Tuesday, August 13, 2013

From Tulsa to Shamrock - go West, young man

The British glam rock band Slade made a habit in the early 1970s of deliberately annoying English teachers by misspelling their song titles. Stompy rockers such as Mama Weer All Crazee Now, Cum On Feel The Noize, Coz I Luv You and Look Wot You Dun had the education community in Britain up in arms for apparently making teachers' jobs harder, and being seen as somewhat subversive. Slade, of course, knew exactly what they were doing, and reaped the benefits of notoriety.

I am reminded of this as I head out of Tulsa and am instantly reduced to a sniggering 13-year-old by stopping for fuel at the Kum and Go gas station.

Thankfully I manage to regain my composure in time to speak to journalist Dave Bakke, a columnist on the oldest newspaper in Illinois, The State-Journal Register, who has caught up with my musings on Springfield (America's everytown). Dave wants more of my visitor's perspective (see "Brit blogger critiques Springfield, downtown Hilton") , particularly on the town's monstrous Hilton hotel, which, he informs me, is known locally as "the Penis of the Prairie". Thank God it was built long after Missouri's Bald Knobbers ceased their activities.

This outbreak of juvenility does, I fear, suggest that Road Fatigue is already setting in. Today's drive won't help: the drive to Shamrock in Texas is only supposed to take six hours and cover 300 miles, but somehow contrives to be a lot longer. Some 280 of those 300 miles are within the state of Oklahoma, which means driving through a lot more tribal territory country, including the Kickapoo nation. Cue more sniggering.

Actually, the further west I travel through Oklahoma's prairies, I become aware of the number of casinos in the middle nowhere and run by the Indian tribes. Over the last 20 years Indian-run casinos in the US have grown to the extent they rake in some $27 billion every year, and represent 43% of all gambling institutions in America, picking up just as gambling in more traditional places like Las Vegas tails off.

© Simon Poulter 2013
At least, then, someone is enjoying some commercial success out here. When Route 66 was commissioned in 1926, stitching together existing pieces of highway between Chicago and Los Angeles, its intention was to allow further expansion west. Farm produce needed a better route to market, and as the road grew, so did the businesses along it.

Thomas Jefferson, a hundred years previously, had advocated western expansion as good for the nation's welfare, believing that the further America spread, the stronger the nation would be thanks to settlers working the land (“those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God", he wrote).

As history has shown, this came at a terrible price, which its victims may now be earning back.

Everything and everyone has its price in America. Today, many of Route 66's original roads are in some disrepair, but no worse than the many more towns you pass through in Oklahoma which have clearly faded from glory. The sight of defunct motels, diners and stores of every variety graphically depict the success of the Interstate highway system which, I have discovered, was created by President Eisenhower after he was impressed by the German autobahn network. Given that the Nazis claimed the autobahns to be their own idea, we can therefore ultimately blame the decay of Route 66 on Adolf Hitler.

Halfway to Texas, 66 cuts through Oklahoma City. As a city it doesn't hold any particular interest for me, but warrants a stop to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial, built on what was, until April 19, 1995, the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

It, you might remember, was blown up by former US Army soldier Timothy McVeigh in the worst act of terrorism on US soil until 9/11. 168 people - including 16 children - died and 680 were injured in the explosion, which damaged or destroyed 324 buildings within a 16-block radius.

© Simon Poulter 2013
The three-acre memorial, much like that at Ground Zero in New York, holds an eerie presence. It is dominated by two giant bronze 'Gates of Time', representing the two minutes between destruction - at 9.01am - at one end, and the first moments of recovery - at 9:03am - at the other.

Between the gates is the hauntingly placid Reflecting Pool, flanked by the Field of Empty Chairs - 168 empty chairs hand-crafted from glass, bronze, and stone, arranged in nine rows to represent those who died on the nine floors of the Murrah building. Alongside it, a substantial museum tells the story further.

Until McVeigh detonated the massive truck bomb, terrorism in America seemed to be viewed as someone else's problem, somewhere else. But here in the land of the free, in a city that Route 66 - one of the ultimate symbols of American freedom - runs through, McVeigh changed that perception for ever.

While planning the atrocity, he wrote: "A man with nothing left to lose is a very dangerous man, and his energy/anger can be focused toward a common/righteous goal." Similar sentiment to that which drove the attack on September 11, 2001 - exactly three months to the day after McVeigh was executed.

© Simon Poulter 2013
The Oklahoma City memorial is a sombre but poignant deviation on the journey. But I must press on. Beyond it, Route 66 appears and disappears again alongside I-40, the road that largely replaced it. I am now getting an increasing sense of heading west. This might appear to be a ridiculous statement, seeing as signposts and the sat-nav are telling me the direction I'm heading, but I am noticing the landscape opening up and the sky getting 'bigger'.

Over the many years I've been visiting the US, I've spent more time in its western half than anywhere else. The sky is a distinct shade of light blue out here, and as I drive towards Texas, this colour becomes contrasted by the reddish-brown of the soil, something I've only ever seen elsewhere in Devon in the UK.

© Simon Poulter 2013
At Clinton, another must-see - the excellent Oklahoma Route 66 Museum - brilliantly tells the whole story of 66, from its inception to its role in the great migration west from the Dust Bowl, through the years of wartime austerity and post-war economic boom in America, up to the arrival of the interstate system and the eventual demise of Route 66 as an official Federal Highway.

The story the museum tells, however, isn't a depressingly negative one: it successfully conveys the meaning of America, that everything is there if you're prepared to work hard for it.

Even today, with 66 more of an ideal than actual road, there are plenty of people still "turning a buck", as one commentator in a film at the museum says, on the back of it.

However, on we go into the 'Panhandle' of Texas. Tomorrow's post will contain more thoughts on America's second most populous state, largely because as I arrive in it, it is absolutely hosing it down and I can't see anything of the place.

© Simon Poulter 2013

Which brings me to the particularly depressing town of Shamrock for the night. It is, now, essentially a stop-off for I-40, comprising four chain motels, a similar number of gas stations, a McDonalds and just over two acres of mostly boarded up shops and homes. To add to the fun, a local blogger and activist claims the town to be awash with meth-amphetamine dealing and prostitution. Good to see, then, that someone is still turning a buck along Route 66.

The motel I've chosen is, at least, conveniently located. More importantly, it is complete. Some weeks back I had something of a shock when I looked up the place on Google Streetview, only to find one view showing the hotel built, and another showing it still under construction.

Thankfully, as the biblical monsoon continues, I am relieved to discover it fully roofed and fully functional, and lock myself in for the night.

As I do, a John Mellencamp song comes into my head: "Ain't that America."

Tomorrow:   WWDBD? heads for Heisenberg country

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