Now, I’m a poor Oakie
and I’m heading out west.
I’m pulling a long trailer
and my car’s doing its best.
We hit a long mountain
and she began to boil.
She blew a head gasket
and it started dripping oil.
The wheels is out of balance,
she shimmies and she shakes.
But it keeps the young’uns quiet,
when they’re awake.
We got her loaded heavy
and the springs are way down.
If I make it to the top,
I’m sure it can go down.
The dog’s quit barking
and the chickens are quiet.
I hope I get there
by next Friday night.
The highway is open
and we’re still a-comin’.
if my car keeps a-runnin’.
—Arkie Shibley, “I’m A Poor Oakie”
For years I’ve wanted to take a motorcycle trip on Old Route 66. I finally got my chance last September, along with other members of the Southern California Norton Owners Club. The ride was open to anyone with a vintage British motorcycle. Most of the bikes were from the 1960’s or early 70’s. A few were from the 50’s. I would ride my 1968 Matchless G15 CS Scrambler. My wife would be hanging on the back. Although Old Route 66 began in Chicago, for several reasons we decided to start from St. Louis.
Assembling there in mid-September was an international group of three dozen. While most of us were from Southern California, there was a German, three Aussies, an Englishman living in Texas, one living in British Columbia, and another living in California. We all stayed at the Hotel Ignacio, across the street from St. Louis University. Our vintage, restored motorcycles were put on display at the Moto Museum. Founded and owned by Steve Smith, the museum specializes in European manufactured motorcycles from motorized two-wheel beginnings through 1975. Many of the bikes on display were new to me. Ever hear of a Royal Nord from Belgium, a Motosacoche from Switzerland, a Nimbus from Denmark, a Pannonia from Hungary, a Junak from Poland, or a Minsk from the Soviet Union? Neither had I. The Monet-Goyon from France may have been the topper—but I was disappointed to learn its gas tank was not painted by the impressionist.
Before starting the ride, we knocked around St. Louis for a couple of days. Parts of the city look like recent photos I’ve seen of Detroit. Whole blocks of industrial and commercial properties are vacant or abandoned and badly decayed. Some residential areas appear no better. Although the campus of St. Louis University is beautifully maintained, a few blocks in any direction beyond the college grounds is filth and crumbling buildings. A few miles to the east on the waterfront of the Mississippi River, conditions don’t look significantly better. Again, building after building stands empty or only partially in use. St. Louis today has only a little more than one third the population it had in 1950. Most of those who have left have been white. In 1950 the city was 80-percent white. Now it is 42 percent. Several much-touted revitalization projects begun during the 1980’s and 90’s don’t appear to have accomplished much. In 2006 the city received the World Leadership Award for urban renewal. Is this akin to youth sports programs awarding all participants ribbons and trophies?
Early on a Saturday morning we roared off from the Ignacio but didn’t go far. We stopped for breakfast at Mike Kiernan’s Classic Motorcycle Company, a few miles away on Chouteau Ave. Kiernan is an Australian transplant who married an American girl and never went home. Our bikes, leaning on their stands in his parking lot, looked like an overflow from his own collection of vintage bikes and those for sale on consignment in his showroom. With our bellies full, we intersected Old Route 66 and left the city behind.
Our object was to stay on the old road and avoid the interstate or new versions of Route 66. This wasn’t always easy. Occasionally, there was no old road. Old Route 66 courses southwest out of St. Louis through green, densely wooded, and increasingly hilly countryside. Soon we came upon small towns so characteristic of Middle America—St. Clair, Stanton, Sullivan, Bourbon. Near Stanton are the Meramec Caverns, reputedly one of Jesse James’ hideouts.
At St. James we ran into a roadblock. The town’s annual parade took a route that cut through Old Route 66. The interruption couldn’t have been better. Across our path came the high-school band, cheerleaders and the drill team, farmers on their tractors, Boy Scouts, fire trucks, the local VFW post, equestrian groups, 4-H and Future Farmers of America kids—everybody and everything a town out of Norman Rockwell’s America could offer. The parade route was lined with families and children.
I struck up a conversation with a cop standing by his car, who was also enjoying the parade. He happened to be the chief of police. Including himself, the department’s grand total of sworn personnel is eight. He said the only reason they need that many is because the department is open 24/7. The town of 4,200 people, nearly 97-percent white, has little crime. Domestic disturbances, driving under the influence, and traffic accidents are what commonly occupy the police. Occasionally, teenagers will be found with marijuana or guzzling cough syrup or committing petty thefts. The people we met were polite, friendly, and helpful. In most ways, St. James was typical of the small towns we passed through in southwestern Missouri—the America I knew in the 1950’s, now reduced to pockets in rural areas.
