May 3, 2018. Springfield Missouri to Tulsa Oklahoma. Themes of the day are ugly English tourists, underwhelming attractions, and decent ice cream.
A storm system passes overnight and it continues raining for most of the morning. The day’s planned route is not terribly long so we make a leisurely morning and hope for the weather to clear.
There are three loud Englishmen at breakfast in the motel’s breakfast room. Apparently they are doing Route 66 west to east. As a Canadian born in England, who has experienced the ugly American tourist in Europe, it is nice to see roles reversed and the ugly English tourist being obnoxious in America.
I spend the early part of the morning pouring over the weather radar looking for an opening so I can get to Joplin and wait out a long band of storms over lunch. I managed to time it more or less right. We drive on in drizzle rather than tempest.
We pass the celebrated Gay Parita Service Station in the rain and do not stop.
The Gay Parita features in many of the can’t miss attractions on Route 66 posts that haunt the web, but such lists miss the point. Route 66 is not about a few big attractions but about a thousand tiny ones. And you can’t see every one of the thousand tiny attractions on Route 66, so why stop when it is raining, even for the slightly more noteworthy like this? It is, after all, just a souvenir shop in a renovated gas station with some old bric-a-brac on display. Nothing wrong with that. But if you miss this one, there is another just down the road.
A few miles down the road we pass another celebrated service station of which I can no longer remember the significance.
I mean, who seriously can have too many celebrated service stations?
You get the point. There are a lot of celebrated service stations on Route 66. Why celebrate something so mundane as a service station? Because it is a road, I suppose, and because roads need service stations, and if you are going to celebrate the road I guess you should celebrate the service stations. And if that sounds like I am being cynical or snarky about it, I’m not. I actually think old service stations are cool. Because ordinary eccentricity. And because I have a masters degree in the history of technology and this stuff genuinely interests me. But there are enough of them that I can get my celebrated service station kicks when it isn’t raining.
We find a marvelous authentic Mexican restaurant in Carthage called Habaneros Mexican Grill. I have fish salad which is wonderful. Anna finds her dish too bland, asks for hot sauce, and regrets it.
Our plan to wait out the next band of storms in the restaurant is foiled by fast service and the lunch rush. There is still a line up at the door when we are finished, so we surrender our table and drive on through the deluge to Braun’s – a curious local chain that combines hamburger joint, ice cream shop, and mini grocery in one building. We pass several afterwards, apparently all built to the exact same plan. The ice cream is good. This is the first fast food chain of the trip that has not disappointed. We wait at Braun’s for the last band of rain to pass and head out for the celebrated Rainbow bridge.
The bridge is not exactly an inspiring sight, though it is pretty enough. It was built at a time when making local bridges pretty was still something that occurred to people. Today, if it isn’t a mile long, no one cares what it looks like. Still its distinction is that it is the last of its kind to not fall down. Long may it stand.
We stop at the welcome center in Baxter Springs, Kansas. Mostly to answer nature’s call. There is a very old, very chatty man in charge. I buy a route 66 hat (a second one) and take a picture of Anna standing beside an antique gas pump.
There have been a lot of pictures of Anna standing beside antique gas pumps this trip. Here is another.
The old man in the Baxter Springs welcome center tells a story about someone complaining about a couple in their 90’s living in sin. How much sin can they get up to, but good on them if they do, is the theme. How many times a day does he tell this story? The story, I suppose, never gets old as long as there are new people to tell it to. This is as it should be.
Navigation tip: The historic Route 66 signs in Oklahoma seem to work on the “congratulations, you guessed right” principle. That is, there are markers along the roadside after each turn, but no direction signs at the junctions themselves. You need to rely on a well trained GPS or a guide book to find your way.
We stop in Catoosa to see the blue whale, another of the more noted of the thousand tiny attractions. Anna has been on about it all day. Not sure why this particular bit of kitsch has taken her fancy, but we go. (She is not sure why several other pieces of kitsch have taken my fancy, so turnabout is fair play.) I take a picture of her standing in the whale’s mouth. Ha! Ha! (At least it is not an antique gas pump.)
The whale seems to have been designed for swimming from, with water slides and steps up from the water. But notices forbid swimming (without explanation) and say that fishing is strictly catch and release. No one is fishing or swimming. Three kids sit on the tail of the whale. One is orating with childish bravado. Parents sit on the shore at a picnic table, ignoring their offspring.
There is a ladder to the loft inside the whale. We do not go up but notice a sign saying not to sign the inside of the whale upstairs. Sign the wood picnic tables instead. We resist the temptation.
With kitsch like this, I suppose, it all about what takes your fancy. There is no rhyme or reason for choosing which of the thousand tiny attractions on Route 66 you should stop to visit. Whimsy is the only rule in this. And this, I think, is a very good thing, and the thing that makes Route 66 magical. It is a grand monument to silliness, hucksterism, whimsy, and ordinary eccentricity, and must be enjoyed and sampled in the same spirit. Whatever the guide books or the chamber of commerce may say, there are no must-see attractions on Route 66. There are only wanna-see attractions, and wanna-see is an expression of personal whimsy and ordinary eccentricity. See what you want to see and leave the rest. This is not merely the best rule but the only rule that you can actually manage to live by without driving yourself nuts.
We move on to salad and rest at the Hampton Inn. This is not a day that produces any fundamental insight into the human condition, or profound ruminations on the nature of travel, I’m afraid. Sometimes a day on the road is just a day on the road.