No Place like Dome

Back in 2011, I had my very first public exhibit of my photography.  I set up a single table at the Blue Dome Arts Festival and sat under my brand-new tent, eager to share the stories behind the photos I’d selected.  I had a pair of canvas prints made and a selection of photos from Tulsa and my trip around the world.

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Blue Dome 2011

I have since referred to that weekend as a disaster.  My tent nearly blew away the first day (I packed up early once I realized how woefully unprepared I was), I had no real way for people to SEE my work unless they manually flipped through a box of prints, and very few people stopped to chat.  I sold four prints the entire weekend, all to friends or family.

Since that weekend of hard learning, I’ve come a long way.  I discovered Route 66, explored much more of my home state, and continued to develop my photographer’s eye.  Most importantly, I met Samantha; her support and encouragement have helped me grow more than anything else.  Back in 2011, I was a broken person.  When I unpacked my tent to set up for my second Blue Dome festival last weekend, I was whole…not to mention a whole lot better prepared!

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Much like my inaugural event, storms wreaked havoc early on.  80 mph winds caused quite a bit of damage the night of initial setup and intermittent storms lead to Friday as a complete wash.  Samantha, who had her Bohemian Romance booth set up right next to me, agreed that after about an hour-and-a-half we should call it a day.  We had high hopes that the rest of the weekend would be a lot smoother.

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Our hopes turned to reality; Saturday and Sunday’s weather was PERFECT!  It was then I was able to fully assemble my booth and appreciate how far I’d come in the last six years.  My work was easier to see and I had a greater variety of items to showcase it.  It was also a lot more targeted: the majority of what I had on display featured Tulsa and Oklahoma Route 66 photography.

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This much-improved setup lead to many wonderful conversations with people, which has always been the highlight of what I do.  A woman came up and tearfully told me how much the Desert Hills photo moved her, as the motel was her home for a time when she originally came to town, broke and homeless.  A man picked up a coaster that featured the decorated main street of Tonkawa, a small town in Kay County he grew up in, and remarked in amazement to his friend.  Many passers-by commented on the photo of the old Riverside pedestrian bridge, which is due for demolition soon.  I even encountered a group of lovely Australian tourists traveling Route 66 that just happened to be in Tulsa during the festival!  I loved hearing every story and had the opportunity to tell a few of my own in exchange.

 

By the time we tore down on Sunday evening, I was utterly exhausted.  Days later, I’m still a bit achy…but it’s a good ache.  I’ve come a long way since that disappointing weekend six years ago.  Where will I be six years from now?  I hope I feel that I have made just as much progress as I do now.

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Also, it was not lost on me that my booth was located right on the original alignment of Route 66.  Although it didn’t mean anything to me in 2011, it meant a heck of a lot this year.

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Strawberry Feels

“We’re going on a secret road trip Saturday,” I told Samantha on Wednesday.  She asked for a hint; I told her there was a hint in the front yard.  She guessed for days.  Eureka Springs?  A craft show?  Some obscure diner in the middle of nowhere?  Nothing seemed to tie to the front yard, though.  Finally, on the day of our journey, I pointed to the patch of tiny wild strawberries in our front garden, which had gone completely unnoticed until my uncle pointed them out to me last week.  The reason we woke early today was 92 miles away, near the Arkansas border: the 70th Annual Strawberry Festival in Stilwell, Oklahoma.

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Stilwell has been around since before statehood, another railroad town in Indian Territory.  During the Great Depression, strawberries turned into a major county crop; in fact, the town was proclaimed “The Strawberry Capital of the World” in 1949.  They’ve built an annual festival around that claim, which pulls in over 40,000 people from all around.  That’s quite a boost when the town normally boasts a population of 3200.  Capital of the World it may not truly be, but certainly the Capital of the Sooner State.

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When we arrived at about 10 am, the parade was going strong.  We slowly made our way to Main Street as the floats went by.  I saw folks from the Cherokee Nation, farming co-ops, volunteer fire departments, churches, schools, and a variety of agricultural businesses all with some kind of strawberry theme.  The entire county seemed to have at least some representation in the parade.  It took an hour and a half for the entire procession to make its way down Second Street, all told.  It’s great to see so much local pride, even if Stilwell was called out a few years ago as having the poorest economy in the state.

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As one would expect, Main Street was filled with vendors of all kinds.  Fidget Spinners were the fad of the day, with dozens of booths advertising the little gadgets.  Also as expected, strawberry goods were everywhere; we picked out a local vendor in front the old Eagle Theatre and bought a strawberry lemonade.