From St. James onward, Old Route 66 is on the northern edge of the heart of the Ozarks. Hills, bluffs, deep valleys, streams, and broadleaf trees are everywhere. There must have been good summer rains because everything was lush and green. We rode for miles with only an occasional car on the road. There are few things better than twisting a throttle while leaning through a turn on an empty country road in the midst of natural beauty. Twisting and turning brought us to Devils Elbow, at a sharp bend of the Big Piney River. Perfectly positioned on a bluff above the river was the Elbow Inn Bar & BBQ, a destination for motorcyclists and others traveling the old road. It reminded me of the Rock Store on Mulholland Highway near our home in California, except the river below gives the advantage to the Elbow Inn. Heading west the road crosses a long bridge, dating from 1923, that spans the Big Piney. Rumbling across that bridge turned the clock back to another era.
Every ten or fifteen miles brought us to another small town, somehow surviving without providing services to the bulk of travelers who whiz by on the interstate some miles distant. At exits on the Interstate are gas stations and chain restaurants. Few travelers venture further. Someone from Hollywood searching for location shoots for a movie set in the 1930’s or 40’s would find this stretch of Old Route 66 ideal, although many of the old motor courts and gas stations are boarded up.
Springfield interrupts the mood of a bygone era, but then a succession of small towns, with characteristic churches and architecture from an earlier time, rolling hills, and farmlands renews it. We stopped in the late afternoon at Carthage, a town of 14,000 some 300 miles by our route from St. Louis. Carthage has a Civil War history and a Civil War museum. Throughout the war the town saw skirmishes and minor attacks. Battles of significant proportions were fought there in July 1861 and October 1863. In September 1864 Confederate guerillas burned most of the town to the ground.
Prosperity returned to Carthage after the war and accelerated dramatically with the arrival of the Missouri Pacific Railroad in 1872. Lead mines and limestone quarries poured wealth into the town. The limestone could be polished into “Carthage marble” and was not only shipped to faraway markets but used extensively for buildings in town. Those buildings and an entire district of old Victorian homes, on the National Register of Historic Places, give the town an appearance of something out of the 1890’s.
Route 66 arrived in the late 1920’s, and automobile traffic through the town increased dramatically, along with everything to service those cars and travelers. By the 1960’s Route 66 had been rendered obsolete by the building of the interstate, which passed Carthage 40 miles to the south. After 1960 the town’s population began a 30-year decline. With the arrival of what became a steady flow of illegal aliens from Mexico in 1990, the town’s population was again on the increase. In 1960, the town was more than 90-percent white. That population is now at 69 percent and declining. Hispanics account for 26 percent. If illegal immigration has changed Carthage, so, too, has legal immigration, the result of the Immigration Act of 1965. The motel we stayed in is owned and operated by East Indians.
This is something I’ve seen in California for years and something that has been facilitated by the Small Business Administration generously granting low-interest loans to immigrants. I don’t know about Carthage’s gas stations, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find one or two owned by Arabs. What was happening to California during the late 1960’s and 70’s, and what was thought by those in other parts of the country peculiar to California, is now happening to Missouri.
We passed through Joplin, a town four times the size of Carthage and known for its wild and woolly days, which included an epic shoot-out at the hideout of Bonnie and Clyde. Joplin is experiencing the same changes as Carthage, although on a much smaller scale. From Jop lin, Old Route 66 heads west into Kansas before turning southwest into Oklahoma. Although not yet in the Sooner State, I began feeling like an Okie headed to California. The road in Kansas is very much off the beaten path, and a good portion of it is broken pavement or dirt. We kicked up a cloud of dust on the dirt stretch like a wagon train on the gallop.
The one-time principal town on 66 through Kansas is Galena. Named for the large deposits of lead ore in the area, the town boomed during the late 19th century and by 1900 had a population of 30,000. Brick buildings and fine homes went up with rapidity and still stand today—empty. The town’s population is now 3,000 and declining. The last of the mines closed in the 1970’s. A network of railroad tracks runs through the town and by various mining sites and smelters. The tracks and everything else of metal lie unused and rusting. Galena looks something like the ghost town of Goldfield, Nevada. Passing by the famous Rainbow Bridge and through Riverton and Baxter Springs—both, like Galena, rich in history, including a bank robbery by the James and Younger boys—we entered Oklahoma.
The first town we came upon was Commerce, Mickey Mantle’s hometown. His dad, like many in the tristate area of Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma, was a lead miner. The town hasn’t grown since the Mick went off to play professional baseball at the age of 17 for the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids in 1948. However, the racial makeup of the town has changed significantly. When Mantle was the star football and baseball player for Commerce High School, the town was some 85-percent white and 15-percent American Indian. Now the town is only 65-percent white and has an Hispanic population of 20 percent.
