I celebrated Independence Day near the banks of the Arkansas River in Tulsa. My perch was an exterior stairwell on the sixth floor of the Sophian Plaza, about a mile away from the city’s largest nighttime fireworks display. Lately I’ve felt that I haven’t had enough time in my days; it was nice to slow down and enjoy an evening in the company of friends. However, that’s not to say I’m not eager to take another trip.
I have been antsy to get back on the road since returning from my trip with Michael Wallis last month. My camera bag had scarcely moved from its spot in my office for the last few weeks. When I saw the clouds lighting up in spectacular fashion a few nights ago, I jumped at the chance to have something to capture. I haven’t had much time to plan even a day trip. Imagine my delight when I learned about something coming to ME for a change!
On Wednesday, a Facebook post caught my eye. A stunning early model Ford had stopped in Chandler, Oklahoma on an eastbound Route 66 journey. When I looked closer, I recognized the driver of the vintage auto. I’d met Dr. T Lindsay Baker back in 2016 at the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival in Springfield, Missouri. We’d bonded over our love of history and the Mother Road in particular; we’d kept in occasional contact ever since. At that very moment of realization, Dr. Baker was motoring up the old road towards Tulsa. How great would it be to meet up and say hello!
I left work a little early & dashed home to get my camera. By the time I was turning miles on 66 myself, I had no idea where Dr. Baker would be…I just knew he’d be somewhere between Chandler and Tulsa. As luck would have it, I didn’t have to drive far. On the west side of Sapulpa, I spotted the old Ford in an empty lot; Dr. Baker had pulled in to inspect something on the car. He was shocked and thrilled when I got out of my car and greeted him. He introduced me to his road trip companion, Chris, and told me all about the antique car he was driving.
Dr. Baker’s chariot was a 1930 Model A Ford, specifically a woodie station wagon model. The four-cylinder engine boasted about 40 horsepower, which meant they were normally cruising at about 45 miles per hour. (A bad tank of gas early on had limited them to 25 mph uphill, but a high-octane refill cleared that right up.) A canvas water bag, surprisingly cool to the touch, hung under the passenger headlight. The windows were simple snap-on flaps. The cargo area not only held luggage but also a variety of spare parts in case of breakdown (a fact which brought to mind preparations for wagon train travel.) It was an authentic dust-bowl era automobile.
The pair had come up from the Fort Worth TX area to Oklahoma City. They merged onto Route 66 there and were taking it east to Chicago…where they planned to turn back and take the road ALL THE WAY to the Pacific Ocean. Once they reached Santa Monica, they were going to turn around AGAIN and drive back to Texas. That plan would clock over 5,000 miles before journey’s end. That begged the natural question: Why?
To get an answer, I would have to follow Dr. Baker and his companion to Tulsa, for he was late for an appointment. I followed the Model A through Sapulpa, taking Route 66 as it merged onto the interstate at the Tulsa city limits. Signage is notoriously poor at that junction; in fact, due to the fact that it wasn’t marked, the Model A took I-44 by mistake. My friends ended up in midtown, bypassing a big chunk of Tulsa’s Mother Road segment entirely. When we arrived at our destination (Brownie’s Hamburgers, a Tulsa tradition since 1956) a group of locals were waiting. Ken Busby of the Route 66 Alliance, Tulsa World columnist Ginnie Graham, and Tulsa World photographer Matt Barnard were eager to hear T Lindsay Baker’s story, too.
Over several mugs of homemade root beer, the historian told us about his latest project. He was working on a book about food culture on Route 66 & how it changed through the years. No chain restaurants existed when the Will Rogers Highway was established, but some of America’s most ubiquitous brands were born right on the road. McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, and several other major fast-food brands first opened their doors with an address on The Main Street of America. Mom and Pop restaurants have long been a major part of the road and they have had to endure the changing tastes of tourism in their own way.
But why the car?
Dr. Baker reasoned that a proper sense of perspective was needed to truly tell the story of the diner evolution. A car built in 1930 was built for the road as it was originally designed. No air conditioning, just put the windows down & fold the windshield up. No power steering or fancy suspension, making the jittery ride an endurance test. Heading across the Mojave? Better make sure your water bag is full and you have a spare tire to replace your doomed treads. The end of each day was an exhausted triumph.
He summed it up simply: his experience would give him true exposure to the (physical and emotional) pillars of those long-ago journeys: Fatigue, Discomfort, & Uncertainty. And none of that even broaches the topic of the Green Book. As difficult as those early trips were, they were a revolution in the American Experience; true cross-country travel was suddenly possible for the every-man. The modern traveler still has a schedule though; these guys had an EZ Guide and a cell phone too.
When we parted ways, I had a much greater appreciation for Dr. Baker’s journey and his beautiful classic car. It was more than a showpiece; it was the workhorse that helped shape our country from the Great Depression onward. While I don’t think 5,000 miles in a Model A sounds like the most fun trip ever, it does sound like a vital experience and one that should bring an invaluable sense of context. Godspeed, sirs!
*UPDATE* The Tulsa World has published their article (with video!) here.