With all the fun from last night, I left Oklahoma City later than expected – as I watched Fox News while munching the hotel’s free breakfast, nervously getting news about a federal government shutdown. If the government shuts down, my reservation to the Grand Canyon will be cancelled.Before leaving town, I just have one quick trip to make – visit the Oklahoma State Capitol Building, which is right on Route 66 as I head due west. It’s a very impressive building, but my friend Karina told me something about it yesterday that was quite shocking. When they built it 100 years ago, they ran out of money – and couldn’t finish the dome. The state finally completed the dome a few years ago, but had to solicit private donations. So as you look up at the dome, you see the various “sponsors” who helped pay for it – including Phillips Petroleum Company, and (gasp!) Halliburton. I guess it makes sense, though – Oklahoma is completely run by right-wing Republicans, and in 2008 it was the only state where Barack Obama failed to win a single county. But still, it was quite repulsive to see this.
It’s now 10:30 a.m. – and I figure that if I can make it to Amarillo by 7:00 p.m., I’ll be okay. So I head on Route 66 west on a four-lane highway, with the soundtrack to The Commitments playing full blast as I sing along. Pretty soon, however, the scenery becomes flat Oklahoma prairie – and it’s clear that we are entering a whole new part of the state. This place is wide and expansive, and the rest of my trip today will be like that.After I pass the city of El Reno, Route 66 gets really bumpy and gravelly – and it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me The Commitments is not good music for this trek. I need something more mellow for the difficult road gravel, so I pop in Elton John. At one point, the road deviates – and I’m offered two choices: either the “original historic Route 66” that goes through Calumet, or the “paved Route 66.” Given the time constraint, I reluctantly opt for the paved part of the route.
Finally arriving in Weatherford, I am exhausted – and low on gas. I start wondering how much longer I could take a trip like this, assuming Route 66 keeps going that way. But after I fill out the gas tank, I realize how far I just drove in less than two hours – and given the circumstances, I can handle it. I also notice that Clinton, OK is only a few miles away – and they have a Route 66 Museum. So I figure that’s a good place to stop to have lunch.While having lunch in Clinton, I realize that there are *two* Route 66 museums in the area – an Oklahoma Museum in Clinton, and a Route 66 National Museum in Elk City (not that further away.) The die-hard purist would go to both, but I only have time for one. After the waitress coaxes me to visit the one in her hometown, I decide to – and have a pleasant 45 minutes there. The museum in Clinton does a good job chronicling the “Okie” sharecroppers in the Great Depression who migrated on Route 66 to escape the Dust Bowl, and it also shows how Route 66 played a role in America’s love affair with the automobile in the 20th Century.
Heading out of Clinton, Route 66 is now a mere frontage road to the Interstate. But unlike in places like Illinois, the road is not always well-paved – and you have to be careful about how fast you’re driving. Moreover, the directions are not that good – and at this point, not having my geeky Google-Map printouts would have been problematic. At one point between Clinton and Elk City, I can’t find the frontage road – and have to get back on the Interstate.In Elk City, I’m low on cash – so I decide to drop by a bank. I see the Bank of Western Oklahoma, with its slogan “where people come first.” When I go inside and inform the teller I have a Bank of America account, she says “we won’t charge you a bank fee – but they might.” Oh, wow! I wish every bank were like that. Leaving Elk City, I try to get back on Route 66 – but miss the frontage road and end up on the Interstate again. As I drive down I-40, I look wistfully at the side road – annoyed at myself that I’m not driving the two-lane highway. At the first opportunity, I manage to finally get back on. Now we are in Western Oklahoma, with the Texas border a few miles away. It’s a desperately poor area, with small towns having been ravaged by the Interstate. I stop in Sayre, which is relatively prosperous – but it goes downhill form there. As I approach Texola (right at the border), I had been told it was a ghost town. Boarded up buildings and shells of what were home abound – and all I see are a few old men doing garden work. They look up when they hear my car rolling down the road, as if any stranger coming to this town is somehow unprecedented. It’s sad, really … these towns were once thriving, but now there are very few opportunities left to stick around.
As I cross the Texas state line, I continue on Route 66 – which is a frontage road to the Interstate. I’m in the Texas Panhandle – it is flat, there is absolutely no one around for miles, and the only signs of life are depressed boarded up ghost towns. In other words, now is the perfect time to play Bruce Springsteen. So I pop his “Greatest Hits” CD into the car, as the opening riff of “Born to Run” echoes as I sing along with the Boss at the top of my lungs.A few miles later, I come across the small town of McLean, Texas – population: 800. I had heard about McLean, because someone on YouTube put up a really awesome video of an old news clip from 1984 – which described the decline of Route 66. At the time, McLean was one of the very last towns to be by-passed by the Interstate – and the town was nervous. As I arrive in town, I visit the Texas Rope-a-Dope Museum – which also features the Texas Route 66 Museum. I chat with the owner, who has lived in McLean her whole life.
She tells me that 50 years ago, McLean had 2,500 people – or more than 3 times its current population. “The same month the Interstate came in,” she said, “the bank went out of business.” Which is really ironic, if you watch that YouTube video. The only person in McLean who was not unhappy by the looming Interstate by-passing their town was a local Bank President, who said “progress is progress” and “we have to accept this.” He was out of a job within a month …Getting back on Route 66, it is almost impossible to follow the old route if you didn’t do your homework with Google Maps. And in some places, it is simply impossible to take Route 66 at all – so at various stretches, I have to get back onto the Interstate. But by now, I don’t really care – because frankly, there is nothing to see here at all.
But before I get back on I-40 to do my final sprint to Amarillo for the night, I can’t resist but stop by the gigantic cross in Groom, Texas. We are in Bible Belt territory – and the Texas Panhandle is the most reliable Republican part of America. Right near the cross is a shrine by the Knights of Columbus – dedicated to the “sanctity of life and the innocent victims of abortion.”
Now, I am staying at the Big Texan Motel in Amarillo – just off I-40. I was reluctant to make plans to stay there originally (after having viewed pictures on their website), because the place looked so amazingly tacky.
But I’ve decided it’s a fun place – and it’s right next to the Big Texan Steak House, where no one tonight was dumb enough to think they can eat a 72-ounce steak. But I did have an adorable band come to my table, and play “Home on the Range.”
I invite you to view photos of my ridiculous hotel on my Facebook page. But for now, I’ll just leave you with a picture of a gigantic boot – right in front of the restaurant …