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Nostalgic Road Trip through Old Americana

March 3, 2011

Published by AsianTraveler Magazine, 2009

Armed with a full tank of gas, several layers of clothing, and a vague map in our heads, we set off on the Mother Road through the heart of old Americana. We’ve dreamed often of the Big Apple and have longed for the glitter and glamour of Beverly Hills, but if you really want a bite of the true America, you take a road trip along the historic Route 66, the main highway that cuts through the west that starts from Chicago and goes all the way to California.

If you’ve seen the Pixar animation, Cars, then you won’t need this little history lesson. But in case you’re not into cartoons, Route 66 used to be the super highway across the American West. Also known as the Mother Road or the Free Road, Route 66 was lined with diners, motels, service stations, and other establishments rich with character, to serve motorists that go through the highway. The construction of the interstate highway (I40) in the 80s saw the decline of the more nostalgic route. Today, many establishments sit forgotten, blanketed by the dust and smoke from I40. Others remain to remind travellers of the romantic days of America’s Main Street.

This main artery that forever lies deeply embedded in the American culture not only links the Windy City to the City of Angels, it also connects the new generation Americans to their roots. It is the vein that keeps the old American heart beating in every citizen.

“You can’t get more American than this,” agreed Sid, smiling in his red apron. He leaned over an antique gum ball machine and wished us a good day. Sid’s diner was first on our itinerary.

First stop: Biscuits and gravy

Although we had a full tank of gas, we didn’t have enough to go all the way to Los Angeles.  Starting from Oklahoma City, we headed off to the west, following the sun to El Reno’s for some bacon, eggs, and biscuits – your typical all-American morning picker upper at Sid’s Diner.

Although just opened in 1990, Sid’s diner is not only home to classic home cooked onion burgers, it is also a vestibule of the past when cowboys and Indians once roamed and fought over lands. The walls also tell stories of the era when people went car crazy and El Reno was once a major stop along Route 66. With checkered floors and the star spangled banner fluttering by the front door, Sid’s diner gave us a peek into the old country lifestyle.

An old lady with carefully coifed white hair and caked on foundation took our orders. She set our steaming dishes on a table that was bedecked with black and white photos from centuries past. Dipping my homemade biscuit into creamy white gravy, I pored over a class picture of a dozen women, sitting primly in balloon skirts, their white gloved hand proudly bearing a corsage. A photo of an aged gentleman getting a haircut from the town barber served as a coaster for unsweetened iced tea. By the salt and pepper shaker, a young man beamed in his football uniform.

“Is there anything else I can get you, hon?” the old lady asked, breaking my reverie. She stood close by, making sure we had everything we needed. She puttered about like a grandmother, sending us off with a tall cup of banana shake.

Return to 1874

Nourished and energized, we took the open road to Fort Reno,  once home to buffalo soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalries. These troops supervised the Land Run of 1889. Not familiar with the Land Run?  Think of Far and Away with Nicole Kidman crying “I’ve loved you from the first time I saw you,” over a dying Tom Cruise who held on to a flag that would stake their property on American land. It was around these areas where lands in 1889 were opened for homesteading on a first arrival basis.

Established in 1874, the fort also served as a German prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. In the compound sits over 25 structures of great historic significance. Stepping out of the car, I quickly discovered how Oklahoma’s weather can be deceiving. Outside, it was as sunny as a bright summer day, but halfway towards the church, my fingers started to tighten. Soon it was tingling. I knew it would be matter of time before it grew numb,  a sure sign that my fingers were well on its way to frost bite. The wind whipped cruelly around. Quickly we found shelter in a European wedding style chapel.

Heavy wooden doors with black iron latchings and adornments opened to a warm retreat. Interiors were made of the same well worn wood.  POWs were said to have made the sparsely decorated chapel by hand as a tribute to the good treatment they received during their captivity.

Like most deserted buildings and former war grounds, Fort Reno is plagued by ghosts and stories of the past revived.  There have been several reports of sightings and deathly voices heard from unseen sources.

