On the Road with Michael – Kansas City

(other installments of this series here)

I had set my alarm for 7:00 AM Wednesday morning, but it turned out that I didn’t need it.  I woke shortly after sunrise, eager to start the day.  I ‘enjoyed’ a cup of hotel room coffee before joining Michael for breakfast on the 18th floor of the Sheraton.  My eggs and bacon were decent as I listened to a story about Bob Waldmire parlaying with a tortoise on the deserted Main Street of Glenrio, many years ago.


At 9:30, we walked into the office of 41 Action News KSHB for a segment on Kansas City Live.  After getting checked in, we walked into the studio to await our turn.  Similar to Springfield, one of the anchors would be talking to Michael about the book and a local talk/book signing event later in the day.  The studio itself was a remarkable scene: Michael’s interview was sandwiched between a steak cooking segment, a DIY bit complete with functioning power tools, and a group of seven young Greek Festival dancers in bright clothing.  Who says the book biz isn’t exciting?


Afterwards, as we walked back to the car, Michael had a suggestion.  His condo building in Tulsa, the Sophian Plaza, had a sister building in KC.  He thought he had spied it on the way into town and would love to inspect it closer.  I had no idea such a building existed & was happy to oblige.  The Beaux Arts structure in Kansas City was built in 1922, four years before the Tulsa counterpart was built.  He took great pleasure in pointing out detailed differences, such as the greater number of historic windows remaining in the Missouri sibling.  It was a delight to see; I may never have known it even existed had it not been for Michael’s foreknowledge.

When the subject of lunch came up, we both agreed that some good Kansas City barbecue was a great idea.  Although we had asked the doorman at the hotel the previous night and Michael had queried the news anchor after his interview, Michael was not yet ready to commit to a destination.  He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “A reporter knows to always get three sources.”  We asked a different member of the hotel staff the same question.  It was unanimous: all three people recommended Joe’s Kansas City BBQ.  Indeed — it was terrific.  Some of the best pulled pork I’ve ever had.  Even though it was associated with Oklahoma Joe’s for a long time, the food in KC is vastly superior to the Tulsa restaurant, which is actually owned by entirely different people.  Long story!  As a bonus, Joe’s KC is in an old gas station.


Since our only other commitment was at 6:00 PM, the afternoon was wide open.  I had a few neon signs and other sites marked around town and Michael was eager to share in my exploration.  Our longest stop was at Union Station, the site of the infamous Kansas City massacre.  Michael researched that event extensively for his book about Pretty Boy Floyd; he took me around the outside and pointed out pockmarks from tommy gun bullets on that terrible day.  “Floyd did NOT do it,” he insisted.  I have yet to read that book, as it’s still packed from my move back home…but now that I have some additional context, I am more eager than ever to sit down with it.


Since Michael had shown me so much already, I decided it was time I show HIM something.  We took a short drive up to Parkville, a town that I’d visited with Samantha last year.  On the bank of the Missouri River, in a little park, sits one of two remaining Waddell ‘A’ Truss bridges in the world.  Parkville saved it from the wrecking ball in the early 80s and moved it to their little park for pedestrian use.  Michael read the historic information markers with great interest and marveled at the steel construction at my side.

He looked over the side of the span and smiled at a flock of geese as they floated beneath us.  That smile, so contented and genuine, remained as he identified birds in the trees and looked out at the Missouri River.  It was then that I saw a Michael Wallis that I’d never seen before.  Quiet, contemplative, appreciative; it was a simple zen in the afternoon sun.  The moments were fleeting; a story about Ozark catfish bubbled up in short order.  But, for a few minutes, the master storyteller was overridden by a childlike wonder.  A sense of great respect is woven through Michael’s books…for his subjects, for culture, and for the world itself.  It was a treat to see that respect manifest itself in the simple pleasure of a walk in the park.


The book signing at the Plaza branch of the public library was splendid.  The space was on the lower level of the library, which was packed!  Sound was piped through the halls outside of the Truman Forum Auditorium; even when I was buzzing around taking photos and answering questions out of sight, I was never parted with Michael’s presence.  Q&A was rife with thoughtful, intelligent questions and the book signing line was filled with fans both new and old.  One woman told the story of how her late father helped Michael research his first book, Oil Man, a first-edition copy of which she brought to authenticate her story.  It was very touching.

