Route 66: the Garbage Highway


Fifteen easy chairs, four couches, nine mattresses, two television sets, a pink cowboy boot, a fuzzy slipper; these are the roadside flowers of old Route 66, the garbage highway.

Take your truck on Oklahoma Highway 48/66 north of Bristow. About 3,000 feet beyond Magnolia Cemetery and the sign announcing “Future Home of Schumacher Funeral Home,” turn right down a dirt path; it will dump into a concrete road—old 66.

Head back toward town, and where the road makes a curve, slow down; look in the rearview mirror. Coast clear, stop.

I you’ve got a lot of un-bagged garbage, back up until your tailgate is perpendicular to Sand Creek. Open the gate and push out the crud with your flat shovel.

Don’t worry; it will join a regular Juarez-style landslide of filth, all slithering together.

If you got bigger stuff—a washing machine or a couch—drive farther until you see an abandoned trailer. Here you can dump your big stuff to mix with the refrigerators and 50 gallon barrels of who knows what.

Do your business quickly. But if you are curious, stick around, and poke through your neighbor’s garbage.

Flip over a couch and down flutters a Polaroid of a recent Halloween party. Open that bulging bag and there is a Masonic yearbook (2007), with photographs of tassel-hatted men doing various civic acts of goodness.

Mark Levin, broadcasting from the Ronald Reagan Foundation, harasses me to organize against the “radical ideologues,” as I use a stick to rip open another bag.

Someone I met in town said he once caught his neighbor dumping along the road. He “hasn’t talked to him since.”

While I’m poking around, a white Ford F-150 approaches silently. It stops; the two figures behind the windshield watch me. A hand on the passenger side taps a slow beat on the roof.

What the hell can I tell them?

Hopefully they can see my car is too small, too new, to be dumping.




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Something They Don’t Talk About in Pawhuska

In downtown Pawhuska, Oklahoma, county seat of Osage County and the capital of the Osage Nation, is a small plaque that reads “ON THIS SITE IN 1897 NOTHING HAPPENED HERE.”

Well something did happen here 24 years later, when the Klu Klux Klan attempted to roust all the “idle negroes” out of town.

December 8, 1921:

“Thirty negroes boarded a Midland Valley passenger train here yesterday after Ku Klux Klan warnings had been posted in all sections of the city instructing idle negroes to leave town and order all other negroes in the white section to immediately moved into the colored district.


The warnings painted in red ink read: ‘Warning–All idle negroes art to leave Pawhuska at once. All negroes residing in servants quarters in the white district must immediately move south of the railroad tracks.

These notices posted throughout the white residential section, the business district and in ‘negro town,’ bore the signature ‘The Ku Klux Klan.’

A letter received by a local newspaper asked for fullest publicity in the matter and said ‘The Klu Klux Klan’ meant business. The paper was instructed to inform the negroes that severe punishment would be dealt to negroes who failed to abide by the warnings.

It was the contention of the letter that negroes are becoming too numerous in the white section of the city and that negroes employed by white people and housed in servant quarters have been harboring idle negroes.

Raids this week by police officers on servant quarters in the rear of prominent citizens homes have resulted in the seizure of considerable booze and goods stolen from Pawhuska stores have been found in the possession of these negroes, this letter declared.”

Source: “Negroes Warned by the Klan.” Oklahoma Weekly Leader, Guthrie, Oklahoma, December 8, 1921: 1.


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Looking for the Ocean, cont. 4


At the top of the stairs sat a quartet of classical musicians, laboring at their cellos and violins. Two of the men wore ponytails.

At the bottom of the stairs, sat a young woman behind a trestle table loaded with pamphlets, lists, announcements and two plastic boxes stuffed with colored ribbons

The ribbons were embossed with gold letters announcing SECRETARY-TREASURER, SPEAKER, VENDOR, and dozens of miscellaneous acronyms, one being CAPPO, standing for the California Association of Public Purchasing Officers, Inc.

The young woman behind the table handed out programs and ribbons to members of this esteemed group who were assembling for breakfast in the Music Room. With a fancy camera around my neck, I walked in without incident.

Inside hundreds of purchasing officers sat at round tables with a glass of orange juice and a folded red napkin in front of them.

The officers, for the most part, were dressed formally, but not like the Ocean to Ocean men with their bowlers and top hats and discrete lapel buttons. Instead, the purchasing people wore lanyards weighted down with name tags, business logos and gold-lettered ribbons.

I walked down the central aisle, nodding to a few people. They must have thought I was the event photographer.

I strode to the front of the hall, where a huge screen displayed an image of an exploding firework. I took a few pictures in each direction and then exited.

With 20 minutes to kill before I left for the airport, I walked to the back of the inn and was surprised by its expanse. While shooting an architectural detail, I heard someone yelling behind me.

A couple hundred feet away sat a man on a bench, who yelled again: “Why don’t you take a picture of me.”

The yeller turned out to be a middle-aged guy, dressed in black, with an unfashionable brown leather jacket and a Scion cap covering his gray hair.

He clutched in his right a crumbled paper bag containing a can of Keystone Light. On his left sat a newspaper; on the opposite side, a black backpack. He told me his name was George.

Making small talk, George said he was waiting for his settlement to arrive. Settlement for what, I asked. “For getting butt-fucked by a priest,” he replied.

