"Nothing bores me more than Oklahoma's panhandle."
Trip Start Jun 25, 2010
1Trip End Jun 26, 2010
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
Where I stayed
I knew that only the panhandle of Oklahoma would be reasonable to travel through, so I spent much time desperately seeking something to do in that area that would be worthwhile. I knew it would be about 3.5 hours to travel from my office in Lone Tree, CO to the New Mexico state line. Now, the objective was to find a good spot in New Mexico to set up camp while still having some outside light. Looking at the map, it said the travel time from my office to the New Mexico/Texas border would be about 5 hours.
"Perfect", I thought, "that way we can make it a four-state road trip." The KOA campground in the border town of Clayton, NM seemed like the ideal spot. I wasn't too upset when my quick-to-back-out buddy Tom did just that, because he was easily replaceable with my friend Jon who just moved into town with his wife, Annie. Neither of them had jobs, so getting in on this roadtrip was a no-brainer. Both met me in the University of Phoenix parking lot at 4:00 that afternoon so we could leave directly from work.
A few hours into the drive, nearing the New Mexico state line, we passed by a utility van with its side painted to advertise:
SINGING WAITERS AT RINO'S! TAKE THIS EXIT TO TRINIDAD!"
We were sold.
Driving through Trinidad, which was severely under construction, we noticed it had all the elements of a good "ghost town". The buildings were old and condemned, the streets were near-empty, and the only thing missing was tumbleweeds, bouncing with the hollow wind. I wondered what happened to the lively Trinidad I had read about in books. The only thing we had heard from multiple sources was that Trinidad was the "Transsexual Capital of the World", or more derogatorily referred to as "Trannydad."
This nickname was a misconception, as I found out later that it was really just the "sex change capital of the world", where people would visit to receive the transgender surgery. It was given this designation because of Dr. Stanley Biber's procedures conducted beginning in the 1960s and continuing into present day (Dr. Marci Bowers now operates the practice). Returning to the States from Korea, the master surgeon Biber wanted to move to a town needing a surgeon, and Trinidad became his residence. He quickly developed a reputation for performing excellent work, and he received his first sex change request by a local in 1969. After consulting about the procedure with a surgeon in New York, he agreed to do it, and the success soon followed with an average of about four transgender operations per day.
Almost every building we drove by looked as if no one had set foot in it for over 30 years. Towns like these did not have many businesses, but you can bet they had at least two liquor stores. We arrived around dinner time, and we would see the legions of locals getting off work and pouring into the liquor store, turning to the bottle to cure their boredom. Despite its desolate appearance, the town was actually pretty in its unique way, the remnants of a historic city still shining through the abandoned houses and empty sidewalks.
"How long do you think that Rino's van has been there? I'm not seeing this place." I remarked to Jon, as we were about to give up on the singing waiters. Looking for a good spot to U-turn, we spotted Rino's up ahead, just on the outskirts of the "downtown Trinidad" district. The restaurant's building was old, but in a very tasteful way. It gave off the appearance that it had been the scene of a Mexican stand-off of yesteryear. The adobe exterior and poorly-leveled steps only added to the lore. Walking inside, we were surprised to see several people dining, as if the whole town congregated here for dinner.
"Table for 3? Right this way." The maitre d' sat us right by the bar, as if trying to be hospitable to folks who were clearly out-of-towners. Sitting down at the table, I looked around at all the fancy cutlery and table settings, which reminded me of my days working at Maggiano's in Richmond, VA. Then I started to worry, because I know that those scenes typically come with a hefty price. Even their menu looked eerily similar to that of "The Mag", but with even steeper prices. I suddenly felt bad for taking Jon and Annie here, knowing that both were without a job. That bad feeling quickly went away when I returned from the bathroom to see Jon toasting with an expensive Cabernet. While getting caught up with their experiences in Colorado, we were interrupted by a musical tone coming from the loudspeaker.
"NESSUN DORMA!!!" An older, bald man began bellowing.
"Yes! I love this aria." I told the two, as I was now really glad we picked this restaurant. Annie and I stuffed our faces with the chicken parmigiana, while Jon did the hard-to-fail spaghetti and meatballs. Another waitress sang Patsy Cline's Crazy as we were wrapping up our dinner. The man who sang the Puccini opera (apparently the owner) approached our table to ask if we enjoyed everything.
"It was great", we all seemed to say in unison. I asked him what we could do for fun while visiting Trinidad.
"My brother and sister both own bars in Trinidad," he spoke with a hint of a Spanish accent, "I would go there, get pretty drunk, and then have sex!" He started laughing uncontrollably, and we giggled along, rather uncomfortably. "But for real," he continues, "this town is not that fun". OK, so time to hit the road. Passing through town, Jon and I went into the liquor store to grab some beer for the night.
"What's Annie like to drink?" I asked, and he paused for a second before responding.
"Um...she won't be drinking tonight". He answers, before quickly trying to move on to the next question about beer.
