Once in a lifetime - Route 66 - Part Two

Published: 03:59PM Feb 4th, 2011

Part two of Steve Rose’s trip across America on Route 66. Last month was Illinois and bible belt Missouri. This month it’s Oklahoma and Texas.

Once in a lifetime - Route 66 - Part Two

Mr Sam saves the day
Day four. Tulsa to Weatherfield. I feel old. Old but smug. The Essex boys and the Grimsby Massive (the two proper biker couples who never stop smiling) went to a biker bar in Tulsa last night. Me? I, er, had my salad and went to bed. But little Joe from the Harlow gang welcomes us all to the day by throwing up down the side of the hotel. I really don’t envy him riding 270 miles today.

America is one big farm, just like Lincolnshire, but somehow you never see a tractor. Everything goes at the same speed. The lorries are unrestricted so everyone does 85mph on the freeway and the tractors have five million litre engines and are faster than the speed of light which is probably why we don’t see them.

First disappointment of the day is the Interactive Route 66 experience. $3 for a small town take on a very big road and an audience in the gift shop with Susan – Oklahoma’s most confused sales assistant, who probably stood at the door as we left shouting, ‘Hold on sir, you forgot your will to live.’ Mediocre museums are a recurring theme. Many of the towns on Route 66 have their own take on what it is, but this road is so vast that no one can really give the big picture. What you have left are some lovely stories and an inevitable gift shop. It’s only when we get to Seligman later in the trip that it starts to make sense. Right now, I don’t really care for the history I’m just glad to get shut of Susan.

In the petrol station next door there’s a news- paper on the counter devoted solely to publishing names and photos of recently released criminals so you know when you see one. Classified by their crimes, with the sex offenders prominent on the cover. Not much faith in the penal system round here I guess. Thankfully, 10 miles down the road is the Sheba Station motorcycle museum. A motley but wonderful collection of old bikes and bits plus Oklahoma’s oldest working toilet (true). Admission is free, but everyone buys something from the gift shop, which I guess makes a nice little business for the owner.

Lunch is at ‘Roosters’, off the beaten track and one of Gary’s favourites. The speciality is chicken-fried steak, which is an enormous steak, deep fried in batter. Sounds good for the carnivores but most of them fail to finish it by some distance and I’m sure I catch a couple of them eyeing up my salad. Poor Joe has gone an even deeper shade of green.

I’m worried. I’m sounding all negative and cynical. I’m not. Really. The experience is enough. Route 66 is already getting under my skin. Riding across the biggest civilised landscape is just simply wonderful. I don’t need the authentic olde worlde diners and half-cocked museums. As Gary admits when I ask why we stay at Holiday Inns and not the old motels we keep passing, ‘They’re shitholes. Turn on the light and the floor moves as the roaches run off.’ Route 66 is all about the here and now for me. It’s not my past, not my nostalgia.

After all that chicken fried steak, what you don’t need is Chiropractor’s road. Slabs of ancient concrete that rattle your guts (and toss your salad). Thankfully that’s a little later on today. First there’s the stop at the Round Barn in Arcadia – an interesting construction that looks OK from the outside, but turns out to be one of the highlights so far.

Mr Sam is the star of the show. He’s well into his eighties and weighs about the same as Joe’s chicken-fried steak but dresses like a cowboy and looks pretty good on it. Mr Sam talks. And talks. And you never get tired of listening. He tells the story of this barn, of this small town and how its fortunes came and went. About the events of the great depression and the droughts and dustbowls that followed it and sent thousands of migrants scurrying west to survive. This is ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ made real. I can touch it and now it hits us. Why this road matters so much. It’s not just the pioneer trail of the old wild west. Much more recently Route 66 was a lifeline for working class America. Mr Sam is an inspiration. I’m in tears as I listen, I’m in tears now as I remember his words and write this sentence. Powerful stuff.

Back on the road, the long, straight road. Sweet Home Alabama on the radio (again). Sitting at the lights in El Reno, melting when a pick-up pulls up alongside. There’s a little old lady in the passenger seat. She pulls up a plastic water sprayer, leans out of the window and sprays us with cooling H-two-whooah-that’s-nice.

Tonight’s hotel is at Weatherford. Gary has bought stuff for a barbecue. “And I got some salad stuff for you Steve.” Thanks Gary. I call out for a pizza. Stodge at last. It feels like the best food I’ve ever eaten.