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Sam also got a “Strawberry Dog” which consisted of a pair of twinkies, cut down the middle & filled with sliced strawberries.  Whipped cream topped it all off!  They did have a visual likeness to a hot dog, but thankfully tasted COMPLETELY different.  (Yes, I had a bite even though fruit was involved.)

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I happily buzzed around the little car show on the east side of the festival as a line of horses came through, the riders calling out to folks in the crowd by name.

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One of the vendors really stood out.  Kyzer Pop Art’s booth was full of framed presentations that married vintage pop art (postcards, comic books panels, celebrity photos, and such) with some kind of soda bottle, cap, or label.  Every piece was hand crafted and well-curated; but the REALLY impressive part was on the BACK.  Each frame has a hand-written history of the subject matters that tells the story of the visuals on the front and a date it was all put together.  I was blown away!  I noticed a frame in the back that had a bridge orange Route 66 soda bottle and bee-lined for it.  It also included postcards for several OKC-area motels from back in the day.  When I saw it had been framed on my birthday, I had to have it.  Samantha found one with a flower design that she loved, so we both walked away with a unique gift.  We took note of the other festivals Kyzer would be at later in the year, too.  I could have spent all day ogling the details of his work.  When James Kyzer told me he’d been an art teacher for 35 years in Purcell, it made sense.

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Once we found the area where local farmers were selling their fresh strawberries, we were ready to go.  Though many vendors were present with food, Samantha floated the idea of heading back towards Lake Tenkiller to eat at a diner I’d mentioned on the drive up.  I’d never had the opportunity to eat there before, thanks to poor timing on my previous trips through the area.  Half an hour later, we pulled into the full parking lot at the Princess Drive-In.  Depending on where you look online, it’s either in the town of Dry Creek or Park Hill.  However, it’s right on Highway 82 and you can’t miss it.

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Most of the diners inside were sporting shirts from the Strawberry Festival and seemed to be locals.  “This is our first time in,” I told our young waitress.  “What are y’all known for?”  She eagerly told us that their catfish was definitely the best-seller, which made me a little anxious.  I don’t like catfish, but I hated asking that question and NOT getting the recommendation.  Thankfully, she quickly followed up with their BBQ which had just been smoked the prior day.  I ordered some of that and Samantha got a burger.

I am happy to report that everything was DELICIOUS. The spare ribs were easily the best I’ve had in years.  Samantha’s burger was likewise delicious and the sides were plentiful. The dessert blackboard called out strawberry ice cream, a treat offered only in the month of May.  I talked Sam into getting a cone, which was an impressive tower of home-made frozen goodness.

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We hit the road home, full and happy.  Though I had planned no other stops during our trip, I decided to make a quick detour to Fort Gibson so I could check up on an old bridge. Last time I’d been through, a new crossing was being constructed and I feared for the old span’s life.  I was pleased to see it not only standing alongside the new bridge, but also easily accessible to pedestrians.  I walked across the Grand River, sandwiched between a new concrete span and a beautiful old railroad bridge.  I snapped away afternoon sun, waving to occasional cars that passed by on the new bridge.

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After a few minutes, I heard a low rumble.  No cars were crossing the new bridge and the boat that had passed beneath me earlier was long gone.  I couldn’t place it.  Much to my delight, a freight train emerged from the foliage on the north side of the river!  The Union Pacific 4264 locomotive sped by, sounding the horn as it raced by.  I laughed aloud with pure, giddy happiness.  It was a great way to cap off the trip before heading home for the day.

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Backroad Bridgehunting

My mother-in-law is in town this weekend.  I am thankful that these visits do not come with the stereotypical hand-wringing and stress; I’m always happy when Cindy comes to town from New York.  She’s a great lady.  Additionally, Samantha is on Cloud Nine the entire time; they usually spend most of the time junk-store shopping anyway.  This time, her visit coincided with the annual 100 Mile Yard Sale that is spread out over multiple Oklahoma counties.  While the ladies were out ogling antiques and haggling prices, I spent some time on the road.

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Over the years, I’ve made notes of places to visit.  Most of these are either on Route 66 or in Oklahoma, but I have marked locations all around the country.  When I am hankering for a road trip, I just consult my map and work out a loose itinerary.  Today’s journey took me west of Tulsa, to Noble and Payne County, to see a few bridges and small town main streets.