We rode through such towns as Miami, Narcissa, Afton, Vinita, Chelsea, and Clare more, but looped around Tulsa. A dozen small towns later, we also looped around Oklahoma City. We were interested in riding as much of Old Route 66 as possible but had little interest in cities, which, unlike the small towns, retained nothing of the flavor of the old road. Through Yukon, El Reno, and Calumet we rode before coming to the Pony Bridge that spans the South Canadian River. With 38 spans, the bridge is three quarters of a mile long. Below it the river meanders over a wide floodplain. I was reminded of the old pioneer saying that on the Great Plains “the rivers are an inch deep and a mile wide.” Westward we rode through Hydro, with its Route 66 Soda Fountain, and Weatherford before calling it a day at Clinton. Clinton is home to the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum and, next door, the Route 66 Diner. By now I was feeling like a real Okie, although much of the country we had passed through, especially in northeastern Oklahoma, was greener and more timbered than the Dust Bowl images I had conjured in my mind since childhood.
A short distance from the museum and diner, we turned the parking lot of our hotel into a battalion aid station. Wounded motorcycles, a few partially disassembled, were everywhere. Our chase truck with trailer, two extra bikes, and parts and tires was in the center of the mess. Most of the guys were able to have their bikes squared away in an hour or two, but a few, by lamplight, worked into the wee hours of the morning. This was typical of our stops. No one wanted to admit defeat and climb aboard the chase truck. Some of the mechanical and electrical fixes were ingenious. We kept most of the bikes running, and running fairly well, for most of the 2,100-mile journey.
Early the next morning, most of us were again in the parking lot prepping our bikes for the day. It was already hot by the time we left. At Elk City we found a second museum, this one named the National Route 66 Museum. At Sayre one of our riders had his footpeg snap off his nearly 50-year-old bike. Metal fatigue. We found a welder right in the center of town. He refused to take any money and just wished us good luck on reaching California.
Sayre seems frozen in time—about 1930. Its stately Beckham County Courthouse was shot by John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath. The town has a tidy, well-kept appearance. With a population of only some 4,300, it boasts twelve churches. Large signs welcome the traveler, and other signs let you know it is home to the Justin McBride bull-riding school. On leaving town to the west, we found it nigh impossible to pick up Old Route 66. A rancher in his pickup stopped to help us. He tried to describe where we would find the road, but since it started and stopped and started again, more than once, and was unmarked, he gave up and said simply, “Follow me.” He led us for several miles until we reached a point where there would be no more detours. “Hope you boys reach California,” he called out as he turned his pickup around.
The country was becoming ever drier, and timber more scarce, as we passed through Erick, hometown of Roger Miller and Sheb Wooley, and Texola before crossing the state line and entering the panhandle of Texas. It was now hot and dry, and the vegetation sparse. The heat was hard on our air-cooled bikes, but we were cruising along without having to slow or stop. Forty miles west of Sayre we reached Shamrock and stopped at the beautifully restored 1936 U-Drop Inn and Conoco gas station. The inn now houses the offices of the local chamber of commerce, and the Conoco pumps no gas. Travelers now blow by Shamrock on the interstate. We ate lunch at what I thought was the best restaurant on the trip, Big Vern’s Steakhouse, across the street from the former inn. It was crowded with locals but also with a group of roughnecks traveling from an oil field in Oklahoma to one in Texas. They almost choked on their steaks when I asked them what they thought of Obama.
Like so many of the small towns we visited, Shamrock, without the commerce generated by travelers on the old road and with the local oil and gas fields declining, is just hanging on. In 1930 its population peaked at just shy of 4,000. It has half that number today.
Passing through several small towns brought us to Amarillo, about 100 miles west of Shamrock. The parking lot of our hotel was again the scene of combat triage, but everyone knocked off in time to go to the Big Texan. No one tried to eat the 72-ounce steak, and the steaks weren’t as good as those at Big Vern’s, but the cowboy band that played for our tables struck all the right chords.
Amarillo has never stopped growing since it was first founded in 1887. Its population has quadrupled since 1940 and now exceeds 200,000. It’s the King Kong of the region and, like most of Texas, seems to have been little affected by the last several years of recession. They must be doing something right in Austin.
The next day we made a quick stop at the Cadillac Ranch, which had a strange charm when the Caddies were first planted in the soil in 1974. Now the Caddies are unrecognizable—striped, graffiti-covered, rusting hulks.
Since much of Old Route 66 west of Amarillo lies underneath the interstate and a few of us wanted to take a detour southwest to Fort Sumner and the Billy the Kid gravesite and museum, the pack split into small groups and agreed to reassemble late in the day at Moriarty, New Mexico. My wife and I would be with the group going by way of Fort Sumner. Riding through bleak and flat Panhandle country, we passed feed lots crowded with thousands upon thousands of cattle, all being readied for the slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants in Amarillo. We’d ride for miles without seeing another vehicle on the road, which was exactly how we liked it. We passed through but one town, Hereford, “the beef capital of the world” and birthplace of astronaut Edgar Mitchell, before crossing into New Mexico. “Better outer space than Hereford,” declared Mitchell. Actually, he said no such thing, but when I was filling my gas tank in Hereford the thought crossed my mind. We stopped at Clovis for lunch after logging some 110 miles from Amarillo.
