Saturday, 8 September 2012

Day 10 - The Way to Amarillo

We said yesterday that the scenery in Oklahoma was a bit dull (read: similar to England), so it's only fair to mention that it got a lot prettier to the west, and also a lot drier. We even saw our first dust storm!

Pretty bridges seem to be a feature of Route 66

The open road in western Oklahoma

However, the signage west of Oklahoma City was even worse than it was yesterday, and wasn't aided by the fact that there was more than one error in our directions. Typing "left" when you mean "right" is quite a big mistake when giving directions, and it led us into quite an interesting situation involving an unpaved road many miles from anywhere. Getting lost is all part of the fun in Oklahoma!

Despite the lack of signage, Oklahoma is obviously quite keen to promote Route 66, so there were two museums on our route today. The first was in Clinton, and was extremely well organised with lots of very cool and informative displays, themed music in each room, and a movie that was so engaging we ended up sitting through the entire thing. And as if you need another reason to visit, they also sell sparkly t-shirts. Win!

Home of the sparkly t-shirts. And also some educational stuff.

She's behind you!
The second museum was the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, where there was more shopping for unnecessary tourist tat, and we met two adorable Route 66 beanie babies.

One of the few signs we saw all day, but at least it's large enough to fit every single Illinois sign inside it.
This wouldn't be a Brits Abroad blog if we didn't talk about the weather, so I'll mention that as we were leaving Oklahoma an almighty storm hit. The winds were so strong that we were watching traffic lights and signs sway, and at times it felt as though the air was trying to drag our car into a ditch. We were really hoping we'd get to see a tornado; sadly that didn't happen, but we were treated to a spectacular lightning storm while out on the road. Nature is cool.

Some people put a lot of effort into making their hair look as though they've been dragged through a hedge backwards.
By the time we reached Erick, Oklahoma, it was well and truly pissing it down. At least three separate people had told us we absolutely had to stop by and meet Harley and Annabelle, who bill themselves as the "Mediocre Musicians" and are said to be part of the inspiration for the character of Mater in Cars as well as Tin Lizzie's curiosity shop. The recommendations were so enthusiastic that we ventured out of the car into near-solid rain and gale force winds, but alas Harley and Annabelle were nowhere to be found. That makes this paragraph probably one of the most pointless in any travel blog ever, but there you go.
The sign reads: "See rednecks work and play in their natural environment!"
Alas, the only rednecks around today were our sunburn.

A little while later, the sun came out just in time for us to cross the border into Texas.

My right leg is in George W Bush territory, but my left leg is still in a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical

The U-Drop Inn in Shamrock, Texas was the inspiration for Ramone's body art place in Cars

Can anyone explain to me why the bit we're driving across is called the Panhandle? The rest of the state looks nothing like a pan.

Yes, this really is a museum dedicated to barbed wire. Next time you holiday in the Seychelles, just think about what you're missing.

The leaning tower of Groom, TX

Apparently the largest cross in the western hemisphere. Now I really want to see the one in the eastern hemisphere, because this thing is bloody huge.

Our final stop before heading into Amarillo was at the Bug Ranch in Conway, Texas. This art installation is basically a copycat of the very similar Cadillac Ranch that we'll come to tomorrow, only with Volkwagen Beetles buried nose-first in a line and covered in graffiti.

Incidentally, pro tip for any Hypothetical Future People: none of our guides mentioned that this isn't actually on Route 66: you have to turn right when you get to Conway as though you're heading to the Interstate, and it's maybe a mile or so down the road next to the dilapidated motel. But then you're from the future and have sat nav in the chip embedded in your brain so you already knew that.

What, are you saying this isn't how everyone keeps their cars? 

We learned today that spray painting in high winds is really hard. Or perhaps there's a knack to it: this is my first foray into juvenile delinquency so I have a lot to learn.

Bug spraying
The high winds give our artwork an unintended but quite effective sinister appearance.

Fly, my pretty! Fly!

