The ostriches were still there in the morning. They looked as if they hadn’t moved position once in the night, and were still glancing around curiously waiting for something to happen. A gentle cacophony of braying, mooing and oinking bounced around the farmyard.
Part of the deal with staying at Hedrick’s was that you got to be shown around in the morning and introduced to a load of the animals. It meant leaving later than I would ideally have liked, but I thought it would be worth it. Especially as the only place that I was going to that day was Oklahoma.
The tour was hosted by Kathy, who had also cooked our breakfast. It started ten minutes late when the elderly couple who were also staying couldn’t be found. Kathy walked us round with a running commentary in her broad Kansan accent and took us into the pens themselves. It was the first time that I had been nudged over by a zebra while trying to take a photograph.
The old man was very friendly and offered to lend me his binoculars, which was a kind but unnecessary gesture given that the animals we were looking at were only about three feet away.
We got the chance to feed the giraffes and the kangaroos. Kathy demonstrated how to get Geoffrey the Giraffe to kiss her, by holding a carrot in her mouth and offering it to him. I was happy to turn down the chance to replicate the experience for myself, being slightly choosy about the species that I allow to lick my face.
We also learned a lot. I didn’t know that giraffes gave birth standing up and that the fall to the ground (or, more accurately, the impact upon hitting it) was what started the newborn breathing. It was quite a thing, bearing in mind that a baby giraffe would be six foot tall and weigh 200 pounds at birth. I had also always assumed that zebras were striped simply for the purpose of camouflage, but apparently the alternate black and white serve as a natural air conditioning system to regulate its internal temperature.
All in all it was a beguiling hour. It was too short a time to take it all in, but I was getting used to thinking that about a lot of what I saw. This place had been particularly charming though and I was sad to be leaving so quickly.
I was re-entering the Bible Belt, and it showed from the radio broadcasts. One programme was talking about the issue of Islam in God’s eyes. They were urging listeners not to take it out on Muslims after September 11th. As the guy carefully explained, God loves the sinner and so loves all Muslims. It’s only the sin that God hates, and so he just hates Islam and all that it stands for.
For all the charges against bin Laden’s “medieval” world view, you had to bear in mind that almost 60% of American adults believed in the physical existence of angels. Perhaps the fundamentalists in the US were not quite as extreme as the Taliban – I was unaware of any communities that actually lived to the letter of Leviticus 15 – but plenty of language about the “Christian Just War” had been bandied about since September 11th with nobody explaining how this differed from the universally reviled “Jihad”.
By noon I was in Oklahoma, which had the dubious claim to fame that it executed more people per capita each year than either Iran or China. This had been the state that had impressed me least on my previous trek across the States.
On that occasion, we’d driven east to west on Interstate 40 for 330 miles of tedium, punctuated only by the blandness of Oklahoma City. It wasn’t that it was a bad place, it was just that there was little there other than farmland. This time I was going to try the northeast corner where the Osage Nation lived, and see if things were any better there.
I drove through Ponca City (pronounced “Ponka”) and reached Pawhuska, the Osage capital, without seeing much. I had the horrible feeling that I might end up with nothing to report whatsoever from Oklahoma.
I stopped for lunch at a grim transport-style café. There wasn’t so much as a hubbub inside, more of a low groan from the lone diners mumbling to themselves.
Next door I bought two postcards for $2 each plus tax. The shop was empty except for a corpse-like young girl with a blonde bob and grey complexion behind the counter. She spoke with a slurred monotone. One of the postcards commemorated the “Trail of Tears” which the townsfolk of Pawhuska seemed to be reliving to this day.
Perhaps the thing that had really upset the Native Americans was not being uprooted from their homelands and relocated far away, but the realization that they were going to be made to live in Oklahoma.
I drove south from Pawhuska to a pretty little village called Hominy and then headed east. My illusions about the state had been far from shattered and I wanted to get out of it as quickly as possible.