A 60-mile ride brought us to Fort Sumner and Billy’s gravesite. We lingered there. It all still has the flavor of the Old West and evokes images of Billy and the Lincoln County War. One riding partner, John Wiley, and my wife and I stayed longer than the others. When we left Fort Sumner, we were a pack of two bikes. As we headed to the northwest and gained elevation, the heat rapidly dissipated. Towering, black cumulonimbus clouds were in the distance. My wife and I were wearing nothing but light clothing—all our heavier clothing and rain gear was on the chase truck headed for Moriarty by the direct route. We’d made about 50 of the 125 miles we had to go to reach Moriarty when streaks of lightning filled the sky, followed by great claps of thunder. Then came the first drops—big, thick, heavy drops. Within seconds it was a downpour. Almost instantly, we were soaked to the bone. Higher into a mountain pass we climbed, and the downpour of rain turned to hail. Down the other side the rain returned, even heavier. The road was underwater. Riding became hairball. At the same time, it was exhilarating—a battle against elemental forces.
The next day it was still raining, although more showers than downpours, and we decided to ride only as far as Albuquerque. We made like tourists for the day in Old Town, although a few of us also took in the Unser Racing Museum some miles away. A day later, in light rain, we headed for Arizona, crossing the Continental Divide before stopping at the El Rancho restaurant and hotel in Gallup. Inside, the El Rancho still looks like the beautiful hunting lodge it was a couple of generations ago. With the sun making an appearance, we rode on to Holbrook, Arizona, a town established by the railroad in the early 1880’s. Until the 1970’s its population of around 5,000 was mostly white, with a substantial minority of American Indians. Today, it is one-quarter Hispanic and less than half white.
A short ride the next morning took us to Winslow, where we spent the obligatory time “standin’ on a corner,” in front of the murals and statue in tribute to the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” Winslow, like Holbrook, was founded as a railroad town in the early 1880’s. With 10,000 residents, it’s twice the size of Holbrook but has gone through a similar shift in its demographics. Although the lyrics of Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey brought national recognition to the town in 1972, nearly a quarter of the residents of Winslow are below the poverty line. Annual per capita income is $12,000.
The distinct flavor of Old Route 66 that was so real in Missouri and Oklahoma doesn’t exist in much of New Mexico and eastern Arizona, because there is so little old road left. Riding what’s left of it and stopping at such towns as Gallup, Holbrook, and Winslow is essential. To me, Interstate 40, like other interstates, has no character. Pounding high-speed miles for hours on end on an interstate reveals nothing about the nature of the country or the people who inhabit it.
Some miles west of Flagstaff the full flavor of Old Route 66 returns. After an impossible-to-avoid stretch of interstate, the old road appears again at the turnoff to Seligman. From that point to Seligman, a small hamlet of 500, was 20 miles of grasslands and wildflowers. There were a few scattered clouds in the sky, the temperature was in the mid-70’s, and the road—the original Route 66—was empty. I could have ridden that stretch for a thousand miles. West of Seligman the road—for one stretch lined with Burma Shave signs—passes through the Hualapai Indian Reservation, the town of Hackberry, and (90 miles from Seligman) the town of Kingman. All of us in the club had previously ridden this portion of Old Route 66, so from Seligman west it was familiar territory.
We spent the night in Kingman and the next day began the final leg to California and home. Old Route 66 from Kingman to the Colorado River at the Needles crossing is known as the Oatman Highway, named for the old gold-mining town of Oatman that it passes through. The town in turn was named for the Oatman girls, who were kidnapped and enslaved by the Yavapai in 1851 after the Yavapai slaughtered the rest of the Oatman family. By the mid-1920’s most of the mines had ceased operations, and the town would have disappeared were it not for Route 66. When Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were married in Kingman in 1939, they spent a honeymoon night in the Oatman Hotel. Their suite is a tourist attraction. At its peak in 1915 Oatman had some 3,500 residents. Today, it has about 135. It also has a couple-dozen wild burros that roam the streets looking for handouts.
After crossing the Colorado and fueling at Needles, we cruised at 80 mph to put in as many miles as possible before the afternoon desert heat made life miserable. I can only imagine what it would have been like in 1930 in a Model A four-banger flatbed truck carrying the family and all their worldly belongings, at maybe 40 mph. The deserts of California must have felt like the final insult to the Okies. For us it was the final day of a 2,100-mile adventure and a reacquaintance with Middle America.
Home was only hours away.