“Do you think it went well?” Michael asked as we shuffled towards the elevator, the last ones out of the event space.  It did indeed go well.  On all fronts, it was an excellent reception in the Paris of the Plains.



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On the Road with Michael – Tulsa to KC

When I went to the Tulsa Historical Society in May to hear author/historian Michael Wallis talk about his new book (“The Best Land Under Heaven:  The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny”) I expected to enjoy the presentation, which I did.  I expected to visit with my friends and walk out with a book, which I also did.  What I didn’t expect, however, was for Michael to ask me for a favor.  “Call me tomorrow,” he said with a grin and a glint in his eye.  Call him I did.  “Would you at all be interested in joining me for a few days on the road to help me promote my new book?”


I first met Michael in July 2015 at a talk he gave in Oklahoma City.  Over the last two years, we’ve had several opportunities to become acquainted at various events.  If you are unfamiliar with his work, Michael has written nearly 20 books on a variety of historical subjects; arguably his most famous work is a 1990 chronicle of Route 66.  He’s also a popular public speaker, thanks to his vast knowledge of western history and distinctive baritone voice.  I was honored to be asked to assist him and overjoyed to accept the invitation.


When we picked up the rental car on Monday, Michael turned to me and asked, “What should we name our car?”  The first name that came to my mind was Glaucus, after James Reed’s trusty steed in the book that we would be promoting.  He loved it.  Early Tuesday morning, we boarded Glaucus and left town.

The morning drive was an easy shot northeast to Springfield, Missouri; the conversation flowed just as easily.  We talked about all manner of subjects, though most revolved around our travel experiences.  Not long after crossing the Missouri border, Michael turned to me with that glint in his eye again.  “Think we can break into those cookies?” Samantha had made a batch of thumbprint cookies for our journey and we’d held off as long as we could.


We arrived just in time for a scheduled interview at KY3, the local NBC affiliate.  Check-in was quick and we waited in the Green Room to be called to the studio.  While we waited, multiple people came in to shake Michael’s hand.  Some had met him before but others had not; everyone was happy to see him and spoke with enthusiasm, mostly about Route 66 thanks to Springfield’s history with the Mother Road.  When it was time, I followed Michael and took photographs from behind the cameras as he talked about the Donner Party and Manifest Destiny.

Soon enough, we re-entered Glaucus and headed towards the Schweitzer Brentwood Library a talk and book signing event.  The library was newly-renovated and had a great energy; the staff was certainly excited to be hosting Michael for a few hours.  The conference room filled up and Mr. Wallis took the lectern.  The audience sat in rapt attention throughout.


After the talk and an extensive Q&A, the library held a drawing for a few copies of the new book.  Michael dutifully reached into a small basket, looked at the slips of paper, and that glint reappeared. “The names are…Rhys Martin and Michael Wallis, how about that.”

During the book signing, I was greeted by a woman named Betty Ridge, a Facebook friend who had been a reporter in the Muskogee/Tahlequah area for many years.  It’s always great to meet people IRL that you’ve only known through the Internet.  Good conversation was also had with the Pike family of the Missouri Route 66 Association and a young couple about to take their own Route 66 road trip out to California.


After each book was signed and the last hand was shaken, we said farewell to Springfield.  On the way to Kansas City, we made a few quick detours: downtown Bolivar and Clinton, so I could photograph some neon.  As we drove past the town of Humansville, Michael spontaneously launched into a monologue that sounded like something out of a Ken Burns film:  “Dear Ma and Pa, we’ve moved to Humansville. There is no telephone, nor is there internet access.  The mail only runs once a week.  It’s very peaceful here. We love you very much; goodbye.”

We arrived in the Plaza district of Kansas City shortly before 8:00 PM.  We were amused as the bellman took the luggage cart through the turnstile door, which barely fit and took some doing; we learned a few minutes later that it was his first day.  When he returned to help us take everything upstairs, Michael made small talk with him, asking him how he was liking the job so far and what he thought of the city.  “Hang in there, rookie,” he said with gusto as he tipped the man.  That mischievous glint was ever-present.


The last thing we did was grab dinner.  We were tired and easy to please, so once we got settled we headed down a few blocks to Winstead’s, a beloved local burger diner chain dating back to the 1930s.  The steakburgers weren’t earth-shattering, but, they hit the spot at the end of a long day.

This is a multi-part series; read about other legs of our journey here.

