Route 66

If you’re looking for great displays of neon signs, mom-and-pop motels in the middle of nowhere, or kitschy Americana, do as the song says and “get your kicks on Route 66.”

Oklahoma City

Now tragically synonymous with the anti-government terrorist bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh in 1995, Oklahoma City (pop. 579,999) has long been one of the primary stops along the Mother Road. In the Bobby Troup song, it was the only place along the route he singled out for praise (“Oklahoma City is mighty pretty”), no doubt thanks to the easy rhyme, though its wealth of “City Beautiful” era avenues and neighborhoods makes it very enjoyable to explore. The city was the biggest boomtown of the 1889 Land Rush, when Oklahoma was opened for white settlement after being set aside “for eternity” as Indian Territory. Between noon and sundown on April 22, over 10,000 people raced here to claim the new lands—many of them having illegally camped out beforehand, earning the nickname “Sooner,” which is still applied to the state’s college football team.

A second boom took place during the Depression years, when oil was struck. There are still producing wells in the center of the city, including some on the grounds of the state capitol. The collapse of the oil industry in the 1980s hit hard, but the shock of the 1995 bombing seems to have galvanized the city, which has since revitalized itself with a gorgeous new baseball stadium, an exciting NBA basketball team, a concert arena, and canal-side cafés, all collected in the compact, walkable “Bricktown” warehouse district.

Just off old Route 66 across from the capitol, a good first stop is the Oklahoma History Center (800 Nazih Zuhdi Dr., 405/522-0765, closed Sun., $7), which has exhibits tracing the state’s growth, with special collections on the Native American presence and on pioneers. There’s also a wide-ranging oral history of the Mother Road.

For poignant balance to a nostalgic Route 66 tour, pay your respects to the 168 men, women, and children killed in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Between the capitol and Bricktown, the site of the bombing has been preserved as a memorial park (open 24 hours, free), landscaped with a shallow pool around which are arrayed a series of 168 sculpted chairs. Each chair represents a person killed in the blast, and the chairs range from very small to full-sized, marking the varying ages of the dead (who included 19 kids from the building’s day-care center). An adjacent museum (405/609-8855, daily, $12) tells the story of the bombing, its perpetrators, and its victims.

Oklahoma City Practicalities

The downtown Bricktown district is home to a lively concentration of restaurants and bars, many lined up along the attractively-landscaped Bricktown Canal. Near the north edge of Bricktown, Tapwerks Ale House (121 E. Sheridan Ave., 405/319-9599) has great beers, good food, and frequent live music. Oklahoma City also has more barbecue stands and steakhouses than just about anywhere in the country. On the old Route 66 landmark alignment northwest of downtown, head to Jack’s BBQ (4418 NW 39th St., 405/605-7790), a traditional cafeteria-style BBQ joint with very good brisket sandwiches, best washed down with a cold drink next door at the Hideaway Club sports bar. Other good OKC BBQ bets include the bigger and more accessible Iron Starr Urban BBQ (3700 N. Shartel Ave., 405/524-5925), just off 36th Street; or Earl’s Rib Palace (216 Johnny Bench Dr., 405/272-9898), with six locations including one right on the Bricktown Canal. For great, non-barbecue food right on old Route 66, go to the popular Ann’s Chicken Fry House (405/943-8915)—look for the classic Caddies and fake police cars in the parking lot.

Accommodation options in and around OKC are provided by the usual motel chains, plus a very nice Hampton Inn (300 E. Sheridan Ave., 405/232-3600, $150 and up) in Bricktown.

Oklahoma History Center (800 Nazih Zuhdi Dr.)
Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum (620 North Harvey Ave.)
Tapwerks Ale House (121 E. Sheridan Ave.)
Jack’s BBQ Palace (4418 NW 39th St.)
Iron Starr Urban BBQ (3700 N Shartel Ave.)
Earl’s Rib Palace (216 Johnny Bench Dr.)
Ann’s Chicken Fry House (4106 NW 39th St.)
Hampton Inn Brickworks (300 E. Sheridan St.)