The best-kept secret on Route 66? It just might be the Art Deco haven of Tulsa.
“Tulsa? As in… Oklahoma?” That’s the refrain I hear from well-meaning folks when I answer the oft-asked question about which Route 66 city is my favorite. It’s like that scene in Wayne’s World. You know the one: Wayne and Garth film their cable show in a fancy television studio with a green screen that displays a series of exotic locales – Hawaii, New York – until suddenly an image of Delaware flashes on screen. Wayne says, haltingly: “Imagine being magically whisked away to… Delaware. Hi… I’m in… Delaware…” The silent pause that follows calls into question the greatness of the place.
I’d been hired by Moon Travel Guides to write a 350-page guidebook to Route 66, a turn-by-turn travelogue of a historic and epic road. I drove from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean, cataloguing what I saw, who I met and where I ate. When I returned home and faced the “What is your favorite place?” query, I think people expected me to wax poetic about shinier outposts on the 2,448-mile journey, cities like Chicago or Los Angeles. Or to describe the charm of small towns, places where the mayor eats breakfast with the locals (Atlanta, Illinois) or where a point of pride is a museum dedicated to barbed wire (McLean, Texas).
Let’s be clear – I love the Mother Road’s big cities and adore its small towns. But I’m delighted by surprises. And Tulsa surprises in all the best ways.
From Folk Singers to Oil Barons
I can think of very few Route 66 destinations that claim as diverse a lineup of history-makers as Tulsa. From the Native Americans forced off their land during the Trail of Tears to the oil barons who built the city’s Art Deco skyline, the people who’ve shaped Tulsa span race, class and decades.
I learn about Tulsa’s origins at the Creek Nation Council Oak Park (1750 S. Cheyenne Ave.). After losing 161 people during the Trail of Tears, the remaining tribe members of the Creek Indians arrived on this hill overlooking the Arkansas River and named it Tulasi. An oak tree marks the spot. It’s a dark birth to what is now a bright city, but I like that Tulsa doesn’t hide its scars.
I find a similar grace to the city’s embrace of its past – warts and all – at Greenwood Cultural Center (322 N. Greenwood Ave., 918-596-1020, greenwoodculturalcenter.com), which shines a spotlight on the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, 16 hours of devastating mayhem between the city’s black and white communities that left hundreds dead. I walk to the nearby John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park (290 N. Elgin Ave., 918-295-5009, jhfcenter.org/reconciliation-park) to see the 25-foot memorial dedicated to the lives lost during the riots.
Then there’s Woody Guthrie. In the 1930s, migrants used Route 66 as their escape route west, fleeing the barren prairies of the Dust Bowl. Songwriter Guthrie gave voice to their plight, and I take way too many pictures of a mural of his visage outside of the Woody Guthrie Center (102 E. M.B. Brady St., 918-574-2710, woodyguthriecenter.org). I know very little about Guthrie’s life, but the center gives me a comprehensive look: thousands of photos, journal entries, sketches and lyrics to Guthrie’s famous tune “This Land Is Your Land” written in his own hand. The center sits across from Guthrie Green (111 E. M.B. Brady St., guthriegreen.com), where Tulsans do yoga, play bocce ball and attend concerts at the outdoor amphitheater. It seems like the kind of everyman place Guthrie would have approved of.
I’m pleasantly surprised to discover that downtown Tulsa showcases one of the most extensive and impressive collections of Art Deco architecture in the country. I’m even more surprised to learn that credit goes to wealthy oil barons of the early 20th century for these structural wonders. I pop in to the Philcade Building to wander the small but cool Tulsa Art Deco Museum (511 S. Boston Ave., 918-804-2669, tulsaartdecomuseum.com) before embarking on a self-guided tour of the city’s architecture. If you plan to do the DIY thing like I did, get a list of the buildings from the Tulsa Preservation Commission (2 W. Second St. 918-579-9448), tulsapreservationcommission.org). For a guided excursion, the Tulsa Historical Society (2445 S. Peoria Ave., 918-712-9484, tulsahistory.org) offers $5 tours.
