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OLD 66

OLD 66


Frankly, I don’t know what the fascination/obsession is. Talking here about old US Route 66, or as it has become misconstrued, The Mother Road. Mother of what? Yeah, it ran all the way from Chicago to the Pacific ocean in Santa Monica. But it wasn’t all that romantic for those of us who used it, usually under duress, and it certainly didn’t have all those TV dramas portrayed on that TV show some years past. It was a hard surface road through sometimes inhospitable territory, and for those of us cursed to follow the thread, it was a journey. Not a tour.

I was four years old when I first made a short trip on that concrete way, and I remember parts of the trip vividly. Mom and I had gone up to Springfield, Missouri with her brother-in-law on a business trip. We were running some whisky to a thirsty sheriff in our small eastern Oklahoma county. Well, the sheriff and his cronies, the mayor and several business men.

You see, my uncle was a gambling man. He ran a floating crap game, back alley poker, and as a fill-in, supplier of the elixer to several prominent locals. It all worked rather well, back in those depression days, and uncle always drove a  new Ford car. Well, near new since he much preferred a two door l934 Ford sedan, which he owned several of. It worked this way.

The sheriff would come by and advise us that the state cops were going to pull a raid on such and such a day or week. Oklahoma was a dry state, so that even after the national prohibition fiasco, spirits were discouraged. Oklahoma was also known as the Indian nation, which played to the tetotalers, as well.

Whatever, once in a while, maybe every three months or so, the sheriff would have to let my uncle be raided by the state cops, who would take whatever stash of booze was in the house, and they would also confiscate the car. So, a hint and we knew to get most of the alcohol out of the house, and have the car handy on the front yard. In they would swoop, with cops hanging on running boards, careen through the house, grab three of four bottles of hootch, and take the car. My uncle left the keys in the ignition lock for their convenience, and we would walk the alley down to the Ford dealer (also tractors, tillers, and things agricultural), where there would be another low mileage, used l934 Ford Tudor waiting. Always in grey or black. It was kind of a standing order thing with the dealer. Since my uncle was one of the most bucks up dudes in eastern Oklahoma, the whole affair was written off as business costs.

So, up to Springfield, get a load of “Mickey’s” and backroads down through the edge of Arkansas and over into Lee’s Creek to our place. Sometimes, however, we would return via Claremore and Tulsa, visiting relation on the way, and taking 66 because it was faster. Not a freeway, of course, but much better than those little country lanes.

Much of the pavement was cement, important in the states with lots of rainfall. Even so, concrete breakup was common enough, and back then it wasn’t unusual       to find a curve that was banked opposite the curve, supposedly for water runoff. Come on one of those doozies at over 20mph and it became a sideshow act.

Much of the time, those of us Okies who couldn’t afford shoes much less real gasoline (meaning, most all of us), the gasoline of selection was drip. Or maybe even casing head. Someday remind me to tell you about these fuels.

Whatever, for those of the dustbowl era, Route 66 was simply the way to California, and the Golden State was where a person could most likely get a job. And something to eat. To get a good perspective of that time, look up the book, and movie, Grapes of Wrath. Been there, Done that!

When I first went way west on 66, it was middle of the back seat in a near new l934 Ford Fordor. One of my uncles had gone out three years earlier, and was sniping for gold in the old fields. He did good, bought a car, and came to get me and mom and my new stepdad. When we pulled out of Cherokee country, we had a small trunk wedged between the seats, a mattress roped to the top, and three canvas waterbags, one on the back and two hanging off the front bumper brackets. Do I remember right that there was a drawing of a camel on the bag?

Most of the drive from eastern Oklahoma through to early New Mexico was flat, and not very interesting. Once into NM, though, things began to liven up, especially with those big old highway signs touting roadside attractions. Until you got well into New Mexico, the gas stations and cabin places and cafes were pretty much the same. Outside Duke City (named for the Duke of Albuqurque, I once heard) the billboards were proclaiming that genuine Indian blankets and jewelry were ahead. Sometimes l0 miles, sometimes l00 mile. Then, after Albuqurque the “Trading Posts” started to appear, as did the “Next Gas ll5 miles” warnings. Sobering. And, although the ambient temps stayed much as in Oklahoma the water content in the air lessened markedly.

One water bag was repositioned to hang off that radiator cap dog, so that any evaporation of the canvas might help cool the radiator. And, driving late into the night as well as still-dark-thirty morning starts  helped to make life inside the Ford more bearable. Back then, roadside cabins (not motels, yet) were usually a buck a night, way more than we could afford, so we made do. The women took the car seats, I got the trunk top, and the men each took a running board. When you gotta, you do!

It was getting a bit sparse between watering holes out across the desert on old 66, and that hasn’t changed a lot since. But what we can now knock off in a long day, say 600 miles, we couldn’t so easily do back in the Thirties. Stop for balogna sandwiches under a convenient tree, the men would scrape up small branches for a fire and coffee, water from the bags for me.

In Arizona it got worse, with more signs alerting us to “Live snakes” and “Pre-historic turtles”, as well as ice and gas. The oasis was usually just a shack with a long 6-foot fence fronting the rock scrabble driveway. You seen one, you seen ‘em all! But the painted desert was always interesting, although it never changed, nor did the big meteor crater.  Finally, breaking out of the hills down to the California border seemed like such a miracle. A very, very hot miracle, which remains as toasty today.  The joke back then was that all us Okies had to stop and dip in the Colorado River, just so we would smell like the Californians.

From the border into San Bernardino was just more of the gruelling sameness, then, when we lit into the mountains  it abruptly changed. The weather was kinder, and there was lots more traffic on 66. Even today, you can follow along some of this old highway smack up against the San Gabriel mountains, but it is much quicker to do the modern freeways.

Nope, Highway 66 was never a Mother Road for me, and what used to take nearly a week is now only a couple of long days to Oklahoma, and another long one up to Chicago. Neat thing is, the cops don’t stop you at the border now, looking for contraband.  Farther west, they look for hidden banana’s. Too, bathing in the Colorado River on western journeys is no longer necessary!

Still, you might want to find a couple canvas water bags. Just in case!