If you ever plan to motor west,
Travel my way, take the highway that is best.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.

Alrighty then, let’s go get our kicks. But since we’ve only got a few days, it will have to be just a short stretch, within the Land of the Red Man. That’s what Oklahoma means, in the Chocktaw language. To be precise: Okla = red and Humma = people.

If you look at a map from before 1907, you won’t find Oklahoma; that whole pan-shaped area was simply called Indian Territory. At the end of this post is a word about those who were here first, cause I couldn’t stop myself.

A road by any other name

Route 66 has several nicknames: The Mother Road, Main Street of America, and Will Rogers Highway, after Oklahoma’s arguably most famous child. Will Rogers – actor, journo, cowboy, funny guy, and Democrat – was a Cherokee, born in Indian Territory, whose life motto, I think, is worth a mention:

I never met a man I didn’t like

Route 66 starts in Chicago and ends in LA. In between:

Now you go through Saint Louis
Joplin, Missouri,
And Oklahoma City is mighty pretty.
You see Amarillo,
Gallup, New Mexico,
Flagstaff, Arizona.
Don’t forget Winona,
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino

That’s 2,448 miles (ca 4,000 km), passing through 8 states: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

US 66 was established in November 1926, but became a tourist attraction first in the fifties. It was the main way to go west to LA, passing by sites such as the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon and Meteor Crater. All those travellers brought about all kinds of new business ideas along the road: small Native American novelty shops, mom-and-pop stores, service stations, ice cream stands, wigwam-shaped motels, and, not least, advertising on billboards and barn walls.

Starting in 1960, over the border in Amarillo, a restaurant offered a 2 kg steak dinner free to anyone who could eat the whole thing, including a baked potato, a dinner roll, salad and a prawn cocktail. You’d also get your name on the wall. When I was in school in Oklahoma back in the 80s, this chance of a free mega meal was still on offer, and I shouldn’t be surprised if it still is.

Fast food was more or less born along this stretch of road, with the first drive-through joint in Missouri, and the first McDonald’s popping up in San Bernardino. The whole route became an amalgam of small-town USA. 

Route 66 in Western Oklahoma

OK, let’s ease on down the road.

Back in the early 1900s, the part we’re doing was the postal highway between Oklahoma City and Amarillo. We’re going a mere 113 miles along the famed route. As we’re out and about exploring, that will of course take a lot longer than 1 hr 52 min, going from Oklahoma City to Elk City, through Weatherford and Clinton, stopping short of the Texas border. Amarillo and 2 kg steaks will have to wait. Until the end of time, if it’s up to me.

We begin in Oklahoma City. Perhaps you wonder if it is indeed a pretty city – or if that is just an easy rhyme.

Weeelll…! As cities go, it probably won’t win any beauty contests. Gotta say though, last time I drove through, it was being spruced up, so things may be looking up. Also, the Oklahoma City Streetcar has since been re-introduced. To anyone understanding the significance of cars in this part of the USA, that’s nothing short of ground-breaking. There are cafes along the canal, and fun clubs in the old warehouse district known as Bricktown, as well as lots of BBQ, ribs- and steakhouses (and when I say lots, I means LOTS.)

Furthermore, there are interesting things to see and do in the capital of Oklahoma, including a working oil well in front of the state capital, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (formerly known as the Cowboy Hall of Fame), as well as the memorial to the tragic terrorist bombing in 1995 with 168 chairs lined up on the grounds outside to remember the victims. Adult chairs and children’s chairs. Evocative sight.

Let’s motor west

Ahhh, the open road – miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles

Weatherford

An hour out of Oklahoma City is Weatherford, a town of 12,000 people. The main attraction in town is the large Stafford Air&Space Museum, where we spend a good deal of time. Here’s a proper Sopwith, as well as a Russian MIG-21, and full-scale replicas of various aircrafts, including Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis. You can also see lots of interesting NASA stuff: space shuttle engines, space suits actually worn in space, a moon rock, and much more. We enjoy this friendly and engaging museum.

But more within the Route 66 spirit is the Oklahoma Heartland of America Museum, comprising various local artefacts and quirky historical details from the 1800s through the 1950s.

The crap teachers have had to put up with through history…

We’ve got a Ford Model A here, a school house, a hair salon (check out those rollers!) –

– and The Porter House Diner where Elvis used to stop by, on his way from Memphis to Vegas.

