(Click on images to view full size.)
The drive on three Interstate highways from home to Albuquerque is fast and long. Boom, boom – hundreds of miles of Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico roadway flying past. However, if you’re willing to slow down, you can drive most of this on the old Route 66, the Mother Road. I’ve driven the 1208-mile Interstate route several times and viewed sections of Route 66 at 75 mph, thinking, I need to take this trip on the old road one day. That day came this summer.
Planning a drive to Albuquerque to visit my daughter and her family, I decided to to add an extra day to the trip and spend part of the drive there on Route 66. I kept thinking about how much more fun it would be if someone went with me, but couldn’t really ask anyone since I planned to be in Albuquerque for two weeks. I was bemoaning this fact over lunch with my friend Jane. When it dawned on us that it was possible to book a one-way fare with frequent flier miles, she was suddenly coming with me! My best friend was sharing the adventure! Road trip! The planning continued in earnest as we both studied maps and books and online resources.
Day One: Saturday, July 25, 2015
About two weeks later, we hit the road. We joined Route 66 in St. Louis with, appropriately enough, ice cream! Ted Drewes Frozen Custard is famous for both its location on the old Route 66 and for its “concrete” shakes. We opted for the special of the day, a tricked-out butterscotch sundae, and acquired our first Route 66 souvenirs. While we were thrilled to be at this famed iconic temple of frozen confection, our consensus was that the ice cream tasted a whole lot like, well, pretty good ice cream.
On a sugar high, we proceeded, partly on the old Route 66, partly on Interstate 44 to our next stop, Meramec State Park, home of the famed and totally kitched-out Meramec Caverns. Among the caverns’ claims to fame are their service as a hide-out for Jesse James and assorted outlaws and as a filming location for episodes of the Lassie TV series. The caverns are truly magnificent and their discovery and history is a fascinating story. Hundreds of people are led through the caves daily on guided tours that highlight their natural wonders and their legendary past. Cameras and iPhones snap away in the dark capturing dim memories of the natural wonders and the lit displays of scenes depicting early miners and outlaws. It was a refreshingly cool break from a sweltering summer day, and we felt thrown-back to the heyday of Route 66 when families flocked to roadside wonders guided by beckoning signs all along the route.
After a couple of hours of cave exploration, we were ready for an another authentic Route 66 eating experience, and we found it a few miles down the road at the Circle Inn Malt Shop in Bourbon, MO. This diner was satisfyingly Route 66 in its black and white tiled decor and was peopled with locals most of whom sat at the counter in overalls and plaid shirts smoking and visiting. In a nod to road-food tradition, we ordered hamburgers and fries, and Jenit (Dutch spelling), our waitress, provided background history while we waited. The Circle Inn, she told us, has been family owned and operated for four generations. Jenit and her husband owned the local drug store. After her husband’s death, she ran the business until competition from the chains caused her to sell. The Circle Inn owners are family friends and they lured her into helping at the restaurant for Fish Fridays, their busiest night. This led to her eventual full-time work, which she loves. While we were there, locals wandered in and out chatting, smoking, even occasionally eating. It was a bit of culture shock to be in a restaurant that still allows smoking, but it added to the sense of throwback to the heyday of old Route 66! And I suspect that the local smokers appreciate a haven for their habit.
Our goal was to reach Carthage, Missouri, by evening where we had a reservation at the Boots Court. So we headed west on I44, planning to get off the Interstate onto the Old Road for Devils Elbow, a stretch much admired by the writers of our tour books. We did drive through part of it, but missed quite a bit of it, as it was a struggle to find the route on our maps, a common situation we found throughout the journey.
The Boots Court proved to be one of the highlights of our trip. Lovingly restored by two history-loving sisters, it is managed by their childhood friend Debbie, who came out of retirement to live and manage on-site after they completed the first phase of the old motel’s restoration. The sisters used grant funds from the National Parks Association along with their own resources to restore the property to its 1949 condition. With an emphasis on authenticity there is “a radio in every room” tuned to the local station playing music from the era and providing local news. So far, eight rooms have been restored, including the one that Clark Gable slept in with its adjoining private carport. The restoration is both authentic and incredibly clean and fresh. We felt transported to the fifties! Debbie is filled with pride for the project and generously shared information about the local history and Route 66 “must sees.” After checking in, we took a walk to nearby downtown Carthage and viewed the beautifully ornate old courthouse on the square before purchasing snacks and retiring to our room for the night.
