Saturday, May 11, 2024

Finding Winona

Setting has always been of the utmost important to me. Often, the germ of an idea for a new play comes not from the plot or a character, but from the setting, whether that setting is a creepy mansion, a failing French restaurant, or a bookshop.

So I suppose it's ironic that the setting of my plays rarely includes a specific city.

Location, Location, Location

It Happened on Route 66 is the big exception. From the get-go, that play has been about capturing a specific time and place, so when I first sat down to write it, it was important to me to set it in a real town along the Mother Road and to bring that town to life through the specificity of the dialogue and the richness of the characters.

During my initial brainstorming, I considered several small towns along that fabled highway. Tulsa. Amarillo. Flagstaff.

But when I remembered that famous line from the song "Get Your Kicks on Route 66," I knew that Winona, Arizona had to be it.

Route 66 Trivia: Being east of Flagstaff, Winona is the only town that's out of order going east to west in that song.

It didn't hurt that I've lived in Arizona for the last seven years so I already knew what small Arizona towns are like. However, I've never been to Winona itself.

Until today.

My wife and I were in Flagstaff to cheer on our daughter in her first 38-mile ultra-marathon, and the day after the race, as we headed back to Phoenix, I managed to talk them into buzzing through the tiny town. After all, it's only 13 miles east of Flagstaff--a quick jaunt, no?

I wanted to see how close modern-day Winona was to the quaint roadside town of my imagination. I especially wanted to see if there was actually a diner there. And could it possibly be named Ookie's?

Gettin' My Kicks

I've always loved Route 66 towns. Tulsa makes a big deal about being the birthplace of the highway, apparently because the guy who first pushed for it came from there, and I remember taking a picture of a big Route 66 sign on one of the bridges over the road downtown.

Not the largest Route 66 sign in the country.

Flagstaff is pretty much built along the old highway, with many Route 66-themed burger joints and other restaurants stretched along its length.

But my favorite Route 66 town has to be Williams, Arizona. We spent a weekend there a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it. That town, by the way, calls itself the Gateway to the Grand Canyon, even though it's 54 miles away from that big hole in the ground. But there's no bigger town closer to the canyon, so I guess they can get away with it.
Route 66 Trivia: Williams was the last town on Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40.
What I love about Williams is that even though it's pretty small, it really crackles with life. And that's due its ties to the Main Street of America.

The main drag is lined with neon signs that hark back to the time when Route 66 was in its heyday. And it seems that every other shop in town sells some kind of Route 66 memorabilia. But the town also has some great restaurants and brewpubs, and a killer view of an extinct volcano named Bill Williams Mountain to the south.

Prices are cheap in Williams.

So I had high hopes for Winona. The town had lived and died by its connected to that legendary highway so I figured there would still be a lot of remnants from its glorious past.

My pre-trip research held promise. It revealed that a gas station named the Winona Trading Post had been built along Route 66 in the late 1940's. It was the main business in town back then, and--miracle of miracles--it's still in operation today in the same sand-colored, cinder block building. What's more, a photo of an old postcard I found online showed that the sign on the store boasted a cafe.

I had my diner!

What once was.

An inconvenient truth

I'm not embarrassed to tell you that my heart was racing a little as we pulled off I-40 onto the frontage road that led to the gas station.

That's when it saw it. The cafe sign was gone. There was no diner anymore. The building had been turned into a convenience store.

Let me correct that. An extremely tacky convenience store.

Smiling on the outside. Crying on the inside.

Of course, they had some cheap little Route 66 trinkets for sale. There was even a little exhibit of historical items from the road on display. But sadly, no sign of the cafe itself.

Still, I stood in that store for a few minutes and tried to imagine the millions of travelers who'd passed through the cafe over the years. Who were they? What were their stories? And did they ever order the all-you-can-eat special?

I went outside and looked around. I smiled to see that there was a garage next to the store. I later learned it had been built in the late 1940's or early 1950's so my play wasn't completely accurate when it said that the nearest garage was in Flagstaff. But I thought it funny that there was a tow truck out front, just like the one from Ed's Towing that Sally told Lovey was getting repaired.

Looks fine to me.

As for the rest of the town, it mostly consists of a few dozen houses scattered over the foothills to the north (Winona has never been incorporated so I have no idea what the population is). But I instantly recognized one sight that loomed over the town like a dark cloud on the horizon.

It was the Darling Cinder Pit Mine, which Sally referred to as the largest cinder pit mine in the country. When I got back home, I went online to reconfirm this fact. Turns out it's actually just the largest cinder pit mine in the state--and might not have even held that title in 1955, when the play was set.

Clearly, Sally got some bad info.

Not the largest cinder pit mine in the country.

After taking a few pictures, I climbed back into our car and we headed home.

Final thoughts

Was I sad that I didn't get to see the cafe where It Happened on Route 66 might have happened? Sure. But then so much of that once-vital highway has been lost to time, I shouldn't have been surprised. And I wasn't.

Still, I'm happy I went, if only to get a sense of what might have been. I'm even happier to see how popular the play has been with schools and community theaters. The sets I've seen photos of do a fantastic job of bringing to life the diner I'd hoped I'd see. And in this way, on stages all across the country, Ookie's Diner remains open for business.

May it never close.

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