On the Road – American Midwest 2013

The American roadside is one of the romantic ideals that often draws people into the idea of cross-country road-trips. All of the weird things that await you with complete and unabashed sincerity make you wonder how on earth people can survive in such a way… and that’s the beauty of it: America is massively corporate and consumerist, with huge billboards by the side of every road, and chains for everything you can imagine, but step a little to the side and you find that if you want to live an isolated and eccentric lifestyle, you can. The US has a lot of space for the weirdest people around, and I like weirdos.

Middle of nowhere, Kansas.
Take this man, for example. Flying along what would be a dual carriageway if it was back home, and in amongst massive trucks we came across this chap.

When I say ‘came across’, I really mean that Grace almost ran him over when he appeared out of nowhere from behind a car in front.

I wish I had the balls to be like this guy.

Starting out from Colorado and heading towards Kansas felt great… soaked in caffeine and stocked up with the usual paraphernalia that seems to accrue whenever people spend any length of time in a car, we were finally on our way.

It might be easy (and completely justified) to bash the consumer-based nature of America, but one of the benefits that immediately became apparent was the frequency of the roadside rest stops. Even where there was no shops or petrol stations for a long stretch, you were never too far from a well kept toilet in a specially designated park… complete with vending machines, obviously.

I’m sure when most people think of Kansas they have an idea of the rolling flatness of the high plains. It was here that I got to see my very first genuine tumbleweed. Years of watching cartoons where such a thing was symbolic of boredom and the middle of nowhere, I had begun to doubt that such a thing actually existed. Lo and behold, Kansas was the place.

By now, I’ve covered a fair amount of ground in the US, and I’ve by large managed to avoid some of the more nutcase elements such as the militant anti-abortion mob. As soon as we crossed into Kansas though, there were large signs along the route that made their feelings quite clear.

Compared to those that just said ‘GOD’ in giant letters, ‘Thank Mom for choosing life’ was one of the more eloquent. Although, following that logic, I thought I’d like to go back and put up my own sign that said ‘If only Klara Hitler had been Pro-Choice’.

Not sure it would have been shown the appreciation it deserved.

My favourite has to be the one that just had Jesus emerging from a field of wheat, clutching more wheat… No words, just wheat. As someone with a gluten intolerance, if Jesus came back grasping wheat I’d be less than impressed.

What struck me in particular by Kansas was that despite its overtly backward views on many things, the skyline was literally filled with wind turbines. I’m not sure exactly of the full scale of the beast, but it seemed like they went on for miles. Having been to Whitelee in Glasgow, I was convinced that it must have been smaller than these. However, a quick Wikipedia check shows that the largest windfarm in Europe dwarves all of the sites in Kansas.

That said, the fact that these things were right there on the side of the road, as far as the eye could see, rather than hidden away in moors somewhere was something to behold. Not shying away from having the turbines in full view, and with hours of land ready to house them, it made me stop and think just how easy it would be for the US to completely blow Scotland out of the water in this area. It shouldn’t come as a big surprise really, but whilst people here sit and bang on about how turbines will ‘destroy the wilderness’ in areas that nobody even lives, the Americans are throwing these things up left, right, and centre. We need to completely change our attitude on this or we’re going to get left behind completely. If even if one of the world’s biggest polluters (and climate change skeptics) is filling their landscapes with wind turbines, we need to get a grip before it’s too late.

Windfarms in Kansas
Pictured below is a full size blade from an actual wind turbine, lying in a park in a town called Weatherford, Oklahoma. According to Wikipedia this place is about a fifth of the size of the current capacity of Whitelee in Glasgow – and is the second largest in the State. How come places like this have more pride in these things than we do?

The shot doesn’t really show the size of the thing, nor does it show the chemicals used on the grass (well, what one can only assume was chemicals… it could well have been some horrible plant). After sitting on the grass here for a short break in the sun, we found that my arms and Grace’s legs had broken out in some sort of weird rash. Good job Weatherford.

Apparently this place was a city, although at a population of only 10,000, I refuse to recognise it as such. I mean, come on… even Inverness has about 72,000 – and it’s hardly a bustling metropolis. There was, or once was at least, a Kodak manufacturing plant here. I’m sure it won’t be there for long sadly… Partly thanks to scumbags like me who buy expired film. Although I blame the digital shooters more.

