God, the last few days have been tremendous. I mentioned earlier that my priority would be writing rather than updating stats and what not, and it has been, when I’ve had the time. However, the ultimate priority has been traveling, seeing and doing things, and I’ve been so very busy doing that the last few days that I simply haven’t found the time. I have meandered through Western Oklahoma and Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and am now in St. George, Utah. I’ll be leaving in about an hour to go play 18 at St. George Golf Club, but in the meantime, I have a rare hour to write! My time in New Mexico and Arizona deserves its own entry, and will get one later this evening.
Route 66. The Mother Road, as it’s known by its lovers, represents Americana in its purest form. A 2 lane highway traversing some 2400 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, the road has increasingly been more than a highway. It represents that American desire for the open road, for travel, and for new beginnings. Commissioned in 1926 (some portions were not completed until the 1960s) and decommissioned in 1985, the road was only open for use for some six decades. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans picked up and left their homes in the Midwest for the greener pastures of California, whether permanently or on vacation. Along the mother road sprang up town after town to cater to the travelers, and in these towns remained some of those who called 66 home.
As the Interstate System was commissioned in the 1950’s, large swaths of 66 were made obsolete, largely due to I-40. In the years that followed the decommissioning of 66, the states and towns through which it once passed were tasked with what to do with the road. It wasn’t until several years after the decommissioning that the road gained its heralded status in earnest, and in the interim entire stretches were done away with.
A traveler looking to drive from Chicago to Santa Monica today will look for other routes, as the increasing number of vehicles on the roadways has meant that the Interstate is the way to get anywhere quickly. I get that. However, even if someone wanted to follow the old 66 the entire way, it would not be possible. That being said, large portions of the road do remain, particularly as “Main Street” of the many towns through which it passed, and also as frontage roads along I-40. Other portions wend their way through countryside. While not all passable, the road remains driveable in many areas.
I had not planned on making significant use of 66 during my trip, and didn’t really even consider using the road at all. My focus, regarding historical highways and biways on my trip, was on the Pacific Coast Highway, California Route 1 up the coast. I honestly didn’t know a terrible amount about 66, and wasn’t even sure of exactly where it ran.
I pulled into Joplin, MO nearly a week ago (Holy Christ! That long ago! Thankfully I wrote about the golf through OK a few days ago!), and got to my hotel with a few hours of daylight remaining. While in the parking lot, a sage man in the sunset of his middle age approached me to ask about my golf trip. I briefly mentioned this encounter in Oh, You’re a A Damn Fine Player, but wanted to expand on it now.
So yes, he had approached me, and after he let me know that I’m a damn fine player, I asked him where he was from – as I noticed his New York plates. He responded “Upstate New York,” and I chuckled and stated that I too am from Upstate New York. After working out that we were in actuality nowhere near each other (he was from Albany, I’m from Buffalo), and laughing the matter off, we talked for about ten minutes in the parking lot. I asked what he was doing in Joplin, and he responded that he was there for the annual Route 66 convention. Immediately interested in this, I picked his brain about the road and his interest in it.
As a child, his family had gone on vacations to California, and 66 was their right of way. It was in the early 1990s, when he was traveling through Illinois and saw a sign for “Old Route 66” that his interest was piqued regarding the old road, and over the years, his love affair with the route grew steadily. He has fully traversed the road a few times, although not recently, but had a clear love for the road, as well as other historic highways.
It was in those five short minutes of asking this stranger about 66 that my own interest developed. Again, I had no plans of driving the mother road before my trip had begun, but here I was, in Joplin, MO, on the road, with the only plan being to go west. 66 was the perfect way to do it. I asked for recommendations on must hit stretches for a newb, and was given two recommendations: the miles and miles of original 1930s concrete west of Oklahoma City, and the Oatman Road in western Arizona.
I thanked the guy for the advice, and he then asked if I was a Phillies fan, as I mentioned I grew up outside of Philadelphia. I answered that I was, and in fact had been listening to them receive their savage beating while en route. He asked who was pitching, and I only need to say “KK” before a look of disappointment on his face let me know the guy was a Phils phan as well. “He was pitching well early on,” the guy sighed as we shared commiseration in our lousy Phils.
Turns out he was a young boy in downstate New York in the late 50s and early 60s – just after the Giants and Dodgers had moved out west, but before the Mets were established. He didn’t want to root for the Yankees, but loved baseball.
Enter the 1961 Phillies. A historically bad season, they finished a dreadful 47-107. From July 29 through August 20, they didn’t win a single game. 0-23. The longest losing streak in the National League since 1899, it has not been matched since. A legendarily futile stretch, only the true fans remained with the Fightins during this dark time. In my new buddy from Albany, though, they gained a lifelong fan.
