On our recent road trip, we had the good fortune wander into Joel Rayburn's establishment, GlassBoy Studios and Tourist Trap Tees, in Arcadia, Oklahoma.
I was so captivated by Joel's stories and enthusiasm, I wanted to share more about his projects with you.
Joel fell in love with the stories and signs of Route 66 after moving from Tennessee to Oklahoma in 2007. To share his passion, he created a collection of T-shirts and hand-out cards memorializing some of the Mother Road's most enduring legends and legendary tourist traps. After serving an apprenticeship with neon artist David Rivers, Rayburn now practices the craft in his own studio, recreating vintage signs from the highway's heyday.
Come along with me for a visit with Joel.
How did your interest in Route 66 begin, and what keeps it going?
I really kinda stumbled upon Route 66. I had heard about Route 66 all my life, but was never just drawn to it. After moving to Oklahoma City from Philadelphia, I spent the weekends just investigating the surrounding area and taking weekend road trips. Route 66 happened to be five blocks from my home, and I thought I would see how far I could get on it going west.
Needless to say, I was hooked from that first day on the Route. I believe it reminds me of the road trips that I used to take with my parents as a kid. My parents were always seeing new things and taking really long road trips in the 60s and 70s. The Route just transported me in time to a place that held a lot of comfort for me. The last road trip that I was to take with my parents was on Route 66. Pretty fitting, seeing that my future is now with the Route.
When did you begin collecting stories about Route 66, and why? Where do you see this project going?
I seem to have been privileged to be surrounded by some of the Route’s great artists, historians and road archaeologists. They all seem to have their little areas that fascinate them, and my area seems to center around the weird and unusual. I love collecting stories that lie deep under the pavement of the Route. It’s fun to hang out with Jim Ross, Shellee Graham and Jerry and Kathy Anderson and introduce them to a weird story about the Route that they have never heard of. It’s like “Stump The Route Royalty!” Right now we just use the stories as inspiration for our Tourist Trap Tees business. We have knocked around compiling all the stories one day into print, but we are just having fun sharing these new unearthed stories with our guests.
How do you hope these stories will appeal to younger generations? Why is this important?
I am a child at heart and grew up watching "In Search Of . . . " with Leonard Nimoy. There is something in a kid that is fascinated about the unknown or the unusual. Most people think that my maturity level is equal to that of the younger generations. The stories seem to ignite that sense of wonder and adventure within me, and I believe that thread runs through all generations. GlassBoy Studios is really geared toward the young and younger generations. If you visit the studio, you will understand.
I want to catch the imaginations of the young so that we can have the assurance that the Route will survive through their interest.
Do you have a favorite Route 66 story?
I think the Apache Death Cave story out of Two Guns, Arizona.
"Two Guns, Arizona began and ended as a tourist stop where Route 66 crosses Canyon Diablo west of Winslow. It is also the site of an Indian battle that was later fully exploited by the site’s operators and ultimately became part of the highway’s lore.
"As the story goes, in 1878, Navajo settlements in north central Arizona became prey to Apache raiders from the south, who would attack and then inexplicably disappear. After one such raid, their hideout in Canyon Diablo, a cave, was discovered by a Navajo scout. After surrounding the cave, the Navajos built a raging fire at the narrow entrance, which was kept blazing throughout the night. In desperation, the doomed Apaches killed and stacked their horses next to the opening in hopes of blocking the smoke, but by morning all forty-two of the raiders were dead from asphyxiation."
"Following the massacre, the Apache raids ceased. Thereafter, Navajos warned pioneers that the land there was cursed, and it is said that those who camped along Canyon Diablo often reported hearing eerie groans and the death chants of dying Apaches carried on the breeze drifting through the canyon."
On Facebook recently, you mentioned that with visitors from Ireland, the UK, New Zealand, Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, Switzerland and Scotland, "the world came through the door today." What draws international visitors to Route 66? What are they most interested in and enthusiastic about?
Our visitors from other nations are actually more drawn to the Route than Americans. I guess it could be the “Backyard Syndrome!” Route 66 is what true Americana is to the rest of the world. I believe through movies, the draw of the west, and music--our visitors have this wild adventurous road that they just have to experience for themselves.
I think they are interested to see true Americana. They want to experience that "Andy Griffith Show” feel of America.
Do you see yourself as an ambassador for Route 66?
I just love people. I guess if you see a host as an ambassador, then yes. I want people walking out of my shop with dreams and yearning for that spark that Saturday mornings used to bring to us as kids. I’m really more about the people than the business. I know that may sound weird, but money can’t buy how people on the Route make me feel, and I hope it is reciprocated.
Tell me more about your work with neon – how you got started with that and how the work ties in with Route 66.
It all really started the first couple of times I drove the Route out west. When I saw the Skyliner Motel sign in Stroud, Oklahoma, I knew I wanted to learn how to make signs the way they used to make them after WWII when the Route was jumping. It was quite a change from my previous work as a church youth director!
How long have you had the shop in Arcadia, and what's ahead for it?
We celebrated our one-year anniversary at GlassBoy Studios on September 1st. Well, the first six months were spent remodeling!
We will be constantly changing and morphing to make our stop a true must on the Route trip. I really just want to encourage people to have one heck of an adventure on America’s most famous road!
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.