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My first stop was a pony truss bridge over Black Bear Creek, near the town of Morrison.  The late-morning sunshine warmed me as I cruised Highway 412 westward, a welcome respite from the heavy rains we’ve had recently.  When the road beneath me went from four lanes, to two, and eventually a single dirt lane it occurred to me that many of these areas had suffered from flooding in recent days; in fact, I saw standing water in a lot of the fields.  I briefly wondered if my Mustang would be able to make it down the pitted path in front of me.  I weaved successfully around mud puddles and divots until I reached a gate.  Had it not been for the shrouded ‘weight limit’ sign in the brush, I would’ve thought I’d come to the wrong place.  The bridge was still completely out of sight!

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Around the bend, though, there it sat.  A single-lane pony truss with a wooden deck, hanging on to life over a swollen creek.  I could hear the water rushing beneath me as I carefully crossed the planks; they were in good shape, I was happy to see.  Some had even been replaced recently, though the bridge had been closed to traffic for a long while.  I stood for a time, listening to the water.  A bumblebee buzzed by lazily, paying me no mind, and chirping from the trees told me I wasn’t the only creature around happy the rain had gone away.  I looked down and saw that the creek was as murky as chocolate milk, churned by the recent precipitation.  It’s very rare for any Oklahoma body of water to have clarity.

After making a six-point turn and weaving carefully once more, I rejoined the main road, southbound this time.  My next stop was another bridge, but one that was much more accessible.  I had only been aware of it for a few weeks; in fact, I’d unknowingly driven near it many times over the years.  East of Stillwater, the Council Creek Bridge looks like many other through-truss designs that you can see around the state.  However, closer inspection betrays a curious difference:  there are uniform weld marks throughout the center of the bridge, rusting in a unique way compared to the rest of the metal.  This bridge had been cut in half horizontally!

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In 2007, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation had decided the old Highway 51 bridge over Stillwater Creek needed to be replaced.  The Payne County Commissioner, a man named Bill Deering, was passionate about historic preservation…especially bridges.  He worked for years to save the bridge, and was successful…securing its re-location over Council Creek.  It had to be cut in half to make the journey.  Bill passed away in 2011, and today the truss is proudly marked as the Bill Deering Memorial Bridge.  I love how a random image I saw online translated into so much learning and a new road trip destination.  Good job, Bill!

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I shifted gears after Council Creek and headed for a few small towns.  The first location, Ingalls, is a well-documented Oklahoma Ghost Town.  In fact, the people I met in Skedee a few weeks ago had mentioned Ingalls by name as a place that had spurred their interest in exploring small-town Oklahoma.  I guess you could say Ingalls ‘peaked’ in the 1890s with a whopping 150 residents; it hasn’t really done much since then.  There are a few old buildings that get photographed regularly, but truthfully they are replicas of the old hotel, stable, and general store.  Nothing authentic remains.  I took a few photos to document my stop, but I didn’t stay long.  Supposedly there are historic gunfight re-enactments in the fall.  I’ll have to return!

Ripley, OK was my next stop.  I didn’t head straight for their downtown, though; I had an urgent matter to attend to first.  As I pulled into a gas station to use the facilities, I was distressed to discover that my car’s shifter had stiffened significantly.  I drive an automatic and it’s very rare that the transmission has any problems.  Although I left the service station relived in ONE sense, I was very much the opposite when it came to the health of my car.  I was essentially out in the middle of nowhere; if the transmission seized up, I would be up one of these rural creeks without a paddle.  I canceled the rest of the day’s locations and set course for home.  Wouldn’t you know it?  The road out of town took me to yet another bridge.  I hemmed and hawed, but eventually decided to risk vehicular paralysis by putting it in park and taking a few photos.

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The Big Creek Bridge was pretty simple:  a through-truss design on an old county road.  A squat water tower sat in the distance and a small artificial waterfall nearby really set the place apart, though.  I gave a friendly wave to the pickup trucks that passed and greeted a man as he walked by with a fishing rod, no doubt heading down to set up shop for the afternoon.  I wondered each time if I should ask them to hang around, just in case I needed a lift to town.  Thankfully, the car shifted back into drive…but I had to give it a good pull to get it there.  It was still shifting between gears just fine, at least.

