Day 6: Nostalgia Meets Community on Route 66, Missouri

We awoke drenched in sweat, despite having opened all the air vents on the tent before going to bed. Everything was damp–even the maps! It was that hot and humid, and the day was just beginning. Such opressive humidity made it hard to do anything rapidly, but we got the Jeep loaded, and hit the road as quickly as we could. We drove along with the windows down while we were still able.

The smell of the woods and the hot damp air brought back memories of summers past, childhood roadtrips to places I don’t remember — but I do remember the joy of just being on the road. It seems nostalgia is our constant companion on Route 66. Even when it is not exactly our own past that we are waxing nostalgic about.

The term “nostalgia” describes a yearning for the past, often in idealized form. In this case, the past we are yearning for, is a time we never knew. We are looking for “the good old days” that we have invented in our own minds, a montage of vintage TV shows and half-remembered stories to go with someone’s faded shapshots.

At a certain distance, vision fades and imagination takes over. And that’s even more true when you never saw the thing with your own eyes! We are blind to the less-than-wonderful details. Objectively, the Historic Route 66 that we have come to idealize, was once just a narrow two-lane road where traffic moved at a snails pace, with stoplights on almost every corner. The roadside motels and restaurants were often of dubious quality, and the “attractions” were sometimes more friendly to a tourist’s wallet than to the tourists themselves.

Yet we, and thousands of others, enthusiastically make the pilgrimmage to the “Mother Road,” searching it out in place of the more convenient travel alternatives provided by the modern Interstate system. Maybe our nostalgia for Route 66 and all it represents is our way of rejecting the omnipresence of “cookier cutter” America–where no matter what state we are in there’s the same Home Depot, Walmart, McDonalds or even Olive Garden. We could travel coast to coast without ever seeing anything “local!” But what would be the point?

Here on Route 66 we are celebrating America’s unique-ness, the rugged individuality of regions as well as people.

Doing better with the maps and directions today, we drove the old highway without getting lost. This part of the Mother Road is a winding path dotted with nostalgia: semi-ghost towns, old barns, vintage buildings, and a beautiful stretch of highway. Some of the “towns” were really just small clusters of buildings. I think we could safely say this is “small town America.”

As we came into Paris Springs Junction, our eyes were drawn immediately to the “Gay Parita” Sinclair. This vintage gas station was lovingly restored to a sparkle so bright it made us want to stop even if we hadn’t planned on visiting here. A feast for the eyes and a whimsical collection of objects and ambiance vintage Route 66 beckoned.

“Regular 15 cents a Gallon” the sign read. With gas now over three dollars a gallon, we could tell that it harked from a much earlier time. The old classic Ford in front of the pumps made it clearer. It was the 1920s when Route 66 first came through this part of Missouri, and a local couple, Gay and Fred Mason, opened a gas station next to their garage. As traffic multiplied, they added a cafe and three cabins, playfully naming their establishment “Gay Parita” after Mrs. Mason. They ran the place for over twenty five years, fixing flat tires, pumping gas, and selling homemade sandwiches to weary travellers. Gay died in 1953, but Fred kept up the business until a fire destroyed the building a few years later. After he, too, passed away in 1960, the property sat silent and empty for years.

It might have stayed that way, had it not been for Gary Turner. Gary was born in Abesville, Missouri in 1944. As a young man, he travelled Route 66 often, eventually moving to California in the 1960s. Through the years, his passion for the Mother Road developed into an enthusiasm for sharing the adventure with others. Gary came back to the Missouri Ozarks and purchased the old Gay Parita property, with the idea of reviving it. He and his son, Steve, rebuilt the Sinclair station from scratch. But instead of selling gas, Gary spends his days at the station, sharing his stories with Route 66 travellers like us.

We found him in a tiny office crowded with Mother Road memorabilia talking to a small group of people. The place was a cross between a quirky museum and an information center. We didn’t want to interrupt, just wanted to look around, but Gary called us over and greeted us warmly. With a welcoming smile and a twinkle in his eye, he seemed like a “Mother Road” Santa Claus, and just like Santa, Gary had some gifts for us!

He asked us where we were from and what we had seen so far. Then he asked where we were headed. Then he took out a book of photographs and began to tell us about this magnificent road. His enthusiasm was matched only by his kindness. As we walked around outside, photographing and just looking at all the “goodies,” he offered us some ice cold sodas. Refreshed, we spent more time talking together. Gary told us how, when he was young, his family would drive the old road to California to pick cherries. Route 66 has been a part of his life forever. And now he has become part of the Route 66 experience for a whole new generation of travellers.

Gary says simply that he wants to be a friend to every Mother Road adventurer. His “business” doesn’t sell anything — no gas, no sundries, no gimmicks or tourist trinkets — just memories free to be shared. While it seems unbelievable, it’s true, and we are beginning to learn something about the real “magic” of this old road. We are finding many small “businesses” that seem more interested in connecting people with the experience of the Mother Road than with making a buck. It’s hard to imagine, in this era of sophisticated marketing strategies, but out here people are creating (or re-creating) a special kind of “community” around Route 66. It is a community that is real and virtual, local and international, all connected by love of the road.

This “community” is an example of the “best” of what America has to offer. It’s a place where “people helping people” still means something more than a fundraising appeal. It is peopled by individuals with strong-felt opinions and just enough eccentricity to be open to others and dare to do things differently! There is a sense of shared experience. No matter where you are from, when you are driving down this road, you are welcomed by these special “hosts” along the way, who genuinely care about the history of their heritage and are proud to share it with visitors — not because they are paid to, but because they believe it matters.

It was hard to leave Gary’s place. We could have listened to this amazing and generous man for days. But the road was calling, so we only had time for a last few requisite group photos, before saying good-bye to our new friend. As we left, Gary gave us advice about the route ahead…


More from Missouri Route 66:
NOTES FROM THE ROAD: Meramec River Adventure | Lost and Found on Route 66
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL: Portfolio: Missouri Route 66
REFLECTIONS & OTHER THINGS: Freedom’s Road | A “Grapes of Wrath” Moment
THE GREAT OUTDOORS: Exploring Missouri Caves | Meramec State Park
PRACTICAL MATTERS: Reservations or Not?

Back to Missouri, Day 5 | Complete Trip Log | Start at the Beginning

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