10 Cadillacs buried nose-down in a Texas alfalfa field recollect an era of bluster and bravado.
The New York Times ⎢ Travel ⎢ January 11, 1987
"DON'T MESS WITH TEXAS" read the signs at the state line. It was the non-wimpy approach to highway beautification, an anti-littering campaign that didn't say please.
The man on the radio was hawking a Bible Challenge Contest (''the answers are in the Book'') and an 800-number hot line for Satanists, drug addicts and prostitutes who needed help. Outside was wide-horizon ranch country, a land so flat and treeless you could watch a grain elevator appear as a distant point on the horizon, loom larger and larger as the miles rolled by and finally glide past your window and be gone. We were well shy of the halfway mark on a 10-day journey from Los Angeles to New York, but after two nights in the small-town artiness of Santa Fe it felt good to be whizzing across the high plains of Texas toward Amarillo.
Amarillo is a town with more millionaires than Santa Fe and maybe even more art, but it's not the sort of place that has quaint adobe shopping centers or a lot of galleries featuring native handicrafts. Amarillo's major native handicraft is the atomic bomb, which is assembled in the local Pantex plant, a place that does not offer tours. Georgia O'Keeffe once taught there, but the art Amarillo's known for now is on a whole different scale.
Out on Boys Ranch Road is the "Floating Mesa," a flat-topped escarpment with its middle third wrapped in blue plastic so the top seems to float on air. Jutting out into a lake is Robert Smithson's "Amarillo Ramp," which looks like it belongs in a parking garage except that it's made out of earth and it doesn't lead to anything. And on the western outskirts, in an alfalfa field beside Interstate 40, is the Ant Farm's "Cadillac Ranch": 10 battered Cadillacs, huge finned relics from the late 40's to the early 60's, buried nose-down in the ground at the precise angle of the Great Pyramid of Egypt. The "Cadillac Ranch" combines the monumentality of Stonehenge with the mystery of an auto graveyard. It marks the apogee of the American century.
Both the "Ranch" and the "Ramp" owe their existence to Stanley Marsh 3d, a man who has been messing with Texas for some time now. Marsh inherited a fortune in oil and has parlayed that into a small media empire, but his taste in civic monuments has earned him a certain notoriety. Amarillo is not the sort of place where you can take a sledgehammer to 10 perfectly good Cadillacs and leave them half-buried in the ground with impunity, no matter what kind of money you have. For years the ''Cadillac Ranch'' was ignored in Amarillo's official tourist literature in favor of more conventional attractions like the Amarillo Livestock Auction and the International Helium Monument. (Amarillo, one learns at a display in the rest area outside of town, sits atop the largest helium field in the free world.) None of these are major draws, however, and even Amarillo's most fervent boosters are likely to admit that it's the sort of place most folks just drive through on their way to some place else. The ''Cadillac Ranch'' exists for them, a drive-by attraction in a drive-through town.
Which was exactly what I had in mind. I quickly discovered that it's not all that easy to find any more. In 1974, when the members of the Ant Farm collective flew in to set the cars in concrete and bury them in the ground, the site was well out in the country. Now it's on the edge of town, half-lost in a clutter of motels and RV parks, with a shopping center just down the road. Out on the plains, 10 Cadillacs sticking out of the ground might be visible for a couple of miles. Here you could miss them altogether, which is what we did. On our second pass we caught sight of them on the right, rowed up together in the middle of a large, square field several hundred yards from the highway. They looked surprisingly small.
They also looked surreal, like the product of some extraterrestial event. In Arizona we'd been lured off the Interstate by an official-looking sign promising a meteor crater of some significance. Six miles across the desert later we'd discovered that the meteor had apparently landed next to a parking lot and an ugly brick building that was now being used as a gift shop and ticket booth for the crater. If the crater had been left by a giant Cadillac we might have stayed. Certainly these cars, with their flaring tail fins and their rakish tilt, looked like they might have cruised in through the stratosphere and embedded themselves in the earth, zap! zap! zap! — an intergalactic precision flying team sending who knows what message. Maybe they were the chariots of the gods. We decided to stop for a visit.
This was in itself a perverse act. The whole point of the "Cadillac Ranch" is that you don't stop for it; it's like a billboard, and nobody stops at billboards. Nonetheless we pulled off the Interstate at the next exit, turned left across the railroad tracks to Amarillo Boulevard — the old Route 66 — and worked our way back to the service road on the right side of the highway. There was no parking lot, no gift shop, no ticket booth; the ''Ranch'' in its neglect existed in a pristine state, out of sight even of the shopping center. It was fenced in with barbed wire, but halfway down the road was a small farm gate, closed but with a well-worn path leading directly across the field to the cars. We parked next to a huge puddle from the previous day's rain and climbed the gate.
The Cadillacs had long since been discovered by teen-agers armed with spray paint. What had been multicolored was now a dull red and scrawled with messages: "Joe + Diane," "Wild and Innocent," "Brett L. -n- Laura S. 4ever." There was an air of ruination about, a post-apocalyptic suggestion of a once-great civilization that had enjoyed a brief rococo phase before going over the edge. The earth around the cars was slightly sunken, as at a grave. Black and loamy, it covered the front seats and dashboards. Jagged hunks of glass stuck out of the window frames. Tires were slashed, rear seats unsprung. Birds were singing all around, and from the Interstate you could hear the lonely whine of traffic. We walked back to the service road, our shoes caked with mud, and headed east into a wraparound sunset.
The next morning, over breakfast at the Country Kitchen, we discussed the day's itinerary. The place was like something out of a Sam Shepard play, a white metal shack beside a dusty country road where motherly women dished out scrambled eggs and sausage biscuits while a statuesque blonde lingered idly in the kitchen as if dreaming of escape. The only place to go seemed to be the Last Chance Liquor Store next door. We sat at the counter and spread out a map and decided to take Route 66 out of town.
Half an hour later we were driving through a neon strip that looked like a set from The Twilight Zone. Amarillo Boulevard dated from the same era as the cars in the ''Cadillac Ranch'' and seemed to be in roughly the same condition. We passed through a desultory gantlet of lonely cocktail lounges, deserted hamburger joints and neon motels: the Crystal Pistol Burlesque, the Zest-E Burger, the Silver Spurs Motel, the Wagon Wheel Motel, the Sneak Joint, the Alibi Lounge. Jet fighters streaked overhead, dust blew across the road. At the edge of town, next to a white cinderblock lounge (''Texas Giggilos,'' read the sign, ''Ladies Night Every Saterday''), we found an icon as full of pathos as the ''Ranch'': the Trail Drive-In. It had a large ''For Sale'' sign and several ''No Trespassing'' signs plastered across the front, but that didn't hide the faded grandeur of its cinderblock screen. We turned into a rutted entryway and parked.
The Trail was a drive-in that was built to last. Other drive-ins may have put their screens on stilts; the Trail's was more solid than the Alamo. High walls flanked it on both sides, but we found a doorway that led to the playground, where kids had doubtless frolicked beneath the flickering light of High Noon and Shane. It was choked with weeds now, the broken-down swings all covered in rust. A boarded-up refreshment stand stood out in the parking area like a pink bunker, surrounded by speaker poles that stuck out of the ground at crazy angles. In the distance a single grain elevator rose out of the plains. It suddenly struck me how prophetic Stanley Marsh's vision had been: the Texas plains of the 50's, full of bluster and bravado, half-buried now in anticipation of archeology majors from the next millennium. We got in the car and drove on. ■
Frank Rose is a contributing editor of Esquire.