I was listening again to one of the limper radio stations, when they announced the answer to that afternoon’s “Nearly impossible brain twister”. I hadn’t been tuned in when they set the conundrum, but the answer was that William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies. Perhaps it was nearly impossible if you happened not to know the book, but it struck me that it was extremely possible if you happened to have read it. It might have been more accurately called the “Quite difficult trivia question”.
As a final roll of the dice, I decided that I had just enough hair to justify stopping at a barber’s in the hope of having a chat. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be any at all in the whole of northwest Oklahoma. The last town before Arkansas was Jay and so I had a thorough search. I was just about to give up and move on when finally I spotted one. The blinds were down and a sign on the door said that hours of business were 8.00 to 5.00. Appointments not needed. I glanced at my watch. It was 5.04.
The next stop looked like it would be Bentonville in Arkansas, and so I was surprised when I saw a sign showing that a place called Grove was only five miles away. I checked my map to find that I had somehow got on the road going north. I span around and returned to Jay. At the main crossroads in town, I took a left figuring that if I were coming from the north that this must take me east. I ended up in some residential back street.
I was becoming more than a little exasperated as I high-revved a three point turn. I went back to the crossroads and went straight across, the only option that I had yet to try. That led nowhere also. I was now finding it all extremely infuriating. Perhaps there was some sort of Oklahoman conspiracy to prevent hapless visitors from ever escaping.
I roared back to town and pursued the residential street that I had previously tried. I thought that it might lead somewhere if I followed it out of town. It soon became clear that this wasn’t going to happen.
I saw a man walking down the street with perfectly coiffured hair. He’d obviously made it to the barber’s in time. I skidded to a halt, wound down my window and demanded through gritted teeth to be told how to get to Arkansas.
“You wanna go to Gravette?”
“If that’s in Arkansas, yes.”
“Hey. You’re on the wrong road here buddy.”
I’d figured that much out already. For the first time on the trip I was having difficulty controlling my temper in public. My dudgeon was not being lowered by his general insouciance.
I listened as he hummed and ha-ed and gathered that I had to take a nearby side road back to the main highway and turn right when I reached the get and go. I assumed that this was an Oklahoman term for crossroads.
With a “Yes thank you. Thank you”, I sped off leaving him still mumbling on the sidewalk. Given that I was probably the first European he had ever met, it probably didn’t do much to encourage him to make plans for any foreign trips in the near future. Then again, he probably assumed that I was from South Carolina and was just off to shoot someone in Arkansas.
Soon I was back on the highway and at the same point approaching Jay that I had been almost an hour previously. I arrived at the accursed crossroads and looked right. It led back to the street that I’d just had the conversation in. I went straight across and past the barber’s shop. It was now 6.15 and I was resigned to going to Grove and trying to get over to Arkansas via Missouri.
Fifty yards later I saw a gas station called Get ‘n’ Go and opposite it was a small side turn perpendicular to the highway with no sign. I disappeared into the concealed road and picked my way down a tree-lined lane. Two hundred yards later, a sign informed me that I was headed for Gravette AR.
Halley bloody lulleya. The most exultant feeling about Oklahoma came a couple of miles later when I left the state and entered Arkansas.
The escape had been the culmination of an unsatisfying visit to the only place to which I had no inclination ever to return. I felt like getting out of my car and flagging down any oncoming traffic to warn them that if they went much further that they would end up in the accursed Sooner state.
It was late and starting to get dark. I had no booking for the night and no numbers to try, but I was aiming for a place called Eureka Springs. The main road was overrun on both sides with motels and B&Bs of all shapes and sizes, and all decked out with colored fairy lights. A mile along the drag a turning off the highway led into town.
It was a curious place, built on the side of a couple of hills and maintained the festive atmosphere throughout. I found a hotel at the far end of the main street. The girl on reception looked like she was about three minutes away from literally dying of boredom. She was probably contemplating her next vacation in Oklahoma.
I asked about a room and was quoted $85. I winced and it provoked a remarkable reaction. She asked me if I didn’t really want to pay that much. When I nodded she said that I could have the room for $59 then. Congratulating myself on my astonishing negotiation skills, I accepted.
