Highway 60: Four Days in the American Interior: Day 3: Hereford, TX – Nowata, OK

( You can read parts one and two here and here.   Unfortunately, bad storage media ate my photos, other than a couple retrieved from Facebook. and I will have to rely entirely on the written word for description.)

I was running somewhat behind, and from here on in what I write will be as much about what I missed, as saw.

Morning in Hereford is frosty.  It’s snowed overnight, and while it’s gone from the streets, there is still quite a bit on the motel’s roof and the Xterrra.  I amble across theroad to the McD’s for a take out coffee and cookie for breakfast.

The streets are just losing the last of the darkness and the glow of day has yet to manifest itself in sunshine, but the place is jumping.    Again, that Left Coast feeling of being out of place.  There are plenty of middle aged men in overalls and John  Deere caps.  These are real people, I think, not extras from central casting.  I’m beginning to feel something akin to shame, as I think of all the talk of rednecks, which while I no longer indulge in such, I have tolerated. I’m ashamed to have called these peopled rubes, hicks, apple knockers..  While I might not be at home in their culture, I respect it.  I will never again put them down, or accept slurs on these good people.

Really, what are those California folks talking about?  These are men who can care for large animals, operate and repair complex machinery, lay irrigation pipe, all to wrest sustenance from the earth, and with my best hopes and wishes, a fair amount of cash in a good year.  I’ll put these ole boys up against any bunch of South of Market loft dwellers, putting together a website or coding on their Apples, if you want to talk social utility.  We need them both.

Back in the room, coffee and the farm report, and then it’s time to go, after I scrape the snow off the windshield.

Courthouse, Hereford, TX. Throughout rural America, the courthouse was the seat of civic authority, and reflected pride of place.

Hereford, seat of Deaf Smith County.   I’ve heard of Mr. Smith, an early figure in Texas history who bridged the Anglo and Hispanic words, both of which I’ve seen in Hereford, working along just fine as far as I can see.  Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t think to take a quick turn around town before I left.   The place boasts a fine courthouse, as I later find, and the courthouses of Texas have their aficionados, and rightly so.

Perhaps at this point I was just stupefied with the richness of what I had seen.  I had expected this in Arizona and New Mexico, states that have attractions known around the world, but last night’s view of a small portion of the Panhandle was revelatory.  Years ago, I had been across it on the interstate, and remembered nothing. When talking with experienced cross country drivers, the Panhandle merited an eye roll, pure tedium, something to be endured, not experienced.

I saw it differently now. The Panhandle is Texas: oil, grain, cattle, railroads.  And the plains that slope so subtly towards the Mississippi are beautiful, as they were this snow dusted morning.

On the way out of town, I see a sgn :  “Hereford Gun  and Pawn, a Faith Based Business. “ Bitter clingers?”  Gun totin’ bible thumpin ‘ rednecks?  Now I know: Just people.

Canyon is the next big town, spread along a river gorge.  I spot a giant cowboy, and a sign for a Cowboy Missionary witness on the other side of the road.  This means I have to stop.

A classic roadside attraction.

The cowboy is a local landmark.  Just like those Paul Bunyans and his blue ox that used to tower over muffler shops, and were considered eyesores, but now preserved as quintessentially mid century American, Canyon’s cowboy has been the center of a preservation effort.

On the town square is a very fine courthouse. And it is here that I first notice another commonplace that I somehow missed if it existed before: huge, multi-multi turn stoplights, controlling traffic into the square where mine is the only vehicle.  I’ll see lots more of these before I’m done.

Canyon is a tank town – maybe not in the original meaning of a railroad stop for steam locomotives to top off their boilers, but in the sense that a major landmark is a water tower with the local high school team emblazoned: Go Mustangs!  The Friday light nights shine here.

On the way back to the highway, a Thai restaurant.  Texas, like anywhere else, moves with the times, even as it loves its traditions.

