“The food gets better as you go west—you’ll see.” Gary nods knowingly with both hands on his knees, then leans back ever so slowly into his chair, as if he’s just revealed the theory of special relativity. His metal chair squeaks and the moppy grey dog in my lap raises her head. “Just make sure you go to the Sirloin Stockade,” he adds, “‘cuz that’s about the best meal you’re ever gonna have.”
Sirloin Stockade is about ten miles down the road. I imagine a place with pleather booths and wagon wheels stuck to the walls, but I don’t rush off for dinner just yet. It’s barely five o’clock and the sun is not that low yet, reflecting a pleasant warmth off the metal pieces all around us—Old gas station pumps and Ford truck remnants, ancient license plates and signs with such clean lettering that read: Kendall Motor Oil, Drink Lime Cola Double Size 5 Cents, Coal Oil, and then, Gay Parita, Established 1934. Paris Junction, Missouri is about as far as you can get from the real Paris, but the Midwest hamlet is no less exciting. Fred Watson named the jumble of art deco gas stations after his wife Gay, and over the years, it became one of the favorite stops along Route 66. Alas, it all burned down in 1955, and only really came back from the dead thanks to Gary Turner, who added the kind of petroleum-stained antique chic I’ve come to expect on the Mother Road.
“Get the bread pudding!” huffs Gary. “Whatever you do, try that bread pudding. It’s homemade!” Food has become a running theme on my trip across country—so much so that like my car, my body’s fuel tank never stays empty for long. The only real difference is that I’m using more grease than a good car would ever need to drive to California. “And in Oklahoma City, git over to Cattlemen’s in Stockyard City!” adds Jeff, another traveler, like me, hunched over in his trucker’s hat and a can of Dr. Pepper in his hands. Every few months, Jeff says bye to his wife, climbs into his used car, and wanders up and down sections of Route 66. “Yeah?” Gary raises an eyebrow. “Good steak?” “Oh yeah—that’s about the best steak I’ve eaten in my life,” reports Jeff. “It’s right in the stockyard, so all them cowboys smell like manure, but geez the steak is good.” I make another note for Oklahoma City, and Gary moves to make an announcement: “See, you don’t need no billboard—all you need is other people on Route 66 sending paying folks your way!” Gary’s all about word of mouth, and he’s right. Everywhere I stop, people are recommending me a list of pit stops to hit up along the way. Different restaurants, hotels, and gas stations become destinations all their own—just like Gay Parita. “All you have to do is be good at what you do,” says Gary, staring into my soul with his serious eyes. His direct gaze feels like God on judgment day, and I drop my own eyes to the man’s thick and muscled hands—double the size of normal hands.
But Gary is the opposite of intimidating. He offers me a cold root beer from his outdoor fridge, all the while telling me how business works on Route 66 functions today—how everybody on the road looks out for everybody else. “If you treat people right and I hear about it, then I send more people your way. But if you serve crappy food and have unfair prices, well then,” he pauses for effect. “You just won’t last.” He names an establishment in Oklahoma that I must avoid at all costs. “Worst hamburger I ever had,” he shakes his head, then swears. Gary’s wife Lena walks over and sits down next to him. “You’ll see—it’s a family, all of us on Route 66. When you get to Santa Monica, you’ll miss it and want to come back.” It’s a nice thought—how this defunct, 2,448-mile roadway connects a handful of people. Theirs is an unwritten constitution of solidarity and small business, a total abstinence from chain restaurants, and a mantra to care for the passing traveler. Sure, Gary’s selling stuff—he’s got a shop with T-shirts and Route 66 souvenirs, but all that is secondary to what he’s giving me now—real, genuine, old-fashioned human conversation. That part is free, and it’s why Jeff has been here for most of the afternoon. At Gary’s, time bends and clocks tick slower. “A lot of folks pass by here, and I tell ‘em it don’t matter if you get there!” He waves to the west. “It don’t matter if you never make it to Santa Monica! If you rush it, then you’ve missed everything.” “Have you ever driven the whole thing?” I ask, afraid that maybe this is a very dumb question. “Well, now. When we were young, we picked cherries in California every summer—and we drove all the way out there and back—and that was all on Route 66. And I been all the way up into Illinois, but never to Chicago, and never to Santa Monica.” He stared back at me. I smiled at his perfect answer. For Gary, there is no finish line on Route 66—it remains forever open. It’s like in mathematics—an asymptote—where a curve approaches a line infinitely, but never actually touches. Though Gary seems pretty stationary in his gas station without any gas, his life has been a constant trip down Route 66 without ever crossing the finish line. Older and slower, he lets the road come to him—and it does. Every day, a parade of travelers from around the world stop by and stay awhile. Gary shows me letters and post cards from new friends around the world—he’s Missouri’s greatest diplomat.
As the hours pass and the sun cools, Gary becomes even warmer and kinder, offering me more root beer and the kind of advice a father tells a son. “In America, imagination is your only limit,” he says. “This road was made by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs. You got a passion for something, you go out and do it—but you gotta love it more than anything else.” Gary’s passion for Gay Parita shows in the care he takes with every old car in his lawn, and with the personal attention he gives every one of his guests. Jeff and I attempt to leave on several occasions, but Gary always stops to show us something new and nifty. “Now let me show you this,” and he pulls something out of a drawer. Every object has a story and by the time I’ve heard each one, the Missouri sky has turned violet and cool. “Well Gary, we better git,” says Jeff. He nods, yes, yes. “Go to the Sirloin Stockade. That’s the best meal you’re ever gonna have. And get the bread pudding!” But the Sirloin Stockade closes in forty minutes, and we’ve got a few miles to cover on the old road. I’m not sure how many hours have passed on Gary’s porch, but the day is long gone. I say goodbye, and Gary crushes my hands in a parting gesture. “This road becomes part of you,” he says. “It’s a wonderful thing you’re doing, traveling through the history of this country.” He hands me a photo of his gas station, signed on the back, along with a hand-scrawled map highlighting the best spots to stop down the way. When we get to Carthage, Jeff and I pull our cars into the parking lot of the Sirloin Stockade. Seats are being lifted onto the tables and the OPEN light is switched off. I roll down the window and ask Jeff if he wants to try somewhere else. But there is nowhere else—only Sonic and McDonalds and pizza joints—nowhere that Gary would like. So instead of dinner, we talk through our car windows into the night. “What’s gonna happen to that place,” I ask. “After Gary?” Already, I’ve met so many wonderful folks along Route 66, and all of them are on the older side of life. What will happen to all the charm and wonder of this old road once the old-timers are gone? “Gay Parita? It’ll disappear with Gary,” says Jeff, very matter-of-factly, acknowledging that it’s sad but true. Gary’s business has nothing to do with the historic gas station or the stuff he’s selling. It has to do with Gary—he’s the real roadside attraction. I feel privileged to have met the man and shook hands with the legend. He won’t always be with us—but he will always be part of Route 66.
- Nat Geo Expeditions