Among The Cowboys

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The biggest roadside attraction along I-40 is the row of ten classic Cadillacs half buried, at the angle of the Great Pyramid, with tail fins upthrust, at Stanley Marsh’s Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. The models range from 1946 to 1964. Marsh told me he wanted them to look as if they had been planted by members of some high civilization.

 

The biggest roadside attraction along I-40 is the row of ten classic Cadillacs half buried, at the angle of the Great Pyramid, with tail fins upthrust, at Stanley Marsh’s Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. The models range from 1946 to 1964. Marsh told me he wanted them to look as if they had been planted by members of some high civilization.

Marsh’s brother was a friend of mine back East, and in the spring of 1992 I drove from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I lived at the time, to Amarillo to visit Stanley. He had said he would introduce me to some cowboys. “You’ll have to drink with them and f— with them for at least a month before you can begin to understand what they’re all about,” he warned. Heading east on 1-40, I passed Zuzax, New Mexico, filing it away for the next Geography game. There was already a billboard in Moriarty for the Big Texan, Amarillo’s largest restaurant, which offers a free seventy-two-ounce steak if you can eat it in an hour. On past Pastura and Colonias, Endee, and the motel-rich Tucumcari, and after a while the interstate ascended to the vast tableland of the Texas Panhandle known variously as the High Plains, the South Plains, and the Staked Plain (supposedly because early Spanish explorers pounded stakes at intervals so they could retrace their way). The earth by now was so flat you could see that it was actually curved.

THEY CARRY ON AN ELEMENTAL AMERICAN TRADITION THAT IS SURPRISINGLY RECENT AND HAS BEEN DYING FOR HALF THE TIME IT’S BEEN ALIVE

This was the area Capt. R. B. Marcy dubbed in an 1849 report “the great Sahara of North America.” On the High Plains the distance between water could be eighty miles. There was little relief, apart from the dramatic gash of Palo Duro Canyon, where the Red River rises and the Comanches had one of their major encampments. The Comanches would return triumphantly to the canyon from raids in Mexico with bananas and parrot feathers. Then, in 1874, Col. Ronald MacKenzie drove off and killed their pony herd, which was almost two thousand strong, and marched the stunned Comanches to a reservation in Oklahoma. By then caravans of prairie schooners and Conestogas were rolling across the plains, and buffalo hunters were taking as many as a hundred skins a day. After the plains were cleared of buffalo and Indians, cattle were moved in and the range was fenced with barbed wire.

SOME RANCHERS HERD WITH FOUR-WHEELERS, JAY SAID, BUT “THE MOUNTED COWBOY IS STILL IRREPLACEABLE. HE ISN’T GOING TO VANISH ANY TIME SOON.”

The stench of thousands of cattle in the feed yard at Wildorado, just west of Amarillo, was detectable even at seventy miles an hour. Then Stanley Marsh’s Cadillacs, painted baby blue, hove into view.

I found Stanley, a jovial, rubicund fifty-four-year-old, playing croquet in his office, which took up the entire top floor of the Team Bank Tower, the tallest building in town, soon to be the First Bank Tower (Team Bank being one of the notorious recently failed savings and loans). The building’s name had changed a dozen times since Stanley had been up there, monitoring Amarillo and the world. “The Texas Panhandle is kind of like Uruguay,” he told me, “and Amarillo is the capital of it. We make no finished products except for atomic bombs, which we are the only source of, but I feel like everything that comes in and out of here I should get a percentage of. My secret ambition is to persuade the Panhandle to secede, and I would become its dictator.”

Amarillo (named for the yellow flowers that bloom on the banks of its creek in spring) was an insignificant cow town and buffalo-hide depot (the roof and partitions of its first hotel were made of buffalo hides, which were in much more plentiful supply than lumber) until it became the junction of two railroad lines in 1874, whereupon it boomed. It had a whole street of whorehouses. Bankers and aristocrats from London and Edinburgh bought up much of the Panhandle and created vast cattle kingdoms. Oil was discovered in the Panhandle in 1921, natural gas a few years earlier, but the gas didn’t have much value until World War II, when German U-boats were sinking oil barges that departed from Galveston and an overland route was needed. A big oil pipeline that could also deliver natural gas was opened to St. Louis. “Natural gas is real efficient if millions of people are together,” Stanley explained. It made his father, Stanley junior, a fortune, which enabled Stanley III to devote himself to being a character, and as one of his friends told me, he works hard at it.