Rooting for the underdog is the American way, and there is no better underdog than the Phillies, particularly those late 50s early 60s teams – they were horrible. Not only were these Phils teams atrocious, the Phils were the first team in the entire world to lose 10,000 games at their respective sport. Cubs and Red Sox fans, please step aside. The Phillies are the loser franchise in baseball. Despite their well known futility, the Cubs (1907, 1908) have as many titles in as many years as the Phils. However, everybody loves the Cubs – they are the lovable losers. And, the Cubs have been relevant at times over the years. The Sox frankly have no place in this discussion – they had numerous chances at capturing the title, and developed a nationwide fanbase full of losers who love losers. In short, the Cubs and Red Sox were always loveable losers. They were, mostly, good teams who just couldn’t get pushed over the top. Sure there were periods of futility for those clubs as well, but everyone always had a soft spot for the clubs. Everyone had a rooting interest for the Cubbies and Sox once their own club had been eliminated. The Phillies enjoyed no such nationwide fanbase. Everything but loveable, the Phillies are just losers. They are my losers, and they will be my losers long after the Jonnycomelatelys of the 00’s have lost interest when 11, 6 and 26 finally hang them up. “Tinker to Evers to Chance” step aside. “Rollins to Utley to Howard” is going down in history.
Anyhow, my buddy and I were both steeped in phutile Phillies phailure, and I had just brought up ’64 before some fellow 66ers came and had to interrupt for more pressing conversation concerning their road. 1964, for those who are unaware, was tragic. The Phillies, who had been terrible forever, were actually having a good season! With just 12 games remaining, they had a 7.5 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals, and appeared to be on their way to just their 3rd pennant in 81 years (talk about shitty). They lost 10 of their last 12. Those 10 losses came in a row, before they won the meaningless last 2 games of the season. It was heartbreaking for both the club and the fans. We were just about to get into that when he was off to better conversation topics.
Baseball and driving. Route 66. It was the most American conversation I had on the trip. I was sold, I was hitting 66 the next day. Before I did that, it was recommended that I go check out the tornado damage in central Joplin.
The next day, I headed north on Main Street en route to the course, and the damage was devastating. Nearly two years later, the portions of the city along Main Street from 20th up to 28th Streets were still far from being recovered. Open lot after open lot dominated each side of the street. Some foundations remained, while others were in various states of disrepair or rebuilding. A few fast food restaurants had been constructed, and were the only signs of life along Main Street in the middle of Joplin. It was heartbreaking. I honestly can say that when the tornado happened a few years ago, I didn’t give more than a passing thought to the event. It’s two years later and the city still hasn’t recovered. Over 160 dead. Downtown. Right through the heart of the city. No one deserves that.
After my round, I headed out on Missouri Route 66, which used to be the Mother Road en route to Kansas. Incidentally, the course lie on 66, and gave way to a cool pic from the 12th (I think) green.
The view from the 12th green. The tee is at the bottom of the hill, while 66 is to the left. In the distance on the left, you can see a Ferris Wheel. It resides in the Joplin Carousel Park. Americana.
After my round in Kansas later in the day, I headed south towards Oklahoma, and once in the Sooner State, made my way to 66. Although it was recommended that I hit up the road west of OKC, I wasn’t going to have much daylight once I got out there, and was sure to get on old 66 while it was light, whether it was east or west of OKC.
Oklahoma 66 ran roughly parallel to I-40 for miles, and from modern OK 66, there were numerous turn offs on to the locally named “Old Route 66.” The above picture was taken on old 66 while the sun was setting – it was a cathartic experience. I was chasing the sun to the horizon as I plowed on towards the west.
The further away from 40 the road became, the less likely the road was to be traverse-able. That being said, significant portions were easily passable.
The road, while in OK, was two lanes, with no shoulders, and was built of concrete. Much of the road remains as it was built, traveling between towns through wooded areas and plains. This particular stretch was beautiful, as trees overhung the road on both sides, at times feeling as if you were traveling in a tunnel. However, the road has not seen much maintenance, and several areas were overgrown, necessitating a return to the main road before getting back on 66.
One of the many closed portions of Old 66 in Oklahoma. For miles on end, 66 was a frontage road, either for OK 66 or I-40. Many folks still lived right on old 66, and needed to use the road to get back to either OK 66 or I-40. Sprinkled along the old mother road were numerous old billboards and signs for restaurants and inns long since closed.
