It is easy to be nostalgic about the road – and particularly Route 66 – from a distance.
Before heading out on our roadtrip, we visited the Route 66 exhibit at the Missouri Museum of History. The lore of the open road, roadside motels and national parks, diners, and small towns – and what it says about the modern frontier narrative of our country – is compelling.
In 2016 though, much of Route 66 tells a different and sobering story about our national economy and mood. Many of the old motels and gas stations are indeed still standing, but often abandoned and scarred. The narrative that is played out on billboards and roadside signs is often angry and defensive.
Many of the small towns on Route 66 have been passed by in the new economy and in the buildup of an interstate highway economy where franchise restaurants, big box (e.g., Walmart) stores, and chain hotels have clustered right at the exits or “business alternative routes” just off the highway. Many of the small to mid-size businesses have also gone away, leaving towns and roads with abandoned plants, stores, bars, and restaurants.
But there is no shortage of inventiveness and commitment along Route 66 to make a go of it. There are numerous museums and businesses cropping up along the route to take advantage of the commerce that might happen if only people would stray a little off the interstate.
The old road narratives – from Kerouac to William Least Heat Moon – often relied on conversations in bars and diners to gather local intelligence and make connections in small towns and rural America.
Heading east from Amarillo, Texas, we looked for breakfast – our usual morning routine – in something other than a franchise/exit truck stop or fast food restaurant. Although Google, Yelp, and the other modern tools are not very helpful in much of rural America, we did find a diner (without reviews!) in Erick, Oklahoma, named the Main Street Diner even though it is not on Main Street. It is remarkably close to the interstate.
Erick, Oklahoma, is a small town of 1000 or so residents, largely agricultural and formerly an active oil drilling area. It has some wonderful historic buildings, a couple of museums (including the Roger Williams museum), and history that includes being at the outer edge of the great dust storm.
Our experience at the Main Street Diner was the most interesting and rewarding of the trip. We met wonderful and generous people, learned a great deal about the town and its environs, and left with the idea that we should return and spend more time there. (We actually heard a story of another couple who had come through, who each year devote Valentine’s day weekend to spending at least three days in selected small Oklahoma communities. Erick had been their place last year.)
The owners of the Main Street Diner are committed, entrepreneurial, and generous people. We heard the arc of their life histories – from over-the-road truck driving, to jobs in and around Erick, to their investment in the diner. They have many plans to grow their diner and its clientele. The diner is very personal. On the counter are books of historical pictures of the town and visitors’ comments.
We had the privilege of meeting Samuel Hagen who introduced himself to us. He also provided some of his personal history and observations about life in Erick. Samuel is a remarkable person with a remarkable life story. The quick version is that Sam’s family moved to Erick from California when he was ten; he was diagnosed with cancer in his middle twenties, worked as a reporter and photographer in Sayre, Oklahoma, and dedicated himself to living a spiritual life as well as capturing the beauty, natural environment, and culture of the area. He describes being inspired by the elders of the Mount Zion Church in Erick while he was dealing with his newly diagnosed cancer.
Sam showed us a copy of his book The Master’s Light…a Journey, a collection of his photography, scripture, poems, and narrative. We went through all of the photography and talked to Sam some about his concept and approach. All of the images come from a seven mile radius of where we were sitting. The photography was all done with film and makes exceptional use of light, reflection, and color.
Sam is well known in Western Oklahoma. One of his photographs is in the permanent collection of the Oklahoma State Capitol. His story of building a cabin from scratch (total cost = $7 for nails) was shown on Oklahoma television with the reporter concluding, “Is this a great state or what?”
Sam left the diner and we finished up. When we were paying our bill, the waitress gave me the copy of Sam’s book that we had been reading. I tried to give her something for it, but she said that Sam just wanted us to have it. He had written an inscription:
When This Book Finds You, With Hopes You Can Share it With Another As It Came to You. Paying It Forward…..Lifes Journey. Samuel Hagen, 2016 Christmas.
You can see Sam’s photography and find his book at hagenportraits.com and on Facebook, Hagen Portraits.
Thank you Sam for who you are. I am sharing.