Route 66 - Day 3 / July 15, 2009

When it is 79 degrees and muggy at daybreak you know it is going to be a hot day!! And indeed today was a very hot day in Oklahoma. Upper 90s before noon, and 107 by dinner time! Before today the highest temperature I ever saw recorded on one of those bank temperature signs was 105 a few years ago on my way to Sturgis, in South Dakota. I broke that record today when I saw several signs flashing 106 and 107. It was astonishingly hot!!

Okay, enough about the heat. Today's 398 miles began in Carthage MO with a visit to their marvelous courthouse for a picture, then a ride just out of town to visit the Carthage MO Civil War battlefield site. This battle saw Missourians fighting fellow Missourians. Some fighting to keep MO in the Union, their neighbors and relatives fighting to join the Confederacy.

Beyond Carthage there wasn't much to see in MO for the last few miles, then 13 miles of old 66 cutting across the far SE corner of Kansas, then into Oklahoma.
The road is quite well marked in eastern OK, and in fact most of it from the border to Oklahoma City has been recommissioned as state route 66. As soon as you get into OK things quickly begin to look a bit different. Men in pickups are wearing cowboy hats, and most everyone speaks with a strong accent, clearly unlike points further east or north.
I was in OK for just a short time when I came into the town of Commerce, the hometown of MICKEY MANTLE! I actually saw the park where he would have played baseball as a kid! What I wouldn't give for a time machine sometimes. I also later drove through the hometowns of Will Rogers and Garth Brooks. I went to the Will Rogers museum but decided not to take the time to do a full blown tour.

As a side note, the cost of gasoline in western MO was 2.07 for the most part. It was a little higher in OK, but by the time I got to western OK it had dropped again down to the 2.10 range. By my reckoning, as validated by no less an expert than Benjamin Franklin himself, I'm saving so much money by buying this cheap gas, with those savings being immediately converted to money earned, it is actually paying to take this trip and the further I ride the more I save (earn), thus the more I have to spend on more riding!

Northeastern OK looks the way I imagined it would, more open and fewer trees than MO. Surprisingly, however, the area around Tulsa and west all the way to Oklahoma City is much greener and has far more trees than I imagined. I've done some riding in the Quachita Mts of SE Oklahoma, which is heavily forested, but I thought it would be more open west of Tulsa.

The federal stimulus dollars are hard at work in America's heartland. I encountered many areas of road repairs, with most well identified as being done with stimulus dollars. At one site I stopped for a flagman with the sun broiling both of us while we waited. I began singing Springsteen's"Working on the Highway" while waiting and after awhile the flagman came over to me to tell me I might as well shut off my bike as we had at least another ten minute wait. We had a nice chat. He asked if it ever got warm enough in Michigan in the summer for people to go swimming outside, and I assured him that yes, it did. Then he said he could never ride a motorcycle in OK because it would be too hot. I said wait a minute - you're standing on hot freshly laid asphalt that is still warm to the touch, in the open with no shade or protection, under the grilling sun with nothing but your baseball cap to protect you, for 8 hours a day, and it's too hot to ride a motorcycle!? He agreed that it did sound kind of silly.

Oklahoma is a land of grand vistas. Except for the two urban areas, I rode across OK in five mile chunks. It seemed that at intervals of that length you could see from one small hill to the next one far away on the horizon. I'd ride that stretch and then from that vantage point I could see the road winding in front of me to the next horizon several miles away. This occurred frequently across the width of the state.

