Our relationship has been mostly lovely, but today I have a falling out with Google Maps. It’s routing me in nonsensical ways, which fortunately I discover before hitting the road by previewing it in Street View mode. I do not have access to Adventure Cycling’s Route 66 bike maps, so I’m relying on Google Maps to connect me with my destination. I should be traveling down Route 66, but Google Maps keeps routing me onto back roads, including one with spectacular red dirt that glows in the intense sun.
My initial impression of Route 66 is that it sucks. Really hard. There’s nothing to see. It’s all gone, including the original road, making this the biggest disappointment on my trip. I’m riding on the shoulder in the unwelcome company of big trucks, some carrying oversized loads that look like parts of a military installation. There are many such trucks, so maybe they can’t travel on the interstate?
The first positive aspect of Route 66 is pulled pork. In Afton, OK I pull over at Nowhere on 66, which is a recent addition to the roadside. Opened in 2012 inside an old gas station, Nowhere’s rustic decor includes reclaimed wood from old barns and vintage photos of Afton from back in the day.
Inside I meet Becky and her little cheerleader daughter, who I’m told is an A student and just had an excellent dental exam, which is cause for celebration over lunch. My meal includes pulled pork, baked beans and jalapeno onion fries.
Pulled pork is not my first choice of meat because usually texture trumps flavor. Not so at Nowhere 66. This is the best pulled pork that’s ever crossed my lips, a distinction that remains true despite some good competition from Redneck’s BBQ in Kingman, Arizona. Nowhere hand rubs meats and uses a hand-built wood smoker, not electric or gas.
Outside are two older guys shooting the breeze and they watch me unlock the bike and get interested in how far I’ve come and where I’m going. One tells me about a place where I can see a nine-foot strip of the original Route 66.
He laments “how our history is disappearing and so are us old people.”
“No, don’t say that,” I say trying and failing to cheer him up even though he looks like he could be in one of those vintage photos on the wall inside the restaurant.
I soon pass the Avon Motel, which looks like something out of Syria. It gives me a sense of bygone history here. Maybe the old man was right.
Love at first lick
During an exasperated stretch of Route 66, I spot an ice cream cone in the sky and take it to be a sign from God to pull over. I enter Braum’s figuring this is a one-off townie dairy bar. I am gladly mistaken. Braum’s is a chain known for not having branches more than a day’s roundtrip drive from their family farm in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Purportedly this is so their truck drivers can have dinner with their families. The easternmost Braum’s is in Joplin while Amarillo, TX anchors their western frontier. I’m told Braum’s has never issued a product recall. This is a brand I can trust.
Braum’s is a dairy and produce company, but all I care about is their ice cream, which is cheap, big and delicious. A double dip—two large scoops in a waffle cone—costs less than $2 including tax. ARE YOU SERIOUS? Compare this quality and price to the gimmicky Big Gay Ice Cream in Manhattan, where people spend 15 minutes on line to pay three times the price for one-third the product, and you can see why Oklahoma is set to become my new favorite state.
At loss for lodging
At Braum’s I call ahead to the Chelsea Motor Inn, which is my goal 20 miles away, yet find out they have no availability. I’m running out of daylight anyway and ask the owner for suggestions of where to stay here in Vinita. Turns out most of the motels in town are of ill repute, but there is motel/campground just out of town that comes recommended. As a worst case, the owner offers to make room somehow in Chelsea, but I assure her that I’ll make do at Park Hill Motel & RV Park, which is three miles down the road.
As it turns out, this campground comes with its own run-down motel, which is scary in its own right, but perhaps a cut above those in town. The owner assures me this is the case during a property tour where I learn the motel is home for those navigating troubled waters of domestic disputes. Children’s bicycles and bright plastic toys scatted across the breezeway are further clues that this motel is for long-term residents. A family is making a BBQ by the communal campground bathroom facing the lake. Kids are running around without shirts or shoes, and flames are devouring the unattended meat smoking on the grill.
Nice grassy areas surrounding the lake look comfortable to camp, but the owner says I can’t because of resident water moccasins, the world's only semiaquatic viper. Yikes. I can just imagine them slithering from the lake into my tent to inject my ankles with their venom in the middle of the night. As a precaution, I set my tent on gravel closer to the highway instead of comfy grass in a quieter lakeside location.
To further sour my temperament, I can’t have dinner. A forward-thinking me would have stocked up on apples and yogurt at Braum’s for an improvised meal. But now I’m stuck. Backtracking to Vinita isn’t advisable for two reasons. Firstly, biking three miles in dark along Route 66 gives me a bad feeling. Traffic is moving fast, the shoulder is narrow and there are no street lights. Secondly, storms are forecast for the area and biking in the dark and in the rain would be even worse.
That campground itself is also unpleasant. I face the highway and hear traffic all night. My only “wall” is a vintage Air Stream trailer that I wish I could sleep inside despite the numerous dead bugs I can see from the outside. That’s because it will not only rain most of the night, but also the constant flashes of lightning keep me on edge along with a potential wayward water moccasin out for an evening slither.
While setting up camp, I meet Jeff, his wife and a little rescue dog they picked up last week. Jeff is beefy and tan, Midwest rugged at its best. He’s got a fancy camper pulled by a shiny black Dodge pickup his wife drives. Jeff drives an equipment truck for his job installing and repairing cellular and communication towers across America.
It’s one of those I-guess-someone’s-gotta-do-it jobs, yet his speciality sounds lucrative. Who else is going to climb that high to fix the wires so we can stay connected? Their kids are grown, so the couple travels from one job site to another. Home is technically Nashville (Tennessee, not Illinois), but in reality home is on the road, something I completely understand having given up my apartment 15 months ago and putting 99.7% of my possessions in storage.
Jeff seems cool and I’m hoping he invites me inside for some beers or a barbecue, but they’ve got to get an early start tomorrow driving to Allentown, PA for a job, then on to Wildwood, NJ and then to Texas.
Jeff admires my bike just as I admire his sleek pickup truck. He wonders about the road worthiness of the bike after so many miles, and I assure him that this bike is built like a tank.
“You’ll get a flat before I do,” I laugh, kicking his monstrously plump pickup tires. I will quickly come to regret that statement when the unthinkable happens the next day on Route 66.