When you do a road trip like this, all the hotels start to blend into one. I often find myself walking to the wrong spot in the wrong, bland corridor and trying to force myself into the wrong room.
Last night's hotel in Amarillo will stand out as being a particularly bad one. It's not so much that it was cheap and cheerful, there was just no love or pride coming from the staff. Everything was broken and tatty.
That aside, the Texans certainly seem to feel a great deal of pride for their homeland. The waffles we had for breakfast this morning were Texas-shaped, and all the steak houses and eateries have Texas in their names.
Everything in Texas suddenly feels expansive. It's a massive state, and it knows it. Buildings seem larger. Space around the buildings seems larger. It would be impossible to walk around Amarillo. You have to drive.
We went to Bar 212 last night, which is Amarillo's premier gay bar. What is a trip to Texas if it doesn't include some Texan drag? The whole evening was an education. The first thing we noticed was quite how much smoking goes on in Texan bars. It's been a long time since I've sat in a bar, choking on other people's cigarette smoke. There were three drag queens. I'd name them if I'd have been able to hear anything at all through the dodgy sound system. In the States, the drag tradition is built on fierce, glamorous and highly feminine performers who lip-synch like daemons to classic pop and country tunes sung by women. The British drag queens, by contrast, do comedy and sing live, but often look like the proverbial cock in a frock...
So these girls WOULD have spent the night lip-synching... had the sound system not packed up half way through the third number! With the absence of music, they were forced to wander about in the crowd, inanely chatting, whilst trying to crack jokes which got increasingly desperate. One went up to every man in the audience asking if they were rich and then walking away in disgust when they said no! This somewhat mortifying scene did, however, give us a chance to find out who watches drag in the States. The audience turned out to be largely straight with lots of people on date nights, which felt somewhat curious. One woman had brought her teenaged daughter to the club for her eighteenth birthday. The Mum was a hard-faced, sallow-cheeked woman who must have been considerably younger than me. The drag queen got chatting to her and asked why they were there, "well it's her eighteenth birthday" said the Mum in a deep Texan drawl, "so we've taken her to get her first tattoo, had her nipples done, and now she's good to go!" I instantly imagined my Mum taking me to a drag club at the age of 18 and saying something similar! Only in the States! I guess at least she was taking her daughter to a gay bar and expanding her mind a little!
Drag queens here are tipped as they mime. People stand up, walk to the performance area, and hand the girls a dollar, which usually gets them a little peck on the cheek. It was a bit gross to watch the old, creepy men standing waiting for their kisses. Their lips quivering and salivating. Their palms sweating with excitement.
Oh yes... and the vast majority of Texans are obese!
The Panhandle of Texas, where we were passing through, is deadly flat. You can look out over vast expanses of plain with only a distant factory or a wind farm to break the monotony. It's the first area of the States we've encountered where there's been evidence of large-scale farming.
We set off at 8am and fairly rapidly turned off the I-40 at Groom, which is famous in the area for its 200-foot high, white, stainless steel cross which you can see for miles. There's a curious juxtaposition going on in the area because the cross is now surrounded by a wind farm, so there are tall white structures jostling for attention as far as the eye can see! As Nathan said, "I think these wind turbines are graceful and elegant and a great force for good, whereas this cross seems to me to be just graceful and elegant."
At the foot of the cross is a deeply uncomfortable and rather nauseating statue of Jesus weeping whilst holding a foetus. A stone plaque reads: "dedicated to the sanctity of life. In loving memory of the innocent victims of abortion." There are times when I simply despise Christianity!
Far quirkier and more interesting is the Leaning Water Tower of Groom. The water towers here are more like water butts: large canisters elevated from the ground by metal structures. Groom's water tower leans at a preposterous and perilous angle. Two of the metal structure's legs are actually off the ground, suggesting the water tower is just one heavy wind away from toppling down.
Further down Historic Route 66 is McClean, which is about as evocative and charming an old town you're likely to find. Yet again, the I-40 has done for this town and very few businesses remain. The high street - Route 66 itself - is filled with the usual assortment of garages with trees growing though them, and sad-looking, boarded-over diners. But the locals have obviously started to realise there's money to be made from Route 66 tourism. The town feels legitimated entirely unchanged since the 1950s. You can walk down the middle of the empty street and let your imagination soar. It's entirely silent but for the sound of signposts creaking in the wind. What dramas, comedies and tragedies were played out on this tarmac when this town was in its heyday? Did it witness the pitiful scene of countless refugees escaping the dust bowl in Oklahoma migrating to California?
The only place open in the town, apart from a lone garage, was the Barbed Wire Museum. Again, only in America - and probably only on Route 66! It houses the most peculiar selection of objects. There were collections of sad irons, cruet sets, nautical knots and thimbles. There were photos of the dust bowl, of huge clouds of dust as high as a three storey building engulfing people, cars and homes. I realised today how little I know about this period of American history and immediately bought a book from the museum to educate myself.
The back section of the museum was dedicated to barbed wire, and there were samples of every known type of the stuff displayed in case after case. Who knew there was so much to learn about barbed wire? Dotted about the museum were sculptures made of the stuff. Rabbits, armadillos, a scorpion, a cowboy, a little urban scene... it was charmingly eccentric, and I was a little sad to see that its total number of visitors last month was just 658. How on earth does a place like that survive? It's apparently been there for 27 years, however, so it's doing something right. The lovely lady behind the counter tells me the museum is the product of 12 different barbed wire nuts pooling their individual collections. The building it's housed in used to be a bra factory. One type of under-wiring to another!