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Bikes and Books

On May 31st, my friend Nick came to town.  He wasn’t coming through to geek out over neon signs like he did last time he entered Tulsa City Limits; he was part of a group of people experiencing Route 66 from a bicycle seat!


Twenty-six travelers set out from Amarillo, Texas several days prior on their way to Chicago.  Over seventeen days, they would cover just over 1,200 miles!  My legs feel tired just thinking about it.  Although I was working when they rolled through, I timed my lunch hour so that I could take a few pictures and wave as they crossed under the Route 66 Gateway in West Tulsa and cruise the edge of downtown.  On that day, the group rode all the way from Bristow to Claremore.


Later in the day, I joined them in the town that Will Rogers claimed as his hometown (Oologah was too tough to spell, according to Oklahoma’s famous son).  I drove, of course, to meet up with Nick and his wife for dinner.  We dined at the historic Hammett House restaurant next door to the Will Rogers Memorial.  Although I only became aware of it recently, this classic establishment has been around since 1969.  Although it doesn’t sit on Route 66 proper, it fits the mold:  good home cooking and friendly service.  They are arguably most famous for their pie selection, and after enjoying a slice of chocolate creme pie I can agree their notoriety is entirely valid.


I wasn’t just visiting to catch up with my friend and enjoy a delicious meal, however; I had also been asked to present my Allure of Route 66 Presentation to the cyclists!  We gathered in a banquet room near their motel and I spent more than an hour showing my photography and talking about the history of the places I’d seen along the Mother Road.  They asked a ton of great questions and their interest was invigorating.  The tour director was a man named Lon Haldeman, who I learned was a world-class ultramarathon cyclist. He won the inaugural Race Across America which stretches from LA to NYC!  He, likewise, was very engaged and kind.  I really enjoyed getting to share my love of the Route with so many like-minded people.

And now for an announcement!


Next week, I am over-the-moon excited to be taking a road trip through parts of Missouri and Illinois.  It’s not just the mileage, though…it’s the camaraderie.  I’ll be joining author and historian Michael Wallis for several events celebrating the release of his new book, The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny.  Michael is a master storyteller and I am honored to tag along.  Here’s where we’ll be:

  • Tues, June 6 @ 2pm: Schweitzer Brentwood Branch Library in Springfield, MO
  • Wed, June 7 @ 6:30pm: Plaza Branch Public Library in Kansas City, MO
  • Mon, June 12 @ 7pm: Left Bank Books in St Louis, MO
  • Tue, June 13: several events in Springfield, IL including a news conference at the Donner Party departure plaque and a 6pm event at the Wyndham Springfield City Centre

We may have some more events pop-up as time gets closer.  In any event, I am taking my camera and will be documenting our journey through the Ozarks and into the Land of Lincoln.  I am stoked!


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No Place like Dome

Back in 2011, I had my very first public exhibit of my photography.  I set up a single table at the Blue Dome Arts Festival and sat under my brand-new tent, eager to share the stories behind the photos I’d selected.  I had a pair of canvas prints made and a selection of photos from Tulsa and my trip around the world.

2011-05-22 11.08.14

Blue Dome 2011

I have since referred to that weekend as a disaster.  My tent nearly blew away the first day (I packed up early once I realized how woefully unprepared I was), I had no real way for people to SEE my work unless they manually flipped through a box of prints, and very few people stopped to chat.  I sold four prints the entire weekend, all to friends or family.

Since that weekend of hard learning, I’ve come a long way.  I discovered Route 66, explored much more of my home state, and continued to develop my photographer’s eye.  Most importantly, I met Samantha; her support and encouragement have helped me grow more than anything else.  Back in 2011, I was a broken person.  When I unpacked my tent to set up for my second Blue Dome festival last weekend, I was whole…not to mention a whole lot better prepared!


Much like my inaugural event, storms wreaked havoc early on.  80 mph winds caused quite a bit of damage the night of initial setup and intermittent storms lead to Friday as a complete wash.  Samantha, who had her Bohemian Romance booth set up right next to me, agreed that after about an hour-and-a-half we should call it a day.  We had high hopes that the rest of the weekend would be a lot smoother.


Our hopes turned to reality; Saturday and Sunday’s weather was PERFECT!  It was then I was able to fully assemble my booth and appreciate how far I’d come in the last six years.  My work was easier to see and I had a greater variety of items to showcase it.  It was also a lot more targeted: the majority of what I had on display featured Tulsa and Oklahoma Route 66 photography.