I told myself I wouldn’t make any more stops until I reached my driveway.  As I passed through the town of Yale, I noticed it was one of the communities participating in the 100 Mile Yard Sale.  I wondered briefly if Samantha and her mother had come through yet, but as soon as the thought crossed my mind I saw their van up ahead on the side of the road next to a pop-up yard sale.  I snapped a photo out the car window as I drove by; they were unaware I’d even been there until I send Sam a picture message later.

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The rest of my drive was uneventful.  I don’t know what the problem was with the transmission.  By the time I arrived home, it shifted into park with ease.  All of the other gears were working fine then, too.  I guess I’ll just keep a focus on it and take it in if it recurs.

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A Buzzing in the Air

Last weekend was the first (hopefully annual) NeonFest in Arcadia, Oklahoma.  Several of my roadie friends decided to put on a small festival dedicated to the iconic roadside signage that has lined the Mother Road for decades.  People were coming from all over the US to check it out!

Arcadia is a town of ~250 and is one of Oklahoma most well-known Route 66 communities.  The iconic Round Barn has been around since the late 1800s and is one of only two such circular structures in the state.  From the barn, you can look southwest and see a giant 66-ft tall soda bottle standing beside the highway.  That’s Pops, a gas station + tourist attraction that boasts an exceptional variety of bottled soda pop + obscure beverages.  It’s only been around since 2007 but attracts curious visitors from all over the world, even those that have no interest in Route 66 otherwise.  However, the centerpiece of NeonFest sits in the shadow of the barn.

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In 2016, the Richardson Building was restored and opened as a neon shop called Glassboy Studios.  It’s a labor of love for proprietor Joel Rayburn and I was super proud to see his hard work pay off in the form of a nationwide pilgrimage.  Not only that, but renowned neon artist David Rivers would be on-site bending glass and helping Joel show folks the neon process.  Although the festivities started on Friday, I wasn’t able to join until the next day.  I missed quite the event — that first night, Michael Wallis performed a surprise wedding!  The day of torrential rain couldn’t dampen anyone spirits in the buzzing glow of that Neon Garden.

I woke early on Saturday and headed southwest.  As I stood on the shoulder of 66 with my camera (there’s always something to capture, no matter how many times I drive that old road) a familiar car approached.  Ron Jones and his stunning 1956 Chevrolet sped by; I hopped in my car and sped to catch up.  I entered Arcadia city limits with the Tattoo Man leading me; when we pulled up to Glassboy Studios together, we joined the dozen or so roadies that had started their day even earlier.

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Roadie gatherings are always strong in camaraderie.  As I mentioned in my previous post, everyone has at LEAST one thing in common:  love of the open road.  From that genesis, there are a great many passions…many of which compliment one another.  I love learning from passionate sources, and NeonFest was no different.  I greeted old friends & met new folks, some of which already knew my work.  “I know you from the Internet!” is a phrase I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.  Though it had been many months since we’d all been together, it was like no time had passed.

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One of the ‘new’ people I met was Alison Lamons.  I’d become aware of Alison’s amazing artwork over the last year or so and was stunned she’d made the trip up from Florida to take part in the festivities.  Her work is really special and if you check that link out you’ll see why this festival was a perfect fit.  In fact, she brought a piece with her to showcase…which I’ll get to in a little bit.

As lunchtime approached, the gathering switched gears.  We hopped in our cars and drove two miles east to John Hargrove’s ‘OK County 66’.  I guess you could call the place a roadside attraction, but it’s more than that.

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Over the years, John has transformed his property into a micro-chasm of the Mother Road experience.  The land is dotted with multiple replicas of well-known Route 66 imagery, such as the Blue Whale, the Twin Arrows, and even a half-buried Volkswagen Bug.  His workshop continues the theme; half of it is dedicated to his work on vintage automobiles and the other half contains a smattering of familiar sights.  He even has a movie theater room mocked up like an old drive-in.  That theater was the focus of our next few hours.

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Several films were shown throughout the afternoon, including the debut of KC Keefer’s newest entry in his Unoccupied Route 66 docu-series:  The California Promise.  KC’s stuff is always high quality and, as you might expect, his presentation was well received.  I wandered the grounds and visited with my many friends during the films I’d seen before, ducking in occasionally to catch a short documentary on neon or some of Roamin Rich’s aerial photography.  It was a wonderful afternoon; if you’re ever down near Arcadia and John Hargrove’s gate is open, wander on in.  You’ll be glad you did.

