Characters on the American Road

We met a variety of humans in our travels; I wasn’t always on top of my job as documentarian, or I would have collected more portraits, since they were all interesting people.

You already met Janet Saad Cook, the Richmond, VA light artist and Claire, lady of the lovely NC farmhouse. They were already in our stable of friends, so don’t count as ‘found’ characters (although they ‘count’ big-time as lovely friends).

The first time we met new folks was when we stopped in Monterey, TN. The hotel clerk sent us to the awesome barbeque joint across the street known as Rocky Pops.

Our dinner on the fire at Rocky Pop’s

Rocky Pop himself was out back smoking up the mountains with a delicious fragrance, and his daughter waited on our table. Her daughter, peppered us with questions and decided she wanted to go to California with us. Her mother nixed the plan before we could tell her that we had no room. The amazing ribs were large and meaty and smoked to tenderness on that big cooker out back. There’s no sign on the place, but it’s right across from the Super 8.


The next time I met some local characters was at the cafe in Bentonville, AR. Crystal Bridges Museum of American art has a lovely cafe called Eleven (why? whatever – it was cool) and it was so crowded when we arrived, tired and hungry, that I asked a couple if we could share their table. Elmer and Estelle have been married for 57 years. They live in eastern Arkansas on a farm where rice is their primary crop. They had come to the museum with a church group and were really enjoying it, since, as Elmer told me emphatically “we never go to them big city places.” I asked them if the Walton family of Walmart fame had done other philanthropic projects for their state. They changed the subject.

Elmer did satisfy my curiosity about the miles of flooded fields in eastern Arkansas. Once we crossed the Mississippi at Memphis it seemed the flood plain went on forever. Rice farmers use this to their advantage: allowing the river to flood fields after planting then draining before harvest. Unfortunately, the river doesnt provide all the water needed for this. They draw millions of acre feet from the Middle Clairborne aquifer.

With all that water I asked Elmer if he ever ran into snapping turtles. Oh, yes, he replied, and we swapped snapping turtle stories. Both of us were warned as kids to avoid the creatures. Elmer told me a wonderful yarn about a giant turtle whose bite was so fierce and strong that if he bit you, he wouldn’t let go until it thundered!


People-watching along the highway isn’t always a happy thing. At one lonely rural gas stop, I watched a woman exit the convenience store with fried chicken, snacks, two coffees and a black eye. There was no one in the car with her. I made up a story, and it was sad.

Later on in Oklahoma we stopped for gas (again! there was alot of that) at this place. For a long while we had been seeing signs for Indian food (not the Native American kind). This was the source:

if you look closely at the sign to the right, it’s in Hindi characters. The woman who waited on us was clearly of east Indian heritage. We heard her speaking to her children in a language we didn’t know. When asked about the OK Jailbirds newspaper, she assured us it was no joke. I loved the sign: “please purchase before reading”!

There was one more sign at this place, miles from anywhere. We believe she is protecting the giant tire from any OK Jailbirds that might try to steel a 12′ high tire.

could this be Kali?

I have more tales for you, but that’s enough for today.

What have you found along the road that surprised you lately?


Day 6: Into the West

Today’s mileage: 487
Total traveled: 1753
Starting Elevation: 1296
Current Elevation: 3649

We left Bentonville (aka Walmartland) Friday morning and headed out on back roads for the Oklahoma border, which we crossed in a thunderstorm. Surprisingly green, dotted with dismal small towns and chicken processors formed my predominant impressions. Dogwoods, redbud, cedar and oak make up the the Ozark forest.

AR into OK

As we rolled on the wooded landscape continued far beyond my expectation. I think I had an image of Oklahoma as a brown, barren wasteland. The eastern half of the state is quite lush, at least this time of year.

For days I’ve been scanning the landscape, alert for tiny differences. Is it dryer? are the trees different? What about the sky? Where’s the prairie? I’ve been seeking that moment when we enter into The West.


It happened rather suddenly.

I began to notice a distinctive aspect to the oak trees in the Ozarks, and it became more more pronounced in Oklahoma: short twisty trees with angular articulated limbs and bushy foliage. It’s probably Blackjack Oak. Nascent leaves accent the forms. If you’ve ever seen the cover of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians it’s THAT tree.

It turns out there is a band of particular forest type that runs in a north-south band from eastern Kansas down thru Oklahoma into the Dallas area called Cross Timbers . It forms the margin between the forested East and the grasslands of the Great Plains.

Once west of Oklahoma City we went from Cross Timbers to Grasslands, then the moment we crossed the Texas line sagebrush and tumbleweeds. And WIND.


Crossing into Texas, landscape getting flatter and every more windy, we heard a sudden kerthump above us, and simultaneously realized that our rooftop cargo carrier had flipped its lid and was giving away bags of clothes along the highway. Alas, no photo can do this moment justice. Momentary alarm, organized assault to collect underwear off the highway and strap the carrier down, and we were on our way! Plucky feminists avert disaster. Not one macho trucker paused to assist.

Grain Elevators

Grain Elevator in Groom, TX

The Josephine Report
We saw this one in Groom, Texas, on our way to Amarillo. We were traveling along the storied OLD Route 66 (decommissioned back in 1985) when we encountered this apparently abandoned and rusty old grain elevator. This brought up vivid memories of the summers I spent with my grandmother in western Kansas back in the 50s, when winter wheat was THE crop of the area. Riding with gramps on his house-sized combine — winter wheat is harvested in June — and watching the mile-long wheat trains pulled by three or more engines stopping at each town with an elevator, and then eventually disappearing over the horizon of this very flat prairie land.

So back in Groom Texas. I was looking at a relic of a bygone era. Railroad tracks are gone, rotting ties left in evidence, but the elevators still standing, waiting a very long time to sink back into the earth.

Don’t forget you can follow us on Twitter @patriseart or with #coast2coast. Also, Be sure to see today’s complete photo set on Flickr