Saturday was a special day! Not only did I get to take a drive, not only did Samantha join me, but I was able to start introducing her to some of my Route 66 family! Over the last six months, I’ve met dozens of people from all over the world that have become ‘Friends for Life’ due to our shared love of the Mother Road. Due to conflicting schedules, Sam wasn’t able to join me for the events and road trips that provided me with these connections. “It’s not about the roadside attractions or Mom-n-Pop diners,” I’ve told her. “…although I love those dearly! It’s really about the people along the Route.” Yesterday, I was able to show her what I meant first-hand.
We got up later than usual, not leaving the house until just before 10:00 AM. Since a few places I knew I wanted to visit had compressed hours on the weekend, we booked it up the interstate until we arrived at Vinita, OK for lunch. Now, Clanton’s Cafe is a place we have both been to before, but any time we’re in the area and they’re open it’s a required stop. Seriously one of the best diners I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating at, serving the best chicken fried steak in the world. Samantha feels the same way about their chicken & dressing. As we waited for our food, I couldn’t help but overhear snippets of conversation from the next booth. The man couldn’t eat anything that had/was cooked with chicken fat and was making some meticulous special requests. I was sure that the waitress was going to get frustrated and tell the man that there was no way they could accommodate his needs, considering the establishment’s comfort food menu; however, I was surprised when she returned to his table and said they could make his meal’s breading out of buttermilk and a few other substitute ingredients. She also said she was worried another part of his order would be an issue, as the fryer they use also handles a few chicken products. They worked all of this out, to my amazement. There really is no substitute for a family-owned restaurant where the people truly care about the experience. That same waitress was our waitress, and she was sweet as pie to us. Speaking of pie, we finally had some of their chocolate cream, and it was heavenly. Afterwards, we continued east on Route 66 towards Afton so that I could make my main introduction of the day.
Afton is a small town; they have maybe 1,000 people scattered about the city limits. A lot of those folks were actually displaced from the nearby town of Picher, which was abandoned due to over-mining and the subsequent toxic effects on the water and soil there. Main Street Afton has only a few active establishments, and one of them is Afton Station. The restored D-X Service Station now houses a Packard Automobile Museum (I visited this place on my birthday this year and wrote about it here) and is run by a wonderful lady named Laurel Kane. We arrived to find the museum and gift shop gloriously full of Route 66 travelers. We toured the museum first; Sam was floored by the 1917 Packard RV they have on site even though she’s not really a car person. She was able to meet Ron, one of Laurel’s trusted mainstays, and Betty, who worked at the Buffalo Ranch (a now-demolished Route 66 stop just east of Afton) for decades. Laurel invited us both to have a seat behind the counter and we had a real nice visit. Laurel has a deep love of the Mother Road & a great sense of humor; she’s a pure delight. At one point, while she was helping another visitor with a purchase, I beckoned for Sam to lean in close. “This is what I’m talking about,” I said quietly with a smile. Laurel is the kind of person I want to be when I grow up. Our next stop of the day closed early in the day, so we said our farewells and headed on down the Route.
Our final planned stop of the day was the Coleman Theater in Miami, OK; I knew Sam would love it. The Coleman is a historic vaudeville-era theater built in 1929, beautifully restored to glory. It’s very opulent and a real gem along the Route. They fired up the original Mighty Wurlitzer organ for us as we walked around the theater and attached ballroom. We stood in the dressing room that had hosted the likes of Will Rogers, Tom Mix, and Sally Rand. We marveled at the 2,000 pound crystal chandelier. It was easy to picture ourselves attending a show back in the heyday of the Coleman; it became one of Samantha’s favorite stops on Route 66. We walked out of the Coleman a little before 2:00 PM; plenty of time left in the day! We decided to keep going; I pointed out a few of my previous stops along the road as we crossed from Oklahoma to Kansas, making our next stop the Cars on the Route station in Galena to visit with my friend Melba.
I met Melba (also known as The Mouth due to her penchant for fast talk) at the Gasconade Bridge Rally in March. The station she ran was previously known as ‘4 Women on the Route’ due to the original four female owners. Only two are left, and since their old tow truck was an inspiration for the ‘Tow Mater’ character in Pixar’s CARS film, they changed the name of the station to match. There has been some dispute as to the “original” Tow Mater that served as the model for the loved Disney character, and Melba is always happy to show their truck pictured in the official ‘Art of Cars’ Disney book. Any kind of drama about the character’s origins melts as soon as a child shows up to the station, full of excitement to see the truck in real life…which happened while we were visiting. As we parted ways, Sam was further brought into the Roadie camp by receiving her first authentic Melba hug. Since there was still plenty of daylight left, I thought we’d press on to Carthage so we could visit a place I hadn’t yet stopped at: The Boots Court motel. I’d heard that tours were given, even if you aren’t staying at the motel.
We found this to be true and I learned a LOT about this lovely little roadside stop. When Boots Court was opened in 1939, the word ‘motel’ (short for motor hotel, if you didn’t know) was brand-new and most people were unfamiliar with it. Rather than confusing travelers, Arthur Boots opted for ‘Court’ and even advertised his rooms as cabins due to the fact that most roadside room rentals at the time were separate cabins. Additionally, most of those cabins were sparsely decorated, sometimes without even any furniture. He advertised a radio in every room, and that’s how the motel is today. Over the years, more rooms were built and an awful gabled roof was added; the current owners are working to restore the property to as-close-to-original as possible. Actually, the original incarnation of the motel had a gas station out front because Arthur wanted some way to ensure he had some business during slow periods. But, keeping Boots Court as a motel is good enough. In addition to this history, we got a tour of a few of the empty rooms, including two that Clark Gable stayed in. The decor is different in each one, restored to 1940s glory with chenille bedspreads, vintage radios, and chrome light fixtures. It was a lovely stop; I want to spend a weekend in Carthage at some point and we’ll absolutely stay at the Boots when we do. As we closed out our visit, I noticed a few familiar names in the guestbook. One of the most recent guests at the Boots was Dean Kennedy, the first Roadie I met when I traveled to Lebanon, MO in March. I had just missed him! Such is the way of the Route.
Daylight was starting to fade, but we still had a little time; we walked around the town square of Carthage (which sports a MAGNIFICENT courthouse) and drove a few miles east to see if Red Oak II was suitable for visitors. Red Oak is a re-created town just off the Route and I knew Sam would enjoy it, but I was afraid the recent significant rainfall might have rendered it into a muddy mess, which we weren’t dressed for. The swollen rivers on the way out there confirmed my concerns; in fact, Kellogg Lake Park (which includes an alternate alignment of Route 66) was completely flooded. My concerns were for naught, however; when we arrived at Red Oak II, the place was PACKED; someone had rented out the whole place for a wedding! What a lovely thing to do; I imagine it was a very fun and festive celebration. We drove by slowly so I could point out a few buildings, then started the long drive home. I don’t spend a lot of time on the Route at night, which is a shame considering the vast amounts of neon along the road. I made a few stops to capture the signs I’d only seen in daylight, making a mental note to do that more often.
All in all, a wonderful day trip. My work schedule changes next week and I’ll be working 2:00 – 11:00 PM with rotating weekends. I expect this will have quite an impact on my social life and travel schedule…though, perhaps that means I can get up early and take short trips before work! In any case, my big trip out West is in a week. Next Monday, I fly out to L.A. to re-visit my friend Doug and see parts of Route 66 I have not yet experienced. I’m tremendously excited and can’t wait to share that journey with you!