Driving in America is harder than it looks
We acquired the spray paint this morning in an Auto Parts store as we left Oklahoma City, and managed to thoroughly bemuse the guy who served us by picking out the shiniest metallic paints and telling him we were going to use them to decorate cars sticking out of the ground. It's almost as if he didn't think this was an entirely normal thing to travel thousands of miles to do. Go figure.

Also! While stopping at a gas station we saw our very first unironic wearing of a cowboy hat! That's one item off the list.

You're right to frown at us, Texan cows: we're on our way to eat one of your cousins 

One thing that didn't occur to me when we were planning this trip was that we'd be driving into the sunset every evening. This is always fun (albeit a tad dangerous as there is a period every evening that we're effectively blinded), but tonight in combination with the storm, it led to an awesome Texas sky.

Not what I thought Texas would look like

By the time the sun had set, we'd found the way to Amarillo and to the Big Texan, famous for its free 72oz steak meal (if you can eat the whole thing within one hour). Alas, no one was attempting the challenge while we were there, but we did learn that the record is about eight and a half minutes!!! This place is an extreme tacky tourist trap, so I wasn't sure the actual steaks would be anything to write home about. As it happens, they were simply amazing, so this place gets a whole-hearted recommendation.

Frowny Cow sees you eating its friends

Tomorrow is a very exciting day, because we hit the midway point of Route 66 before heading into New Mexico, and we're on the lookout for cactus and tumbleweed. Bonus points if the tumbleweed is in a ghost town.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Day 9 - There's no place like home

Waking up this morning we realised we had a mighty task ahead of us.  One of the highest mileage counts we needed to complete (~340m) as well as three different US States to traverse.  Leaving Springfield, Missouri we were armed with amazing directions, for getting around a local detour, courtesy of Tonya at the Best Western Rail Haven where we stayed last night.  Can't say enough about the hotel - it was ideally suited for our trip and at a really good price.  The staff were super friendly and Tonya in particular was a gem. The BWRH scored not least because their breakfast area had a self-serve waffle iron so Rachael was able to tick the last items on her American breakfast carb wish list (pancakes, waffles, french toast).  Of course we reserve the right to try them all again just to make sure that our sample is statistically relevant.  We also had a side discussion about whether you can get waffle irons in the UK and resolved to find out when we get home.

Our first stop of the day was in a one horse town with two names. It's literally a couple of buildings facing each other across the street and we know it's a one horse town because we saw the horse grazing in it's field.  Gay Parita / Paris Springs is an absolute MUST see on any Route 66 trip. Not least because Gary Turner, a diamond geezer, runs the restored Gay Parita gas station (well it doesn't sell gas but it's got loads of old signs and stuff), plys the passing tourists with free Route 66 soda and lets them take pics with his Bonnie and Clyde wax figures in the garage. (yes this is actually the website)
Your intrepid routetrippers with Gary
Rachael getting an indecent offer from Gary and calling for help (was that phone even connected?)
Clyde has a big gun and I have an orange soda. Whats wrong with this picture?
Rachael's new job as a "exit facilitator" seems suspect.

Gary was a total character and we could have stayed all day just soaking up the sun and drinking orange soda whilst talking to him. However, we had well over 300 miles to cover today and we'd barely scratched the surface so we got back on the road in search of the R66 Drive In in Carthage and then the Missouri / Kansas border.
Route 66 Drive-in at Carthage. Not showing Cars so no point in staying til it opens...
Honestly we looked for a marker for the border between Missouri and Kansas but couldn't actually find anything so we gave up.  Route 66 traverses 8 states in the US and Kansas is the shortest section by a long way.  Only 13 miles of the Mother Road are in the Sunflower State but in R66 terms they are worth their weight in gold.
We were pretty sure we were in Kansas because of signs like this.
For it is in Kansas that one of the key characters in Disney / Pixars "Cars" found it's real life inspiration and therefore there is a direct line from those 13 miles to us being here at all.  No it's not weird that this trip was inspired in part by an animated movie. If you haven't seen Cars, or you are rolling your eyes at us, then you need to go find your inner child some popcorn and the DVD and settle down for a couple of hours because you've been a neglectful outer adult.

