Route 66 in the News

Kickin' It on 66, Amarillo to Tulsa

2012-06-09 17:15:55

AMARILLO, Tex. - Route 66 Motel, Palo Duro Motel, Estess Motel, Cowboy Motel the old '50s motor courts along Amarillo Boulevard, part of old Route 66, remind me of my mother.

My father always drove on our family vacations back in the '50s and '60s, but my mother got to choose where we spent the night, and she was a tough sell. Back before interstate highways gave birth to hotel chains that made road-trip overnights entirely predicable, each little roadside motel was unique. Many were sparkling clean. Others were ghastly. You never knew until you opened the door.

Thus, Mama would always ask to see a room. She'd cast her jaundiced eye over the rug and the bedspreads. She'd inspect the bathroom. Then she'd ask the price, often shaking her head and muttering, "Too high," a sure sign we'd be back on the highway. It's a fitting memory as my husband, John, and I traverse the route known as the Mother Road.

Of all the U.S. highways that criss-crossed the nation before the interstate system took over, U.S. 66 — some 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles — is the most famous, immortalized in Bobby Troupe's 1946 "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" and in the 1960-64 "Route 66" TV show starring Martin Milner and George Maharis. In fact, its theme song, Nelson Riddle's little road-trippy ditty with the addictive piano lick, is stuck in my head as we roll down what used to be U.S. 66 in Amarillo in our Civic (because, really, we can't afford a Corvette).

So begins a 36-hour exploration of what I've deemed a manageable chunk of the old Route 66, about 380 miles from Amarillo to Tulsa, Okla. Are there kicks to be had on Route 66? There are. But you have to like road-tripping, come to terms with coyote heads on fence posts and possess a true love of funky, old buildings. And grain elevators.

Having spent days researching the old route and gathering maps, we begin in Amarillo, driving past the motels on Amarillo Boulevard, many of them still open but all looking a bit worse for wear, then head downtown for the part of Amarillo that is strongly marketed as being part of the route: West Sixth Avenue between Georgia and Western streets. Route 66 signs dot antique shops, cafés and bars.

I walk into the GoldenLight Cafe, which has been slinging burgers and chili at 2908 W. Sixth St. since Chester "Pop" Ray (actually, his son, because Chester was sick that day) opened the place in 1946. It's changed hands over the years, but it's still a local favorite, and this day finds the bar packed with grizzled locals enjoying afternoon beers.

One guy jumps up and runs to get his business card when he hears I'm a travel writer. He runs the new Trolley Express (806-220-8866), which for $2 ferries tourists up and down West Sixth from downtown. The trolley's a big talking point in Amarillo, which clearly is trying to work the Route 66 thing as hard as it can. The GoldenLight's grease-glistening burgers beckon, but, not being Guy Fieri, I'm trying to pace myself, burger-wise. Besides, it's time to get on down the road.

East of Amarillo, Route 66 hops north and south of Interstate 40, with grain elevators looming on a flat horizon. We find a couple of really big ones in Groom, along with a leaning water tower, which no longer holds water. Apparently Groom was going to tear it down, but a truck stop owner moved it to the edge of town — plunking it down crookedly — hoping it would attract business to his place, which proceeded to burn down.

In McLean, we find the first of three Route 66 museums. It's inside the Devil's Rope Museum, whose entrance proclaims it "a tribute to barbed wire." The free museum has a huge room devoted to barbed wire and fence-making. I learn about the first barbed wire fence erected in Texas by John Grinninger of Austin, who surrounded his garden with it on Waller Creek in 1857. Five years later, somebody murdered him. Maybe good fences really don't make good neighbors.

The Route 66 part of the museum is a small room of artifacts including the big plastic cow from Amarillo's original Big Texan Steak House. (The Big Texan, where you get a 72-ounce steak free if you can eat it within an hour, was on Route 66 back in the '60s. Now, it's on I-40.) We learn that when Route 66 was paved in Amarillo in 1926, a crowd showed up to cheer.

A few blocks from the museum, we find the cute, little first Phillips 66 station in Texas, carefully restored — except that the doors and windows are replaced with wood painted to look like doors and windows.

