From flying pigs to a landlocked whale, Route 66 offers a menagerie of offbeat attractions in northeastern Oklahoma.
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On our first trip through Mickey Mantle’s hometown of Commerce in 2000, we couldn’t help noticing a little structure that looked as if someone had sliced a cottage-style Phillips 66 gas station in half and glued it to a larger building.
Eight years later, Bobby and Linda Allen restored the unusual “half-building” – actually a circa-1930 Conoco station – and opened it as a visitor center and homespun local history and petroliana museum called Allen’s Fillin’ Station. Visitors can buy a snack or an antique, chat with the affable Allens and sign the guestbook, which at last count logged visitors from more than 25 countries.
A few miles away in Miami, Waylan’s Ku-Ku Burger has three claims to fame: great burgers and shakes, unique architecture and free maps showing travelers where to find the Tri-State Spooklight – a mysterious will-o’-the-wisp that makes an occasional appearance on lonely back roads in northeastern Oklahoma, southeastern Kansas and southwestern Missouri.
We’ve never spotted the elusive Spooklight, so we can’t vouch for the accuracy of the map, but we can confirm that the food at the Ku-Ku is worth a stop, as are the building – constructed to resemble a giant cuckoo clock – and the dazzling neon sign out front.
Just down the road, several young ballerinas scurry across a stage where Will Rogers once performed. As the tiny dancers finish their rehearsal, someone starts up the Mighty Wurlitzer organ, and the overture from The Phantom of the Opera resonates through the Coleman Theatre.
The Coleman family donated the 1929 Spanish Revival structure to the city of Miami in 1989; since then, community members have been busy restoring every detail of the Louis VX interior of the building, from its gilded friezes to its deep carmine carpets. Our favorite part of the tour is the pipe room, where music becomes a visual and kinesthetic experience as we watch the pipes deliver tones so powerful we can actually feel the notes vibrating through our bones.
At the west end of Miami, travelers have the option of leaving the 21st century behind and cruising straight into the 1920s on a stretch of still-serviceable pavement known to Route 66 enthusiasts as either the Sidewalk Highway or the Ribbon Road.
Just nine feet wide, this remnant of an earlier time – which veers away from Oklahoma 66 to meander past farmland and a few private residences between Miami and Afton – still features the white curbs that were common to highways of its day. The rough condition of the pavement requires a slower pace, but the quiet of the countryside – disrupted only by the buzzing of insects and the occasional farm dog – makes it time well spent.
After several miles of bumpy terrain, we’re ready to stop and stretch our legs, so we pull over at Afton’s Buffalo Ranch, a truck stop built on the site of an old tourist trap that once featured “the world’s only trained buffalo.” If the bison milling around in a pasture next to the parking lot have any special training, they aren’t letting on, but their presence whispers of the untamed history that drew us onto Route 66 in the first place.
Across the road, a man is selling bags of oranges from the back of a truck. We buy a quarter-bushel.
Behind the counter at a restored D-X gas station-turned-museum known as Afton Station, Laurel Kane is handing out rolls of toilet paper to tourists. The odd souvenir is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the fact that the station once boasted of having “the cleanest restrooms in town.”
Laurel displays her collection of Route 66 memorabilia in the front part of the station, while her ex-husband, David, has converted the garage to a mock Packard showroom, where he displays 14 vintage automobiles.
The exhibits are impressive, but for us the real attraction is Laurel herself. We spend the better part of an hour shooting the breeze and feeding change into a pressed-penny machine before reluctantly saying goodbye. We want to get to the Route 66 Motel of Afton in time to stay in the Marilyn Monroe room.
As we leave, Laurel hands us a roll of tissue.
The chicken fried steak at Clanton’s Cafe in Vinita has drawn the attention of both Gourmet magazine and the Food Network – and rightly so – but it’s the bacon that’s driven one of us off the vegetarian bandwagon on at least three separate occasions, and it’s the promise of bacon that lures us out of bed and back onto the road before sunrise.
Arriving at Clanton’s just after dawn, we settle into a cozy booth to eavesdrop on the regulars’ good-natured banter between sips of remarkably good decaf. Like the celebrity customers whose framed likenesses smile at us from the wood-paneled walls, we understand why the restaurant has been a Route 66 institution since 1927.
On the south side of Route 66 between Vinita and Chelsea, the Statue of Liberty extends her torch toward a sign that reads “Little Tin Barn.” Scattered around her is what appears to be the largest assortment of lawn ornaments in the free world: mermaids, cowboys, coyotes, dinosaurs, dolphins, geckos and even a life-size alligator grace the property.
One of us has developed an inexplicable obsession with lawn gnomes, so we pull in next to a pair of shiny silver gryphons. Finding no gnomes, we settle for a cast-iron pig with wings, which we promptly dub “Charlie.”
At the eastern edge of Chelsea, we take a four-mile side trip on State Highway 28A to see the World’s Largest Concrete Totem Pole. Completed in 1948, the 90-foot-tall structure is anchored by a giant concrete turtle whose head makes an irresistible platform for staging photo ops.
Scattered around the property are several smaller totem poles and the 11-sided Fiddle House, which is home to a small gift shop and a collection of hand-carved violins. The park and fiddles are the work of Ed Galloway, a teacher from Sand Springs who retired to Foyil in 1937.
We’ve come up with some creative anniversary gifts, but we’ve yet to one-up Hugh Davis, who celebrated his anniversary in 1970 by building his wife, Zelta, a concrete whale in a pond near Catoosa.
More than 35 years later, the iconic Blue Whale – which once served as the centerpiece of an amusement complex that included a roadside zoo and a replica of Noah’s Ark – still welcomes Route 66 travelers year-round. A picnic under the trees at the water’s edge seems a fitting end to a trip filled with giant cuckoos, live bison and flying pigs.