Overseas tourists get their kicks on Route 66
ARCADIA — The rumble of motorcycles announces the arrival of a group of tourists on a bright early May morning at the Round Barn in Arcadia.
“They're here,” one of the barn's staff members says aloud.
Within moments, the silence of an otherwise lazy morning is broken by the sounds of men and women clad in leather, jean jackets and bandannas speaking Czech. They sign the guest book, and circle the barn reading about its 120-year history. Stories about how a man named William Odor cut oak into boards, soaked them and secured them in jigs that bent the boards to form a structure that has become so iconic, it's become a sort of unofficial second badge for Route 66.
These scenes are not uncommon for the Mother Road. Americans use the road to get from A to B, but to travelers from foreign countries it has become an exotic destination, a 2,448-mile ribbon of asphalt from Illinois to California that conjures up images of Wyatt and Billy from Easy Rider, conquering wide open spaces of the American west on the backs of chrome horses.
“For me, the motorcycle is it,” Frantisek Hrubacek said through a translator. “You are part of the scenery. Part of the road. Part of nature. It is the only way to see America.”
In this group of 27 Czechs, there are 10 motorcycles and 5 vehicles in the convoy. Some bikes are adorned with Czech flags. Everyone is wearing something with the Route 66 logo printed on the front or back of T-shirts, on patches and even tattoos. The trips take 14 days to make it from Illinois to the end of the road in Santa Monica, California.
The appeal centers on places like the Round Barn, and kitschy stops like the Blue Whale in Catoosa or the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona.
“It's a historic and fun road,” Ann Young, Arcadia Historical Society president, said. “Unlike the interstate, there's plenty of places to stop and things to see. You can poke along and discover things that you didn't know existed."
The adventure of a lifetime
Amid the exhibits on the first floor of the Round Barn hangs a map of the world covered in push pins. Places as far away as South Africa and Chile are represented. A cluster of them covers Europe, from England to Russia.
“There are some countries I haven't heard of,” volunteer Karlina Risenhoover said. “If I'm here when they come in, I always ask them to point it out on the map so I can put a pin on it. It's a good way to learn your geography.”
In April 1,894 people visited the Round Barn, including 241 from 31 foreign countries. In a typical year, visitors from about 80 countries will drop into the barn from anywhere between 15 minutes to an hour.
Zednek Jurasek has spent more time on Route 66 than most Americans. May's trip is the 27th time he's made the entire journey, and the 21st tour he's organized. In August he will play host to the European Route 66 Festival in his hometown of Zlin, Czech Republic.
For 50-somethings living in Eastern Bloc countries under Soviet rule, Route 66 is a slice of Americana with a powerful draw that transcends selfies on Instagram, even though there's a lot of that, too.
“For so long we lived under a communist power,” Jurasek said. “But we knew of Route 66 from movies and literature. It was a symbol of freedom. For so long we were not allowed to go anywhere except for East Germany, Hungary or Bulgaria. For these people on the tour, it is their dream to drive or ride Route 66.”
'For me, it is my dream'
Monika Kerkova lives in the suburbs of Prague, considered one of Europe's most beautiful and historic cities and a mecca for American travelers visiting Europe. But she has a soft spot for the simple charms of driving a rented convertible Mustang through the heart of America.
“For me, it is my dream,” she said. “I don't know how to describe it. I just love it so much. I love America. The people. The language. Your food. Everything. I love driving the long straight roads.”
Risenhoover volunteers at the Round Barn a couple days a week. It's rare when she doesn't run into someone from another country.
“Every time I'm here, there's usually people from overseas,” she said. “We get French, a lot of Japanese. Yesterday we had some people from China. We have a lot of Norwegians.”
True to form, almost soon as the Czechs moved on to their next stop, a couple from Naples, Italy, climbed the steps of the Round Barn to check out its dome.
“The craftsmanship, it is amazing,” Valeria De Bellis from Naples, Italy, says as she scans the interwoven strips of wood that form the barn's roof.
She and Gianluca Salati started in Chicago and will finish in California at Route 66's terminus.
“I used to see travel shows on TV and it was a dream for me,” De Bellis said. “It's a different style of travel. A very good way to see the United States.”
It's not any one single mega attraction that creates the Route 66 vibe, it's the journey.
“We love the Mexican food” she said. “We had some in St. Louis and enjoyed it. There we saw the arch which was amazing too. We also loved the Tulsa skyline.”
Food is on the minds of visitors to Lucille's Roadhouse in Weatherford. The building housing the restaurant is a re-creation of a roadhouse opened by Carl and Lucille Hammond in 1941 on Route 66 near Hydro. Hammond, who has been called the Mother of the Mother Road, was known to barter with those who didn't have money to pay for gas. She died in 2000. For 12 years the eatery has been serving up burgers, fries and milkshakes to all comers, and many are from other countries.
“They'll take pictures and look around,” General Manager Justin O'Connor said. “If they have trouble communicating, they'll just point to the menu.”
O'Connor admires their willingness to fly across an ocean, and travel across a country where they don't speak the language.
“They'll come on these trips and they don't speak the language at all and it really is kind of brave,” he said. “I really don't think I could do that. It's really cool to see.”
O'Connor said they're always polite, and friendly, with one consistent quirk.
“The one thing that's kind of comical to me is there's a guidebook on Route 66 and they all seem to have it, and they always want someone to sign their books,” he said.
An asset for Oklahoma
Fresh out of college, David Knudson drove Route 66 from Chicago to California in the fall of 1964. He married and settled down in California, but he often thought of the journey.
Thirty years later he and his wife Mary Lou planned to make the drive again from Chicago, but they couldn't find the trail. The signs were gone, and he had trouble finding a map with the road on it. The experience eventually led to the formation of the National Historic Route 66 Federation which has worked to restore and preserve the road's history. Knudson helped secure $10 million in federal funding to start the organization's work.
“We decided something had to be done because it was going to be gone,” he said.
He estimates up to 60 percent of those who travel Route 66 as tourists are from other countries.
“It really depends on who you ask, but based on the emails we get and who was buying our guidebook, it's a very substantial percentage, if not a majority,” he said.
When he started promoting Route 66 tourism, Knudson sent news releases all over the world. It wasn't long before he began to be contacted from people in other countries interested in taking their own journey.
“In the beginning, we'd get emails from people in places like France asking if it was safe to travel in the western part of Route 66 because they were concerned they might get attacked by Indians,” he said. “It's come a long way.”
Travel Oklahoma also promotes Route 66 through its brochures, website and TV show, Discover Oklahoma. It pays for promotion in most European countries and has partnered with the state of Kansas to produce a brochure in several languages.
'The wide-open spaces'
“For a while, we saw interest in travelers in this country die off a little bit,” Travel Oklahoma travel promotions Director Jennifer Mullins said. “That interest has picked up again, but the international interest has always been there. They love the culture. They see it on movies and TV shows and it's attractive to them. It's become iconic.”
Oklahoma contains more than 400 miles of Route 66. That's a whole lot of ground to cover, and cities and towns along the way are beginning to realize they have more to offer than just gas and pop.
“We've seen a lot of communities in Oklahoma who have begun to catch on and cultivate their Route 66 attractions,” Mullins said. “Tulsa has some things going on. El Reno has put up a photo-op sign. I think you'll continue to see that grow.”
Knudson expects interest from European travelers, and other continents, to continue in the years ahead.
“The wide-open spaces,” Knudson said. “That link to the Old West which has fascinated people all over the world. Driving the road is a way to see the real America.”