Through Counties Unknown

The abandoned General Store in Cogar, OKThis past weekend, I put another six hundred miles on the Mustang’s odometer.  I told a guy I work with today that I set out because it had “been a few weeks” and I was itching to take a trip.  He laughed and remarked that was a completely foreign concept to him.  It seems strange, looking back at the first 28 years of my life and seeing myself as someone that wasn’t big into traveling.  After 2009, the cargo ship, and the experiences that followed I can’t go for long without SOME kind of exploration.  On Friday, I made a note of a few small towns in Western Oklahoma that I dearly wanted to see, packed a bag, and put the car in drive.  Samantha was all too eager to come along for the ride.

Sunset crowds in OKCI wasn’t foolish enough to think I could do all my driving in one day, so my first stop was in Oklahoma City to spend the night.  Or, rather, in Yukon.  The city is part of the larger OKC metro area, but I’d never visited.  On the way down, my friend Jacque reached out and suggested some sights, one of which was a monthly street festival in the heart of downtown Oklahoma City.  That sounded like a good time, so Sam and I went…and were stunned.  The H&8th Night Market is HUGE, boasting dozens of food trucks, live music, and a giant crowd.  We navigated the sea of humanity and decided on dinner; I had a super delicious El Reno Onion Burger (yes, I know onions are a vegetable…but they’re blackened beyond recognition and smashed into the burger) and Sam was satisfied with her meatball sandwich from the 2 Brothers Bistro truck before we joined forces for dessert with Roxy’s Ice Cream Social.  It was delicious and worth the wait.  Extra thanks to Sam for helping me through an anxiety attack, something I hadn’t had to deal with in a long time.

After we ate, we walked two blocks over to the Memorial.  We spent a few minutes walking the grounds in silence.  I put my hand on the Survivor Tree and remembered that terrible day twenty years ago; I had heard the blast outside the hotel I was at five miles away.  The emotions were nearly overwhelming.  We walked back towards the festivities slowly, sharing our thoughts and reflections on being close to such tragic events…though I know I cannot comprehend Samantha’s New York experience.  Our sleep that night was most welcome.

WOK-6At my urging, we woke early on Saturday and left the hotel at 7.  I used to hate mornings, but now I have a special kind of excitement for setting out in the stillness of early morning with a full day of sights to see.  We drove through Yukon, stopping at their historic flour silo on Route 66.  We continued down the historic highway to El Reno and a few other stops my friend Jacque recommended.  Although the abandoned locomotive repair facility was unreachable (thanks to my reluctance to overcome the extensive ‘No Trespassing’ signage) I took some great shots of an old steel truss bridge on old Highway 81 and downtown El Reno.  About 45 minutes later, I found myself at a desolate intersection in the middle of Caddo County.

The abandoned General Store in Cogar, OKThis intersection was once known as the town of Cogar.  There was nothing around now except a small metal building that purported to be a quick stop and a dilapidated general store.  I later discovered it was used as a filming location for the 1988 film ‘Rain Man’ but for all I knew it’d been abandoned since the Cogar post office closed in the 50s.  It was delightfully faded with a trio of rusting gas pumps out front.  As I was snapping away, a minivan pulled up at the stop sign.  “Hey!” said the driver.  “Don’t forget to put some money in the mailbox for those pitchers!” He pointed back what I assume was his home back down the road somewhere.  I gave him a thumbs up and he laughed a practiced, mischievous cackle that reminded me of the mailman in the movie ‘Funny Farm’.  I wondered how often he got to use the same joke as he took off down the road.

I continued down Highway 152 towards Binger and I thought about where I was.  Most of the towns and counties in northeast Oklahoma were familiar, thanks to weather reports and other news.  I was in a part of the state that was entirely unfamiliar to me.  I slowly realized that the western part of the state is unreasonably populated with ‘C’ towns.  Cogar.  Colony.  Corn.  Clinton.  Canute.  What’s the deal?

