Part 4 – Oklahoma City to Amarillo

Day 4 was Tuesday, May 4th

Before leaving Oklahoma City, we wanted to see the Murrah building monument to those killed in the McVeigh bombing.  It was cool and overcast that morning, which was a fitting environment in which to see the somber memorial.

If you’ve never been there, it’s set out in a long, rectangular space that follows the footprint of the building that is no longer there.  You enter from either the west or east – but I was a little turned around, and the axis of the site might actually go from north to south – through one of two gigantic, polished stone gates.  High up on the inside of each gate, a time is carved into the stone panel; the entrance side reads, “9:01” and the exit side, “9:03.”

To your right from the entrance gate is many rows of metal and stone chairs in a grassy area, with the name of each of the 168 people who died that day.  In the center of the poignantly empty space is a shallow reflecting pool.

A plaque at the scene explained that the explosion happened at 9:02, so the gates represent the innocence before the fatal moment, and the horrific consequences afterward.  My heart was in my throat twice at the memorial. That commemoration of the actual moment was the first.  The second was when I was looking at the rows of chairs, and recognized that while most of the chairs were fairly tall, some smaller chairs were scattered throughout the rows.  Those represented the children who died that day.

Those small chairs were especially heart-breaking, somehow.

From there we drove to the Centennial Land Run monument, which stretches out in a narrow, grassy strip near a large parking lot not too far from the river.  As we pulled into that parking lot, we couldn’t help but laugh.  We had left Chicago over three days earlier, and arrived at exactly the moment when the OKC fire department was doing a training exercise.  They had a firetruck parked at the edge of the parking, and some guys were up in the elevated seat, spraying a huge torrent of water… directly at the statues.

If you’ve heard the saying describing the futility of something as “trying to drink from a firehose,” I’ve got a new saying for you: “trying to appreciate a series of statues under a firehose.” 

So we decided to skip that, and started driving toward the exit, past the firetruck.  One of the guys walked over to us and complimented Darryll on the car.  Darryll thanked him, and made some kind of joking/sarcastic comment about how they were making it tough to appreciate the statues.

And this is when I discovered the difference between at least some Oklahomans and a few New Yorkers I’ve met.  The latter, in this circumstance, would have said something along the lines of, “Oh yeah?  Well you’re making it a little tough for me to not whip your Schumer.  So how about you go friend yourself?”

Whereas the youngish Oklahoman fire captain said, “Oh, we’re sorry about this.  We’re doing a training exercise, but we’ll be done in just a second.”  Then he walked back and talked to his guys for a minute.  The firehose turned off, and bucket came down, and we got to see one of the highlights of the trip.

There are 45 statues in the open-air exhibit, which commemorates the moment in 1889 when huge tracts of land in Oklahoma were opened up for any settlers who could get to a good spot and claim it first.  If the statues are to be believed, a couple of guys stood together, with one waving a flag and one firing a cannon, which started every man, woman, child, horse and dog running like a bat out of Washington, DC.

The statues have a quality that I appreciate in art: they look like what they are supposed to represent.  (“Suck it, Picasso” is my mature and well-thought-out assessment of modern art that looks like something I could have done.)  The horses and the people are super realistic, and the artist caught movement and expression in incredible detail.

One horse has turned a hoof wrong and fallen, and the moment is captured as his head falls onto the turf, his eyes closed, his head turned sideways, and his rider falling Schumer over teakettle.  One woman in a Little House on the Prairie dress and bonnet is carrying an infant, and she’s got a determined look on her face that suggests that she is not to be trifled with.

Of course I gravitated to the two dogs among the onrushing figures, missing Cassie the Wonder Dog as I do on this trip.  (My wife is not helping in that regard.  Each day she sends me a picture of Cassie — near the front door looking out, lying outside my home office door, etc. – looking betrayed that her master has gone on a two-week trip with his two idiot cousins and left her behind.)

One dog is sticking his head out of the back of a covered wagon, tongue hanging out and head twisted in a futile attempt to see what’s on the path, in a clear canine thought equivalent to, “Are we there yet?  What about now?”

The other dog is running alongside and between the horses and wagons, looking half-wolf and half-watchdog. 

One cowboy’s hat has blown off, and he twists back and looks over his shoulder for it, only to see it in the moment of bouncing against a trailing wagon.

That series of statues is well worth the side trip.  But you might want to contact the OKC fire department before scheduling your arrival.

Back out in the countryside again, we came across a rusty old steel bridge – calling a “pony bridge,” but I’m not sure why – somewhere between Geary and Hydro.  We drove across it, with one cousin getting a picture of the caddie on the pony, I guess.

Our next stop was Clinton, where we toured a really nice little museum about Route 66.  It was arranged in a series of rooms that showed the history of the road by decade, starting in the 1920s.  As is always the case in any kind of historical museum, you’re struck by how much harder everything used to be.  The road was narrow and often roughly paved, the cars were primitive enough that you wouldn’t trust yourself to drive across town in them, let alone across the country. 

Not to mention the satellite coverage and wifi, which were atrocious!

The images of the people in the photos from the early years looked like a bunch of raw-boned, stoic Simpsons of yesteryear. Their clothes were rough, their meals simple, their luggage a cross between a cardboard box and a horse blanket.  It put me in mind of an old saying about the movement of history: “Tough times make for hard men.  Hard men make for good times.  Good times make for soft people.  Soft people make for hard times.”

And that’s where grievance study majors come from, people.  We’re now in the “good times make for soft people” stage.  And I’m afraid that we’re just about to start into the soft people making for hard times stage.