Kansas is the home of Tow Tater - the inspiration for Tow Mater. Tow Tater lives in Galena, Kansas at the Kan-O-Tex service station and is looked after by the lovely Melba (amongst others) who we also met today.
Rachael getting a lift from Tow Tater with Melba Rigg - The Mouth
Melba Rigg is another Route 66 character who we could have stayed all day with.  She regaled us with the history of the refurb of the old gas station into the gift shop it is today, as well as all the behind the scenes history and gossip about how Tow Tater came to inspire Tow Mater in Cars. Melba has the nickname "The Mouth" partly because she talks really fast and also because she is the voice of Tow Tater in his real life adventures. Seriously those cattle auction guys have nothing on Melba - she'd definitely win in a speed talking contest.

Sadly we couldn't stay much longer and had to get back on the road.  We drove through the picturesque Baxter Springs before waving goodbye to Kansas. Short but sweet.

We are not in Kansas any more.
Crossing over from Kansas into Oklahoma was a little like coming home.  For some reason Oklahoma reminds us of England.  It's very green with fields at the side of the road, and many of the roads are windy and have hills.  Honestly outside of the warm weather it could be one of the home counties.
As we had a lot of miles to cover today we took a strategic decision to view some of the Oklahoma towns on todays route from the car. Thus went Miami, Vinita, the city of Tulsa, Sapulpa and Bristow.
Just before Tulsa is the town of Catoosa where there is a huge concrete Blue Whale. So we stopped for pictures because it would be rude not to.
A huge concrete Blue Whale at the side of the road.
We tooks pic to prove we weren't hallucinating whilst on the long and windy roads of Oklahoma.
We stopped in Stroud to see the Rock Cafe with the hope of an early dinner there, however they weren't open til 7pm and we decided not to wait around. The Rock Cafe is owned by the lady who inspired the character of Sally in Cars - we didn't get to meet her but her restaurant looks very cool. It's so named because it was built from the rock dug out of the ground when they were building Route 66.

No classic rock bands were harmed during the construction of this cafe.
We pushed on to Arcadia, OK where I unwittingly caught the attention of a police patrol officer.  He took one look at my UK driving license and told me to pay better attention to the posted speed limit signs. (We figure booking me for the smallest of speeding offences wasn't worth the extra paperwork to him)

Having arrived at Pop's in Arcadia we stuffed our faces with burgers, some truly excellent chilli cheese fries and finished off with some milkshakes that make the McDonalds ones that require a suction pump look weak, watery and pathetic. Lets just say they were served with a spoon and where I come from that's whipped ice-cream not a shake! They were delicious though so we'll let them get away with it.  However as good as all that was, the star of Pop's is their soda menu.  They have all of the sodas I think I've ever seen on restaurant menus plus several hundred speciality options and you can have added flavour shots too.  I had a Coke with a cherry shot and Rachael went for Diet Pepsi with a vanilla shot. Pop's also sells gas (thats Petrol to you UK people) and has a shop full of bottles of soda of all kinds as well as sweets and souvenirs.  The restaurant is very modern although it retains a traditional diner feeling somehow.  It's worth a trip in the evening as when it gets dark the huge neon soda bottle out front starts it's light show.  I'm not going to tell you how many pics we took of it flashing away but it was A LOT.
The gas station forecort, with restaurant and shop behind, but who really cares about that when there is a giant red soda bottle in front.
Make that a giant BLUE soda bottle.
Ok now it's purple with a red band running up and down it.
And now it's just showing off.
Arcadia was the last town on our route before our hotel destination of Oklahoma City where we are comfortably ensconced at another Best Western. Tomorrow we have another long day. We leave Oklahoma for the Lone Star State of TEXAS. We are on the look out for tumbleweed and unironic wearing of cowboy hats.  Wish us luck.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Day 8 - Gateway to the West

We woke up this morning to an ominous black cloud. I would like to make it absolutely clear that this was entirely Fi's fault. Yesterday, when my bag was getting heavy and the skies were blue, I commented that I couldn't possibly remove my umbrella because that would cause the weather to change. Fi said that rule only applies in the UK, so into the suitcase the umbrella went. Therefore, anyone in the Midwest who got caught in this morning's torrential downpour, blame Fi.