This much-improved setup lead to many wonderful conversations with people, which has always been the highlight of what I do.  A woman came up and tearfully told me how much the Desert Hills photo moved her, as the motel was her home for a time when she originally came to town, broke and homeless.  A man picked up a coaster that featured the decorated main street of Tonkawa, a small town in Kay County he grew up in, and remarked in amazement to his friend.  Many passers-by commented on the photo of the old Riverside pedestrian bridge, which is due for demolition soon.  I even encountered a group of lovely Australian tourists traveling Route 66 that just happened to be in Tulsa during the festival!  I loved hearing every story and had the opportunity to tell a few of my own in exchange.


By the time we tore down on Sunday evening, I was utterly exhausted.  Days later, I’m still a bit achy…but it’s a good ache.  I’ve come a long way since that disappointing weekend six years ago.  Where will I be six years from now?  I hope I feel that I have made just as much progress as I do now.


Also, it was not lost on me that my booth was located right on the original alignment of Route 66.  Although it didn’t mean anything to me in 2011, it meant a heck of a lot this year.

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Strawberry Feels

“We’re going on a secret road trip Saturday,” I told Samantha on Wednesday.  She asked for a hint; I told her there was a hint in the front yard.  She guessed for days.  Eureka Springs?  A craft show?  Some obscure diner in the middle of nowhere?  Nothing seemed to tie to the front yard, though.  Finally, on the day of our journey, I pointed to the patch of tiny wild strawberries in our front garden, which had gone completely unnoticed until my uncle pointed them out to me last week.  The reason we woke early today was 92 miles away, near the Arkansas border: the 70th Annual Strawberry Festival in Stilwell, Oklahoma.

Stilwell Strawberry-40

Stilwell has been around since before statehood, another railroad town in Indian Territory.  During the Great Depression, strawberries turned into a major county crop; in fact, the town was proclaimed “The Strawberry Capital of the World” in 1949.  They’ve built an annual festival around that claim, which pulls in over 40,000 people from all around.  That’s quite a boost when the town normally boasts a population of 3200.  Capital of the World it may not truly be, but certainly the Capital of the Sooner State.

Stilwell Strawberry

When we arrived at about 10 am, the parade was going strong.  We slowly made our way to Main Street as the floats went by.  I saw folks from the Cherokee Nation, farming co-ops, volunteer fire departments, churches, schools, and a variety of agricultural businesses all with some kind of strawberry theme.  The entire county seemed to have at least some representation in the parade.  It took an hour and a half for the entire procession to make its way down Second Street, all told.  It’s great to see so much local pride, even if Stilwell was called out a few years ago as having the poorest economy in the state.

Stilwell Strawberry-11

As one would expect, Main Street was filled with vendors of all kinds.  Fidget Spinners were the fad of the day, with dozens of booths advertising the little gadgets.  Also as expected, strawberry goods were everywhere; we picked out a local vendor in front the old Eagle Theatre and bought a strawberry lemonade.

Stilwell Strawberry-21

Sam also got a “Strawberry Dog” which consisted of a pair of twinkies, cut down the middle & filled with sliced strawberries.  Whipped cream topped it all off!  They did have a visual likeness to a hot dog, but thankfully tasted COMPLETELY different.  (Yes, I had a bite even though fruit was involved.)

Stilwell Strawberry-22

I happily buzzed around the little car show on the east side of the festival as a line of horses came through, the riders calling out to folks in the crowd by name.

Stilwell Strawberry-28

One of the vendors really stood out.  Kyzer Pop Art’s booth was full of framed presentations that married vintage pop art (postcards, comic books panels, celebrity photos, and such) with some kind of soda bottle, cap, or label.  Every piece was hand crafted and well-curated; but the REALLY impressive part was on the BACK.  Each frame has a hand-written history of the subject matters that tells the story of the visuals on the front and a date it was all put together.  I was blown away!  I noticed a frame in the back that had a bridge orange Route 66 soda bottle and bee-lined for it.  It also included postcards for several OKC-area motels from back in the day.  When I saw it had been framed on my birthday, I had to have it.  Samantha found one with a flower design that she loved, so we both walked away with a unique gift.  We took note of the other festivals Kyzer would be at later in the year, too.  I could have spent all day ogling the details of his work.  When James Kyzer told me he’d been an art teacher for 35 years in Purcell, it made sense.