As it became dark, my temptation to hop on the Interstate grew, but now I was west of OKC – I was on a classic, unmolested stretch. The road at this point ran primarily parallel with 40, not more than 50 yards to the right of the road, and served as a frontage road. for I-40. Hardly wide enough for two vehicles, Old 66 ran for miles and miles here. Original 1930s concrete, the road was still in fantastic shape. Constructed using slabs of concrete rather than continuous paving meant that my tires would glide over the divides every few yards, producing a rhythmic and relaxing “ba-dump ba-dump ba-dump” as a I clicked my way down on the road. The speed limit here was 55, as opposed to the 70 on the interstate. I was so very content going just 55 – I loved the road and what it represented. The few minutes extra it took me to get to Weatherford were worth it. I finally did get to Weatherford, and ended up staying at a hotel, appropriately enough, right on old 66. The portion of the road where I stayed was not special. In fact, old 66 became unpassable just a few miles down the road from the hotel. But there it was – the old artery to the west, still serving nostalgic travelers just like me…
After my round in Oklahoma, I zipped on down to Amarillo. As far back as Louisiana, I had seen signs for a free 72 oz steak at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, TX. Naturally, I was interested in this. We have all heard the stories of the massive steak eating contests in Texas, and I wanted to at least view the spectacle if I couldn’t participate. I got to the ranch around 9:30, and sipped on a beer while waiting for my table. It was a Friday, and the place was packed.
I took this photo after my meal – take note of the humongous cow to the right. Hilarious!
Everything is bigger in Texas, and here, what was bigger was the endearing kitschiness of the place. Originally built along old 66 (that road goes everywhere!), it was moved over to I-40 in the late 60s to remain in business. Once you’re in this joint, your senses become overwhelmed. There is a large gift shop, full of what you’d expect to see in Texas (yard signs reading “Warning. Protected by (picture of a gun). We Don’t Call 911”). There was a carnival shooting range, a bar, and a beer garden as well just inside the ranch. Beyond all of that though, were the Texans themselves. Each employee was donned in rancher garb – men and women both in cowboy hats with bolo ties around their plaid covered torsos. They all work boots, and some even had spurs on. It wasn’t just employees though – there were tons of natural Texans out, although they were hard to distinguish from the employees.
Once I was seated, the fun continued. The room in which that famous beef is served up to you is a massive, dimly lit ballroom, with tables arranged in a manner almost forcing you to get to know those around you. I, however, was seated at a table with a tiny buffer between anyone else, and was able to use the opportunity to take it all in.
Roaming bands of musicians wandered about, playing country favorites such as “Ring of Fire” as folks dined, adding to the ambiance. My waitress eventually came around, and I ordered my double filet, medium, and waited while in awe of what was around me. I did speak with my waitress for a few minutes, and thought that her story was interesting. Her father was also working at the restaurant (she pointed him out to me), but had moved to Amarillo from Seattle just before she was born. An interesting choice for sure, but one that ended up meaning that my waitress had never been to the Northwest, although her parents raised her with sensibilities unbecoming of Texas. In her words, she was one of the 10% of her graduating class to not become pregnant by the time she had graduated. She was saving up to move to Austin with her fiance, in hopes of studying Nuclear Astrophysics or some very impressive sounding field. In the end, I fear that it’s likely she stays in the “black hole of Amarillo,” as she called it… she didn’t even seem to think my suggestion of simply going to Austin and figuring it out from there was possible. Honey, it ain’t possible if you don’t do it!
Anyhow, the main attractions here were, first, the steak, complete on a plate which reminds you where you are:
And, second, the raised table in the middle of the dining floor, where those attempting to finish the 72 oz steak sat, lording above the mere mortals such as myself, who were content with more pedestrian 12 oz steaks.
Now the story regarding that free steak is this. You pay for your feast before you get it ($72), and if and when you eat everything, you are refunded. No easy task. Not only must you finish you 72 oz steak, you need to eat the salad, baked potato, baked beans, roll, and shrimp cocktail that accompany it.
I was hoping there would be some dudes or dudettes trying it, and I was not disappointed. When I had arrived, there were two fellas giving it a go, and from the onset, it was obvious they would not be up to the task. They were taking time to chew and to speak with onlookers. Big misteaks. When a new challenger made his fateful decision, one of the cowgirls silenced the room and introduced him to everyone – generating applause and well wishes. I couldn’t stop laughing each time I took a break from my own meal to walk up to the table to check out the progress of the challengers. I think this pic completely sums up the attitude of most who try:
Good work dude, you did better than I could have, but were still ultimately dominated. Don’t worry though, that look of exasperation says, to me at least, that you gave it a good, honest effort. That’s all we travelers of the Mother Road could have expected.
Laughing my way to the register, I paid for my $30 steak and was off to the hotel for the evening. I did play a round the next day, and will write about it later. For now, I must be off. It’s nearly 2 pm here, and I’m hungry. I gotta play 18, feast, and get on to Nevada.
Second entry tonight is almost a guarantee.