Desert campgrounds in the Southwest all have their share of Route 66 junkies, so I don’t know where I got this information. But I was told that in Erick, Oklahoma, there is an intersection where the doors of the buildings on each corner all face the center of the intersection — the only one like it on Route 66.
So, I’m in Erick — unbridled curiosity will do that.
In one of those buildings, with the 45-degree door, I discovered the Roger Miller Museum. And Route 66 here is named Roger Miller Boulevard, dedicated in 1994 — two years after the country singer died. Miller was a local boy whose career as an entertainer/songwriter spanned three decades. His song, King of the Road, was named by National Public Radio as one of the 100 most important songs of the 20th century.
Leaving the museum, I wandered down the main street, which was essentially empty. A brick building on the next corner had “City Meat Market” in faded paint across the front. Other signs said this was the Greyhound Bus Depot, sold Texaco Motor Oil and 7-UP and gave S&H Green Stamps. Hanging from the porch, a hand-painted sign displayed the words: See Rednecks Work and Play in Their Own Environment!
I heard music as I pushed open the screen door. A barefoot couple, in bib overalls striped red and white like an awning, were playing guitars and singing for a young couple, seated with their backs to me. A hanging banner said “Sand Hills Curiosity Shop,” which may be what this place once was. It’s packed to its tin ceiling with stuff that qualifies it as a shop, or maybe a museum, but it’s much too lived in now to be either one.
Elvis artwork, ceramic giraffes, musical instruments, a half-empty Jack Daniel’s bottle — all a still-life backdrop for their
performances. Nothing’s for sale; rather, it’s to be savored. Harley Russell and his wife, Annabelle, finished singing. The
audience of two got up and left, smiling self-consciously and appearing befuddled. They were from France, understood little English, and were touring Route 66. They’re probably still trying to figure out those crazy Americans in Erick.
Even though I was to spend an hour with Harley and Annabelle, I feel the same way. Not that it matters really. When you come in here, it’s to have fun, not to try and make sense of things. As Harley puts it, “We are really more stupid than we look.” Harley, now pushing 60, grew up in Erick. He has a guitar that Roger Miller gave him. He toured much of the United States playing music, getting married and unmarried four times. “I ran out of gas around age 35 and headed here, cuz it’s the only place I could afford to live.” Annabelle came into his life about 20 years ago.
They get around with bicycles, no car. When they are not performing, they practice — every day. Their audiences are usually from tour busses, or other tourists who wander in. They don’t charge for their performances or even for a cold drink if you want one. They live totally off donations.
Before I left, I had to ask, “You’ve been doing this for a long time, Harley. What keeps you going?”
He didn’t hesitate. “All we want is for people to have an experience here that they can get nowhere else on the planet. And that’s it.”
Welcome to America’s Outback.
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]