Standing still in the middle of the tiny chapel, we listened for voices of phantoms.  We heard nothing but the restless wind, dancing and whistling around the chapel. From the window to the left, we could see a sprawling building that was used a shelter for severe weather like tornadoes which Oklahoma is famous for. We didn’t tarry longer and decided to head on to sunnier destinations.

Stop over: Old Town

Driving on open roads, fields ravaged by winter and lined by withered trees swaying, anxious for spring to bring in promises of a greener season, we soon came upon Elk City, a town that has managed to preserve its small town charm in spite of the  presence of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Subway Restaurants. Here, the National  Route 66 Museum  sits in the middle of the town. From the main road, the huge Route 66 neon sign, jutting out of the ground, cannot be missed. Behind it is a line of building facades that resemble the different stores that were seen on the main street during the heydays of the Mother Road. Braving the cruel wind, we walked inside the Elk City Old Town Complex and found ourselves in the middle of the late 1800s when Western Oklahoma pioneers used to take their kids to the Rock Bluff School to learn arithmetic or to the doctor’s office for a bottle of asafoetidae to cure bronchitis.

It was a delight to take a peek into the school, a small brick house that offered education and warmth on a cold day. Wooden desks and chairs were arranged around an iron potbelly stove in the middle of the classroom. In spite of the absence of heat, we thought we heard whispers of eager voices and playful giggles. On the blackboard, 2 + 5 and 8 + 7, scribbled in chalk, remained unanswered.

Beyond the train station, right at the side of a red Choctaw caboose, is the Old Town Museum which houses vintage room settings, artefacts of early day western Oklahoma life, and Native American Displays. The exhibit is an interesting array of artefacts from coats made of horse hair to kerosene stoves.  The north room contains 1930s vignettes of a beauty shop which showed us the pains that women had to go through to be beautiful.  For a perm, strands of hair are attached to pegs that are connected to cables stemming out of what looked like a space craft, hovering a few feet over the head. It reminded me too much of an electric chair. I was never happier with my straight hair.

The Farm and Ranch Museum showcases the tools of the trade. Outside was a collection of windmills spinning endlessly. The most interesting display for me was the barbed wire collection, perhaps the largest known collection in the world. I didn’t know there were hundreds of different kinds from the ox pen wire glidden to the brotherton with nails.  At the Transportation Museum, we were allowed to board a hot pink 1959 Cadillac and a 1917 Reo Fire Truck. Our ride wasn’t as fancy. Boarding our 2002 Volvo sedan, we headed off to the east to continue our trip through nostalgia.

Riding off to the East

Racing against dusk, we headed back to Oklahoma City along Route 66. The band, Train, was crooning in their raspy voice, “did you sail across the sun. Did you make it to the milky way to see the lights all faded.”

Light was starting to weaken, but the sky was still starkly blue when we came upon a round red barn to our right. Against wide open skies and endless roads, the huge red structure was impossible to miss. Just a few miles off the city, Arcadia is another historic town along Route 66. Right at the heart of it is the Arcadia Round Barn which was originally built in 1898 to house livestock and serve as a venue for dances.

The red barn is the only known round barn in existence with a very impressive architecture advanced for its time. 60 inches in diameter and 45 inches in height, the barn is a two storey structure that was designed to withstand the state’s notorious tornadoes. And withstand it did for over 107 years.

Inside, a scruffy old man manned the gift shop, selling Route 66 bumper stickers and pens for a dollar or two. The name “Butch” was stitched on his hunting cap.  He nodded and gave me some change for a shot glass purchase then stretched out a closed fist and smiled. I looked back quizzically. “Take it,” he said, opening his hand to reveal a wooden coin with the Round Barn printed on it.

It was a wooden nickel, a souvenir.  It wasn’t worth a nickel, not enough to buy me anything, not even a gum ball. As we drove off to the sun, straight into its pink orange glow, I held on to the nickel knowing  that someday, it will buy me a smile and memories of the Mother Road forever welcoming even strange travellers like me.

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