"She's pregnant, isn't she, bra?" I gave him a congratulatory punch in the shoulder and shook his hand, as his face turned red. "You're going to make a great dad. Now let's celebrate with some Modelo Especials". On previous camping trips, I had discovered that this beer was perfect for these occasions. In my experience, camping usually consists concluding a fun, outdoorsy day by sitting around a bonfire with your buddies and swapping stories while drinking beer. In some cases, those beers can add up fast; so you don't want a beer that's going to do too much damage, but you don't want to compromise on the taste either. I found Negro's Modelo Especial to be the perfect balance of all the elements. Jon, was looking for a six-pack of something he hadn't yet tried, so I recommended Mirror Pond, after having great experiences with Deschutes Brewery (a microbrew company based in Bend, OR).
As we were about to cross the border from Colorado into New Mexico, I was explaining to Jon and Annie that I had never seen such a dramatic change in landscape from state-to-state. Almost immediately after you cross the border into New Mexico, the mountainous and hilly plains disappear, and turn into yellow, flat lands where you can see for miles.
After passing through Raton, NM, we had a long drive to Clayton down an empty road. What would have been an otherwise boring drive turned into what I call "Lightning Fest 2010". Every five seconds (no exaggeration), another huge bolt would blast down from a different part of the sky, unshielded from any clouds. Annie, the amateur photographer in the car, turned her camera to slow shutter speed and tried to capture these immense beams of electricity, seldom succeeding. It wasn't her fault, it was like Zeus was hurling these spears of light from one direction of the sky to another, and it was impossible to tell where the next one would strike. As is, I struggled to maintain eye contact with the road, as we were all scrunched together in my Mustang. While it is a great roadtrip car, and surprisingly comfortable, I felt bad for Annie because it was flat-out terrible in terms of backseat visibility. About every five minutes or so, there would be an "atom bomb of lightning", just spider-webbing through the sky, engulfing the night.
We pulled into Clayton shortly after 10 p.m., and set up camp by the light of my car's headlights. The camping turned into a hippie session when Jon brought started banging on his djembe to the reggae music playing through the speakers of my portable iPod player. We sat around for several hours discussing tough memories about Jon's dad who had passed away a couple year's back, intermittently switching to the trials of pregnancy for Annie's sake. The music would later turn into dancing and then into scrambling for last-minute firewood because it was getting chilly.
I threw on a hoodie and sweatpants and crawled into one side of my three-person tent around 3:30 a.m. Annie was already passed out as the other piece of white bread in our Jon sandwich.
"Damn it's hot! What time is it?" I mumbled, all squinty-eyed from the blinding sunlight. "It has to be 9:00. Why do I feel so terrible, I didn't think I drank that much?"
"You didn't," Jon stepped in, "it's actually only 6:00, and you're probably tired as hell from our 2.5-hour sleep. I know I am. I can't believe you fell asleep with that hoodie on!" I had camped out in the Black Canyons of New Mexico the previous year, and don't remember sunlight like this; especially not this early. I was roasting from unfortunately selecting the wrong side of the tent to sleep. The sun turned the tent into an oven, rudely marinating us all, and the rays were hitting my face like God was shining His flashlight directly on me. After throwing all the stuff back in the car, I asked the lady who ran the campground what we could do.
"We got dem diiiinosaur footprints and black lava all up around Black Mesa State Park." Her accent was a bit too country for what I'd imagine New Mexicans to have; she must have come from the Texas side of the border. The directions she gave me sent us directly parallel to the Texas borderline, heading north to Oklahoma. We were only two miles from the Texas border, but with no way of accessing it. So much for the 4-state road trip idea...what a gyp!
Entering into Oklahoma, I had to take a picture of me with the sign in the background. Call me Asian, call me cheesy, it's just something I do. I actually haven't had that excited feeling of entering a new state in a while, so we stopped for a minute to appreciate all that was Oklahoma. It really was nothing but open sky, dropping down to a beautiful landscape strewn across the horizon. Not a soul was in sight, and this remained the case for over an hour until we hit a bump in the road.
"What the hell?" I saw what must have been hundreds of cows in the middle of this back-country road we were traveling. There had been no cars or signs of life, it was something out of a horror movie where the car breaks down somewhere in the middle of west Texas. I mean there was nothing but sagebrush and cattle grades, and now, the cattle. Bringing the car to a halt directly in front of them, many scattered in opposite directions, but most maintained eye contact with us. The fear in their eyes was undeniable. In the distance, you could hear faint moos of the cows in the background, as if they were warning their friends of immediate danger.
"What are y'all doing so close to the humans?! GIT!"
This must have been the season of birth, because the majority of the calves staring at us were so young and little. We made clicking noises with our tongues and held out our hands, proclaiming that we come in peace. This just caused the calves to awkwardly trot off a few feet further from us, and then look back to make sure we weren't trying anything.