(In fact, throughout the day multiple travelers stop by Glassboy Studios or OK County 66, wondering what the heck was going on.  I even met two ladies from Borger, TX that had just been in Pawhuska to visit Ree Drummond’s Mercantile…small world!)

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At dinner time, our group took over a restaurant in nearby Edmond.  We returned to Arcadia afterwards for campfire entertainment at Jim Ross’ house.  It was the site of the previous night’s surprise union; tonight it would host an Elvis impersonator (complete with pink Cadillac) and a good deal of libations.  Alison brought an amazing piece of art inspired by Native American culture and the Greek mythology that Arcadia gets its name from.  I stood amazed as she explained the nuance and detail of her work.  I truly had no idea it was so layered.

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I wasn’t staying the night in a nearby hotel, so my night ended earlier than most.  As the sun dipped below the horizon, I bid farewell to my friends and headed back to Tulsa.  Though I know not when I will cross paths with them again, I know we’ll pick up where we left off, as is tradition.  Full photos of the event are here!

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Okie Blue

When people think of Oklahoma, it’s not often their first mental image conjures up a lot of blue.  Perhaps the golden tones of the waving wheat, the orange or crimson of our primary college sports teams…or perhaps the emerald tones of the farmland in our northeast corner (locally known as ‘Green Country’).  However, we do have a bit of blue around here:  our flag, the summer skies, the OKC Thunder.  The famous Blue Whale wades next to Route 66 in Catoosa.  Tulsa itself has a little bit of blue, too…and thanks to Route 66 it had a little boost in early April.

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When my friend Blue Miller cruised into town as a newlywed on an epic Mother Road journey, she reached out to see if I could meet up.  Samantha and I definitely could, and on the morning of April 9th we sat down together at 918 Coffee, a little shop right on the route.  I’ve been a fan of Blue’s photography (and spirit!) via Facebook for a long time, but this was the first time we’d met in person.  We also had the pleasure of meeting her husband Simon, who goes by ‘Ratty’.  We hit it off immediately.

Blue & Ratty got married out west just days earlier.  For their honeymoon, they hit the road in Mabel, their newly-restored 1946 Chevrolet pickup (under the hood that is – the exterior was still delightfully patina’d.) Their plan was to take Route 66 all the way from California to Chicago.  After that, a bend east to New York; once their beloved truck had seen both oceans from the American shore, they would ship it across the pond to their home country of England.  It was quite the epic journey!

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The four of us sat inside the coffee shop, itself born out of an old garage, and talked about the road.  I love the way conversation flows with fellow roadies; although there is a baseline understanding and love of the Great American Roadtrip, the variations of that love go in a hundred different directions.  Blue loved photography, Ratty loved his truck, and I was able to share my love of local history.   They were both having the times of their lives seeing the country from that Truman-era cab.  Once we were sufficiently caffeinated, they asked what I’d picked out for our Tulsa landmark visit.  The Blue Dome was a no-brainer.

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The little Turkish-inspired dome sits at 2nd and Elgin downtown, right on the original alignment of Route 66.  It was built in 1925, but hasn’t served gasoline in decades. Instead, it acts as the hub for a hopping entertainment district as well as a huge arts festival every May.  The unique architecture of the dome also provides a lovely foreground to my favorite view of our city skyline; add in a vintage automobile and you’ve got a party.  The happy couple eagerly followed us downtown.  Once the truck was parked, I buzzed around and took photos while Blue & Samantha chirped happily about a variety of topics.  Ratty was quickly drawn into conversation with gawking pedestrians, all of whom were enraptured by the truck.

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After a bit, Ratty came up to me.  “We’ve gotta get goin’ up the road, mate,” he said apologetically.  “But, uh, perhaps you’d like a little spin ’round the block first?”  I’m not sure exactly what expression came over my face, but everyone’s reaction told me that it was rather expressive.  Moments later, I was sitting in the passenger seat with my arm out the window, cruising through downtown Tulsa.  We only went a few blocks, but it felt like we were turning miles on some old two-lane in the country.  My big dumb grin was immovable.  At the last stoplight, Ratty gunned the engine; Mabel’s tires barked and she lurched forward with surprising power. I was literally taken aback as Ratty chuckled from behind the wheel.  He was a proud papa.

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Alas, their short visit came to an end.  They had a long way to go on their journey to Carthage, MO for the night.  We hugged goodbye, no longer internet buddies; we were Friends for Life.  It felt wonderful to share a part of my city with these two travelers; makes me wish I could do that kind of thing full-time.