Then it’s on to Amarillo, as the road widens into the interstate, and takes me past large ranchettes, California style subdivisions and into town along the eastern edge of the city.  And there are at every intersection, batteries of those massive traffic lights, eight way turns, I guess.  They are at least staggered and I get through pretty fast, stopping off for a pit stop at the convention Center.

There is a certain sameness to government or if not government, civic buildings in America.   They all seem to have those speckled conglomerate floors, and door hardware reminiscent of a locked ward in a mental hospital.  And here I feel constrained to say something about public restrooms.  In the better locations in Asia, the U.S has long since been surpassed in comfort, hygiene and esthetics.  It’s not easy to put it delicately:  While restrooms in the U.S are basically hygienic, there is something about them…how can I put this….. you know it’s a place where people poop.

Across the way, there appear some fine old brick buildings in the downtown. If only I had more time.  On the way out of town, amidst all the signs for “abarrotes” and “Mufles, the  Myanmar Asian Grocery.”  A rail siding with immense grain or feed elevators.  These structures impress me, and are in their way, glorious. The abundance of this Texas earth sent across the land.

At Pampa a very fine old ATSF rail station.  It’s midday and it’s providential that I spot Dyer’s Barbecue.  The lunch rush hasn’t started and I am quickly seated by a genuinely friendly hostess.  Courtesy, I’ve always found, is a bedrock Texas trait.

The patrons mostly look like those folks I’d seen at breakfast in the morning, but there is a table of young people, guys in suits and ties, women in suits, laptops and cells, and folders spread out, with their lunches to the side.

Of course, I get the combo plate with a bit of everything.  Brisket, pork ribs, chicken, and

The works!

Polish sausage.  The Polish isn’t surprising at all: Texas has many ethnic enclaves, towns here and there entirely settled by one central  eastern European group or another Ranch beans and a thick slab of bread toasted and buttered, slaw and potato salad.  Oh my. The barbecue sauce is just right, not too sweet, smoky and a touch of vinegar, complementing, not overwhelming the glorious meat.  You have to do little more than look at the ribs for the meat to fall off the bone.  The waitress asks if  I’m enjoying my food, and looks pleased, but somewhat startled at the lengthy encomium.

Then it’s on to Oklahoma.  I’m eager to see something of this state that is at once southern and western.  I cross the line and am soon in Arnett.  This is a lovely town, old houses sheltered by trees in late fall leaf. Down one street, I see a kid swinging on a tire hung from a tree branch.

Not far out of town, the land changes, dramatically so; I shake my head as if to banish an illusion.   It is if I have made a wrong turn through some space time portal and landed back in the Southwest.  Low eroded hills lead to higher distant mesas. Mile after mile, a few cattle, an oil well or two, but not many people around.

On a hill high above the highway, the Sinclair dinosaur!  Oil country now, injection wells, some drilling rigs, a gas station with a lot of old oil patch equipment billing itself as a museum.  Wish I had time…

A climb into some hills and then, after a few switch backs, a prospect so fair it took my breath away.  To the east and as far as I could see north and south, a gently rolling country of fields and wooded swaths of autumn leaves following water courses, and rising here and there tall and white, the grain elevators like ships sailing a placid inland sea.

Vici, Oklamhoma, with its very own and fine elevator.  I think what this represents, a cooperative, it says.  It must have been a great day when the local farmers inaugurated it, their grain ready for market, on all the bourses of the nation and the wider world.

The road goes on for miles along a slight elevation, well watered farmland on either side.  Every turn off to another town north or south, would I am sure bring me to little towns nestled in the autumn sunshine.

I notice, at regular intervals, simple green signs: “cemetery.” Old tombstones are something I love, so I turn off at one.  The markers are of all recent vintage, but it’s pleasant to sit for a while with a few grazing cows for company.  As to why, in Oklahoma, cemeteries get the same highway billing as food, fuel, and lodging, I have no idea.