Gallery of Images from Day One. (Click on image to view full size.)
Day Two: Sunday, July 26, 2015
After breakfast at The Pancake House next door, we discussed nearby points of interest along the Route with Debbie. She highly recommended Red Oak II, built outside of Carthage by local artist Lowell Davis. She told us that if we were lucky, we might even get to chat with the artist, whose home is there. Deb’s enthusiasm convinced us that we had to visit Red Oak II before we left the area. We weren’t wrong and we were lucky, for shortly after we arrived and began wandering around this fascinating living work of art, we ran into Mr. Davis, and he became our tour guide. Here was a man who relishes the role of eccentric old artist – and does it very well indeed! He beganRed Oak II some thirty years ago on his farm property there. Primarily a sculptor and a painter, Davis had grown up in the original Red Oak, which by that time had become a virtual ghost town. He began buying up old buildings from there and other abandoned towns in the area and moving them to his farm property. He restored the buildings and added his own sculptures to the site, creating a living whimsically historic work of art. As we wandered the property with him, he shared stories of his life, his artistic philosophy, and of his ongoing and constantly evolving project. Red Oak II, he said, is created from materials other people have thrown away. One of the buildings he purchased, moved and restored is the small country church that sits on the property. He felt that the hillside next to it would be perfect for a small cemetery. In addition, he wants to be buried “where I lived my dream and made my art.” So he placed a stone there that will ultimately be his marker. He surrounded it with grave stones he “recycled” from a local carver. These markers had been rejected for one reason or another by the families who had commissioned them. He had to agree that he would either obtain permission from the family of the deceased to use the stone, or he would obliterate the actual name on the stone.
It was hot that morning as we wandered through the village, so Mr. Davis offered us popsicles and we ate them in the eccentric garden behind his house as the roosters wandered through and he told us how he met and married his third (present) wife. He met her on a trip to Korea with his artist friend, Samuel Butcher (the creator of the Precious Moments figurines and the nearby Precious Moments Chapel). He and his wife live in the house once occupied by old west legend Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen. His wife, he told us, was presently visiting in New York to “restore her sanity,” but he invited us into the house to view it and his art that decorated the walls. There we met his daughter who lives nearby and was helping out in his wife’s absence. (For more information about Red Oak II, click here.)
More images from Red Oak II (Click to view full-sized images.)
After spending most of the morning at Red Oak II, we headed for the Kansas stretch of Route 66 around 11 AM. The Old Road cuts through just a corner of Kansas and includes Galena, home of Cars on the Route (formerly 4 Women on the Route until only one of the original owner/operators remained). The “Cars” of the name refers to assorted vintage vehicles parked in their lot, including the tow-truck which they claim inspired the character depicted in Disney’s Cars movie. Disney, of course, with their usual copyright paranoia, will not allow them call him “Mater.” Included in the vintage gas station building was the requisite gift shop featuring Route 66 memorabilia and a small diner with the classic Route 66 black, white, and red chrome and tile decor. Here the short-order cook served up our second hamburger lunch of the trip from the minimalist menu: hamburgers, hot dogs, fries. Later, while we were browsing the gift shop, the attendant was making a count of visitors who had signed the registration book since the beginning of the year. On one side of her sheet were ticks for US visitors and the other side for folks from other countries. Surprisingly, the ticks were about even, with hundreds of visitors counted on each side of her page. Indeed, we had seen a number of foreign visitors at the various sites we visited along the way. It seems that the Route 66 journey of nostalgia is very popular among visitors to our country. It made me wonder if their vision of the US is of a rural landscape with small towns along two-lane highways dotted with dusty neon-lit motels and cafes filled with simple folk selling fried food and kitch.