40 or so miles out of McClean, we left Texas and entered Oklahoma, our seventh state on this journey. Our first mini-stop was in the ghost town of Texola, which sits on a very charming section of the Old Route 66. Texola has an official population of just 36, who live in the few buildings which aren't blowing away into the prairie. We sat, for some time, outside a ruined gas station. There was an old rocking chair which we positioned in front of a rusty truck. Nathan did some knitting whilst he rocked.
From Texola, we drove along Route 66 to a town called Erick, where we visited Sandhill's Curiosity Shop, which is not actually a shop. People go to the place to meet a rather wonderful eccentric called Harley, who is a sort of modern-day troubadour who lives within an assortment of Route 66 ephemera which he collected with his wife over a 30 year period. His wife, Annabelle, is sadly no longer with us. Harley is utterly warm-hearted and wears his red neck status as a true badge of honour. Anyone who comes into his shop is invited to look around, sit down and listen to his pearls of wisdom. He's a hill-billy guru. If you're lucky he'll treat you to a little performance. After gargling a huge swig of Jack Daniels, he sang "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" and "Crazy" for us. He's an amazing guitarist, a true showman and he performs with an astounding amount of feeling. I was really quite touched by his version of Crazy.
He took to calling me "Baby Boy Benjy" and went on at length to Nathan about his lovely speaking voice, "you're such a sweet boy. I could make a hellava woman out of you!"
We asked him at one point what his favourite item was in his collection. He responded that it was actually the people who came to visit him. What a legend!
In Oklahoma, the countryside becomes greener and more rolling. The sky feels rather wide, and the earth is bright orange, but, if you don't look too carefully, you could trick yourself into thinking you were in the UK. Until, that is, you see some of the billboards by the side of the road, the most hideous of which simply said "Christ" on one side, and, on the other, the words "right to bear arms." Desperate. Road kill is the other thing which separates this area from the UK. There seem to be a plethora of dead armadillos, raccoons and skunks. It's worth pointing out that the smell of a dead skunk is almost identical to the smell of the drug skunk. A little research reveals that this is actually the reason the drug is called skunk.
We stopped off at Oklahoma City in the late afternoon for lunch in the (locally) feted Bricktown, which seems to be a set of Victorian warehouses sitting on an old canal, whose water is bright green. We ate in a lovely little restaurant called Jazzmos.
As usual for this part of the world, there was almost nothing for vegetarians on the menu, but I did ascertain that the Caesar Salad didn't have an anchovy dressing, so it was somewhat blissful to finally have a plate of food which felt healthy.
We stopped off at the memorial park to the 168 people killed when the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building was bombed on April 19th 1995. The monument is very well thought through, incredibly dignified and really very moving. The most poignant part is almost certainly the Field of Empty Chairs, set out in nine rows to represent where each of the victims was located in the nine floors of the building when the bomb went off. 19 of the chairs are half-sized to represent the children killed in the blast, the large majority of whom were in the building's day care centre, which, by the situation of the chairs , had to be on the second floor.
They have kept a small section of the original building's wall, upon which a list of survivors is printed. I was rather touched by the inclusion of the names of survivors, whom I think are fairly often overlooked.
It's a beautifully calming spot. Bells from the church opposite echo on one of the monument's gates, creating an intriguing sonic wash.
The fact that such a huge amount of attention was poured into the sight gives an indication of quite how shocking this kind of act of terrorism was for Americans in those (all too recent) days. I'm sure no one could ever have imagined what was to come...
We drove back onto Historic Route 66 to visit Arcadia and a garage-cum-diner called Pops, which has a 66-foot-tall pop bottle-shaped sign outside. The garage sells over 500 different types of soda, so we bought a variety for a taste test which we sampled sitting by a red, round barn which has, apparently, always been an iconic pit-stop for those riding the Free Road, as it's know around here. All of the drinks were disgusting. I don't believe a single real piece of fruit made its way into anything we drank.
We drove Route 66 to Tulsa as the sun sank in the sky. Oklahoma is such a green state, and the coppery light on the trees was magical against the blue sky. I never thought I'd travel to America and find that it was Oklahoma which reminded me so thoroughly of home. What with the pinky-red earth, the rolling vistas covered in oak woods, the deep green pastures and glorious tree tunnels, I could have been back in Warwickshire, to the extent that I started to feel a little homesick. Funnily enough, five miles down the road, we entered a town called Warwick. I wonder if the person who named it also felt the place was reminiscent of Shakespeare's County?
As the shadows started to lengthen, we drove through the delightful town of Chandler - probably one of the most beautiful, and best-preserved towns on the old Route 66. It's literally like stepping out of a car into the 1950s. I should have worn my suit and two-coloured brogues today! Towns like Chandler and Stroud, further up the road, feel like they've really embraced, and are maximising on the tourist potential of Route 66. I think perhaps this area of Oklahoma is more opulent than New Mexico and Texas, and is therefore in more of a position for money to breed money. And just as I was beginning to fall in love with Oklahoma, we rounded a corner, and there, painted in huge letters all over a stunning Victorian building, "Trump: Make America Great Again." Bleughhh.
I got chatting to a line of very oddly-shaped people in a gas station in a place called Sapulpa, where petrol only costed $1.94 per gallon. I think they were intrigued by my accent and wanted to know if I was "doing 66." We had a lovely chat and they introduced me to a newspaper on the counter called "Just Busted," which is filled with the mug shots of people who have recently been arrested in the state. It seemed to be hugely popular with the people I was chatting to. They really enjoy looking at the pictures of nut-jobs and hearing about the crimes they've committed. Yet again... only in America!