Grand Tour 7: The Best Museum on Route 66 is About Barbed Wire

This entry is part 7 of 22 in the series Grand Tour

May 5, 2018 Oklahoma City to Amarillo

Themes for the day: into the West, barbed wire, weak beer, parking meters, and killer slip roads.

Oklahoma City to Amarillo

The landscape changes quickly west of Oklahoma City. Now you feel like you are in the West. Now you can imagine a dustbowl happening. (Later we see a map of the dust bowl at the Devil’s Rope museum that confirms that this is indeed where it happened.) The land still rolls, but it seems like larger waves, and greens give way to browns more and more with every mile. Trees are few and far between, but jagged and dramatic where they do occur, usually singly or in pairs. It is interesting how often a solitary pair of trees will face each other across the road, one often leaning across the tarmac toward the other as if yearning for companionship. Alas we did not seem to take any pictures of such yearning pairs. A lot of the landscape looked like this:

Road and fields

The GPS tries to play us false once again. Once properly set on its track, it does the job of navigating well (or as well as its definitely faulty maps allows) but the interface for planned routes is clinically stupid. You plan a route from A to B with various waypoints and shaping points (Garmin terminology). When you select the route from the list, you would expect it would navigate the route you chose. But no. It asks you what your first destination is. If you say your final destination, it will ignore all your waypoints and shaping points and dump you on the freeway.

Why? Who could possibly want this behavior after taking the trouble to plan a route?

But no, you have to choose your first way point from the list provided. Except that does not work either because it does not offer you a full list of waypoints to choose from (it seems to get confused between shaping points and waypoints and often announces shaping points as it they were destinations). If you choose the first one offered, but this is not the actual first waypoint, it will bump you on the freeway. You have to go to the description of the route itself and pick the first waypoint from that list. Except you can’t get back to that list after you start a route, so you have to back out and start over. This is design stupidity on a grand scale. If standalone GPS is dying, it is not just because we all have Google maps on our phones. It is because after all these years the GPS companies can’t get simple design features right.

This time, however, I detect its nefarious intent moments after leaving the hotel and dart into a KFC parking lot just before the on ramp and beat the thing into submission. We then cruise to the Texas border interstate free. I had thought that when we came to these sections were the old route paralleled the Interstate this closely, I would hop onto the major highway, since the scenery would be the same. But I quickly realize that the old road is the more pleasant drive, especially with all the trucks on the Interstate.

Route 66 paralleling the Intersate.

The slip roads onto and off the interstate from the frontage road, however, seem designed to kill as many people as possible. One encounters yield signs at these slip road with no indication of who you are supposed to yield to, and no effective visibility to intersecting traffic. Fortunately, there is no intersecting traffic at any of them, so we live.

The US has a higher highway fatality rates than in Canada, I don’t know why, but my money is on the killer slip roads and the incredibly short merge lanes. No wonder Americans want cars with the horsepower of a top fuel dragster. They have to get up to highway speed in the length of a shuffleboard court.

The Route 66 museum in Clinton is professionally curated. It is very well done and worth the visit, but being professional it lacks the personal touch of the ordinary eccentrics of Route 66. In this informal public/private partnership, the public does it better, and, in doing so, does it worse.

We discover that the first parking meter was installed in Oklahoma City. I like parking in a nice painted box designated for the purpose, but paying for the privilege is more than I need to comfort me.

First parking meter

Here, however, we find the picture of the woman behind the till at the Rock Café (the owner, and inspiration for some character in Cars). So the ordinary eccentrics have their place among the slick curation after all.

Photo of Rock Cafe owner from Museum

The thresholds between the rooms for each era of the road are plastered with newspapers of the time. Cool. Professional curation at its best.

Museum exhibit thresholds decorated with period newspapers

This is the state museum. The national Route 66 museum is in the next town. There are only so many displays of dust bowl photos and 1950’ diners that you need to see in a day. In the end a Route 66 museum is a redundancy; Route 66 is the museum. This does not stop me from asking Anna to stand beside yet another old gas pump for a photo. This needs to stop, but I can’t seem to help myself.

Anna beside old gas pump

Lunch is at the Tumbleweed Grill in Texola. It is very authentic, despite being painted (the owner is an artist). It is two sheds, basically, one built onto the side of the other on the edge of a virtual ghost town.

Tumbleweed Grill

The restaurant side has what appears to be a corrugated iron ceiling. It is the sort of place where if you order a beer, you are handed a beer can. If you order a coke, you are handed a coke can. If the owner is not busy cooking, waiting tables, or minding the gift shop, which all combined don’t take up all her attention since customers come in ones and twos, she sits in the rocker in the corner and talks to you while you are trying to eat. Unlike so many of the business owners we have met on the road, she does not volunteer the history of the business, though she does tell it later to another customer who asks. Her artwork is all over the walls. Much of is good, not great, but in is such a wild mix of styles and media that you would think it was the output of an entire class of an advanced art workshop.

Tumbleweed Grill owner's art

On to the Devil’s Rope Museum. On the right, says Garmin. It is on the left. The number of map errors on this thing is shameful. We have learned to use Google Maps for all local navigation despite the iniquitous data rates and roaming fees we pay as Canadians (literally the most expensive in the developed world, according to an article I read that day).

Despite museum fatigue, our next stop is the Devil’s Rope Museum. Devil’s rope is a name for barbed wire, but the museum turns out to be so much more. It overwhelms with the sheer number of artifacts – not only hundreds of different kinds of barb wire, but an abundance of fence building machinery and general tools of cowboy life, as well as displays on the use of barb wire in war. But it does not content itself with one example of each. Why show one post auger when you can show dozens? Why show one maul  when you can make flower patterns out of a dozen of them and do it several times over?

Nothing is behind glass. A sign warns about needing a tetanus shot if you cut yourself on rusty barb wire, but otherwise you are free to touch, but you don’t touch because it’s barb wire. Barb wire is, after all, the stuff they use to stop you from touching other stuff. Protecting it with something else would be redundant.

Some of the coolest stuff is the art work, such as the barb wire scorpion and the barb wire cowboy hat, which I immediately think of as a cowboy crown of thorns.

There are also cast-metal scenes of cowboy life that are marvelous in their detail and composition.

Also fascinating is the display of medication for barb wire injuries – in the superabundance that is the hallmark of curation in this collection.

There is also a small Route 66 display here which, while it is nothing special, displays the same put-it-all-out approach to curation as the main collection.

This approach may not be as scholarly or as instructional as more conventional approaches. There are no wordy display panels explaining everything and putting it in context, just a few note cards here and there. But the effect of abundance and of the deliberately artistic arrangement of artifacts – barb wire wheels and sledge-hammer flowers – creates a powerful visceral impression. One feels overwhelmed by it, but in a good way. I go around twice just for the emotional impact it has. Nothing slick here, but something very powerful. Extraordinary eccentricity in this case.

On to Amarillo where we have dinner at Red Robin – across the street from the hotel. I order sweet potato fries instead of regular with my burger and Anna orders coleslaw with hers. The waitress then brings a basket of sweet potato fries and regular ones to munch on while we wait. Then regular fries with the burgers. Then the coleslaw and sweet potato fries we ordered. Later an assistant manager type drops by. “How was everything? Can I get you more fries?”. Where would we put them? I don’t just mean our tummies are full. The table is full, mostly covered in baskets of fries. The beer is good and burgers are excellent however.

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