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Oklahoma: Energy and Freedom on Historic Route 66

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted June 23, 2017

It’s a day and a half into an old-fashioned driving vacation on historic Route 66. Oklahoma is just over the next hill, about a third of the way along the highway’s 2,400 miles. The road ahead is clear, the Ford Mustang is humming – and with Tom Petty wailing “Free Fallin’” over the car’s sound system – it’s a little like a scene from “Jerry Maguire.” Freedom on the open road.

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Well, mostly freedom. Within view of the Oklahoma state line, the car’s fuel indicator winks on. The Mustang’s getting thirsty. No problem. Billboards rising over gently rolling, brown landscape point to gas stations just inside the Sooner State – at Quapaw and also Commerce, Mickey Mantle’s boyhood home.

You pick Commerce, a nod to “The Mick’s” memory. While the Mustang quenches its thirst, you scan a state map, looking for attractions along 66’s storied route.

Places like Foyil, Sapulpa, El Reno, Hydro, Elk City and other dots on the map lie ahead on the ribbon of highway that “Grapes of Wrath” novelist John Steinbeck called the “Mother Road.” Today, Route 66 isn’t Steinbeck’s “road of flight” for desperate Okies, but a road of discovery.

The gas pump thumps off: This odyssey is fueled by gasoline, a refined product made from crude oil. As Robert Bryce wrote a few years back, oil is so energy-rich, so flexible and so convenient – if it didn’t exist we’d have to invent it. Indeed. Oil and natural gas are integral to modern, daily living – as well as extraordinary achievement.

On Route 66, gas is the energy that keeps your classic muscle car tooling down the road – cleaner and more efficiently than the ’62 Corvette of the old TV series, thanks to today’s modern fuels and engine technologies.  

Infographic: Oklahoma Fueling the American Roadtrip

Cowboys and Credits

Approaching Tulsa, there’s a sign for the Admiral Twin Drive-In. It’s the ideal place to wind down and to catch a flick. Opened in 1951, the Admiral has hosted generations of classic films.  There’s a soft purr from the vehicle engines across the lot as movie-goers switch on their radios and enjoy a beloved piece of American film tradition. John Wayne bursts onto the screen, and the opening credits roll for “True Grit,” the original version. The classic Western depicts some of the cowboy culture that – along with Native American traditions – is a big part of Oklahoma’s history.  

Frontier State of Mind

Even though Oklahoma has no snow-capped peaks like those seen in “True Grit,” the movie piques your interest in Oklahoma heritage, and so you continue south and west on 66 toward the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, eager to take in more of the story of the American cowboy. You climb back into the car and the key starts the engine. Sparkplugs fire and ignite the fuel, and the engine cycle brings the Mustang to life.

Gasoline is more than fuel – it’s the great facilitator of movement, around town or around the country. It brings liberty and adventure, like this trek on Route 66, a fraction of the 800 million miles driven in the U.S. each summer. It helps connect family and friends. Because of gasoline’s availability, reliability and affordability, we have the freedom to go without worrying too much about the energy needed to get from A to B.  

Infographic: Oklahoma Route 66 and US Car Culture

The cowboy museum has plenty of artifacts, Western art and educational programs and captures the rich heritage of the old American frontier. You think: Definitely, worth the gas. 

Sooner or Later

Heading west from OKC, the terrain turns flatter, the horizon broader. The Great Plains. Approaching the western edge of Oklahoma, there’s time for one last attraction before crossing into the Texas panhandle. Amarillo by morning? Maybe not. Having traveled nearly all of Route 66’s 400 miles inside Oklahoma, stopping at the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City is fitting.  

At the museum, you discover that Phillips 66, an energy manufacturing and logistics company, paved the road that led you here. Learning that energy products like bitumen and asphalt are key in developing the efficient networks of highways, you’re surprised to learn that the same crude oil barrels refined into gasoline, kerosene, butane and other products by modern refining facilities also are the glue that holds together roads like the one just traveled. Again, this diversified energy source is much more than gas in a tank.

Fuel for thought as you keep exploring America’s “Main Street.” 

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Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.