Route 66 debuted as a national highway system in 1926 when 2,400 miles of mostly unpaved local and state roads were cobbled together to link Chicago and Los Angeles.
Through the years, the highway was extended to Santa Monica, dirt and gravel sections were paved, and improved alignments shortened the length. Gaining fame through books, movies, music and television, Route 66 has become one of our country’s most desirable road trips.
Through the years, we have traveled much of Route 66, although very little in Oklahoma. This was remedied in early May when we spent most of a week driving the highway across the Sooner State.
Oklahoma has historically vied with New Mexico and Arizona in claiming the longest portion of the Mother Road. Today, Oklahoma reigns supreme with the nation’s longest drivable stretch of Route 66: this according to the state’s tourism agency.
Our trip commenced with a flight to Tulsa, the city that served as home to Cyrus Avery, the father of Route 66.
After picking up a rental, we headed northeast to begin our Oklahoma tour where the highway enters from Kansas. Like destitute farmers fleeing the Plains states for California in the 1930s, it seemed most appropriate to follow the Route 66 historic flow from east to west.
The geography of Oklahoma is a story of two dissimilar environments that together produce an interesting and varied road trip. The eastern portion of Oklahoma’s Route 66 winds through forested hills, while the highway west of Oklahoma City enters the Great Plains where vegetation tends to be sparse. Each section of the state is beautiful in its own way, fact that adds to the drive’s enjoyment.
The better driving experience is in eastern Oklahoma where the Mother Road serves as a free alternative to two toll roads it parallels between Joplin, Missouri, and Oklahoma City. Travelers on Route 66 in western Oklahoma are often required to swing back and forth over and under Interstate 40.
Oklahoma is rich with Route 66 places of interest and populated by individuals who enriched our Oklahoma road trip. It isn’t possible to recount all the places and people encountered along the road, so we will note some of the highlights.
Early in the trip, we stopped in the small community of Commerce to tour Yankee great Mickey Mantle’s boyhood home with tourism coordinator Sherry Spiller. Commerce is also home to a tiny and unusual Conoco filling station built out from the side of a large brick building. A former Route 66 gas station converted into a Dairy King sits across the street.
In nearby Miami, we spent at least an hour at Waylan’s Ku-Ku Burger talking with owner Eugene Waylan who had returned to work following his third hip operation. During our visit, an old Route 66-themed VW van driven by Butch Martin pulled into the parking lot. With Butch headed to Santa Monica on Route 66, this was a perfect Route 66 moment.
The following morning we toured Miami’s Coleman Theatre. The 1929 theatre is an amazing treasure for a community of 13,000.
One of our most memorable Route 66 experiences was driving the Ribbon Road, also called the Sidewalk Highway, between Miami and Afton. This one-lane, nine-foot wide road is a relic of the original 1926 Route 66 alignment.
During a stop at the Rock Café in Stroud, we sat down with owner Dawn Welch, the personality behind Sally Carrera, the baby blue Porsche 911 in the 2006 animated movie “Cars.” Filled with Route 66 and “Cars” memorabilia, the café is a perfect Mother Road lunch stop.
The Round Barn in the town of Arcadia is one of the most photographed attractions on all of Route 66. Built in the late 1800s, the main floor operates as a gift shop and information center. The real prize is the beautiful second floor loft with its excellent acoustics and impressive ceiling.
Stopping at Hydro’s old 1929 Provine Service Station (“Lucille’s Place”), we met Andrews Landsman who was pedaling his bicycle along Route 66 on the way to Santa Monica. The 32-year old started his two-wheeled journey in Miami, Florida, and joined Route 66 in Tulsa.
Lucille Harmons operated the now vacant station for 60 years while living in the building’s second-story apartment. A local motorcyclist who stopped at the station said he would visit Lucille’s to buy beer when he was a teenager.
The drive on Oklahoma’s Route 66 offered much more than noted above. We also visited Claremore’s Will Rogers Memorial Museum, the famed Blue Whale near Catoosa, Tulsa’s Golden Driller and Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza, Chandler’s Armory and Route 66 Interpretive Center, Oklahoma City’s Milk Bottle Grocery, the impressive Pony Bridge (official name: William H. Murray Bridge) outside Geary, and Clinton’s Oklahoma Route 66 Museum.
These are all along the drive that makes Oklahoma such a treasure for travelers who wish to bask in the nostalgia of Route 66.
David and Kay Scott are authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” Globe Pequot. Visit them at mypages.valdosta.edu/dlscott/Scott.html. The Scotts live in Valdosta, Georgia.