It was surreal, we awoke to find ourselves in Yukon, Canada, well…sort of. We overnighted in Yukon, Canada County near the Canadian river in Oklahoma…how apropos for two Canadians trying to find a warmer summer.
I discovered this great little town by accident during my 2008 road trip when I needed a place to sleep. I had originally intended to overnight in Oklahoma City after a 13 hour day on the road and found a cheap motel near the interstate. I was exhausted and frankly, Oklahoma City at night is not a welcoming place. After paying for my room, a series of unsettling events caused me to demand a refund. First, I was booked into a smoking room, despite asking for non-smoking. Upon discovering they gave me the wrong room, I noticed some shady characters loitering in the back of the building. The motel clerk changed my room to non-smoking and moved me to front of the building. I noticed another group of characters communicating with their cohorts stationed in the back of motel. I suspected that these lowlifes were canvassing the property to break into vehicles and and they took note of my Harley-Davidson. Every instinct inside me said to get the hell away from this dump. I went back to the front office, demanded a refund and suggested they call the police. With a refund in hand, as well as piece of mind, I ventured west to the next town: Yukon.
The series of events which led me to Yukon turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The following morning I found a quirky Route 66 diner, then called Sid’s Diner, which advertised an “Award Winning Elvis Impersonator” on a van parked outside. As it turns out, the Elvis impersonator is both the owner and the cook. The interior of the diner is crammed full of 1950’s, 1960’s and Route 66 decor, photos, mementos and knick knacks. This place has character to spare, it captures the magic of the Mother Road and serves a great breakfast at a bargain price. Ever since 2008, I promised myself I would always eat at this diner on Route 66 trips. It now goes by the name of Fat Elvis Diner and this was my third visit.
I was delighted to see that this place is going strong and that Darin Thrasher, aka Elvis Thrasher, is still the owner and cook. As always, he’s really cool about hamming it up for the camera. I told Darin about my fondness for his diner and how we traveled from Canada. We had a terrific breakfast, chatted with the staff and let them know we would come back again.
It was another perfect day for riding and we had to cover quite a distance before reaching our motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico. We had to cross the remaining half of Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle and a bit of New Mexico for a total of 355 miles (571 km). This is just over a 5 hour journey along the interstate, assuming no stops. However, if one decides to take in some the sights along Route 66, it is at least a 12 hour day. Even so, I knew that we could not take in all roadside attractions and some would be seen on the way back home.
We made two stops in Hydro, Oklahoma: the Main Street and Lucille’s Gas Station on the outskirts of town. It was remarkably hot by mid morning and the temperature quickly rose above 100 degrees. I savoured the irony of this heat in a place called Hydro after leaving Yukon in Canada County. I have ridden through Hydro twice before and each time the temperature was in the triple digit range. This is a two blink town with just a few shops and one bar. However, it is worth the visit because Hydro has been virtually frozen in time since World War II and represents a slice of lost America.
One historic site that I missed previous Route 66 trips is Lucille’s Gas Station, but not this time. Named after the original owner, Lucille Hamons, this roadside icon is dubbed “The Mother of the Mother Road.” Originally opened in 1921 by Carl Ditmore, it remains as one the few remaining examples of a two-story filling station with the owner’s residence situated on the second floor. In 1934, it changed ownership and was renamed the Provine Service Station and five motel rooms were added on-site. Lucille and Carl Hamons acquired the business in 1941 where they owned it jointly until their divorce in 1971. Despite being by-passed by the interstate highway, Lucille continued to run the station until her death in 2000. In 1997, it was added to the US National Register of Historic Places. Although the service station is well preserved, the 5 room motel is crumbling away.
At Lucille’s we met some tourists from Japan. One of them works for a Japanese motor company in Kentucky and was acting as tour guide for his mother, father and brother visiting from Tokyo. We chatted for a while about places to see along the Mother Road and compared notes, laughed and exchanged bows. How strange the world of Route 66 must appear to them, with its vast open spaces, slow pace of life, small heritage buildings and no sprawling skyscrapers or endless crowds of people. It seems to me they come here to find a modicum of humanity, nature and tranquility. The same can be said for myself or anyone who leaves the big city to travel down this old road and find a lost America.
Hydro was our last stop in Oklahoma, we would soon cross the Texas border and experience truly iconic roadside attractions along the Panhandle. Our first Texan destination was in Shamrock to see the beautiful art-deco Tower Conoco Station, also known as the U-Drop Inn. It was originally constructed in 1940 as three separate businesses: The Tower Conoco Station, the U-Drop Inn Cafe and a retail store. In the 1970’s it operated as a FINA station until closing its doors in the mid 90’s. The Shamrock Chamber of Commerce acquired the property and restored the building to its original state complete with neon trim. Today, the station serves as offices for the Chamber of Commerce and also includes a small souvenir shop.
