After the Red Brick Inn in Baxter Springs gave me a delicious complimentary breakfast, I got into the car to go to my first stop: Vinita, Oklahoma – the hometown of Sister Bernie Galvin. Anyone who has worked in San Francisco on social justice issues knows Sister Bernie, and when she heard that I was traveling Route 66 she contacted her family. I was set to meet her brothers Tim and Mike at 11:00 a.m., and Tim had promised to barbecue some steaks. With my cowboy boots on (and my pink Macy’s button-shirt), I popped my Johnny Cash CD as I crossed the state line into Oklahoma. After a brief stop in Miami (which the locals pronounce “Mi-a-muh”), it was off to Vinita …Tim and Mike (and his son Mike) were ready to greet me as I arrived, with steaks all barbecued and ready to be eaten. Tim and Mike have both worked for labor unions over the years. The Galvins have been in the area for generations, and their grandfather knew Will Rogers. “He tried to trade our grandfather’s bicycle for a horse,” said Tim – as we spent a pleasant lunch talking about politics, and what I have to look forward to on Route 66 today. They told me about the world’s tallest soda-pop bottle in Arcadia, as well as the world’s only Round Barn. “I’m sure they don’t do any square-dancing there,” he quipped. Tim says I should take some of the left-over steaks, but I tell him I don’t have a cooler. So he takes a styrofoam cooler from his garage, fills it with ice, and wraps up one of his steaks for me to eat down the road.
As I head off Southwest on Route 66, the landscape is flat. But this is not the boring flat Illinois prairie. Oklahoma’s lush orange fields give it a whole new feel to it. Of course, now is the perfect time to sing along to the entire score of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! – so I throw in the CD. There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow; there’s a bright golden haze on the meadow; The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, and it looks like it’s climbing way up to the sky. Oh, and yes … all the cattle are standing like statues. In this part of Oklahoma, Route 66 is an efficient four-lane highway – which most locals use, because the Interstate is a toll road. I make really good time on it, as I sing along to every song on the album.Now we’re in Claremore – the hometown of Oklahoma’s favorite son, Will Rogers. The cowboy, humorist, vaudeville actor and newspaper columnist was a legend in his time – which is still very much felt here. Route 66 is actually called the Will Rogers Memorial Highway in Oklahoma, so I give myself an hour to take a look. The museum was pretty incredible, as it chronicled his early life as an actor – until his wife convinced him that he was a far more talented writer. The museum is complete with famous witty sayings that Rogers said, and the influence he had on U.S. Presidents before his tragic death from a plane crash in 1935. Rogers was part-Cherokee, and he was always fond of saying “my ancestors didn’t come on the Mayflower, but they were there to meet them.”
Before leaving, I buy a CD from the gift shop of Will Rogers’ old radio broadcasts from the 1930’s. One thing that has fascinated me about Oklahoma is why the state is so conservative – it was literally the only state in the nation where Barack Obama failed to win a single county. But when you listen to Will Rogers, he was anything but a right-winger. While laced with humor, his commentary was serious about the need for jobs to help the unemployed – and his comments about FDR were a little too prescient today. “The Republicans have a plan,” he said in 1933: “do nothing, and hope that means Roosevelt can’t do nothing either.” Of course, FDR wasn’t afraid of Republicans.As Route 66 approaches Tulsa, I just have to stop to visit another roadside landmark. Before leaving on this road trip, I mentioned on Twitter that I was doing Route 66 – and the Blue Whale of Catoosa sent me a tweet, inviting me to come drop by. The Blue Whale was once in a child’s amusement park, and preservationist have kept it as a roadside landmark. Definitely one of the fun, kitschy things that you find along Route 66!
Approaching Tulsa, I could stop for more than gas – but it’s already 3:00 p.m., and I’m eager to get to Oklahoma City. While Tulsa may have things to offer, the only thing it reminds me of is Oral Roberts University – so I move on. Now, the Oklahoma landscape has improved for the better. You still have the lush orange scenery, but now Route 66 is not flat – but the whole stretch from here to Oklahoma City is rolling hills.Another thought on Oklahoma. Yesterday, I commented how much poverty I saw in Missouri – and to be honest, I expected Oklahoma to be very much the same. But there’s a critical difference here. Oklahoma seems to be more proud of its Route 66 heritage, and there are more fun things to do along the road – even in places that may be economically depressed. Take Depew, for example – a small town of 501 people. They just have a general store, but I found it so much more charming than the towns in Missouri.
Now, Oklahoma City is getting closer – and I’m rolling pretty well on Route 66. But it’s getting late, so I take a brief stop in Stroud to grab a cup of coffee. Before Oklahoma City, I just have two things to do and they’re both in Arcadia: visit the Round Barn, and visit the world’s tallest soda-pop bottle. As I get back in the car, I play Journey’s Greatest Hits to keep me focused on the road – and while driving, it makes me feel like Will Schuester.I finally get to the Round Barn, but the gift shop closed an hour earlier – and it looks like the place is reserved for a party tonight. You can view a photo of it at my Facebook page. And then, just a little bit further, is the world’s largest soda-pop bottle. Frankly, I’m underwhelmed … having seen the world’s largest rocking chair yesterday. It’s not even made of glass!! But later that evening, my friends in Oklahoma City say it’s really cool when lit up. I guess I just got there too early, when it was still light out.
At 7:00 p.m., I arrive in downtown Oklahoma City – having found the city really easy to navigate. I meet up with my friend Karina at the Wedge, an awesome pizzeria in Bricktown – where we order the “American Pie.” I met Karina at Netroots Nation in 2008, when she worked for Andrew Rice – Oklahoma’s Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. She has worked in Oklahoma Democratic politics for several years, and has just switched jobs. She promises to take me to a gay bar in Oklahoma City after dinner, but first suggests we view the Oklahoma City bombing memorial.On April 19, 1995 at 9:00 a.m., Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols exploded the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City – killing over 200 people. On this site, the city has built a tasteful memorial with a reflecting pool – with chairs to commemorate all who died in that tragedy. And at night-time, the site is peaceful and beautiful.
Afterwards, we head to Boom! – a gay bar northwest of downtown, where practically everyone knows each other. The bartender explains to me that a lot of young gay men in Oklahoma City are part of a softball league, so they get to know each other in different venues. It was frankly a more close-knit and healthy environment than what I’ve seen in San Francisco. As it gets late, I head back towards Bricktown to check into my hotel for the night. I’m ready to start blogging, when I get a call from my friend George – who just happens to be in Oklahoma City for the weekend at his cousin’s wedding, and who has been following my blog on Facebook. We meet up for about an hour at a piano bar downtown – before last call at 2:00 a.m. forces us to leave. What a great unexpected way to end my day in Oklahoma City. Tomorrow, I have a lot of driving … as I head due west to Amarillo, Texas.