It’s refreshing when I wake up ready for a road trip these days. My world has been very busy as of late – as President of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association, my calendar typically stays pretty full with various meetings and engagements. That workload has increased dramatically since our Executive Director stepped down in September. It’s good work, I’m learning a lot…but at the end of the day I am just exhausted. On Saturday, however, I woke in good spirits and decided it was time to put a few more miles on the Mustang.
My initial plan was to drive up to the Kansas border and meander back home on Historic Route 66, trying out the new digital component to the State Department of Tourism’s Oklahoma Route 66 Passport. Although the Association has nothing to do with this popular item, I wanted to make sure we can speak to it with some expertise and help those that are using it to explore the Mother Road. About halfway up the turnpike, I called an audible. Or, rather, I called Jeremy Morris.
Jeremy lives in Red Oak II outside of Carthage, Missouri. If you’re not familiar with Red Oak II, the best summary I can give of this place is this: it’s a town made up entirely of relocated buildings in what was once a farmer’s field, the artistic vision of a late Ozark artist that endures. If you haven’t been, you gotta go. Jeremy has lived there for several years and has become something of an Ambassador, especially since Lowell Davis passed away. He just had gallbladder surgery and since I was going to be so close (40 miles IS close in Route 66 terms!) I wanted to check in and say hello.
Jeremy was doing well and we had a nice visit. He had picked up a few old Tulsa menus for me and I was excited to check those out, too. I was particularly happy to find a small menu for Harden’s Fried Chicken, the restaurant founded by the man that brought the first KFC franchise to Tulsa many years ago. Although Lost Restaurants of Tulsa has been in publication since 2018, the research never really ends. Judging by the stack, I’m guessing the menus were from the early/mid 80s.
After saying farewell to Jeremy and Red Oak, I stopped in nearby Carthage to check out the renovations at the Boots Court Motel. After a generation of neglect and a close call with a wrecking ball, the motel was purchased in 2011 by folks interested in preservation; a slow, room-by-room restoration effort began. Debye Harvey and Pixie Bledsaw did good work over the next decade, restoring the neon and removing the gabled roof, but they eventually put the place back up for sale. It sold again last year to a non-profit that was formed just for the purpose of fully restoring the Boots to its original glory.
Kim Bausinger, the new manager, met with me and showed me one of the restored rooms. The place looks spectacular – new stucco all around, simple period-appropriate accents, and as always a radio in every room. The old house next door has been torn down and the former Sinclair station nearby is being transformed into the motel’s office and visitor’s center. There are plans to populate the green space with chairs, tables, and other items to make it a welcome gathering spots for both travelers and locals. It’s been a LOT of work and it’s clear that it’s taken a LOT of money. But I’ve never seen the Boots look better. Kim’s passion grows as she learns more about the roadie community and prepares for the day, soon, when all of the rooms are full of people experiencing the joy of Route 66.
I was eager to get back to Oklahoma so I could execute my original plan, but one more stop was on my radar. Supertam on 66 is a small ice cream parlor in Carterville, a town of about 1800. It would be easy to miss if it weren’t for the big S out front. You see, it’s not just a sweet shop – it’s also a Superman museum! It was opened by Larry Tammienen in 2006 (SuperTAM is a reference to his last name and a way around copyright issues) and put up for sale in 2021 when Larry and his wife were ready to move on. The Briley family bought it and has been doing a wonderful job keeping this roadside stop going. Similarly to Kim at the Boots, they’ve been traveling other segments of Route 66 to learn about the roadie culture and better understand the linear community they are now a part of. Even in the dead of winter, this is a great place to stop, visit a spell, and enjoy some truly wonderful ice cream – and, yes, they do have the Superman flavor!
I hit the road again after a too-short visit – this time reaching the Oklahoma border with my Oklahoma Route 66 Passport in-hand. A few years back, the State Department of Tourism launched a passport for Route 66 travelers. Complete all of the stamps and you get a cool magnet and challenge coin! It has been a runaway success; in 2023, a new iteration launched (yellow cover instead of red) that also includes a digital completion option. Many businesses aren’t open seven days a week and this gives folks that travel on off times the same opportunity to complete their passport as others. I stopped here-and-there in Commerce, Miami, Vinita, and so on and the majority of stops were closed. But I was still able to complete a check-in using the app! It was very smooth. I will also say that the Passport is still no substitute for the Trip Guide that the Association produces…but it makes for a nice companion piece.
Timing was perfect for me to stop at Vinita’s Hi-Way Cafe for dinner. The first Saturday of each month, they stay open late for Steak Night. I’m glad I arrived right when it started at 4:00 – because the line was out the door by 4:20. I offered the other side of my booth to a man that was also by himself, living for a time at the Western Motel next door. We sat and talked about life (he did most of the talking, as is normally the case in such situations) and we both enjoyed a truly wonderful dinner.
I’ve been working with the owners of the Hi-Way for nearly a year in partnership with members of the Route 66 Association of Missouri’s Neon Preservation Team and I’m happy to say that the vintage sign of the Hi-Way was JUST hauled to a shop in Tulsa for a full restoration. A relighting ceremony is planned for late March! It’s been an exciting year for this little restaurant: they built a new addition to the dining room, hosted Mobil 1’s traveling Muffler Man statue during their Keep Route 66 Kickin’ Campaign, and set a World Record for Most Stickers on a Car. The stickered automobile, an AMC Rambler, sits in the new dining extension for all to see.
By the time I finished my meal and set the cruise control in the Mustang once more, the light outside was fading. I was able to make a few more quick passport stops before it got totally dark; then it was time to head home. I felt refreshed and rejuvenated from the day’s adventure; I’m already wondering when I can get back out again.