On to Shamrock, where we find a sort of Route 66 grail: the U-Drop Inn, a beautifully preserved art deco former gas station and café. This, alone, is worth the drive. It's gorgeous. And green. It probably had to be, being in Shamrock.

Shortly after we cross into Oklahoma, the Civic's odometer hits 100,000. We celebrate while admiring fence posts topped with coyote heads. In Elk City, we find — along with some more old Route 66 motels — a large museum complex including a pioneer village, a transportation museum and a Route 66 Museum (2717 W. U.S. 66). We buy our $5 tickets and focus our time on the transportation museum (a nicely staged old drive-in theater with car fronts, car rears and a fire engine) and the Route 66 Museum, filled with artful dioramas about the road's history from the Dust Bowl days to the post-Depression years, when roadside attractions from snake farms to amusement parks popped up, along with multitudinous motor courts and cafes.

In Clinton, we enter our third and final Route 66 Museum (2229 W. Gary Blvd.; $5 adults, $3 seniors, $1 children), which just reopened after a renovation. It explains the history and the construction of the road with such artifacts as a recreated soda fountain, gas pumps and photos of the road, its travelers and its attractions. By now, we're prepared for a cocktail conversation with Maharis or Milner, should we run across them.

Road-weary, we eye the Tradewinds Motel across the street from the museum. Elvis Presley stayed there. But not lately. The people who have stayed there lately have left the sort of reviews on tripadvisor.com that lead me to decide against it. Farther along Route 66 in Clinton, we glance at the Glancy Motel, whose patrons are gathered on a second-floor balcony casting furtive glances. My motel radar — I inherited Mama's — tells me to keep going. We opt to stay in a Super 8.

The next day, we're up and out early, finding the old Squaw Drive-In theater in El Reno (long dead but with a lovely mural painted on it), the Yukon's Best Flour mill in Yukon (my favorite grain elevator of the trip) and more motels. We arrive in Oklahoma City, which turns out to be a Route 66 gold mine. At Classen Boulevard and 24th Street, we find a tiny, triangular 1930 building with a milk bottle on top. Formerly a grocery, it now serves Vietnamese sandwiches. At 23rd and North Western Avenue sits the Gold Dome, a 1958 geodesic dome covered with gold-anodized aluminum panels, once a bank and now an events center. Farther down 23rd, at Walker Avenue, the 1939 Tower Theater stands, completely run down and vacant, its stately sign begging somebody to restore it.

East of Oklahoma City, Route 66 turns into a two-lane rural road, winding through Arcadia, past an old, red, round barn built in 1898 (restored as a store and event venue) and a new roadside attraction that pays homage to Route 66: Pops (660 W. U.S. 66), a convenience store and café that sells pretty much every vintage soda pop you'd ever want, along with Route 66 regalia. John buys a Dublin Dr Pepper, and I choose an RC Cola, which makes me ache for a Moon Pie. (Note to Pops: Add vintage snacks.)

On east we drive, stopping for burgers at the Rock Café (114 W. Main St.) in Stroud (where alligator burger is on the menu for $11 "when available") and rolling into Tulsa, making a stop downtown to ogle the Blue Dome at Second and Elgin street (a 1924 gas station, now a landmark of Tulsa's downtown nightlife district), then cutting west (after a city-marked detour through a Home Depot parking lot — very strange) to the East 11th Street part of Route 66. We photograph the 1930s Meadow Gold dairy sign (11th at Quaker Avenue) and wind up the trip at another of those 1950s motor courts, the Desert Hills Motel (5220 E. 11th St.). The Desert Hills has an attractive neon sign with a cactus. I find myself walking into the office.

"May I see a room?" I ask, wondering why the clerk is in a Plexiglass cage. He smiles and gives me a key, and I take a look. The rooms are clean and brightly painted, with a few southwestern-themed paintings and not-hideous bedspreads. The TV, though not flat of screen, works. The towels, though not fluffy, are about the same I'd find in many chain motels. It's sparse, but cheerful. The price? $49. In my mind's eye, I can see Mama nodding: This'll do fine.

Preparing for your Route 66 trip

~Helen Anders
, Statesman.com

 

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