The little towns I pass through seem unchanged since the time of Pretty Boy Floyd.  All that’s missing is the hitching posts.  Enid, a big city, and again those huge banks of traffic lights.  These seem to be adjusted for 16 way turns.  It takes forever to get out of town.  It’s back to Anywhere, USA for a while: Home Depot, and the first Starbucks I’ve seen since leaving Phoenix.  But on the side streets, the same spacious frame houses I’ve seen in town after town, tree shaded with expansive lawns. A kid swinging in a tire suspended from a branch.

In Pond Creek, a fine old Iron bridge, now just for pedestrians and in the late afternoon, people are walking along it, some fishing, and again, wish I had time,  These old Oklahoma bridges,  like the courthouses of Texas, have their fans, and deservedly so..

It’s late and the tall grass prairie is red in the fading sun.  I enter the Osage nation,  which looks just like another tidy Oklahoma town, although the homes seem more imposing than elsewhere.

The light is almost gone when I enter Pahwhuska.  What is this place. Out on the prairie, this appears to be, or have been a city, with midrise buildings, brick in the style of the early part of the last century, blocks and blocks of them, fronts mostly boarded.

Down one street, a lighted cafe window, and a scene that could be a tableau vivant of Hopper’s “Night Hawks.”  I decide that I might stay, but see no accommodation.

Had I known more, I would have turned off the highway and found a place.  Pahhuska is the capital of the Osage nation and was once the richest city in the world.  Oil wealth brought prosperity and then treachery as Indians were cheated and murder for their land. Now its once impressive downtown is largely empty, save, some say, for the ghosts of the murdered Indians.

Dark now and winding curves, and slow going as there is extensive road work.  Stimulus money, shovel ready at last, as the signs announce.  At an overlook, I see Bartlesville below, and even in the dark can see that this must be quite a place, out in the plains.  Suddenly, genuine high rises and I drive by the end of a runway with good size jets taxi-ing.

This is the home of Philips petroleum, once a family concern, and now headquarters of Philips-Conoco.  The road takes me through the town quickly, and there are motels, but none convenient to liquor stores, supermarkets and fast food, so I decide to push on just a little bit more,

Pulling over to see where the next town is, I find that I’m in the parking lot of a community center funded by Philips Conoco. A woman, and her daughter of nine or ten, dressed for ballet, smile at me.  Seeing me with the map and out of state plates, the lady asks if I need directions.   There is an openness and courtesy that I’ve seen since I hit the road out here. I like it.

On the way to the next town, Nowata, darkness punctuated by a glowing neon cross. Then a darkened downtown – more handsome century old brick buildings and just beyond, the Silver Saddle Motel.

Opening the reception door which is decorated with a very large no smoking logo, I enter a cloud of cigarette smoke. While a flat screen pumps out an R&B music video, a black guy in a do rag and three ladies are knocking back assorted adult beverages and puffing away.

Fifty bucks.  Oklahoma is substantially lower income than Texas.  The poor always pay more. Their card reader is down, so I am directed to an ATM.  From there I stock upat te adjacent supermarket.  The prices startled me.  Cheese is higher than in San Francisco.  I notice a blond girl, very pretty, perhaps the head cheerleader or homecoming queen, because she is arm and arm with a very large guy in a high school football jacket.  He is black.  This is Oklahoma, the state of ‘brown vs. Board of education.  That was a long time ago.

Two of the ladies from the reception show up, refilling on mixers.  I am invited for a drink while I register.  None of these women appear over 40, and one, an attractive brunette, asks me if she looks like a grandmother.  She certainly doesn’t.  One of her friends, who looks much younger, is missing a substantial number of her upper front teeth.  I had noticed similar dentition at gas stops during the day.  Some stereotypes are based on fact.

Darryl, the receptionist, sends me off with a bourbon and ginger ale. In the room, the heat doesn’t work, and I go to bed semi clothed, watching religious programming on the cable. Out front, they carry on until late, but it doesn’t bother me.

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