic associations were formed and nobody really knew what a movement Route 66 tourism would become. It makes my heart happy to know that so many people have a strong, positive connection to the Mother Road today. But there’s also a sadness in how much we’ve lost.

The sites mentioned in Tulsa that were submitted to the National Register are also a mixed bag today:

  • Brookshire Motel (abandoned and endangered)
  • Will Rogers Motor Court (demolished)
  • Discount Muffler (saved and in use)
  • Elgin Street Auto Trim (saved and in use)
  • Car Care Clinic (saved and in use)
  • 11th Street Bridge (closed off and unsuitable for traffic)
  • Park Plaza Court (demolished)
  • 66 Motel (demolished)

The Claremore site (Claremore Tire Co) has also been demolished but the Rock Creek Bridge has been saved.  I certainly hope that the current federal legislation marking Route 66 as a National Historic Trail passes and the efforts of preservationists continue to bring awareness to the roadside inventory along the Main Street of America.

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Hello, Chicken Fry!

During the research of my Lost Restaurants of Tulsa book, I came across a lot of information for long-time Tulsa restaurants that were still up and running. Since I couldn’t sample the food at any of the restaurants I was writing about, I made a commitment to dine at the city’s traditional diners that were still going strong. Today I made good on one: Nelson’s Buffeteria.

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Nelson Rogers, Jr. and cook Elza Smith (courtesy OK Magazine 1979)

Nelson’s was started by Nelson Rogers, Sr. in 1929. Back then, Tulsa had a series of buffet/cafeteria operations that served the masses in a simple way. Nelson’s sat on 4th Street just east of Boulder.  After twenty years, they moved to 5th and Boston.  It was a staple of downtown dining until it closed in 2004. All of Tulsa’s classic cafeterias, buffets, and buffeterias became relegated to the pages of history…except for Nelson’s, which the family resurrected a few years later.

In 2009, one of Nelson’s grandsons opened Nelson’s Ranch House on Third Street (now closed) and in 2012 other members of the Rogers family opened a location at 44th and Memorial. The latter restaurant boasted a beautiful neon sign, which had graced the downtown location for many years before being restored.

The Nelson’s on Memorial is only open for breakfast/lunch Monday through Friday; every time I thought about having a meal there, they weren’t open. Finally, though, I arrived during business hours.  The neon welcomed me under foreboding skies as I walked through the front door.  Immediately, I was greeted with the soothing sound of bluegrass music, courtesy of a four-piece band just inside the doorway.

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A line of customers drew my eyes to the back, where several old timers served traditional favorites from a short buffet table.  The choices are limited compared to the massive menus of today’s traditional restaurants, but what they did offer looked tremendous. Nelson’s also offers a regular rotating daily dish and a blue plate special. I opted for their most famous dish: chicken fried steak.  “Hello, Chicken Fry!” the server announced as he dressed my plate with a battered steak alongside a generous portion of mashed potatoes and gravy. I took my entree (and a side plate with a giant roll) and found a seat among the regulars, most of which were several decades older than me.

The CFS was unbelievable.  I’ve long said that Clanton’s in Vinita, OK is the best chicken fried steak in the state, but Nelson’s gives it a real run for its money.  It’s pan-fried, not deep fried, and the meat was so very tender.  The mashed potatoes were like eating a cloud.  And the roll was perfection. I inhaled my lunch with great pleasure as the band played, making me feel like I’d taken a road trip to a small rural community. The staff was all super friendly and attentive, too. Since I had to go back to work afterwards, I opted not to get a slice of pie…but I already regret missing out.

The food, the music, the atmosphere…it’s timeless.  It was like stepping back in time to the places I’ve been learning about over the past year-and-a-half. If you’re a fan of comfort food and find yourself in the area while they’re open, I heartily recommend Nelson’s.

http://nelsonsbuffeteria.com/

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A Western Oklahoma Ramble

On the last weekend of April, I headed west to attend a few events as the Tulsa County Representative for the Oklahoma Route 66 Association.  I had to be in Clinton on Saturday and Weatherford on Sunday, so I figured I’d stay overnight and do a little exploring.  As luck would have it, my friend Sam Murray would be staying overnight, too, with his Route 66 tour group from New Zealand.  It made for an exciting weekend!