This morning was the time we'd set aside to do the Gateway Arch in St Louis. It's supposed to be a monument to America's expansion into the west, but apparently the idea that the arch shape also represented a gateway only occurred to the architect after his design was selected. We were also told that the original workforce building the monument was almost entirely white, and this was rectified in one of the first actual enforcements of equal employment law, so it's also become a symbol of the civil rights movement.

The arch is huge and can be seen for miles around, and it looks stunning when the stainless steel catches the light. None of which you can see from our pics, on account of the aforementioned weather.

A landmark almost the same colour as the stormy sky behind it. Google image search for pics of how nice it can look.

The trip to the top is worth doing just to experience the unique transport system. The curved arch means that straightforward lifts wouldn't work, so instead it uses this half-train, half-ferris wheel system. You go up and down in tiny round pods about four feet high - fortunately neither of us suffers from claustrophobia! At the top, there are only small windows to look through, but we got a pretty decent view of St Louis, such as it is.

Ant people, prepare to welcome your new overlords

We needed to hit the road so we only had time for a quick whizz round the museum, but I was pretty impressed by what I saw; in particular, the exhibits didn't seem to gloss over the less pleasant aspects of the westward expansion.

The last item on our to-do list in St Louis was to stop by Ted Drewes just to make sure it hadn't been swept away by the storm, or that the frozen custard hadn't suddenly become poisonous or something. It's a hard job, but we do these things so that those coming behind us can better enjoy their trip; that's just how selfless we are. I'm pleased to report that it was still there and the cookie dough concrete is safe to eat. If you're reading this from the future having found this blog on Google while researching for your own trip, it is your sacred duty to check the nice people at Ted Drewes are still okay, and that the other flavours are safe to eat. Just to be sure.

Our task completed, it was time to hit the road through Missouri. I mentioned back in Illinois that I was very fond of the brown signs; in Missouri we traded these for blue signs.

This is where we played the very British game of Look! Blue Sky! Head thataway!
So far, I have to say Illinois is kicking Missouri's arse on the signage front. Firstly, Missouri's "incident diversion" signs are the same size and colour as the Historic Route 66 ones, which gets confusing. Far worse, though, was the number of junctions we came across where our directions told us to turn but there was no corresponding sign. We tended to go with the directions, and then a hundred metres or so down the road would be one of these blue signs with no arrow, confirming we'd gone the right way. A hundred metres earlier would have been way more help. So there's a handy hint for anyone from the Future: you can probably wing Illinois from the signage, but you need detailed instructions to tackle Missouri (unless you want to cheat and take the Interstate, but where would be the fun in that?).

Driving through the Missouri countryside, we started to feel like it would be a good time for a break, if only we could think of somewhere fun to stop.

There didn't seem to be anything coming up, though.

 Perhaps there's just nothing to see on this stretch of the road.

Or is it that Missouri attractions really like to hide their light under the proverbial bushel?

Either way, it was a long road with no sign of anything coming up.

Mile after mile without any hint of an attraction.

 On the plus side, maybe we'd get to our hotel early tonight?

We were just about to give up on the idea of having anywhere to stop when all of a sudden we happened across some caverns on the Meramec River!

A cabin from the woods nearby that was moved here for reasons that aren't entirely clear

This place looked pretty cool, so we decided to stop. Lucky we came across it - they should really get someone in to sort out some advertising or something so people know they're there.