Another day, another Route 66 museum. But nothing will top Mr Sam yesterday. Oklahoma seems endless. Huge, open roads, redneck country. The wind’s getting up, time to get our heads down and cover some miles. This, apparently, is the way to Amarillo and tonight we’ll be dining in the home of the world famous 72oz steak. Oh joy. But first there’s lunch. Well, I say lunch. What I actually mean is the most bizarre experience I think I’ve ever had. As we drive through another sleepy town called Erick, there’s a mad couple in stars and stripes dungarees yelling and waving at us.

This is the Redneck Mansion. It’s an old curiosity shoppe run by Harley and Annabelle, also known as the Mediocre Music makers; two escapees from the Good Old Days who are trying a little too hard to appear crazy. There’s a selection of meats and bread, crisps and beer. No charge, just make a donation on the way out. We eat, drink and then sit down to watch the strangest show. Mr Redneck (Harley) is one hell of a guitar player, but a less convincing redneck. Mrs Redneck (Annabelle) appears to have a balance problem and simply wobbles a lot and sings. The place smells like old people’s bedding and the show reminds me of those scenes from care home documentaries where a well meaning entertainer sings to demented patients. Except here it’s demented singers entertaining a slack-jawed group of cringing, embarrassed punters. You may love it (The Good Old Days was very popular, after all) but for me, it’s the low point of the tour and an insult to Mr Sam. Talking to Gary later it turns out that Harley and Annabelle first ran the Redneck mansion as a health food shop. In Oklahoma. Maybe they are crazy after all.

Back on the bike, it all starts to change again. We’ve done close-on 1000 miles, all on the same road. This is our fifth state, Texas and what we’ve experienced is the full cross section of American life.

And as we ride into Texas, it really starts to feel like an adventure. Someone important a long time ago, obviously stood at this point and decided that all that boring country back there couldn’t possibly be part of the same place as this amazing scenery over here. Marking the border was simple. Crap stuff over there – Oklahoma, good stuff over here – Texas. Huge rolling hills, landscapes that go on forever. A bit like the Pennines but with enormous bright blue skies. The signs at the toilets warn us not to lift rocks or waggle the plant life – there are rattlesnakes here.

Are we there yet? Those early settlers, having spent months crossing Missouri and Oklahoma must have seen this lot stretching into the distance and just thought, ‘Blimey’. Texas is huge, but there’s no one in today. It’s deserted. And all those long straight road clichés are true. This is not a place for riding, but being on a bike is by far the best way to see it because, to borrow another cliché, you are part of the scenery and you’ll never have a better opportunity for hours of contemplation, planning the rest of your life or just singing along to your own mental jukebox. Today it’s been Judas Priest’s Living after Midnight running round and round my brain. Not sure why, but it’s made the ride a load more fun.

The first town is Shamrock, home to a cool looking classic car scrap yard and an even cooler old petrol station. Heads down, watch the wind on the open stretches and we’re there. Amarillo. We’re staying at the Texan Ranch – a mocke, wilde weste hotele that’s actually pretty cool. It’s 7pm, still 91 degrees and there’s a pool. Via the beer cooler in Gladys’ van of course. Dinner is at the Texan Ranch Diner and we watch as a couple of heroes try to eat the 72oz steak. Get it down and you get it for free. The record is eight minutes by the world hot dog eating champion, although a passing Siberian Tiger apparently downed one in 90 seconds. I’m in luck. As well as my salad, tonight there’s a plate of breaded mushrooms too. Texas portions are slightly bigger than in the UK. There are 67 sickly, battered mushrooms in my ‘starter’. Not even hot dog bloke could manage all that. I give up after a dozen and swap food for beer (again). Go to bed nicely pissed but not before checking under the bed for rattlers.

Cadillac Ranch

‘You could put a Harley badge on a turd and people would buy it.’ We’re in Tripps Harley-Davidson, Amarillo and most of our party are buying something to remind them how cool this place is. Jackets, T-shirts, dog tags, you name it. The coffee and doughnuts are free, the staff are friendly and right now, I think every single one of us wants a Harley-Davidson.

Back on the road we’re passing farm after farm. All small, with just a few head of cattle and a couple of horses. That steak house we were in last night must have used more beef than each of these farms in one night.