Stilwell Strawberry-12

Once we found the area where local farmers were selling their fresh strawberries, we were ready to go.  Though many vendors were present with food, Samantha floated the idea of heading back towards Lake Tenkiller to eat at a diner I’d mentioned on the drive up.  I’d never had the opportunity to eat there before, thanks to poor timing on my previous trips through the area.  Half an hour later, we pulled into the full parking lot at the Princess Drive-In.  Depending on where you look online, it’s either in the town of Dry Creek or Park Hill.  However, it’s right on Highway 82 and you can’t miss it.

Stilwell Strawberry-41

Most of the diners inside were sporting shirts from the Strawberry Festival and seemed to be locals.  “This is our first time in,” I told our young waitress.  “What are y’all known for?”  She eagerly told us that their catfish was definitely the best-seller, which made me a little anxious.  I don’t like catfish, but I hated asking that question and NOT getting the recommendation.  Thankfully, she quickly followed up with their BBQ which had just been smoked the prior day.  I ordered some of that and Samantha got a burger.

I am happy to report that everything was DELICIOUS. The spare ribs were easily the best I’ve had in years.  Samantha’s burger was likewise delicious and the sides were plentiful. The dessert blackboard called out strawberry ice cream, a treat offered only in the month of May.  I talked Sam into getting a cone, which was an impressive tower of home-made frozen goodness.

Stilwell Strawberry-42

We hit the road home, full and happy.  Though I had planned no other stops during our trip, I decided to make a quick detour to Fort Gibson so I could check up on an old bridge. Last time I’d been through, a new crossing was being constructed and I feared for the old span’s life.  I was pleased to see it not only standing alongside the new bridge, but also easily accessible to pedestrians.  I walked across the Grand River, sandwiched between a new concrete span and a beautiful old railroad bridge.  I snapped away afternoon sun, waving to occasional cars that passed by on the new bridge.

Fort Gibson Grand River (7)

After a few minutes, I heard a low rumble.  No cars were crossing the new bridge and the boat that had passed beneath me earlier was long gone.  I couldn’t place it.  Much to my delight, a freight train emerged from the foliage on the north side of the river!  The Union Pacific 4264 locomotive sped by, sounding the horn as it raced by.  I laughed aloud with pure, giddy happiness.  It was a great way to cap off the trip before heading home for the day.

Fort Gibson Grand River (10)

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Backroad Bridgehunting

My mother-in-law is in town this weekend.  I am thankful that these visits do not come with the stereotypical hand-wringing and stress; I’m always happy when Cindy comes to town from New York.  She’s a great lady.  Additionally, Samantha is on Cloud Nine the entire time; they usually spend most of the time junk-store shopping anyway.  This time, her visit coincided with the annual 100 Mile Yard Sale that is spread out over multiple Oklahoma counties.  While the ladies were out ogling antiques and haggling prices, I spent some time on the road.


Over the years, I’ve made notes of places to visit.  Most of these are either on Route 66 or in Oklahoma, but I have marked locations all around the country.  When I am hankering for a road trip, I just consult my map and work out a loose itinerary.  Today’s journey took me west of Tulsa, to Noble and Payne County, to see a few bridges and small town main streets.


My first stop was a pony truss bridge over Black Bear Creek, near the town of Morrison.  The late-morning sunshine warmed me as I cruised Highway 412 westward, a welcome respite from the heavy rains we’ve had recently.  When the road beneath me went from four lanes, to two, and eventually a single dirt lane it occurred to me that many of these areas had suffered from flooding in recent days; in fact, I saw standing water in a lot of the fields.  I briefly wondered if my Mustang would be able to make it down the pitted path in front of me.  I weaved successfully around mud puddles and divots until I reached a gate.  Had it not been for the shrouded ‘weight limit’ sign in the brush, I would’ve thought I’d come to the wrong place.  The bridge was still completely out of sight!


Around the bend, though, there it sat.  A single-lane pony truss with a wooden deck, hanging on to life over a swollen creek.  I could hear the water rushing beneath me as I carefully crossed the planks; they were in good shape, I was happy to see.  Some had even been replaced recently, though the bridge had been closed to traffic for a long while.  I stood for a time, listening to the water.  A bumblebee buzzed by lazily, paying me no mind, and chirping from the trees told me I wasn’t the only creature around happy the rain had gone away.  I looked down and saw that the creek was as murky as chocolate milk, churned by the recent precipitation.  It’s very rare for any Oklahoma body of water to have clarity.

