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July 23, 2014

I mentioned to Sam a few days ago that the many defunct motels, restaurants, and gas stations we’ve passed along Route 66 remind me of one of my favorite poems: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The king in the poem, Ozymandias, is so hubristic that he has a massive statue of himself made with perhaps the most boastful inscription possible: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” But by the time the traveler in the poem comes upon the statue it’s in ruins, reduced to just a pair of legs and a broken face; the works he wants us to look at are all gone, turned to sand as if they never existed at all. Shelley makes a powerful statement about the fleeting nature of success and power and material wealth.

The Hamster and I have driven 2,500 miles since we left home last week, and I can’t tell you how many enormous neon signs we’ve seen literally pointing the way to motels and restaurants that are either run down, permanently shuttered, or completely nonexistent. Those big neon signs, I was telling Sam, are like the inscription at the base of the statue, calling on everyone to look at something that’s no longer there.

In Oklahoma, however, the scene has been very different. We left Oklahoma City this morning and continued west on Route 66, only this time as we passed through towns we saw life. We saw motel signs that pointed to actual, functioning motels. We saw billboards for restaurants that were open when we passed them. And we saw all sorts of quirky celebrations of the Mother Road and of the communities is passes through.

Today we stopped off in Clinton, OK, to shop at an Indian trading post. (Well, browse more than shop–it turned out to be a ripoff and we didn’t buy anything.) We bought gas from busy gas stations. We passed through towns with vibrant and charming Main Streets. We stopped in Elk City to visit the National Route 66 Museum, which was fun and creatively designed. We got pulled over by a state trooper who recommended various other stops for us to make on our way.

OK, let me back up for a second and tell you about that state trooper. We had just left Oklahoma City and I was starting to get frustrated at Route 66’s low speed limits, which kept dipping down to 45 and even 35, when I got pulled over. I was pretty sure I wasn’t speeding but I couldn’t imagine what else I had done wrong, and I started to wonder whether I had missed a speed trap or a stop sign or something. The young officer walked up and politely asked me for my license and insurance card. I complied. As he looked them over he commented on the New York license plates and asked if we were moving to Oklahoma or just on vacation. I told him we’re on vacation, driving on Route 66. He asked how far we’re going. I told him all the way to California, and mentioned that we were planning to spend some time today in Amarillo, Texas. He recommended that we have dinner at a steakhouse there that serves a 72-ounce steak, which is free if you actually finish the thing. At this point I started thinking about the “Old 96er” steak that John Candy ate in The Great Outdoors, but I quickly snapped out of it because I STILL HAD NO IDEA WHAT I HAD DONE WRONG! Finally he explained that he had pulled me over for … improper use of seat belts. As he said this I looked down at my seat belt–yup, still buckled. I looked over at Sam’s, and his was buckled, too. I looked back up at the officer quizzically. He explained that my shoulder strap was draped over my upper arm and in Oklahoma the law is that it has to be fully over the shoulder. Seriously. This is why he pulled me over–for wearing my seat belt a few inches too low. He said he’d let me off with a warning. Then he took my paperwork back to his cruiser and came back a minute later with an actual written warning with a preprinted message about highway safety and hand-filled-in info about my seat belt use. My mind was still trying to piece itself back together from being blown by the knowledge that a person wearing a seat belt can get pulled over for not properly wearing a seat belt, and then I had to find a way to psychologically grapple with the fact that there is such a thing as a preprinted warning. While layers of disbelief were causing my brain to malfunction the officer pointed out that in the place on the warning where he writes where he stopped me, he made sure to write “Route 66” so that I can keep it as a souvenir. Then he told us about how he and some of the other deputies went to that steak place in Amarillo and the biggest guy in their group was unable to finish the steak, but that there was a picture on the wall of a 90-pound older woman who had finished it. Then he told us that there’s a historic fort just off Route 66 in El Reno, which was the next town over. And he wished us a good trip and sent us on our way.

It’s a good thing Sam was with me because parts of me still don’t believe that any of this actually happened. If you add up our four major road trips, I’ve driven somewhere around 20,000 miles, and this was the first time I’ve been pulled over. I knew it was bound to happen at some point; I just always figured it would be for something that, you know, is a real thing.

Well, with that out of the way, we broke up our very long drive to Amarillo* a couple of hours later by stopping off at the Route 66 museum.

I swear I kept my seat belt properly over my shoulder the whole time. I do find it more comfortable to wear it on my lower shoulder/upper arm, but you know what they say: when in Oklahom, do as the Oklahomans do.

The museum was much more impressive and interesting than the one we saw in Illinois. This one takes up a whole city block and is made up of several little buildings, mostly connected to each other, that are made up to look like a typical small town that people might have passed through on Route 66 back in its heyday.

Route 66 Museum

Inside the museum is loaded with classic cars and motorcycles from the 20s through the 70s, and even an old truck made up to look like what the Joads might have driven in The Grapes of Wrath.

The Joadmobile

On our way out a guy asked me to take a picture of him and his son outside the museum. The dad noticed Sam’s Knicks shirt–it turns out they live in Syracuse and are rooting as hard as we are for Carmelo Anthony to succeed.

Anyway, we eventually crossed the border into Texas, where we were greeted by the nicest rest stop I’ve ever seen. That’s saying a lot, considering how many rest stops I’ve been to in how many states. But this one was special. For starters, there was the view:


Then there were the picnic tables, which were each sheltered from the oppressive sun with a half-tepee topped with the state flag.