As we’re on the subject of food, a more modern diner, but kept in the traditional way, is Lucille’s RoadHouse, billing itself as the Mother of the Mother Road. The original Lucille’s Station from 1927 is near Hydro, about 10 minutes east of Weatherford.

Food is tasty, too – and wifi is decent. Route 66 meets the 21st century.

Took us a while to move on from Weatherford.

Clinton

Clinton was once known as Washita Junction. It was essentially a railroad crossing, turned into a town in 1903, not without drama. Residents of the nearby town Arapaho, weren’t much pleased with the decision to develop Clinton. We don’t want no competition, they thought – and took the whole thing to court to stop the process. But no luck. Judge Clinton Irwin gave the new town the go-ahead, and as a thank you, Washita Junction changed its name to Clinton. Roughly 9,000 people call Clinton home today.

Name’s got nothing to do with Bill’n’Hill

Clinton’s main claim to Route 66-fame is the aptly named Route 66 Museum, which covers the history of the mother road; why the road was born, how it evolved and why it died. There’s also a nice people-focus here: travellers along the route, as well as those who played an important part in building the road, and those now working to preserve this bit of Americana for generations to come.

The museum is divided by ten-year periods, with decade-appropriate music, cars and memorabilia. When did you last see a shoe-shine stand?

Memorabilia galore from a time before Interstate highways

On our way back towards Oklahoma City later on –

– we stop just outside Clinton yet again, for dinner at White Dog Hill and Beany Bar. You’ll want to try this place, so head on along to North Route 66, to what used to be the Clinton Country Club.

A proper panoramic prairie feel, along with large servings of traditional food. Huge plates of food. We’re in the USA, after all.

Come for the views, stay for the food

Food and drink –

– and them thar prairie views

Elk City

Back in the days of cowboys, Elk City was a wild and crazy town on the cattle route between Texas and Dodge City.

Dodge City: how Gunsmoke is that?

You can get a feel for this history in a pretty Victorian villa housing the Old Town Museum, where there is a replica Wild West town with a watering hole, a pioneer school house and a doc’s office. The cowboy and rodeo way of life is showcased upstairs.

Bringing us back to the famous road, the museum also has a newer part, the official National Route 66 Museum. You’ll also see plenty of old world motels in town, so it’s fun to imagine all the travellers that must have stopped by on their way west – or east.

Overhead audio booths play personal stories from locals, about life along the road.

The National Route 66 Museum

Elk City also has The Farm and Ranch Museum, celebrating Oklahoma farming history, an easy and interesting wander-around.

I particularly like the collection of windmills.

Route 66: neon –

 

– and the long and lonely road in between

 

The Trail of Tears, The Indian Removal Act, and other appalling atrocities – and a little on Sooners

Maps by Nikater, Golbez and Chiprmc via Wikimedia Creative Commons

Back in the 1830s, the Five Civilised Tribes were forcibly removed from their original areas in the southeast (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee) to present-day Oklahoma through the Indian Removal Act. A tragic death march west ensued, known as the Trail of Tears.

The five tribes were so named because they were the most ‘civilised’ according to the standards of the European immigrants, i.e. conforming to Christianity, having a central government, being literate in the language of the occupier (English), etc.

Though the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Chocktaw, Creek and Seminole tribes were ‘given’ this territory, the ‘gift’ didn’t last long.

Through the Indian Appropriations Act, the US government basically made all decisions regarding Native Americans. Tribes were no longer recognised as independent nations, and all Indians were legally designated as individual ‘wards’ of the federal government. Over the years, several bills were added to this act. In 1889, one such bill decided to open up Indian Territory to white settlers: the Land Rush of 1889. At noon on 22 April, 50,000 people lined up waiting to run in and stake their claim. The movie Far and Away (with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) portrays this legalised land grab.

Yes, it’s yet another despicable chapter in the European legacy in America.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Trail of Tears, you can combine that with Route 66, particularly the part that goes through Missouri.

Sooners

On that April day in 1889 some of the 50,000 didn’t wait for noon, and ran on ahead. These cheaters were called ‘sooners’ and were denied rights to take land. A Sooner was not something you wanted to be known as. But funny how things are forgotten and the meaning of words changed. Nineteen years later, in 1908, it became an almost affectionate term, when the University of Oklahoma named their football team Sooners. Soon, the whole university nicknamed itself Sooners. Yep, have to admit it: for 4 years, I was a Sooner.