After making a six-point turn and weaving carefully once more, I rejoined the main road, southbound this time.  My next stop was another bridge, but one that was much more accessible.  I had only been aware of it for a few weeks; in fact, I’d unknowingly driven near it many times over the years.  East of Stillwater, the Council Creek Bridge looks like many other through-truss designs that you can see around the state.  However, closer inspection betrays a curious difference:  there are uniform weld marks throughout the center of the bridge, rusting in a unique way compared to the rest of the metal.  This bridge had been cut in half horizontally!


In 2007, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation had decided the old Highway 51 bridge over Stillwater Creek needed to be replaced.  The Payne County Commissioner, a man named Bill Deering, was passionate about historic preservation…especially bridges.  He worked for years to save the bridge, and was successful…securing its re-location over Council Creek.  It had to be cut in half to make the journey.  Bill passed away in 2011, and today the truss is proudly marked as the Bill Deering Memorial Bridge.  I love how a random image I saw online translated into so much learning and a new road trip destination.  Good job, Bill!


I shifted gears after Council Creek and headed for a few small towns.  The first location, Ingalls, is a well-documented Oklahoma Ghost Town.  In fact, the people I met in Skedee a few weeks ago had mentioned Ingalls by name as a place that had spurred their interest in exploring small-town Oklahoma.  I guess you could say Ingalls ‘peaked’ in the 1890s with a whopping 150 residents; it hasn’t really done much since then.  There are a few old buildings that get photographed regularly, but truthfully they are replicas of the old hotel, stable, and general store.  Nothing authentic remains.  I took a few photos to document my stop, but I didn’t stay long.  Supposedly there are historic gunfight re-enactments in the fall.  I’ll have to return!

Ripley, OK was my next stop.  I didn’t head straight for their downtown, though; I had an urgent matter to attend to first.  As I pulled into a gas station to use the facilities, I was distressed to discover that my car’s shifter had stiffened significantly.  I drive an automatic and it’s very rare that the transmission has any problems.  Although I left the service station relived in ONE sense, I was very much the opposite when it came to the health of my car.  I was essentially out in the middle of nowhere; if the transmission seized up, I would be up one of these rural creeks without a paddle.  I canceled the rest of the day’s locations and set course for home.  Wouldn’t you know it?  The road out of town took me to yet another bridge.  I hemmed and hawed, but eventually decided to risk vehicular paralysis by putting it in park and taking a few photos.


The Big Creek Bridge was pretty simple:  a through-truss design on an old county road.  A squat water tower sat in the distance and a small artificial waterfall nearby really set the place apart, though.  I gave a friendly wave to the pickup trucks that passed and greeted a man as he walked by with a fishing rod, no doubt heading down to set up shop for the afternoon.  I wondered each time if I should ask them to hang around, just in case I needed a lift to town.  Thankfully, the car shifted back into drive…but I had to give it a good pull to get it there.  It was still shifting between gears just fine, at least.

I told myself I wouldn’t make any more stops until I reached my driveway.  As I passed through the town of Yale, I noticed it was one of the communities participating in the 100 Mile Yard Sale.  I wondered briefly if Samantha and her mother had come through yet, but as soon as the thought crossed my mind I saw their van up ahead on the side of the road next to a pop-up yard sale.  I snapped a photo out the car window as I drove by; they were unaware I’d even been there until I send Sam a picture message later.


The rest of my drive was uneventful.  I don’t know what the problem was with the transmission.  By the time I arrived home, it shifted into park with ease.  All of the other gears were working fine then, too.  I guess I’ll just keep a focus on it and take it in if it recurs.

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A Buzzing in the Air

Last weekend was the first (hopefully annual) NeonFest in Arcadia, Oklahoma.  Several of my roadie friends decided to put on a small festival dedicated to the iconic roadside signage that has lined the Mother Road for decades.  People were coming from all over the US to check it out!