Texas Rest Stop

Did you notice the charcoal grill on the right side of the photo? It’s shaped like Texas!

Texas-shaped grill

And inside the building there were not only clean bathrooms but also an interactive educational display about how the state uses wind power.

Texas Rest Stop

Anyway, that was one of the highlights for Texas’s chunk of Route 66. Most of the rest of it was abandoned businesses or just nothingness. And then, suddenly, Amarillo. We spent only a few hours in Amarillo, so I could be wrong about this, but it seemed like the entire city is nothing but insanely inexpensive steakhouses and even more impossibly inexpensive motels (many places advertised rooms for $29). Of course we found the restaurant with the 72-ounce steak:

The Big Texan Steak Ranch

We also visited the Discovery Center to see the Helium Time Monument, a really strange sculpture outside the building. It’s a helium molecule (Amarillo is the helium capital of the U.S., as I’m sure you knew), and it’s also a time capsule, and just for fun it’s also a sundial.

Helium Time Monument


But that’s just the tip of the weirdness iceberg when it comes to Amarillo. Because near the southern city limits we found this:


Yup. Two vast and trunkless legs of stone, just like the poem says. And around them, nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level field stretches far away. The legs are on private property and there’s a locked gate. But right in front of the gate is a very official-looking bronze plaque that claims (falsely, and with tongue in cheek) that it was these very legs that inspired Shelley’s poem.

We had originally planned to spend a couple of hours going horseback riding just outside Amarillo, but when I spoke to the ranch lady on Sunday she said the weather forecast said it would be 98 degrees and rainy, and that they don’t take the horses out when it’s that hot or when it’s raining. That’s certainly understandable, but when we got to Amarillo it was sunny, clear, and in the low 90s without even a hint of humidity, so I wondered if the woman falsified the forecast just to get rid of us. However, as we were leaving the Ozymandias legs the sky suddenly went from clear and bright blue to very, very dark gray and we saw several lightning bolts off in the distance.

But back to those giant legs for a second–you probably noticed the graffiti. Well that’s nothing compared to what I’m about to show you. The main attraction in Amarillo is Cadillac Ranch, a row of 10 vintage Cadillacs with their noses buried into the ground at the same precise angle. It too, is behind a gate on private property, but the owner, a local millionaire (and possible sexual predator) who died just last month, encourages not just tresspassing but participation. Some people come to look at the cars, but most people bring a can or two of spray paint and “decorate” the cars. Over the years the cars have been stripped to their frames but as you can see there’s still plenty of room for painting.


Cadillac Ranch

The Hamster and I thought we were well prepared by bringing a can of metallic red spray paint and we even thought to bring disposable gloves to keep ourselves (and thus our own car) from getting painted. Once we got there we say that the real pros brought multiple colors so that they could first paint themselves a blank canvas and then really get creative.

By this point it had started raining, and the lightning continued. Is there a better place to be in a lightning-filled rain storm than painting large, metal objects in an open field? Yes, many. So we didn’t dilly-dally, but we still had a great time checking out the cars and literally leaving our mark. Here’s some of Sam’s handiwork:

Sam at Cadillac Ranch

And here’s mine:

Cadillac Ranch

Can’t see it? Here, let me zoom in for you:

The Hamster and the Highway

A couple maybe five years older than me asked me to take their picture next to the cars. Of course it turns out they’re from Queens, and we consoled each other over the state of the Mets.

Bruce Springsteen’s song “Cadillac Ranch” is supposedly named after the car farm we had just visited. On the surface it’s a fun, rocking song but if you pay attention to the lyrics it’s actually about the inevitability of death.

My guess is that Springsteen saw Cadillac Ranch as a metaphor: all these cars that were once proud, great, and worshipped are now lying in ruins and half buried in the ground. It happens to cars just like it happened to Ozymandias.

On our way out of Cadillac Ranch we gave our remaining paint to a family that was heading in and had forgotten to bring their own. Our timing was pretty good, because as soon as we got back into the car it started raining much harder. We drove off through one of those blinding, furious summer rainstorms that are great fun to watch from a front porch but less fun to drive in, especially when you’re in tornado country. Within a few minutes, though, we had outrun the storm and we had the odd experience of seeing sun ahead of us and nothing but darkness in the rearview mirror.

As the storm passed it also became intensely windy. We had been planning to grill burgers at a rest stop for dinner but we were worried about the wind and about the rain catching up to us, so instead we stayed in the car and heated up La Briute meals, which are not fantastic but are at least hot and are the coolest science project ever.

We gained an hour as we crossed into New Mexico, so we drove a little further before finding a place to spend the night. We ended up at yet another Super 8. We even had time for a movie before I put Sam to sleep, so we watched Planet of the Apes–the original one with Charlton Heston. The Ozymandias connection didn’t occur to me right away, but the movie of course ends with a famous, massive statue of the great and mighty lying in ruins in the sand.

But before the movie, when we were checking into the motel, the front desk guy asked for my driver’s license. I couldn’t find it at first, and then found it, and I mentioned to the guy that my license wasn’t in the right place because I had been pulled over earlier and didn’t put it back properly. He asked what I was pulled over for. I told him. He said, “Where were you? Oklahoma?” I nodded. “I figured. The cops are crazy there. I go there with my buddies pretty often and they always pull us over for stuff we didn’t even know existed.”

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