We initially thought the $20 tour seemed a bit steep, but it turned out to take well over an hour so in retrospect it was quite a bargain. Our tour guide was fantastic: he had a brilliantly deadpan sense of humour that was perfect for what turned out to be one of the tackiest tourist attractions I've ever seen. He started off by telling us that the log cabin in the entrance had nothing whatsoever to do with the caverns, and went on to proudly announce that they had the only Foucault pendulum in the world that doesn't work.

The caverns really have to be seen to be believed. They're huge, and have some of the largest stalactites and stalagmites in the world, as well as incredibly clear water that reflects the cavern roof with crystal clarity. The natural beauty of this place is amazing.

These are some pretty rocks...

However, why would you just show off the wonders of nature when you can improve on them?

...but aren't they improved with the addition of gaudy colours?

When we got to this part of the tour, Meramec Caverns officially displaced the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in my mind as the tackiest over-commercialisation of a natural phenomenon I've ever seen. However, that was before we got to the "theatre."

A nice flat-ish bit of rock underground? LET'S PROJECT STUFF ON IT!

For the finale of the tour, we were seated in front of a bit wall of rock while God Bless America blared on the stereo, accompanied by a light show, which was literally the tour guide flicking switches on and off in time with the music. The "show" finished with the American flag projected on the rock. I just... I have no words.

The whole tour, and especially that show, has to be one of the most surreal things I have ever seen. I arrived expecting a quick scenic break from the road, and left two hours later so befuddled that I found I didn't even care how much I believed their tenuous evidence for the Jesse James connection. As marketing ploys go, though, this one doesn't half work; if these had just been pretty caves I might have spent a paragraph saying that we saw some caverns and they were nice. By making the place utterly weird, they've ensured they occupy the bulk of a blog post, albeit primarily about how ridiculous the place is.

It's unlikely that anything will ever top that stop for weirdness, but we pressed on out west into what was now blazing sunshine, and the lizard got to bask in Cuba, MO.
The other Cuba

Pretty things

Cuba was quite similar to Pontiac back in Illinois, in the sense that the town is filled with murals depicting its past. I especially liked the Amelia Earhart one: her "connection" to Cuba is apparently that she crashed not far away, but everything was fine so she picked herself up and carried on to Los Angeles. Awesome.

Our other notable stop of the day was just a few miles down the road in Fanning, for the world's largest rocking chair. Admittedly, we didn't request paperwork to support this claim, but having seen it I think we can agree that it's a bloody massive chair. Even if it doesn't actually rock.

Frankly, I'd prefer a normal-sized one that actually rocks, but hey ho.

We also stopped in Rolla, where we came across an actual roundabout! Unfortunately there was no one else around, so we didn't get to see how Americans think they work. Our stop here was at the Totem Pole Trading Post, a Route 66 icon. In return for taking pictures, we dutifully spent some money in the gift shop (those two suitcases are going to earn their keep on the way back!) and met the owner, Tim, who was absolutely lovely. We ended up spending a good long while there hearing about the history of the road from someone who's part of it, which was fantastic.

Around 7pm, realising we'd only eaten a couple of slices of toast and some frozen custard all day, we stopped at Sweetwater BBQ for dinner. I don't know why I've never seen this place mentioned on other blogs, because it was great. The staff were lovely, the pork ribs literally fell off the bone and the potato salad was divine. And between two of us, with dinners so large we only ate about half, we spent less than $30.

It was late when we rolled into Springfield, MO to check into the Best Western Rail Haven. The receptionist asked if we were here as part of a Route 66 trip, and when we said yes the lovely Tonya jumped in and went to great lengths to direct us around a road closure coming up on the route. She then went on to talk about the history of the road, about the business owners she knows further west and made a list of recommendations for stops that aren't in our guides. I don't know how long we spent talking to her, but we kept her up a long time. We chose this place because of the reviews of tripadvisor, and suffice it to say there will be another 5* review when I get around to writing it. And I think we paid all of ~£45 for a room with two doubles. Hypothetical Future People: if you're stopping in Springfield MO, stay at the Best Western and say hi to Tonya.

The unexpectedly awesome Best Western Rail Haven Route 66