Route 66 east of OKC is a well used fairly major state highway. This is the post 1940 version. There are occasional stretches of the 1927 version that can still be found and ridden, though some are too rough to ride. A phenomenon that I find amazing, and has occurred from Illinois all the way to western OK, is that for long stretches the original 1920s roadway was simply abandoned ca 1940, with the new road built 20 feet away, and paralleling the old for mile after mile. Even today the abandoned 1920s pavement is still visible, with many weeds in all the cracks in the old concrete, faithfully tagging alongside the "new" road mile after mile. Much of the old road was not abandoned and is still in use today, but only by local traffic or by Route 66 aficionados. It was apparently cheaper to simply build an entirely new roadway than upgrade the old and very narrow old roadway. I imagine that the size of the cars and the weight of the trucks post WW2 made the old roadway totally obsolete in every way. When riding on the old roadway one is amazed at how narrow it is. It is barely wider than the typical biking & walking paved pathways found in many communities.
Besides Mickey Mantle's home town there are many very interesting things to see along the road. An old 1926 single lane iron bridge that carried the road over a stream near Chelsea OK is still in place and can be driven across. Many old gas stations, cafes, and motels and tourist courts still line the road, almost all vacant or being used for other things, but very identifiable. Some have been wonderfully restored. A beautiful architectural style found from western MO through central OK are the brown sandstone gas stations, cafes, and other small commercial buildings built out of the native bedrock many decades ago. They're striking in their classic beauty. The reddish-brown stones are cut into varying sizes and shapes and the resulting structures are a delight to see.

Because of the heat I wimped out and didn't try to follow the old road through Tulsa and OKC. The original alignment can still be found with some tricky navigating (preferably with two people - one driving a car and the passenger calling the turn by turn plays). The thought of riding through mile after mile of urban congestion in temps exceeding 100 seemed near suicidal to me so I skirted the two urban centers, picking up 66 on the west side of each city. I'd never been to Tulsa before today but I had been to OK City a couple of times previously. A big attraction in OKC is the American Cowboy and Western Heritage Cultural Center, and I'd already been there so felt no need to go back.

Finding the old road west of Oklahoma City becomes very tricky again. It is a small intermittent road to some degree and keeping track of it isn't as easy as it might seem. Especially in stretches of urbanized development it is easy to lose track of what was 66. Then you have to do a basic tracking method of crossing back and forth as you move westerly until you come across it again. Many small towns do a real good job of celebrating the road and put up signs. Many businesses in OK also exploit the road by using it in their name. It gets more recognition here than in MO.

Beginning about 25 miles west of OK City many things change. The land takes on a much more open and western look. There are many large cattle ranches and the vistas are grand. The green and verdant look changes to the tans of the west. In west central OK there is a large wheat growing area. This was the only crop growing area I saw. But the wheat had all been harvested already and all the fields already prepared for planting of the next crop. Most of the agriculture as one gets into far western OK is cattle ranging very large fields of hay.
The soil in OK is very red for the most part, just like in Georgia.

There are long stretches of the 1920s version of route 66 left in the west half of OK. This road is easy to confirm because the builders had a unique signature; they 'rolled' or beveled the concrete road edges into a 3-inch lip that made a small 'wall' along the outside edge of the pavement. Whether this was for safety, warning someone they're about to go off the pavement and onto the very narrow shoulder, or whether it was a purely aesthetic feature, I don't know. But I've never seen this feature on any other road.

The landscape in western OK takes on the 'out west' look, with ancient small hills and mesas beginning to appear. Not in the size or number as further west, but the transition has certainly begun.

There was quite a bit of oil activity in western OK, with several large rigs drilling new wells and several very large oilfield supply depots with every piece of equipment needed in the oil business available for sale. An interesting related phenomenon in OK is the number of gas stations that proudly proclaim that they sell only pure gasoline, with no ethanol. It makes economic sense, of course. They grow a lot more oil than corn in OK, so I imagine their congressional delegation has not been a big ethanol supporter.

It's becoming clear that I'm not making as many miles each day as I thought I could, so I have to change my expectations a bit. I had hoped to get as far west as Flagstaff AZ, but that is probably not feasible. My goal is to explore the road and its attractions, not reach a particular destination. If the end point is Albuquerque instead of Flagstaff, that's fine. But I really did want to get to Winslow AZ to see if that pretty girl in the red Ford is still there. Of course, like the rest of us, she's all grown up by now.
The bike is running great. Hasn't missed a beat in over 33,000 miles and just hums along in this incredible heat. The 1200 Sportster is one of the more underrated bikes around because too many folks consider it an around town cruiser. In reality it is the perfect bike for this kind of trip. And it is probably the most pure fun bike I've ever owned - going all the way back to my first, a 1969 Kawasaki 250 two stroke. (and getting 50 plus miles per gallon doesn't hurt either, even if gas is cheap out here.)

Tomorrow - Texas and New Mexico!