"Why is she shaking like that? You'd better find a way out of here; that mom is huffing loudly!" Initial panic quickly dissipated, and turned into smiles of awe. The mother cow was literally giving birth to a new baby only a few yards from us! The little calf came out, the mother licked all the goo off, and then, uncoordinated as ever, the calf stood up and started nursing! I felt like Billy Crystal must have felt in City Slickers. What an amazing sight. Oklahoma was all worth it.
Continuing on to Black Mesa State Park, we didn't see any of the dinosaur prints or the black lava, but we did see a good glimpse of a campsite and beautiful Lake Carl Etling should we ever desire to come back to outer Mongolia (I mean, Oklahoma's panhandle). On the way out, we stopped by the old Santa Fe Trail, and learned about important people and Native Americans who have helped shape Oklahoma.
Our stomachs were churning, and Annie had to eat for two, so the next mission was to get to Boise City, OK, a true no man's land about 30 minutes away. Trinidad must have taken a page out of this town's book, because Boise City was even more of a ghost town! It's one of those towns were people drop the cliche (which I'm about to do) of "you blink and you've missed it." Towns like these give that phrase its purpose. Since I collect shot glasses (I have over 300), I wanted one from Oklahoma, so I pulled into Love's Gas Station. Here's how my conversation went with the clerk:
Me: "Do you all have shot glasses with designs indigenous to Oklahoma?"
Clerk: "Indigenous?" His country twang barely able to pronounce the word.
Me: "Any shot glasses that say 'Oklahoma' on them?"
Clerk: "Nope. Just them ones 'bout Sturgis n' Harleys."
Me: "Oh, OK. What's there to do in this town? We're hungry."
Clerk: "Yer lookin' at it."
Me: "This gas station is it?"
Clerk: "Yup. Well, we do have Shelly's Truck Stop down yonder. You might get yourself a shot glass there. And there's a Subway a few miles up 287."
These towns always amazed me. I couldn't stop wondering why people live in these random, isolated places, and didn't want anything more for their lives. The only conclusion I came up with was that we travelers need random stopping points like this, for the exact reason why I'm here right now. I found solace in that.
Inside Shelly's Truck Stop, I waited in line for a few minutes to get to the counter and ask if they had shot glasses. No. Of course they didn't.
"You can try Love's." A young lady spoke up behind me.
"Already been there, thanks, though." I say, as nicely as I can. Then it hit me like a sack of bricks. Several years back, my mom had visited Oklahoma and brought me back a shot glass. A forgetful memory of these sort of things is the product of having over 300 of them, I suppose. I would have said this was a colossal waste of time, but in this one-horse town, I only cost us about six minutes. OK, I crossed Oklahoma off the list. Mission accomplished. Now, we were go back to Denver through the southeast portion of Colorado, another place I had not yet visited.
Driving north on 287, it was nothing but flat lands and open sky. I thought we crossed into Colorado, but the scenes left me unsure if we had in fact left Oklahoma. We saw two "mini mountains" in the distance shortly after passing through Springfield, CO. The horizon had a slight haze to it, leaving the lumps way ahead looking like they were floating on a cloud. I found out later this place was called "two buttes" and that my buddy Sparks spent many summers there cliff jumping.
Another major goal of this roadtrip was to watch the World Cup match that had USA playing Ghana in the "Round of 16". Pulling into Lamar in southeast Colorado, I stopped at a gas station to ask where I could find a place en route to Denver that was showing the World Cup match.
"I'm taking Route 50 back to Denver, and this soccer game I want to watch is on in about an hour. Where is a good town to stop in that would be showing the game?" I asked the clerk.
"Lahunna should have it on." She responds, as I try to avoid making eye contact with her missing teeth.
Back in the car, I'm looking at a map confused. "I don't see Lahunna on here," I tell Jon, "ohhh...maybe she meant La Junta ("la hoonta")? That looks about an hour away." I had never been to any of these country towns out here, much less heard of them. Sure enough, we were a little skeptical when Route 50 only passed through a rural portion of La Junta. All I saw was small homes and an ice cream shop. I programmed the nearest McDonald's into my GPS, because I thought that if the town was big enough to have a McDonald's, it would probably have a place with ESPN on a TV, too. Conveniently, the GPS took us right by BJ's Sports Bar. Victory! Now all we needed was a victory for the U.S.A.
Well, we didn't get that, as you probably know by now, but we refused to let that ruin our trip, as we turned up the classic rock and I struggled to make it home on 5 Hour Energy shots. The open fields on the sides of the highway looked like the plains of Africa's Serengeti. You know, the tall, yellow grass with that solitary green tree under which the animals rest? Jon had us all laughing when he mentioned that you could literally drop a tranquilized lion in the middle of one of these fields.
"Seriously," he goes on, "the lion wouldn't know the difference. Tranquilize him in Africa, bring him here, and when he wakes up, he'll feel right at home! In fact, southeast Colorado could really profit from turning this place into a safari of their own. We have the resources to do this!" He was getting really excited with this idea. Not a bad one, though, I must say. The trip, although ending on a less-than-stellar note, had been well worth it, and a good bonding experience for the three of us.