To indulge my The Great Gatsby fantasies, I want to stay at the lavish 1925 The Mayo Hotel (115 W. Fifth St., 918-582-6296, themayohotel.com) and drink Champagne at the rooftop bar. But it’s booked. Instead, I check in to the 1927-built boutique hotel, The Campbell (2636 E. 11th St., 855-744-5500, thecampbellhotel.com). Each guestroom boasts impeccable décor, and I’m lucky enough to snag one that overlooks Route 66, which trundles by the front door of the hotel.
From Fine Art to Route 66 Kitsch
Street art swathes Tulsa’s buildings, especially in the vibrant Tulsa Arts District (thetulsaartsdistrict.org). It’s interesting that this area is the oldest part of the city since its vibe is decidedly modern – warehouses turned galleries, green spaces bordered by food trucks, restaurants and indie shops. The district’s hottest ticket is to a show at Cain’s Ballroom (423 N. Main St., 918-584-2306, cainsballroom.com), an intimate music venue opened in 1924 that’s hosted everyone from the Sex Pistols and U2 to Chris Stapleton and Lord Huron. I miss the First Friday Art Crawl (thetulsaartsdistrict.org/first-friday-art-crawl), which means I also miss out on chocolate-making lessons and glass-blowing demonstrations.
Tulsa’s robust arts scene also shines at the city’s museums, namely the Philbrook Museum of Art (2727 S. Rockford Rd. and 116 E. M.B. Brady St., 918-749-7941, philbrook.org) where the fine art collections showcase works from all over the world.
Some may disagree, but I find the quirky relics that dot Route 66 to be art in all their kitschy glory. Take Tulsa’s Golden Driller (4145 E. 21st St., 918-744-1113), exposquare.com): Looming at 76 feet and weighing 22 tons, this is the tallest free-standing statue in the country. It takes the form of an oil man resting his giant golden arm on top of an oil derrick. I’m not sure what to make of it, but there’s something about the sheer size and ambition of such a thing that begs to be labeled art. I feel this way about the 1931 Vickery Phillips Station (602 S. Elgin Ave., 918-582-2534) too, which, to be honest, is just an old gas station. Yet its cottage design – complete with a pitched roof and little chimney – makes it look like a sweet home in a children’s fairy tale. The Phillips Petroleum Co. built thousands of these during the 1930s, of which only a handful remain today.
From Bread to Barbecue
I’d like to direct all of the grazers, snackers and browsers to Mother Road Market (1124 S. Lewis Ave., 918-984-9001, motherroadmarket.com). It’s easy to spend hours perusing the food stalls, snatching samples of small-batch sourdough bread and spicy fried chicken, before checking out the wares by Oklahoma makers. I’m happy to find non-goofy Route 66 souvenirs – tees from Mythic Press and hand-poured candles from The Nest – for my hipster friends back home (you know who you are).
Before hitting the road for this Route 66 journey, I did my homework – and by that, I mean Googling the best places to eat in every city. Tulsa’s Burn Co. Barbeque (1738 S. Boston Ave., 918-574-2777, burnbbq.com) achieves near mythical status online, and when I finally tuck into my platter of ribs I understand why. The meat is tender and smoky. The sauce is tangy and sweet. The coleslaw is crisp, and the line is out the door. Burn Co. closes at 2:30 p.m., so get here early if you want ’cue.
Route 66 offers notable eateries from Chicago to Santa Monica, most of which beckon travelers with brightly lit neon signs. I like Tally’s Good Food Café (1102 S. Yale Ave., 918-835-8039, tallyscafe.com) for its historic cachet and retro style. I eat here the morning of my departure, and I keep breakfast simple with black coffee and a gooey cinnamon roll. Tally’s embodies everything I find attractive and endearing about Tulsa. It doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is – good, bad, ugly, beautiful, historic.
Imagine being magically whisked away to Tulsa. No pauses, no ellipses.
Tulsa is a 16-hour drive from Phoenix. Alternately, Southwest Airlines offers 2-hour nonstop flights from Phoenix Sky Harbor to Tulsa International Airport. It’s a 15-minute drive from the airport to downtown Tulsa via I-244 West.
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