The receptionist recommended going out to The Chelsea, which was where the locals went to drink and wasn’t a tourist bar. Inside it was quiet, even for a Wednesday evening. Three or four people were gaggling at the bar but all the tables were empty. I ordered a pint of Bass and sat there ear-wigging.
The main topic of conversation concerned what music the barman should put on next. One guy who seemed slightly the worse for wear was lobbying for Led Zeppelin much to the disdain of the rest of the gang. I didn’t want to get involved but almost got sucked in when he turned to me and asked how my Bass was.
I told him it was fine, and he replied with an “Mmm Bass” like a slightly obtuse version of Homer Simpson. He was wearing shorts and a fishing hat under which his moustachioed face grinned inanely. He introduced himself as Hat, which was fractionally better than Shorts or Moustache I suppose. I toyed with giving my name as Shirt but ended up telling the truth.
The usual conversation followed about my trip, but for once I needed to do most of the talking. He listened intently as he tried not to fall off his bar stool and asked me whether I’d been to Iowa yet. He said that the only place worth going in Iowa was Iowa City, that is if I wanted chicks and drugs.
The subject turned to September 11th when I asked if it was normal for the bar to be that empty. Hat said that people were staying at home and I made the mistake of expressing surprise. This roused him momentarily and he banged his fist on the counter and hollered “People are fucking depressed, man” before slipping back into drooling stupor.
I found my way through town to another pub. A couple near the bar were finishing off their dinner. When they heard me speak they leant over and asked where I was from.
They were keen to know what the non-American world thought about September 11th, and whether to believe the media hype suggesting universal sympathy. I must have said something right because they bought me a drink. They didn’t come from Eureka Springs but had moved here because it was the “best city in the whole of the USA.” Strong recommendation indeed.
They claimed that there was no place like it anywhere else. Without batting an eyelid, they reassured me that the Crescent Hotel on the hill “definitely had at least five ghosts”.
The man told me that he’d run twelve different businesses in his life, “only two of which had failed”. They now ran a silversmith shop on the main street. He’d gone into jewellery because he was a “natural magpie”. He asked if I knew what that meant, and then explained to me about liking shiny things even after I’d said that I did.
He’d been to NYC to study gemology, which he pointed out was the “study of gems” in case I hadn’t guessed. They were about to leave and that gave me the excuse to walk out with them. I was keen to go to a club that was opposite the hotel. I felt as if I hadn’t spent time with anyone under forty for about three years. I don’t usually like young people’s places, but this place promised karaoke, so I kind of assumed it wouldn’t be too frenetic.
It was down in the basement and you could hear the noise from the street. It looked less of a karaoke night and more like a standard concert. A guy on the stage was crooning to a mainly female crowd that was bobbing up and down screaming. Some were holding their heads and shaking like prepubescents at an Osmonds’ concert.
Next up were three girls who sang a number together. The crowd got once more to its feet, but this time organized itself into formation for line dancing. The full barn dance ritual followed, with partners being taken in hand and swung around with dozy does and the whole works. It might not have been so strange if the song being sung wasn’t Madonna’s Get into the Groove.
I was watching from the sanctity of the bar. A girl from the dance floor who had come to the bar asked me why I wasn’t dancing. It may not have actually been an invitation, but it was enough to throw me into a blind panic.
Everyone from medical practitioners to well-meaning friends has strongly advised me never to dance in public again. Perhaps I’d had too much to drink but I had to think quickly, and blurted out something about dancing being like picking your nose or wiping your backside. They could all be great fun until you realize that somebody’s watching you.
I thought I was just being lightly conversational but her grimace suggested she hadn’t taken kindly to my rebuff. She left looking decidedly perplexed and returned to her friends on the other side of the room. When I saw her talking to some lads at a table and pointing angrily over at me, I figured that it was perhaps time to leave. I was in no mood to be challenged to a duel for using filthy language in front of Billie-Lynn-Sue or whatever her name was.