In the middle of nowhere, but on the way to somewhere!
Thursday, 8 February 2024
During my road trip around America, I tried to get to Cadillac Ranch in Texas. The only thing between me and the Cadillacs was a ghost town in Oklahoma, an angry evangelical, and the great emptiness of America.
The further you drive out west, the larger everything seems to get. The landscape stretches into the distance, the space between you and the nearest car grows, and it takes longer and longer to reach a new town. It gets harder to ignore the lingering sense of loneliness that underpins any great journey, especially in a place like Jackson County, Oklahoma.
We’d left Memphis that morning and were heading towards Cadillac Ranch in Texas, an art installation and the namesake of a Bruce Springsteen song. Getting there from Tennessee in one day would require a miracle, so we booked a room from a man called Samuel in Olustee, Oklahoma.
Cowboy Papa and I had to drive through miles of dust before we got there. On arrival, we realised that this place wasn’t exactly a town, but more like a string of empty, run-down bungalows. Faded American flags hung dead in the air, confederate flags were plastered on a window or two, and half-starved dogs lurked in the shade of bony trees. We walked around until it was time for our booking, just before night came, when the sky was fading into violets and roses.
Samuel was leaning against his pickup truck when we arrived. He greeted us and showed us a tiny inflatable swimming pool. There were about a dozen kids splashing around inside, cooling off after the day’s heat.
“Do you guys have swimming costumes? I close the pool in 5 minutes, but I can keep it open a bit longer if you want to dip in.” said Samuel. I smiled and shook my head.
“No?” he continued, “Well, do you guys wanna come to Church with us? We’d give you a ride and there’d be free food. I bet you guys are real hungry after coming from…where’d you come from?”
“Tennessee,” said Cowboy Papa, “so we’re pretty tired.”
“It really isn’t a bother. We’ll take you there and back, it’d only be a few hours or so.”
I considered it. When else would I have a chance to experience Church in Middle-Of-Nowhere, Oklahoma? But the memory of the confederate flags strung up on the windows crept into my mind, so we declined again. We watched as the kids were piled into the back of the truck like livestock, before they zipped down the road and disappeared. Alone now, it was like we were the last souls left behind after the rapture.
That night we sat in our room and ate cold beans from a cooler that smelt like rancid cheese and butter. It was our third night on the road and everything we brought had melted, but we didn’t care so long as we could hear the circadas singing. We were heading west and signs of it were appearing all around us.
Our peace was disturbed a few hours later by a knock on the window. Samuel.
“I wanna show you something. Come with me.”
He led us to one of the empty bungalows. It was filled with piles of junk inside old cardboard boxes. Samuel reached into one and pulled out a notebook, placing it into our hands like an ancient relic. It was a guestbook where visitors could thank Samuel for their stay. Nothing unusual, except I had never been handed a guestbook in a dilapidated bungalow, and I had never seen a guestbook where each guest spilled their hearts out across pages and pages.
RICHARD, FROM NORTH CAROLINA.
Samuel. I was only meant to stay a few nights, but I ended up staying three months.
You helped me see how off-track my life was. You made me see how aimless I was. You made me see that I could feel like myself again. You made me get back on track. I can’t thank you enough. You’ve saved me.
And so on, and so on, for ten pages straight. Cowboy Papa shut the book and handed it back to Samuel, who was smiling at us strangely.
“You’ll be writing in that soon.”
“Yes. Of course. But we really have to go to bed now.” Cowboy Papa said.
“You leaving tomorrow?” Samuel asked.
We told him we were.
“You could stay another day. Free of charge. I have another place, you could crash on the sofa.”
“Another place?” asked Cowboy Papa, frowning.
“I have a few houses in this town. Those kids earlier? Their parents send them here to fix up the houses in the summer. It’s good work.”
I thought of all of those broken houses and how it seemed that no one lived there. I thought of all those kids piled up in the back of the truck. Oklahoma was starting to tighten my lungs and dig its nails into my wrists, and I longed to be back on the road.
“Thanks, but we can’t stay. We have a schedule to stick to.” I said. Samuel frowned and straightened. He was blocking the doorway.
“Schedule?” he hissed, “I don’t understand. Why can’t you just stay one more night?”
If I was at a vulnerable point in my life, Samuel’s wrath might have made me feel as though I’d done something wrong. It might’ve made me feel that someone, somewhere, was going to be in great pain because I didn’t stay on Samuel’s sofa. To fix the damage I’d caused, I needed to stay here, in an empty house being worked on by kids on a missionary trip. Instead, his attempted manipulation made me sick with anger, and we left quickly.
The next day we rose early and put on our Springsteen shirts, eager to claim sanctuary in Cadillac Ranch. Samuel was waiting for us. We thanked him and got in the car, hoping to make a great escape, but he held Cowboy Papa’s door open.
“I really hoped you had a nice time here. I’m from New York myself, but this place is real nice." said Samuel.
“New York?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he looked down at our Springsteen shirts, “Make sure you visit the Cadillac Ranch. It’s a nice place. They stuck Cadillacs in the mud.”
“Oh, we will.” I said.
We left him in a trail of dust. On the road into the Texas Panhandle we saw nothing but prairie grass for hours.
“So, he’s from New York.” I said.
“He chose to live there. He chose to live there.” Cowboy Papa exclaimed in disbelief.
I rolled down the window and read the landscape like a book.
“Did you notice how he looked at our shirts before telling us to go to the Cadillac Ranch? You think he knew Springsteen? Cadillac Ranch…Who knows that song except proper Springsteen fans? Samuel must have known rock and roll once. Because why would he look at our shirts, see Springsteen, and not say anything, then tell us to go to Cadillac Ranch, in a whole other state. Maybe he’s left Springsteen behind. Maybe we were horrible reminders of the unrighteous! Even though, you know, Springsteen is the most righteous.”
“Oh, of course,” said Cowboy Papa and she turned up the music, and we drove on.
About the Author
Lovely tasty dish. Try it you won’t be disappointed.
Very tasty and cheap. I often have this for tea!
Being a bilingual family (French mother and British father,) living in France I thought your article was extremely interesting . Have you research on bilingualism ? It seems that when the mother is British and the father French and they both live in France their children seem to be more bilingual than when the mother is French and the father is British . This is what we called mother tongue , isn't it ?
Such an interesting article!