Arcadia is a town of ~250 and is one of Oklahoma most well-known Route 66 communities.  The iconic Round Barn has been around since the late 1800s and is one of only two such circular structures in the state.  From the barn, you can look southwest and see a giant 66-ft tall soda bottle standing beside the highway.  That’s Pops, a gas station + tourist attraction that boasts an exceptional variety of bottled soda pop + obscure beverages.  It’s only been around since 2007 but attracts curious visitors from all over the world, even those that have no interest in Route 66 otherwise.  However, the centerpiece of NeonFest sits in the shadow of the barn.



In 2016, the Richardson Building was restored and opened as a neon shop called Glassboy Studios.  It’s a labor of love for proprietor Joel Rayburn and I was super proud to see his hard work pay off in the form of a nationwide pilgrimage.  Not only that, but renowned neon artist David Rivers would be on-site bending glass and helping Joel show folks the neon process.  Although the festivities started on Friday, I wasn’t able to join until the next day.  I missed quite the event — that first night, Michael Wallis performed a surprise wedding!  The day of torrential rain couldn’t dampen anyone spirits in the buzzing glow of that Neon Garden.

I woke early on Saturday and headed southwest.  As I stood on the shoulder of 66 with my camera (there’s always something to capture, no matter how many times I drive that old road) a familiar car approached.  Ron Jones and his stunning 1956 Chevrolet sped by; I hopped in my car and sped to catch up.  I entered Arcadia city limits with the Tattoo Man leading me; when we pulled up to Glassboy Studios together, we joined the dozen or so roadies that had started their day even earlier.

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Roadie gatherings are always strong in camaraderie.  As I mentioned in my previous post, everyone has at LEAST one thing in common:  love of the open road.  From that genesis, there are a great many passions…many of which compliment one another.  I love learning from passionate sources, and NeonFest was no different.  I greeted old friends & met new folks, some of which already knew my work.  “I know you from the Internet!” is a phrase I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.  Though it had been many months since we’d all been together, it was like no time had passed.

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One of the ‘new’ people I met was Alison Lamons.  I’d become aware of Alison’s amazing artwork over the last year or so and was stunned she’d made the trip up from Florida to take part in the festivities.  Her work is really special and if you check that link out you’ll see why this festival was a perfect fit.  In fact, she brought a piece with her to showcase…which I’ll get to in a little bit.

As lunchtime approached, the gathering switched gears.  We hopped in our cars and drove two miles east to John Hargrove’s ‘OK County 66’.  I guess you could call the place a roadside attraction, but it’s more than that.

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Over the years, John has transformed his property into a micro-chasm of the Mother Road experience.  The land is dotted with multiple replicas of well-known Route 66 imagery, such as the Blue Whale, the Twin Arrows, and even a half-buried Volkswagen Bug.  His workshop continues the theme; half of it is dedicated to his work on vintage automobiles and the other half contains a smattering of familiar sights.  He even has a movie theater room mocked up like an old drive-in.  That theater was the focus of our next few hours.

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Several films were shown throughout the afternoon, including the debut of KC Keefer’s newest entry in his Unoccupied Route 66 docu-series:  The California Promise.  KC’s stuff is always high quality and, as you might expect, his presentation was well received.  I wandered the grounds and visited with my many friends during the films I’d seen before, ducking in occasionally to catch a short documentary on neon or some of Roamin Rich’s aerial photography.  It was a wonderful afternoon; if you’re ever down near Arcadia and John Hargrove’s gate is open, wander on in.  You’ll be glad you did.

(In fact, throughout the day multiple travelers stop by Glassboy Studios or OK County 66, wondering what the heck was going on.  I even met two ladies from Borger, TX that had just been in Pawhuska to visit Ree Drummond’s Mercantile…small world!)

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At dinner time, our group took over a restaurant in nearby Edmond.  We returned to Arcadia afterwards for campfire entertainment at Jim Ross’ house.  It was the site of the previous night’s surprise union; tonight it would host an Elvis impersonator (complete with pink Cadillac) and a good deal of libations.  Alison brought an amazing piece of art inspired by Native American culture and the Greek mythology that Arcadia gets its name from.  I stood amazed as she explained the nuance and detail of her work.  I truly had no idea it was so layered.

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I wasn’t staying the night in a nearby hotel, so my night ended earlier than most.  As the sun dipped below the horizon, I bid farewell to my friends and headed back to Tulsa.  Though I know not when I will cross paths with them again, I know we’ll pick up where we left off, as is tradition.  Full photos of the event are here!

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