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I left Tulsa early on Saturday morning. As I reached the western edge of Oklahoma City, I detoured off the interstate to see a relic of Oklahoma’s history.  A giant arrow, hidden in the trees on a quiet country lane, points towards the sky. It’s the remains of a monument from the 1957 Oklahoma Semi-Centennial Celebration called ‘Arrows to Atoms’.  It was originally almost 200 feet tall and stood at the fairgrounds to represent the progress of the Sooner State from statehood to the Atomic Era.  When it was taken down in the late 1960s, part of it was relocated to private property where it’s stood ever since.

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I continued west, avoiding I-40 in favor of the old roads.  Most of the drive I spent cruising Highway 152, which took me through Cogar.  About the only thing left in that town is an old general store/gas station that was featured in the film Rain Man.  It’s been closed for a long time, but still has a great look to it. I also snaked through the towns of Gotebo, Hobart, and New Cordell before heading up to the Route 66 Museum in Clinton.

Every two years, the Oklahoma Route 66 Association holds a Hall of Fame ceremony where two inductees are honored: one posthumously and one living. This year the Association had the unique privilege of honoring the same family for both awards. The late Hugh and Zelta Davis were honored for building the Blue Whale in Catoosa (as well as a few other attractions in the area) and their son, Blaine Davis, was honored for his ongoing contributions by keeping the Whale going in addition to his long-time service to the Oklahoma Route 66 Association itself.  It was a lovely event and Blaine was quite surprised.  Afterwards, a new photo exhibit at the museum opened: Oklahoma’s own Jim Ross and Shellee Graham were the featured artists. It was great to spend a bit of time with my Oklahoma Route 66 family.

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The day was still young, so once everything wrapped up I set out for a little more exploration.  I continued west to Elk City and then headed north on OK-34.  Basically, I made a huge circle back to Clinton through the towns of Hammon, Leedey, Thomas, and Custer City.  Much of the farmland was singed from a recent wildfire; it made for interesting scenery as I wound through the rural landscape.

When I made it back to Clinton, Sam Murray and his tour group had arrived for the night.  I met the New Zealanders on the Route 66 tour and we dined together, where we shared stories and a mutual love of the fabled American highway. It never ceases to amaze me when I experience the passion of Route 66 travelers.  For many international visitors, it’s the fulfillment of a longtime bucket list item.  One of the guys had even bought a classic car in Illinois and planned to ship it home when they arrived in California!

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The next morning I joined Gilligan’s Route 66 Tours for a few hours. I set up in Canute, where I took some photos as the gang drove by the old Cotton Boll Motel, and set up again on an abandoned segment of the Mother Road west of Sayre.  Everyone was having a wonderful time cruising and it was nice to be a ‘fly on the wall’ for their experience.  When the caravan pulled into the one-and-only Sandhills Curiosity Shop in Erick, Harley Russell was waiting. The larger-than-life proprietor of the famous roadside attraction was standing outside the brick market with a large New Zealand flag.  “WELCOME TO AMERICA!” he shouted with his unique brand of enthusiasm.  As Harley started his tour, I bid the group farewell and headed back east.

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I made another stop in Sayre, this time to see an abandoned bridge.  The old North Fork Red River Bridge is now on private property and doesn’t even make it to the river; the section near the river collapsed into rubble some time back. I secured permission from the landowner to explore but didn’t dally too long.  I had to get to Weatherford for the quarterly Oklahoma Route 66 Association meeting at the Heartland of America Museum.

I’d never been to that particular museum before and I was impressed.  The owners were wonderful hosts and the exhibits they have on-site provide a window into Okie living throughout the history of the state.  It’s a great addition to the series of museums that western Oklahoma has to offer. The drive home held no further detours, but that was fine by me.  It had been a wonderful, full weekend.

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15th Annual Blue Dome Arts Fest

Hi everyone!  Dropping a quick note to let you know that I will have a booth at the 15th Annual Blue Dome Arts Fest this year; it’s May 18-20 in downtown Tulsa. I’ll be sitting just east of 2nd and Elgin on the original alignment of Route 66!

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I’ll have a variety of goods available (prints, coasters, shirts) and would love to see you if you’re out and about.  I’m sharing a booth with my wife Samantha; her steampunk jewelry is amazing!  Get a sneak peek at: Bohemian Romance.

Although my book Lost Restaurants of Tulsa is still several months away from publication, I’d love to talk to you about your memories of the city’s beloved lost eateries. I hope to have more info on the book timeline soon.

Here’s hoping we have TERRIFIC weather for the festival!

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