The folks who run that museum – like virtually all of the 66 fans that operate every gas station, country store, museum and hotel along the way – seemed like salt-of-the-earth types.  When any of them heard what we were doing or saw the caddy, there were a lot of “lucky dog!” and “bucket list” comments.

Later, when we passed a sign for “Canute,” we had to get off, and see if we could figure out what kind of place in the middle of Oklahoma would be named after an old Saxon king.  I still don’t know.  But I know that unless the rest of Canute was hidden behind a nearby hill, there’s not a lot going on there, other than a crew of six guys who looked to be Mexican or Indian re-roofing an old church with a very steep roof.

And now I know two things about Mexican or Indian roofing crews.  They do not tie off properly when they strip shingles off a roof steeper than any roof I’ve ever worked on.  And they know the “thumbs up” signal, and that it is an appropriate gesture when they see three white guys cruising by in a mile-long ’76 convertible with a new, whisper-quiet muffler.

Farther down the road we passed through tiny Erick, OK, which was apparently the home of Roger Miller. And of another songwriter whose name I don’t remember ever hearing, but loved the moment I heard it now: Sheb Wooley.  Because satellite coverage, even in Erick, Oklahoma is just fine – thank you, free-market capitalism! – I was able to learn that “Sheb” was short for “Shelby.”  Which is almost as cool.

Even though there’s a Sheb Wooley street in Erick, it turns out that his songwriting output was not super impressive.  But in his honor, we played the gem that most critics agree is his magnum opus, “Purple People Eater” as we cruised through Erick.

The Roger Miller museum is a forlorn little place, and it’s closed.  It reminded me of the heart-tugging imagery in Johnny Cash’s (peace be upon him) last video, “Hurt,” that showed the run-down exterior and mostly empty interior of an old, closed down Johnny Cash museum.  (If you haven’t seen that video, drop everything and go watch it now.  If you aren’t moved by it, you’re dead to me!)

On the way out of Erick, we played Miller’s “King of the Road, and we shortly crossed into Texas. 

One of the spots in our Route 66 books was Shamrock, with a lovingly restored old “tower-style” Conoco station.  The gas pumps are gone, but the old gift shop and diner are still there, and both are in great shape.  The building itself is a beautiful piece of art deco styling, and the green neon is beautiful at night, though we didn’t get to see that first-hand, since we passed through in the late afternoon.

Elvis once came and ate at the diner, and there is a display of the King and a plaque on the booth where he ate.  (I played a couple of Elvis toons when we left town, and I had two obvious thoughts: That hillbilly could sing.  And suck it, Cardi B.)

The two sweet elderly ladies in the place gushed about the car, and I though that they might be hitting on us.  But then Darryll blew our chances by asking why they weren’t dead and buried.  Boom! (That joke won’t make sense unless you’ve read part 1 of this series.) 

Inside, the cousins got another passport and another souvenir, and I got the chance to pet a very mellow Doberman who trotted alongside his equally mellow owner as they walked around the place.

As we drove through town, we saw a sign for a museum of Barbed Wire, which it called, “The Devil’s Rope.”  We didn’t stop there, even though I sort of regret it now.  On the other hand, I cannot imagine a conversation that would ever include the sentence, “Barbed wire is friending fascinating!!”

But good lord: “devil’s rope!”  As a language geek, I love that kind of stuff, and as I’m writing this on Sunday the 9th, I realize that we’ve come across at least 5 “devil” references so far this trip.  We took a bridge over the Big Piney River at Devil’s Elbow in Missouri, passed a sign for Devil Dog Road and saw a handful of dust devils as we passed through the Arizona desert.  Then we came across the devil’s rope in Texas.

And we also couldn’t help but notice that there is an explosion of cannabis stores everywhere, with maybe the most per capita in Oklahoma.  And unless I am mistaken, pot is often called “the Devil’s lettuce.”

Now if I can only find some Devil’s Food cake somewhere along the road.

Our last stop of the day was near Conway, where – in the second tribute to the Cadillac Ranch during this trip – somebody stuck a handful of VW bugs into the ground at an angle.  We got out, and added to the spray-painted graffiti on the old cars; Darryll sprayed “3 cousins” and Bobby added our names to a different car.  As we were walking back to our car, a couple of guys in a pickup with a bright-eyed Aussie shepherd in the back (I miss my Wonder Dog!) pulled up.  It turns out that the driver loves old Caddies, and owns the land that starts right behind the Bug Ranch, and he gave us the local story.

The decrepit building beside the ground-bound vehicles was a gift shop, and according to the driver, “She nearly starved to death trying to make a go of that store, before giving up.  Then some idiot sticks some VW wrecks in the ground, and the place turns into a tourist trap.  Some other guy – I don’t even know who he is – comes out here on the weekends and sells spray paint to the people who stop here.”

The way he said it suggested that he was not overly impressed with the intelligence of those people.  So Darryll slowly moved his spray can behind his back.

The driver then said, “You guys are okay, though.  That is one cool car!” 

From there it was a short drive to our destination: Amarillo.  Did we play George Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning,” as we cruised into town? 

We did.

Before we looked for a hotel, we stopped at the famous Big Texan steak house.  My cousins are both big boys, but none of us were foolish enough to attempt eating the 72 ounce steak, which you famously get for free, if you can eat the whole thing.  The place was everything you’d expect from a Texas steakhouse, and I found myself thinking a variation of a saying I’ve heard from several Texans: We weren’t born at the Big Texan, but we got there as soon as we could.           

Next up: from Amarillo to Albuquerque