The Tower Conoco Station is another location which inspired the Disney Movie, Cars. Watch the movie and you will find a replica of this structure in the imaginary town of Radiator Springs. Kudos to the town of Shamrock for preserving and maintaining this one of a kind place, my only wish is that they would re-open the U-Drop Inn Cafe.
After leaving Shamrock, we made a brief stop in McLean for yet another gas station roadside attraction: the Phillips 66 Service Station built in 1929. It was the first Phillips 66 station to open in Texas and remained in business for over 50 years. In 1992, it was purchased by the Texas Route 66 Association and is purported to be the first fully restored old gas station on the Mother Road. Today, it serves strictly as a roadside attraction and photo opportunity.
From McClean, we traveled along 66 and I-40 to the Britten Leaning Water Tower in Groom. No Route 66 trip or book is complete without an obligatory photo of this odd landmark. It originally served as a functioning water tower and was slated for demolition until Ralph Britten bought it to serve as a sign for his truck stop and souvenir shop. One may be inclined to think that the tower began leaning due to a fault in construction or sinking ground and thus led to its decommissioning. Not so, the lean is actually man made. In a brilliant twist of marketing, the tilt was deliberately created by Britten to make sure roadside travelers would see his sign. It worked like a charm and although his truck stop is no more, his tower remains a favourite destination for photographers from around the world.
Just a few miles west down the road, it is easy to spot the 190 foot tall crucifix erected by the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ Ministries. It is visible from 20 miles in all directions and claims to be largest cross in the USA. I had explored this site in detail back in 2008 and took photos of statues depicting the life of Jesus and the Stations of the Cross. With less than two hours of daylight left, I had to cut this visit short and race to the historic Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo.
As we approached Amarillo, we saw a number of roadside signs advertising the legendary Big Texan Steakhouse on Route 66 and images of a fat, juicy steak were lodged in my brain. I knew there was not enough time for both dinner and the Cadillac Ranch, so The Big Texan Steakhouse would have to be enjoyed another day. Our timing was impeccable, we arrived at our destination just before sunset and a golden light was covering the landscape.
Cadillac Ranch is a public art exhibit situated along Route 66 near the western side of Amarillo, just off the interstate. It was created in 1974 by artists by Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels, who were a part of the Ant Farm art group. They buried a number of junked and running Cadillacs halfway into the ground. The cars are ordered according to the year of their manufacture and represent the birth and death of tailfins from 1949 to 1974.
The exhibit is located on private land owned by eccentric local millionaire, Stanley Marsh III, who is also the project’s patron. He encourages the spray can graffiti as part of an ever changing art canvas. Each day, dozens of visitors bring their own spray cans and change the exhibit. The cars wear this new paint as spongy second skin and it is more than an inch thick in some places. Truly, you can never visit this place twice.
As we were preparing to depart Cadillac Ranch, we met fellow travelers from Toronto: three young women on a road trip before resuming their studies at the University of Toronto. Their goal was to travel Route 66 from Chicago all the way to Santa Monica Blvd in Los Angeles. I suggested a few sites for them to visit along the way as I made this trip a few times when I lived in Arizona.
Since it was too far to backtrack east into Amarillo for dinner, we decided to motor west to Vega and find a restaurant. This is a tiny town located close to the Texas and New Mexico border. Only two places were open, a road house and a Mexican restaurant. We opted for Mexican and upon arriving at their door, the place suddenly closed and the patrons put napkins over their beers. This means bikers are not welcome, so it was back onto I-40 to find a truck stop to satisfy our hunger.
We eventually found a truck stop west of Vega and pulled in to refuel the Harley and ourselves. While filling up my bike, I met another motorcyclist, a Russian from Moscow, who had just traveled 20,000 kilometers (12,400 miles) across the USA using his own bike. He about a good place to find a motel and I suggested Tucumcari, NM. His final destination was Los Angeles and then he would fly back to Moscow and ship his bike.
This truck stop served up a wretched dinner and neither of us could finish our meals. My so-called sirloin steak was as tough as an old leather shoe that had been soaked in gasoline, run over by a truck and then hung out to dry. Elaine barely touched her supper and went outside for a smoke. Her dinner was green chili with chicken that did not taste like chicken.
We arrived in Tucumcari around 10 PM and checked into our motel. I unloaded the bike and we cruised Route 66 to see some terrific neon signs and take some photos . I got a 1/2 quart of Jack Daniels to treat myself after a long day riding in the desert heat and surpassing the 2000 km milestone.
The next day would reveal beautiful scenery in New Mexico and Arizona. For Elaine it was her first time seeing this incredible landscape and for me, it was a return home to my beloved southwest desert.