There's a bright, golden haze on the meadow...

Trip Start Feb 11, 2010
Trip End Dec 11, 2010

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Flag of United States  , Oklahoma
Monday, August 2, 2010

"Toto, I've a feeling we’re not in Kansas anym…" oh wait a minute….we are. But not for long.  Route 66 only runs through Kansas for 13.2 miles, in its South-East corner.  Although this greatly reduced our chances of seeing any houses getting swept away in a twister, it was enough road to see a glimpse of Kansas’ towns.  More to the point, it served as a grim reminder to the effect the Interstates have had on the small settlements that once thrived – but sadly relied – on Route 66 and its unrelenting passing trade.  One example is the old mining town of Galena, which once boasted a population of 30,000.  Now it is barely 3,000.  Yet this is positively heaving in comparison to the utter ghost towns that we crept through, namely Riverton and Baxter Springs.  These places felt more like the vacant film sets of a Western, but for the sporadic, abandoned pick-up truck.  Boarded up garages, hairdressers and stores lined both sides of these one-road neighbourhoods.  It was a sobering dozen miles of track – but all part of why we chose to take this route across the States in the first place.  It made me think of back home – maybe my banging on about bypassing Olney needs some deliberation.

On the bright side, we soon crossed into Oklahoma (The “Sooner State” of course) – home to more drivable miles of Route 66 than any other State.  I was chuffed to be behind the wheel.  The road rolled with the hills of the terrain; and occasionally tested our nerve by changing from smooth tarmac to miles of dirt track and gravel.   We stuck to our “no interstate unless we absolutely have to” guns and sure enough found ourselves in Vinita – another dead cert on any 66 map.  The reason for its mapworthy status is the Clanton’s Café – Oklahoma’s oldest family run restaurant (since 1927).  Clanton’s also has a reputation for serving a fine example of a State classic – prairie oysters.  Sound delicious don’t they?  Playing the reluctantly-ignorant Englishman with aplomb, I asked what exactly they were.  “Calf fries, sugar”.  Exactly?  “Beef testicles, sweetheart”.  Hmmm.  We were presented with a complementary bowl (see photo for close up), so in the words of Veronica Corningstone: when in Rome.  Dare I say it, they tasted a bit like chicken.  Then I tried a big one – which also tasted like chicken….that had been left out on the side to defrost for a few hours too long.   I opted to wash the taste away with a recommended beef & gravy sandwich with mash.  A fine recommendation; as was Mike’s Clanton’s signature dish – chicken-fried beef.  My mental image is of a chicken standing at a stove frying Mike’s beef, but is probably inaccurate (in fact, I’m still not entirely sure what 'chicken-fried’ means).

The rest of the day was all about finding Catoosa.  Why?  Partly because I liked the name, but mostly because it was home to what I expect is one of 66’s most photographed attractions – the giant blue whale!  Back in the 1970’s, Tulsa Zoo’s curator opened a small waterpark in Catoosa, complete with a huge blue whale that kidwinks could slide, jump and dive off.  Sadly in 1988 - like most 66 sideshows - this one ultimately had to close down.   At least it is still bringing endless joy to motorists who pull over and discover the child in them by climbing on to Moby’s tail or into his hollow head.  Considering it was 104f in the shade, the park very nearly had its first customers for 22yrs; but the disconcerting levels of pond weed in the water made us think twice.  We left Catoosa for Tulsa having had a whale of a time (sic).