Why are we stopping? Oh, is that it? Cadillac Ranch looks a lot more impressive in the photos. But I love the idea. Spray cans all over the floor, add your own graffiti, an ever changing work of art. So we spray crap things, take pictures and giggle when someone inevitably draws a huge cock and balls. In England this would be fenced off.

Just as we’re leaving the Munch Club pulls up looking like something out of Mad Max. Half a dozen enormous bikes, all different. Their German owners shipped them to New York and are riding 10,000km across America to California on 40-year-old classics. How cool is that? The turbocharged café racer with the 30 litre fuel tank is everyone’s favourite obviously, but the sidecar is pretty special too.

Midstop café, in Adrian, Texas is halfway along the route. 1139 miles from Chicago, same distance from Santa Monica. We meet a couple of Brits doing the route in a car. They’re taking 20 days but are doing a lot more than just Route 66.

Today, I swapped cerebral Judas Priest for the Harley’s posh stereo. But as we cross into New Mexico at Glenrio, the radio stations dwindle. By San Jon we’re down to three. Country, Western and bible class. Ten more miles and they’re all gone so I switch to AM and find Radio Redneck – unregulated ranting by the most uneducated, bigoted halfwit you can imagine. Although his seamless transition from attacking Obama to an advert for car insurance (he does all his own adverts too – you should have heard the one for prosthetic limbs) suggests he might be putting on the halfwit performance. Part of me hopes that he’s really a redundant stockbroker with an Eton tie in the closet, but most of me just really doesn‘t want to break down here. Does anyone else hear banjoes?

Lunch is in a diner in Tucumari. Half American, half Mexican with a veggie Burrito on the menu. Heaven for $7.95. The waitress tells us that it’s tarantula migration season so we should watch out for travelling spiders. Cool.

Santa Rosa is the next stop. Bozo’s car museum is the highlight. Packed with restored hot rods – almost all for sale. Bozo and his team build a couple of cars a year either for the museum or for customers and will build you one to order too. The quality of work is astonishing and, more importantly, Bozo (his mother calls him James) is, simply, a nice bloke.

Outside, it’s raining. A lone Harley rider going the opposite way tells us that there‘s heavy storms going into Santa Fe, which is where we are heading. There’s 125 miles to go today, most of our crew don’t have wet weather gear. Thankfully Gary has plenty in the truck. But he doesn’t have boots for those wearing flip-flops or gloves or full face helmets. Hold on guys, it’s going to get nasty.

Understatement. By the time we stop again in Clines Corners almost everyone is soaked. Apart from, ahem, me in my flash Harley-Davidson leathers. Warm and dry, I’ve been having a ball on these deserted scenic roads made all the more atmospheric by the low hanging storm clouds. Smugness doesn’t become me so I skulk around at the back of the petrol station and make encouraging noises about how wet weather riding is fun. Except that this next part isn’t.

Gary has wisely abandoned the planned route up the Santa Fe trail and taken us on the freeway for the last 50 miles. It’s a shame because the scenic run into Santa Fe is one of the highlights of the trip, but right now, we just want to get there. Heading up the freeway to Santa Fe, there is no visibility for the first five miles. That’s ‘no’ as in nothing. Not even a foot or two in front of the bike. Literally, we can’t see a thing through the giant, but wiperless screens fitted to all our bikes. There’s not much traffic but it would only take a piece of knackered tyre or some other debris and we’d be buggered. And the rain is dripping down the inside of my pinlock visor insert, filling it up like a fish tank in front of me. Thankfully, the weather clears slightly and the final run into Santa Fe, accompanied by the best classic rock radio of the journey so far,  is actually good fun (for those of us still dry). Shine On You Crazy Diamond is a fitting soundtrack for the last couple of miles and it’s a very relieved bunch of riders who park up at the hotel, knowing that tomorrow is a rest day. Tonight we can get very drunk.

And we do. Sat in a blues bar with Bradford John and Gladys, drinking Newcastle Brown and Patrone – the barman’s recommended tequila, which we order in ever louder shouts to the surprised looks of the locals. I leave them to it sometime early in the morning only to discover the next day that Patrone is apparently the tequila of hairdressers and real men drink something which is pronounced Chee-kee cowpat. Ho hum.

Words: Steve Rose    
Photography: Gary Fleshman / Steve Rose

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