Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
November 26, 2011
“No Man’s Land,” it’s called. The Panhandle of Oklahoma is littered with abandoned ranch headquarters, dead to the world except in the imaginations of the living. It’s good country for cattle and broom corn, but people find it a little rough.
Tiny towns dot the area, names placarded along the highway such as Hooker, Slapshot, Optima and Guymon. The most famous perhaps, is the ghost town of Beer City, the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Plains. Never an official town, it lured the best and the worst with more dance halls, saloons and whorehouses than most derelicts could ever imagine.
What does the song say: “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain, / And the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet / When the wind comes right behind the rain …” If you like musicals, that’s grand. I’m guessing more photos of the Dust Bowl years were taken in Oklahoma than anywhere else.
Drawn in by the promises of Manifest Destiny, suckered homesteaders wouldn’t much care how hard the wind blew or the rattlesnakes bit once they got a taste of Oklahoma sunsets. The twilight sky comes alive, 360 degrees of a phantasmagoria of colors, breathtaking in essence.
Oklahoma can slurp you up and spit you out before you know it; it’s not a place for the faint of heart or the ne’er-do-well. You’d better have your stuff together when you hit the border or you’ll soon rue your naivete. Highway signs usually don’t tell you where you’re going, but they’ll tell you where you are, sometimes. When I inquired about a major two-lane asphalt road headed east, a grizzled black man told me it used to be marked but the wind blew the sign down, “a while back.” Make a wrong turn and it’ll cost you a hundred miles, easy. “No Vacancy” at the local inn might mean another 200 miles, or three hours, on the road. When I thought I’d reached my destination, a town so small on the Arkansas border that a blink would have missed it, there was no sign informing me. A gas station and a nondescript run-down building were all that made up the traces of civilization. As I clumped into the gas parlor, an old man followed, asking if I knew where “the hell” we were.
A tall, slender 40-something bombshell with porn princess fingernails, blue on the ends and gold glitter down to the cuticles, an unnatural blonde with jeans tight enough to expose any imperfection on her well-preserved ass, called from behind the counter. “Can I help you, honey?” They’re big on “honey” down this way, and it’s always said with the kind of tone that makes you want to believe they mean it. “You got to go that way, honey. I’ll ride down there with you, if you want, and show you.” It goes with the “honey,” I reckon, all that friendliness.
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With my cargo now in tow, a shiny new, 25-foot tandem dually trailer, proof that I didn’t come just for the scenery, I looked for a friendly interstate to light my way home. There’s a certain aura of loneliness that encapsulates professional road riders, guys who live behind windshields and are at the mercy of whatever the road throws them. He was huge, mid-50s with long, shoulder-length hair. As I got behind him in the line, he put up a hand to protect his space without ever looking my direction. Like a dog waiting for a handout, he leaned his face into the glass and his washed-out, gray eyes unshakably scanned the Subway “extras” in front of him. “More onions, gimme peppers, bacon, jack cheese. Oh, yeah, that’s good. More chicken, huh?” A forgettable man who still rattles my memory.
I crawled back in my truck, relishing the familiarity and headed into the thick ink of a midnight sky. The haunting twang of Duane Eddy’s “Rebel-Rouser” echoed throughout the cab as I pushed the pedal to the metal and ran the gears without thinking.
Gonna be home, soon.
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