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Bonus Footage:

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Sooner State Show-Off

I love getting to experience my city for new visitors.  I also really enjoy showing people what’s so special about Route 66.  Today, I was able to do both AND showcase some of Oklahoma’s unique landscape for my friend Rose.

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I met Rose in 2010 when I attended my first DragonCon.  If you’ve never heard of that, it’s one of the largest fan conventions in the country; 75000+ geeks and nerds descend on downtown Atlanta over Labor Day weekend and have a blast.  I’ve met up with Rose every year since and she has become a great friend.  A few weeks ago, she discovered she would have a long layover in Tulsa, thus visiting ME for a change. I jumped at the chance to show her around.

Early this morning, I picked her up & we went to breakfast at the Atlas Grill downtown to talk about our options.  I floated a few ideas and I saw her eyes light up when I mentioned the possibility of seeing bison; it became an easy decision.  Before we headed out of town, though, we had a few stops to make.

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I gave a brief driving tour of downtown Tulsa, talking about our Oil Capital history and the architecture she was ogling from the car window.  We drove by the Cain’s Ballroom and the Woody Guthrie Center, which allowed me to talk a little about our musical heritage.  We stopped at a seemingly insignificant sidewalk and I lead her up a bridge…to the Center of the Universe.  She marveled at the secret echo chamber hidden in the middle of the city.  We left downtown and visited the Golden Driller, too.  He’s the most famous landmark in the state, after all!

Satisfied with a few T-Town landmarks, we headed north.  I shared family stories and my personal history with our journey as we weaved through Osage County, through the home towns of both of my parents.  After we passed through Pawhuska, the road turned from asphalt to gravel.  The trees slowly disappeared and the sky opened up.  We crossed a double-sized cattle guard and found ourselves on the largest tract of remaining tallgrass prairie in the world.

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The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve spans 45,000 acres.  It feels massive, but it’s roughly 4% of what once stretched from Canada to Texas.  It’s the most endangered ecosystem in the world.  Today, the preserve is home to over 2,000 bison.  Though I was worried we might not see many animals, my fears were unfounded.  A small group of bison greeted us near the entrance and when we reached the middle of the preserve we encountered a herd of 100+ grazing near the gravel lane.  It was stunning to be in that landscape and witness one of North America’s mightiest creatures.  Rose was so excited! The Nature Conservancy was also performing a controlled burn in the distance, which made for an interesting backdrop.

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After stopping at the visitor’s center (many thanks to docent Shelby for the great information on the Preserve and the wildlife!) we looped around the southern half of the preserve and returned to Pawhuska.  We stopped for coffee at the Pioneer Woman Mercantile, Ree Drummond’s shop/restaurant that has become a sensation.  I wrote about the first time I visited the Merc here.  Even on a mid-week afternoon, the line to eat stretched down the block.  Thankfully, the line for coffee was much shorter and the second floor had plenty of seating so we could enjoy our brief visit.

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When we headed back to Tulsa, I realized we had time to make a significant detour and still arrive in time to pick Samantha up from work.  We diverted through Claremore and drove Old Route 66 for a few miles; I talked to Rose about Will Rogers and the Okie contribution to Mother Road history before arriving at one of the road’s most famous attractions, the Blue Whale.  I didn’t know how she’d react considering we had just come from a bonafide nature conservation area, but she adored Blue and his charming brand of kitsch.  She even climbed up into his top section!

We returned to Tulsa right as Samantha was off work.  We ate dinner together at McNellie’s & had dessert at Braum’s, each providing a bit of literal local flavor to the day.  The whole trip was tremendously enjoyable; although we only had a day together, I felt that I had given an excellent crash course in local sightseeing AND spent a ton of quality time with my friend.  I hope she can return soon so we can explore a bit more…I love getting to show off my home state!

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A Much-Needed Escape

The last few weeks have been hectic in the Martin household.  In fact, the Martin household no longer includes a house!  We listed our home for sale in early March…and it sold in five hours.  We found a house we want to move into, but, the schedule just didn’t work out.  We’ve been spending nearly every waking moment getting things ready to go.  On Friday, we moved our stuff into storage and took up temporary residence at my Mom’s place in Broken Arrow.  During the move, my buddy Nic asked if I wanted to take a little road trip the next day.  As sore & tired as I knew I’d be from moving, I accepted without hesitation.