As it turned out (and despite our happy picture below), Kansas turned out to be a fairly low point after we finally reached the City of Wichita. The place was empty… completely devoid of any signs of life except the kinds you wouldn’t want to get involved in. There’s something horribly eery a place filled with big buildings with nothing going on. It’s the scurge of a lot of American cities, where people all live in the suburbs and commute in… leaving the ‘city centres’ fairly bleak and desolate. Without going into too many details of the whole experience, some of the motels that we in the UK are so accustomed to seeing in films really are as bad as they seem. Coming from Glasgow I’ve been in some fairly sticky situations and undesirable places, but I’ve never felt quite as unsafe for such a prolonged period of time.

We had planned to have a bit of an explore around Wichita, including the abandoned Joyland Amusement Park but there was a bad feeling lurking in the air, and so we both decided it was time to ‘get the fuck out of Kansas’ as quickly as possible.

El Reno, Oklahoma
We arrived in Oklahoma City two days after the tornado had hit Moore County…. not even aware of the twister until we were well on our way to Kansas – at which point it was too late to do much about it. When people got in touch to tell us what had happened, I initially assumed it was just another storm, like the countless others we had already been told about. I didn’t quite realise that it was all over the news back home as well as here… so we went in not knowing entirely sure what to expect.

In truth, the affected area lay south of Oklahoma City, which is the point at which we turned East, and so we didn’t see much of the destruction that had been wrought. The whole area was pretty tightly sealed off as well as far as we could tell, to stop people from looting in the aftermath. Apparently just days after we left, the entire route that we had travelled along was hit by more devastating tornadoes, such as El Reno that’s pictured above. By some incredible happenchance, we managed to make our entire trip right in the window between all of the extreme weather. For a fairly crazy video, have a look at this.

As for Oklahoma City itself… well, it started out well with Queens of the Stone Age and Nirvana coming over the radio… but turned out to be another fairly empty American non-City – with a handful of things spread out across a huge area, with people commuting in. Sure, there might be really interesting areas in places like this if you go to the right bits, but the absence of a lively City Centre is still such an alien concept to me, and really makes you appreciate the amount of things we have going on at home that are so easily accessible.

Intrepid adventurers - narrowly missing tornadoes
Even after being left suspicious of everyone and everything after our experience in Wichita, along the way we did manage to find some real roadside gems. Despite looking incredibly run down, and with a paint job that leaves you in no doubt as to what sort of food is served inside, this place had some of the best Mexican food I’ve ever tasted. I had to stifle a bit of laughter as the lady who was showing us what was on offer inevitably went from dish to dish to reveal pork, pork, beef, and more pork – not exactly helpful for the vegetarian of our party. It all worked out in the end though, and cost practically nothing in relative terms.

The finest Mexican food in Amarillo
As I mentioned in the last post, it was easy to get dis-heartened by the dilapidated nature of some of the sights touted as Route 66 classics, and to see that motels with incredible signs and art-deco style frontages were now nothing but cheap rooms for women of the night to conduct their business. Many of the towns were strange beyond the point of charm, and whilst this our perspective may have been soured by our experience in Kansas, I fear that this is the modern reality of smalltown America in many ways – left behind by consumer capitalism, doomed to a slow and painful decay… with the difficulty in differentiating between the quirky and the crap increasingly difficult.

That said, all is not lost. As I made an executive decision to skip staying overnight in a Route 66 ‘highlight’ that turned out to be a dump, and instead power on through another 3-4 hours towards Amarillo, things took on a different light. Speeding along the long, open highways as the sun began to set over the Texan landscape – the sky burned deep red and purple in a way you can only imagine – I looked round at Grace sat beside me and realised that this was the true romance of the great American roadtrip. Yeah, things might turn out to be nothing like your expectations… but when that happens, you can jump in the car and leave it all behind, knowing that something completely different lies down the vast, open road.

The real magic of the road

all pictures taken on expired Konica VX200 35mm film – Lomo LC-A.


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