Thursday was my 35th birthday. Over the last few years, I’ve developed a tradition of taking a road trip on my birthday. Last year I drove up Route 66 to see Afton Station for the first time. The year before that was also spent on 66; I ate at Clanton’s Cafe in Vinita for the first time. This year, I didn’t hit the road on my birthday proper – it was nice to relax and enjoy a low-key dinner at Mom’s instead. But on Friday I was feeling travel antsy – so I set out to spend time in Osage County.
I drove up Highway 75 to Ramona and turned west, taking what Mom calls the ‘Ramona Bypass’ for the first time. It was a lovely winding drive, an unfamiliar road in familiar land. I joined Highway 11 near Wolco and headed into Barnsdall. Barnsdall was founded in 1905 and was originally called Bigheart, named after the Osage Chief James Bigheart. In 1922, it was renamed Barnsdall in honor of the owner of the Barnsdall Oil Company, who had brought a refinery to town. The refinery is still there, though it hasn’t actually refined oil since 1946; it produces micro-crystalline wax instead. Just past the refinery is a small, giraffe-stone building called Jack’s Place. It’s an old service station that was turned into something of a roadside shrine a while back, and wouldn’t be out of place on Route 66. It features an old Dodge pickup, old gas pumps, and dozens of signs…one sign in particular stands out. It’s a giant red heart, once used for the Bigheart Cafe downtown. Today, it’s repainted to say Bigheart Okla, a roadside reminder of the town’s history. The owner of this little station passed away last year and the future of his collection is unknown.
I continued north, past Pawhuska and towards the Kansas border. The landscape was intermittently scorched; springtime grass fire season was in full effect. Plumes of smoke dotted the horizon and the smell of burning filled the air. I stopped at a pony truss just off Highway 60, west of the lost truss near the turnoff to Grandma and Grandpa’s house and parallel to the highway I know so well. It was very settling to be out on that country road all by myself. the silence only broken by the crunch of gravel beneath my feet. I had no idea that this echo of the lost “Bridge to Grandma’s House” was out in the countryside.
Further north, near Hulah Lake, I turned off the main highway and onto another rural roadway. On the banks of Birch Creek (which looked more like a pond due to the proximity to the lake) sat another beautiful pony truss, perfectly reflected in the muddy water. The concrete approach span was pockmarked and damaged, with several beams either collapsed or completely absent. On the east side of the bridge there were many large chunks of concrete, their origin unclear. I did find a stamp in the pier from the Works Progress Administration from 1936 though. I had a visitor during my exploration; a single red pickup passed by, the driver giving me the back-road steering wheel wave I’m so accustomed to. While I walking around, I tested a new video streaming feature that is offered by Facebook; you can see that here. It appears that I hold my phone in such a way that I tend to cover the mic. Whoops! I’ll get better, I promise.
My next stop was three minutes away, at a through truss over Pond Creek. As I pulled up, I saw a man relaxing on the bridge in a lawn chair. He had a few fishing poles balanced on the side of the span. I walked up, shook his hand, and chat for a few minutes as I took photos. His grandfather had brought him out to this bridge to go fishing, and he’d been coming out here his whole life. When I told him about my travels, he perked up at the mention of Route 66. It was a bucket list item for him, and he was restoring an old Plymouth for the eventual road trip. I gave him a card and encouraged him to reach out to me when he was ready; I had plenty of advice to give!
On my way back south to Pawhuska, I decided to take the old county road to my grandparent’s house. I don’t make it up that way often anymore, and thought it would be nice to drive by and see the old converted schoolhouse that holds so many cherished memories. In a stroke of luck, the current homeowner was outside as I drove by. I pulled over, walked up to the gate, and introduced myself. When he learned of my personal history with the house, he invited me past the gate and introduced himself as Charlie. He took me around the yard and talked about the few changes that had been made in the fifteen-or-so years he’s owned the house. Grandpa’s old butcher shop had been re-sided, for example. Most of the place, though, was just as I remembered it from my youth…if a little more worn. The tall statue at the goldfish pond had partially fallen apart, the propane tank paint had flaked off, and the two barns that Grandpa Hardy built were mostly collapsed. All things pass, and I greeted these observations not with sadness but with fond nostalgia and appreciation that I got to see them one more time.
As I wandered down the back porch, Charlie invited me inside the house to look around. The feeling was indescribable; although many things had changed I could still see the Ghost of Holidays Past in the rooms and hallways. I heard Hardy’s voice, Gail’s laugh, the chimes of the clock. Even though they were gone, I could still see Grandma’s rotary phone, the turn-dial microwave, the old canopy bed. I told Charlie about Grandma’s love of Nintendo and where the Christmas tree was every winter. I think we both got a lot out of the brief visit, and he said I could come back any time. On the way back out to my car, I saw a little frog statue near Hardy’s shop. Grandma Gail LOVED frogs and collected all kinds of figurines. I had no idea any of them had survived. I stopped short of asking Charlie if he would sell it, but it’s been on my mind since I waved goodbye.
Before heading back to Tulsa, I stopped at Uncle Jody’s appliance store in Pawhuska and visited for a few minutes. He gave me directions to a house in town that also showcased a large number of roadside signage whose owner had recently passed; I drove by and observed the collection before hitting the road and heading home. That night, Samantha and I went to the fairgrounds to celebrate the 50th Birthday of the Golden Driller, Tulsa’s most famous landmark. It was a great way to close the day and a reminder of how far I’ve come in the last few years; I feel like I know myself so much better than I did even after my international journey. Here’s to continuing that learning experience; I can’t wait to see how much has changed by this time next year.