Don Whinery grew up in Sayre, Oklahoma, right on Route 66. His front yard used to lead right up to a portion of the “Mother Road,” the now-famous ribbon of asphalt that stretched 2,400 miles from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California.
The road was crowded with 18-wheelers and the muscle cars of the ’60s, all of them in a hurry. Don remembers it well. The road was so narrow that when he cut the front lawn, he always mowed the outer edge facing the oncoming traffic. He didn’t want to be whacked from behind by a side mirror.
“I lost more than one dog to that road,” Don said. His dad credits Route 66 with the “pet cemetery we had in our backyard.”
The Whinerys moved to Sayre in 1962 when Don was 7 years old. His dad was a funeral director. The family lived in an apartment over the funeral home on 4th Street, Route 66.
“Big trucks would shake the ground,” Don said. “Every so often a light fixture would get vibrated loose and come crashing down from the ceiling. Seems I was always there watching TV when it happened.”
For decades before the Interstate Highway System was completed, Route 66 was the primary route from America’s Heartland to Southern California. Parts of it — with its two lanes and no shoulders — carried traffic through the Southwestern United States into the early 1970s.
The last section of rural Interstate opened in Oklahoma. It was Interstate 40 between Sayre and the Texas state line. That was the spring of 1975.
After that, the vehicles on 4th Street were in no hurry: They were taking folks shopping, or to the county courthouse, maybe, or in the evening to the movie theater. Sayre settled into what it still is — a quiet town with some vacancies on Main Street and one traffic light, at the corner of 4th and Main.
In the early ’60s, the Route 66 TV show was getting high ratings in its one-hour time slot on Friday nights. The CBS series depicted the adventures, romance and troubles of a couple young guys traveling the road in a 1960 Corvette.
That show brought more notoriety to the Corvette than Route 66, but the road was already famous. John Steinbeck’s best-seller, The Grapes of Wrath, had done that. Published in 1939, it was the story of the Joad family traveling Route 66 from the Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl to California, during the Great Depression. And the 1940 movie adaptation was by then a classic, and was still showing up in black and white on late-night TV.
Of course, there was Bobby Troup’s song of 1946, with the forever-living lyric: “Get Your Kicks on Route 66.”
But to Don, the “Mother Road” — Steinbeck named it that — was just the street where he lived.
Parts of the old road still exist. People come from all over the world to travel on it. Oklahoma has 440 miles of the original Route 66 that’s still drivable.
“They filmed some of the movie, The Grapes of Wrath, in Sayre,” Don told me. “Our courthouse shows up in it — for a few seconds, anyway.”
Don and I were having buffalo burgers and fried pickles in Sassy’s Cafe at the Flying W Guest Ranch. Sassy’s is open only for dinner. But since Don and his dad own the Flying W, Don gets some perks, like a late lunch occasionally if the chef is around.
“The Flying W for me is the realization of a dream,” Don said, pushing back his empty plate. “I’ve always wanted to create a working, western town from the 1880s and ’90s, something authentic and functioning. Not just to look at, but to experience. Kids these days learn best when they are entertained. There is learning in the living here.
“We bought this land in 2000. We now have a good start on the town, which is totally for the family. It may have a saloon some day, but it won’t sell the hard stuff. We don’t even serve wine or beer here in Sassy’s.”
The Flying W has 40 horses, 70 head of bison, 25 Texas longhorns, goats and sheep and “200 mama cows,” as Don puts it.
Snuffy is the ranch wrangler. He has “cowboyed” all his life, most of it in Texas. He said, “It’s the first time I have ever been hired by the way I looked.”
He also drives the mini bus — for those who prefer not to go on horseback — that takes people out to see the largest bison kill-site in the southern plains. It dates back to 300 B.C. and was used by spear-wielding hunters.
The ranch has a few RV sites, a couple no-frills cabins, even a tent if someone wants to really rough it. The Flying W is no dude ranch — there are no swimming pools, no happy hours and no scheduled events.
“When people come here, they’re the boss. It’s their vacation. We don’t package, per se. They tell us what they want to do, we produce it. If a guy wants to drive a tractor, then he drives the tractor.
“We had a family come in a while back. They had been traveling, cooped up in the car for three days. The kids wanted out; the parents just wanted a rest. Snuffy saddled up some horses and took the kids out for a few hours. The parents wandered around through our museum and the general store. I lost track of them actually. When they left, the kids were talking a blue streak. They’re probably still talking about it.”
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]