Our intention was to visit Baxter Springs, Kansas, in a bow to Jane’s last name, but we realized that if we were to reach our motel in McLean, Texas, before nightfall, we need to boogie on down the Interstate. So we hopped onto I44. We did decide to get back on Route 66 to visit Catoosa, Oklahoma, home of Mother Road icon, the Blue Whale. With all the hype typical of tourist attractions along Route 66 we expected the the road to the Whale would be well marked. However, we wandered through quite a few miles of countryside, then some of it again before finally asking a local for directions. And there it was…a somewhat faded version of it’s blue glory. It was formerly a delightful giant mammalian entry to a small lake, but no swimming is allowed any more. But we could walk into its mouth and onto the diving platform of its tail. And, of course, there was still a souvenir shop on the property. Onward to Texas!
As we approached the McLean, Texas, exit off of I44 a little after nine that evening, we saw an enormous column of smoke ahead. Police were routing traffic through McLean at what was fortunately our exit for the motel we had booked for the night. When we arrived at the Cactus Inn, the receptionist was clearly shaken. She told us that she had seen the huge explosion on the highway from where she was. She saw a truck drive by, then it exploded. We were sick, sure that there was no way anyone could have survived such a huge explosion and fire. When we left our room to check out the next morning, however, the clerk pointed out a couple using their cell phone on the parking lot. They were, she told us, the occupants of the truck. They had survived the explosion and had been brought to the motel the night before by the emergency responders. I spoke with the couple to tell them how happy and relieved we were that they had survived such a horrible fire. They told me that they heard an explosion and suddenly the truck was on fire. Both managed to flee the truck but her cell phone was all they had left. Even his shoes had been provided by a volunteer fireman.
A word about the Cactus Inn. It, too, is an historic Route 66 hotel. But unlike the Boots Court, which is old and restored, this one is just old. However it was adequately clean, very inexpensive, and ultimately a significant addition to our Route 66 adventure. (Click on pictures to view full size.)
Day 3: Monday, July 27, 2015
Before leaving McLean, in the spirit of our Old Road experience, we had breakfast at the Wagon Wheel in downtown McClean. The food was good (who can mess up bacon, eggs, toast, and orange juice),and the decor was, guess what, black and white tile with red checkered tablecloths!
Our goal for this day was to visit Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the Texas Panhandle several miles south of Amarillo. The morning was very hot and dry, but fortunately, this site can be toured by car as you wind through the canyon to view its many layers of rock and stunning mesas. Called The Grand Canyon of Texas, it is the second largest canyon in the U.S. This landscape is such a departure from the flat stretches of the Panhandle along I40!
A few miles down I40, we pulled off onto Route 66 again, this time to visit Adrian, Texas, home of The Midpoint Cafe at the halfway point of old Route 66 between its endpoints in Chicago and L.A. We had hoped to eat lunch at the Cafe, but the kitchen was closed for the day. However the souvenir shop was open, of course, and I purchased my requisite Midpoint Cafe coffee mug. Obligingly, they had the perfect half-way photo op set up outside with old and new windmills and the gorgeous Texas planes in the background. We headed west toward our Albuquerque destination.
Our next pull-off was Tucumcari, New Mexico, because how could you not stop in a place named Tucumcari? Once famous for its “thousands” of motel beds, it’s still filled with some of the best neon along the road including one of the most striking at the beautifully restored Blue Swallow Motel. Sadly, it was still light out when we photographed it, but even at that, it was worth the detour.
Our final stop before arriving in Albuquerque was at Clines Corners – just because there were so many signs for it, we felt compelled. And we needed gas. It is, as promised, a GIANT truck stop on I40 with every kind of, you guessed it, souvenir imaginable. We managed to buy only gas and arrived at our destination in time for one of Bret’s wonderful dinners and began our visit with him, Rachel, and the world’s best grandchildren. And we still weren’t far from Route 66. One of these days I’ll have to do a thorough pilgrimage to all the Mother Road icons in Albuquerque!