An unscheduled detour to the airport was required the next day.  For reasons I won’t bore either of my readers with, Gemma needed to head home.  From here on in, it was just me, Mike and the open road.  Having said our farewells, we headed straight into the heart of Tulsa.  I had no idea what to expect from Tulsa – barring a mention in Friends when Chandler briefly commuted from New York, I hadn’t even heard of the place.  All I can say is Mr. Bing was right to stay in New York.  Tulsa is actually exceptionally clean and on this sunny day even looked quite pretty.  The creepy thing about the place is there was NO ONE on the streets.  Literally nobody.  Think Tom Cruise’s Times Square sequence in Vanilla Sky, or Cillian Murphy at the start of 28 days later in London.  A most Bizarre and slightly unsettling feeling.  For the first time in my life I was happy to see a homeless person (didn’t give him any money though, as I was still wary he may be a zombie).  When in doubt, trust your gut.  I was hungry.  Hit a 1950s looking joint called New Atlas Grill and was comforted nothing insidious was going down in Tulsa – the place was packed with living folk.  As a bonus, I had a tuna steak sandwich that’s beauty was only outshone by the brunette lady who served it.  The (deserted!) coffee shop across the street, that we hung by for a caffeine hit, featured a full scale wrestling ring and had figures of jack Black-esque Nacho Libre wrestlers hanging from the ceiling.  The public were invited to grapple each other here twice a month!  We have open-mic nights, Tulsa has open-leotard nights.  Genuinely devastated not to be around for a fight night.

The road to Oklahoma City was yet more delightful miles of scenic, rugged road; coasting through one small town after another.  In Bristow we dropped in at Russ’ Ribs.  Another 66 foodie’s classic who have welcomed customers over the decades to sign their name, hometown and message on any bit of wall or ceiling that still has space.  I duly added myself and Harrold to the legend while I waited for my (most satisfying) off-the-bone, BBQ, smoked rib sandwich.  Further on in Stroud we stopped at the 1939 Rock Café for a beverage.  John Lasseter (the man behind Toy Story) doodled some graffiti in their toilet cubicle when he was passing through here once.  The story goes that his inspiration for his recent Pixar hit – Cars – was inspired in these parts.  Having spent considerable time and effort examining the cubicles, I was somewhat riled to learn on my emergence from the ‘restrooms’ that the Rock Café had burned down 2 years ago and only just reopened.  So the famous doodles had gone down in ashes (ironically much like Cars at the box office).

The rest of the way to Ok. City was a dream drive – this stretch of 66 has been coined the ‘Free Road’ by locals: low on vehicles, high on vistas.  The only disappointment was reaching the State Capital.  We drove around Oklahoma City for over an hour, looking for somewhere to stay.  Nothing.  No hotels, motels, hostels or mostels (OK, I made that last one up).  The only thing of note we did see was the rather grand State Capitol Building.  Although we fancied checking out OKC’s Bricktown area – apparently full of cafés by the canal – night was setting in and with nowhere to rest our weary heads.  I had a brainwave, courtesy of our travel guide.  A few miles out of the city was El Reno.  “Oh?” I hear you say – and why wouldn’t you?  However, El Reno is home to The Big 8 motel, featured in a classic film featuring 2 people driving across the States.  Although filmed here in Oklahoma, the motel in the movie is actually set in Amarillo, Texas.  Any ideas?  No, not Thelma and Louise.  Clue: Stars Tom and Dustin.  That’s right – the motel in Rain Man where Raymond interrupts bother Charlie with his girlfriend was filmed right here.  And you can even stay in the same room.  Only problem was, we couldn’t find it.  And the petrol station clerk hadn’t heard of it.  This was getting frustrating and I kept thinking of Hoffman in the movie freaking out in the airport: that is how I felt.  We hung in at a Motel 6 and asked about the place with the elderly lady behind the counter.  She confirmed the worst – it was torn down last year.  Why El Reno would tear down the only thing that would bring people here is beyond me.  Would the people of Agra allow the Taj Mahal to be demolished?  What do you mean, “hardly the same thing” - PRINCIPLES.  But there you have it.  The Motel 6 lady did at least have a tale.  She remembers them being in town shooting that scene.  She was a nurse at the time and had the day off so went and caught a peak at the stars.  Her version goes they needed a lady for a line of vocab with Tom Cruise.  Along the lines of:  he says “Sorry, he’s autistic”; and she replies “So?  What’s wrong with him?”.  Something like that.  The role was for a nurse too – but it never happened.  I told her I’d have words with Barry Levinson if I saw him in LA.

Another American dream spoiled.  All I was thinking about was hitting Texas tomorrow.  Will my dream be shattered or realized?  Tune in again….
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