It’s been a little over seven years since I received that terrible phone call, the one that signaled a new age of my life. It’s a little surreal to look back at my world at the time of my father’s sudden passing. I feel like I was just a kid then, even though I was nearly 30; so much is different today.
None of my photography had ever been printed. My knowledge of local history and tourism was limited at best. Route 66 wasn’t even in my vocabulary. In fact, I hadn’t taken a single road trip in Oklahoma since returning home from my ten months overseas. It boggles my mind how much I’ve learned and accomplished since Dad knew me.
On Father’s Day, I set out on a very familiar path; the road I know best, actually. Samantha joined me as I drove north from Tulsa into Osage County. I’d wager that I’ve driven that stretch of road (Highway 75 to 20 to 11 to 99) more than any other two-lane in my life. It was the road to my grandparent’s house (on both sides) and then it was the road to Dad’s. It’s still the road to much of my family. Some of it has changed, but much of it has not.
I stopped in Barnsdall on the way up and took some time to walk Main Street. At 8:30 in the morning in a town of 1,200 it was predictably still. Most of what I observed mirrored the town of my memory. Bigheart Pizza, the resale shop, the post office, Andy’s Hamburgers. Several storefronts had burned down over the years (including my great-aunt Estelle’s beauty shop) and a few had been replaced with sheet-metal impostors. The grocery store I used to visit with grandma has been gone for decades; the “newer” store was recently put up For Sale, a victim of the Dollar General down the street. Overall, the town hangs on.
When we arrived in Pawhuska, a brand-new service station greeted us on the edge of town. The commercial impact of Ree Drummond’s Mercantile had continued to spread. There were multiple new shops and restaurants downtown surrounding the Triangle Building, which itself is being beautifully renovated into a new hotel. I can’t believe how quickly it’s all happening. Most of the businesses were closed (it WAS still Sunday in a small town, after all) but I wonder how long it’ll be before these local-owned shops start operating seven days a week. My destination wasn’t the Merc or the Buckin’ Flamingo, though.
The Pawhuska City Cemetery sits on a hill northwest of the city center. Much to my surprise, even though Sam and I had been together for nearly five years, I’d never taken her there to visit Dad’s grave. When we got out of the car and approached the Martin plot I was surprised to see that the area was covered in beautiful little wildflowers. It was quite moving. I wanted to speak, but couldn’t, so we just stood there for a while. Eventually, I was able to talk a bit about all of my family members at rest there: Aunt Kim, Grandpa Hardy, Grandma Gail, and the Tony Martin.
After we’d celebrated a few old lives, we visited my cousin Blakelea to celebrate a new one. Blakelea and her husband Ora Brown are new parents, and little Conagher has been a part the world for about two months now. I’m not so great around babies, but Samantha was on Cloud 9. Ora took pity on me and drove us out into the ranch he works on for a little exploration. He showed me a few cattle pens they still use from the 1970s, when the railroad still ran out that way.
We drove back into the deep pasture and onto the old rail bed itself, where you could see the path cut into the prairie to serve the Iron Horse. Today the path is overgrown and barely a road. We eventually made it to a dismantled bridge across Clear Creek: little more than a few bare concrete pillars in the wilderness.
I did find an old date nail in a piece of the trestle, which Ora kindly dislodged for me. It’s labeled ’26’ meaning it was forged in 1926…the same year that Route 66 was formed. Ora also told me about a few other places in the area (including an old cave supposedly used by the Dalton Gang) that could be accessed on horseback. Guess I’m going to have to get over that phobia!
Samantha and I bid farewell to our cousins and headed back to town. We made a quick stop at Lookout Mountain before heading back to Tulsa. It’s not much of a mountain, really, but it does provide a beautiful view of the landscape.
It had been a good trip…a positive trip. Change isn’t bad; it’s an inevitable part of life. There’s a lot I never had the chance to tell my father; I never even got to say goodbye. But I know he would be proud of the man I am today and even more proud of the man I’ll be tomorrow.