Washita County Courthouse in Cordell, OKWhen we approached Cordell (another C) I was struck by their courthouse.  It sat in the middle of the town and the highway ran right up to it; I felt like I was driving towards a castle.  It was being restored and as I walked around the building I gawked at the design.  I’d never seen anything quite like it in Oklahoma.  We continued west, stopping at occasional abandoned buildings, before reaching our west-most destination:  Sayre.

Sayre, OK has a lovely courthouse that also had a brief moment of Hollywood fame, though it was much earlier in the Henry Fonda film ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.  Sayre sits on Route 66 and like many other towns along the Mother Road, it’s slowly exhaling.  It had some nice restored buildings downtown, though, and I liked a lot of the brick work; one of the buildings even reminded me of some of the beautiful architecture in Guthrie.  After wandering a short while, we turned east on Route 66.  There are two Route 66 museums out that way, one in Elk City and the other in Clinton.  We didn’t go into either of them, but each had their exterior charms.  The one in Elk City even has a small truss bridge recreation on site!

Milk Bottle Grocery on Route 66More abandoned sights greeted me as we drove on.  Storm clouds gathered overhead and threatened to end my photographic journey prematurely, but we dodged the rain bullet for most of the day.  I found a beautifully withered gas station in Foss, stopped at Lucille’s restored service station in Hydro, and stopped north of Hinton to get some shots of a 4,000 foot long pony truss bridge.  Lunch brought us to Okarche where we dined on some of the finest fried chicken I’ve ever had at Eischen’s, the oldest bar in the state.

Hamburger King in Shawnee.  You order on these little booth phones!The day was already long, but I still had some gas in the tank.  Figuratively speaking…I’d already filled the car up twice.  We took 66 through Oklahoma City, stopping at the Milk Bottle Grocery building, before leaving that highway and driving to Shawnee.  I had long wanted to visit and capture the Ritz Theatre there and enjoy a meal at Hamburger King, a downtown burger joint that has been in business since 1929.  Not only were the burgers great, but each booth was outfitted with a red telephone you use to order!  Oh, and their pie is DELICIOUS!

Our shadows were beginning to stretch and it was time to head home.  I had chalked the drive home up to nothing more than a destination; I wasn’t looking for anything new…but life is funny sometimes.  Instead of taking the turnpike home, I turned down Route 66 once more to show Sam the ‘Rock Cafe’ in Stroud.  I kept going even though I knew I was losing time on the old highway.  Not far outside of town, something caught my eye and I turned around, parked on the side of the road, and discovered my favorite find of the day:  remnants of a long-abandoned Route 66 roadside attraction.

Abandoned Route 66 artifactsIt was nothing more than a few metal items, like a cow and a cactus, but there was a rusted locomotive (the ‘Lincoln County Express’) that took my breath away.  I couldn’t believe this artifact was just HERE, forgotten…and I’d almost missed it.  In fact, I DID miss it on my last trip down Route 66.  It was a glorious moment of discovery.   In fact, the whole trip was an amazing trip down memory lane.  Not mine, but the shared memory of the sights that had not had interested visitors in a long time.  It’s my privilege to find these hidden gems and share them with the world.

About rhysfunk

Rhys Martin was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1981. In 2009, he sold everything he owned and left the country, living out of a backpack for ten months. He discovered a passion for photography while traveling throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. After returning home, he looked at his home town and Oklahoma heritage with fresh eyes. When he began to explore his home state, Rhys turned his attention to historic Route 66. As he became familiar with the iconic highway, he began to truly appreciate Oklahoma’s place along the Mother Road. He has traveled all 2,400 miles of Route 66, from Chicago to Los Angeles. He has also driven many miles on rural Oklahoma highways to explore the fading Main Streets of our small towns. Rhys has a desire to find and share the unique qualities of the Sooner State with the rest of the world. Cloudless Lens Photography has been featured in several publications including This Land, Route 66 Magazine, Nimrod Journal, Inbound Asia Magazine, The Oklahoman, and the Tulsa World. Rhys loves to connect with people and share his experiences; ask him about enjoyable day trips from Tulsa, locations along Route 66, and good diners or burger joints along the way.
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