Travelling the Main Street of America
A stop at Lucille's station in Hydro is an absolute must. Lucille Hamons has been here pumping gas, helping stranded travellers, providing hospitality and telling stories since 1941. She's a sprightly 83 and, as she will tell you herself, she still gets her kicks on 66. Lucille has seen it all on Route 66 and all genuine Routies are encouraged to pop in for a visit. The motel side of the business closed some years ago and more recently the gas pumps have been disconnected, but at almost any hour you'll find Lucille sitting at her kitchen table behind her stock of snacks, drinks and souvenirs. A hand-written note on the door assures all 66-ers that a big Oklahoma welcome waits inside. Lucille will be working on her latest project, but she's never too busy to make a sale - which to Lucille means making a friend as well. The only break away from Hydro the "Mother of the Mother Road" has had was after her heart attack in 1989. She was back in harness after a few weeks and has been one of the chief catalysts in the rebirth of awareness of Route 66's heritage. The walls of her little store are covered with citations and press reports from all over the world. Since her daughter published Lucille's autobiography and established a website, interest in the Hamons family's many contributions to the myth and reality of Route 66 has mushroomed. Listen to Lucille talk and you will be transported back to a time when folks accepted their duty to help each other, and pitched in with good humour and toleration. In Lucille's stories of strange and hilarious happenings during 66's heyday the hardships are downplayed, but how many of us would get through such a tough life with our spirits in such good shape? Meeting and talking with Lucille is a privilege, a pleasure and an education; say little and listen much. [Update: Sadly, Lucille passed away on 18 August 2000]
Clinton, just half an hour beyond Hydro, is home to a most attractive and modern Route 66 Museum. My experience here was not the happiest as I found it closed both times I passed through Clinton in October, even though I stood forlornly at the door within the published opening hours. It all looked very swish, polished and cared for, so I can only think they must have had a temporary aberration of some sort. We'll try again before August so that you'll know in advance whether or not to take the deviation to it.
If Clinton was a disappointment, Elk City was an unexpected delight. Apart from the smell of drains in the hotel I used first (which is right off the approved list!), it proved a fascinating and friendly town. As the "Best Flour" sign is to Yukon, so the 180-foot Parker oil drilling rig is to Elk City. But far more interesting is the historical village that has been built right on old 66 using a mixture of genuine and reproduction turn-of-the-century buildings evoking Elk City's origins as a watering point along the Dodge City Cattle Trail. Part of the complex is a Route 66 Museum arranged as a stroll down the old road and packed with well-chosen exhibits of real quality. One $5 ticket admits you to all the attractions, and I particularly suggest calling at the Farm and Range Museum to see the finest collection of old barbed wire samples in captivity.
The last village in Oklahoma is the closest thing I saw on my journey to a real ghost town. Texola (on the Texas/Oklahoma border - get it?) has wide, empty streets, picturesquely decaying buildings and abandoned businesses. There's even the odd bit of designer tumbleweed to add to the authenticity. Do pause for a quiet look around the back streets. There are lots of great photo opportunities, but just be aware that not all of the houses are deserted!
It's the Portland concrete original all the way from Texola to McLean. Feel yourself being wafted back to the thirties. The 1936 high-camp art-déco U-Drop-Inn in Shamrock has closed quite recently and is just beginning to show signs of decay. Get your pictures while it's still there in its original extraordinary form. It's bound to be either demolished or interfered with at some point. McLean touts itself as "The Heart of Old Sixty-Six" and has some survivors that will hold your attention as you pass through, but I think I must have missed something in Alanreed as I'd left it before registering that I'd arrived in it. There is the option between Alanreed and Groom of following the infamous unsealed route through the Jericho Gap, but a quick investigation persuaded me that this is best avoided unless you have a lot of time and a high-clearance vehicle.
You know you've reached Groom when you see the leaning water tower. This "landmark" is yet another of those created artificially to give a focal point to a fairly ordinary little plains town. But don't imagine that this sort of thing is always the product of an earlier, charmingly naïve age. At the other end of town you'll find "The Largest Cross in the Western Hemisphere" sitting out there all bright and new beside the Interstate.
Amarillo celebrates its place in Route 66 lore with some of the clearest Historic 66 direction signs in the business. If you're feeling especially brave - or stupid? - you could take the 72-ounce challenge at the Big Texan Steakhouse. Finish this four-and-a-half-pound slab of prime Texan bullock within the hour and it's yours free. What an incentive! There's an honour board of presumably deceased winners. Photographic evidence suggests that the chef serves his speciality more injured than cooked. It looked to me as if a good vet could have it on its feet again in no time. There is a normal carnivorous menu that looks excellent in an excessive Texan sort of way.