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Our first stop of the day was in the community of Maramec, Oklahoma.  The town was founded shortly after the Land Run in the late 1890s.  It peaked at nearly 375 residents in 1930 and has been in slow decline ever since.  There are still a few buildings left in their downtown district, though they are all closed up and in various stages of decay.  As we wandered the street, a woman walked by and lamented the fact that the old bank had been torn down in recent years.  The remaining brick and stone structures were indifferent to our presence; it’s hard to imagine the place being the center of any activity.

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From there, we drove northeast to Hominy.  Their downtown district has a number of great Native American-themed murals; additionally, some of the walls have been augmented by local graffiti artists.  Nic is quite the railway enthusiast and I really enjoyed walking around the old depot with him.  We were taking photos of the old Indianola Oil Company station when an old pickup pulled up.  The driver said howdy, identified himself as Bill Walls, and asked us how we liked his building.  He bought the place back in 1965 and at one time had a service station, garage, and car lot all on the property at the same time.  “That sure was a long time ago,” he said with a small smile, no doubt remembering it like yesterday.  We waved goodbye and hit the road…but we didn’t go far before stopping again.

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On the east side of town, we pulled up to an unusually Modern-style building.  It had clearly been abandoned for a long time; although we could easily see through the broken windows, there was nothing to indicate what purpose this structure originally served.  It was certainly a unique sight in small-town Oklahoma.

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On our way to an old truss bridge across the Arkansas River, we drove through Ralston.  Nic noticed that the front door of the old Opera House was open, so we stopped on the off-chance that we could score access to the interior.  As luck would have it, people were inside doing cleanup work…including the owner!  He was more than happy to give us the dime tour.  The site had been shuttered for many years; the lower level had been used as an antique store most recently but the top level was where our interest was.  The second floor held a partially-restored community theater.  It was built in the early 1900s and must’ve been quite the attraction back in the day.  In fact, the walls of the street-facing staircase are etched with dozens of names from decades of theater goers.  The gallery held over 200 seats and the stage still boasted an old advertising screen that had been protected from the elements.  A lot of work has to be done to get it in working order & there is an ongoing GoFundMe to help with restoration efforts; you can find that here.

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Just west of town, one of the longest truss bridges in the state spans the Arkansas River.  I’d been to the site before, but it was Nic’s first visit…and he loved it.  He pointed out an area under the first truss where someone had carved their name in concrete back in 1965!  It’s an inspiration to share in the excitement of others and to see what they glean from these historic sites.  The Belford Bridge, as it’s known locally, left quite an impression on Nic.  He said it was perhaps the most amazing old bridge he’d ever seen.

 

By the time we wrapped up at the bridge, it was past lunch time.  We took the short drive to Pawnee and dined at Click’s, a steakhouse that has been in operation since 1962.  Their longevity is not a mistake. I enjoyed one of the best ribeye steaks I’ve ever eaten in a delightfully rustic setting before returning to the sunshine to wander the town square.  Pawnee has had some earthquake damage recently, but happily most of the historic structures looked the same as I remembered them from my last visit.

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Nic took us down to the old freight depot on the outskirts of downtown where we walked the overgrown tracks, looking for date nails in the old ties and admiring a few of the old rail cars that had clearly been parked for a long time.  Nic actively seeks out monikers scratched on rail cars from fellow enthusiasts across the country; the oldest one we found in our search was from 1995…which I didn’t think was that old, but, that’s over 20 years now.  Eesh.

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The road back to Tulsa took us through two more ghost towns; Skedee & Blackburn.  Skedee’s defining feature is a statue in the old town square dedicated to a ‘Bond of Friendship’ pact with Osage Chief Bacon Rind.  Yep, you read that right.  It’s a fun sculpture.  I noticed a group of folks gathered nearby and walked over to say hello; turns out they were doing the same thing we were!  They were from the Tulsa area and seeking out abandoned & rural sites to photograph.  I happily recommended a few places, including the murals in Hominy, before we parted ways.  They were all super nice and eager to learn about the area; we formed our own bond of friendship in those few minutes in an empty town.

On the way to Blackburn, we stopped at a bypassed bridge and very nearly stepped on a big black snake; he was almost six feet long!  I’m super glad Nic saw the reptile when he did; a snakebite would’ve been a terrible way to end the day.  We didn’t dally in Blackburn long, and soon we were on the road home.  It was a great day full of sights both new and familiar.  It was a real recharge of the batteries for me; soon, we should be in our new home and I can plan my next trip!

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