George was an Okay guy. He spent his productive years moving palettes for a grocery distributor, “the toughest work a human can do,” he said. But he had bad memories of Catholic boys’ school. I told him about the plane and the airport, and said I had to go.

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Winter Stars

Go outside sometime, on a clear winter night.

Go into the backyard, a field, a woodlot, a darkened alley, down the beach; some place you won’t be seen.

Look into the sky, stare unceasing. After you get bored of the stars, the satellites, the blackness, take off your jacket; toss it to the ground.

Wait a few minutes and then pull off your sweater, now your pants. After a few more minutes, peel off your T-shirt, your underwear, your socks—whatever is keeping your flesh warm—and finally your shoes.

Take a few steps back from your stuff and stand naked. Let the chill set in. You can move around to try to stay warm, but play this game until you shiver, convulse; get near-death-sick.

At the point of shock, go to your pile, grab everything; put it all on, fast as a fireman. Run.

Now go back to your warm place; the box with a roof and windows and perhaps a fireplace.

Sit on your couch, with your tea or hot drink clutched between your hands. It’s over, this winter dare.



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The Big Deal

Bar with fireplace. Texan in Ralph Lauren button-down. One-way conversation with potential investor:

“…Maybe it’s prosthetics; maybe it’s transplants; maybe that’s where it’s all at…

I want this off the ground by the first of the year. I’ll get it hot and heavy by fall…

But maybe we’ll go in a different direction…

We’ll find a pharmacist that is very career driven…

Someone who believes in good old fashioned work…

Find a good ol’ boy…

We’re going to put some capital in this; some meat on the bones…

We’ll wait until they shut down their deal…

Bob’s gettin’ up in years; turned everything over to the kids. But the kids aren’t that smart…

Mary would set up the financial deal: the office, the overheard and bring in the medicine…

I put an ad in the paper for an accountant. I ended hiring an old, worn-out guy…

We need a salesperson, a couple of comptrollers…

It’s that kind of deal…”



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Ray Charles Memorial Parkway

The Florida Legislature is considering a bill to name a section of US Highway 90 the Ray Charles Memorial Parkway.

CS/HB 29 Road Designations-SB 180

The bill designates that portion of U.S. Highway 90 within the boundaries of the Town of Greenville in Madison County as the “Ray Charles Memorial Parkway,” that portion of State Road 51 between U.S. Highway 19 at Tennille and the Dixie County line in Taylor County is designated as “Deputy Victor Skip” J. McDonald Memorial Highway,” that portion of U.S. Highway 19 between Slaughter Road and Harrison Blue Road in Taylor County as “Trooper Charles Eugene Campbell Memorial Highway,” that portion of Bird Road, S.W. 40th Street, between S.W. 89th Avenue and S.W. 92nd Avenue in Miami-Dade County as “Frank Pasquarella Way” and that portion of Bird Road, S.W. 40th Street, between S.W. 87th Avenue and S.W. 89th Avenue in Miami-Dade County as “Bob Arbetter‟s Way.”

Now, if you’ve never been to Greenville, it’s an old north Florida lumbering town. Not much to it: a new water tower; some churches; a school; a General Dollar; and Hometown Meats and Groceries.


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Black Backpacks on Sitgreaves Pass


You are in a van heading out of Kingman for the Oatman Highway. You are a passenger; someone else is driving.

The driver and guide point out things along the way: the Cool Springs gas station; an interpretive kiosk; a dangerous curve. You take it all in.

The van reaches the top of a pass. A sign announces: “SITGREAVES PASS ELEV. 3550.”

The van stops at a flat place. You look down, across iron-colored hills to a long valley. The guide says on a clear day you can see a smokestack–a coal plant or something–on the other side of the valley. You don’t see it, but say you do.

Below, a pack of bikers are leaning into a curve, moving in your direction.

You walk out farther on the point. You see a small, wooden white cross; it’s a grave marker for Jimmy Hoffa. You walk around more; you find a patch of rebar and concrete sticking out of the ground. An old foundation, the guide says.

You get back in the van; it starts to descend down some switchbacks. The driver stops again. He wants to show us something. A spring: a humble little hole in the limestone bubbling brownish water. It’s disappointing.

At this stop, you break off from the group and cross the highway to a stone retaining wall. It’s a steep drop down the embankment. Something catches your eye below: a large area of black, bulky things strewn across the rocks. People are always dumping garbage down road embankments, but this is different. You climb over the barrier for a closer inspection. You start to slide down the hillside, but you are determined to get there without falling.

The heap is made entirely of winter jackets and backpacks; hundreds of dark backpacks and heavy winter coats.

You haul two backpacks up to the retaining wall. You unzip one. It contains two black trash bags and two small plastic containers, nothing else. The containers interest you; they seem festive–colors burst from the label. Deciphering the label, Electrolit, Suero Rehidratante, you deduce it’s an electrolyte substance.

You open the other backpack; the exact same contents. You want to call to other passengers, but they are inside the van, avoiding the heat.

The driver walks over. You pick up a backpack to show him. He jumps back, as if you are holding a snake by its tail. He settles down and gets closer, but never touches it. For lack of a better term you call it a coyote bag. “I found all these coyote bags down the hill–look.” He peers down the embankment and then turns around and reassures you he will call the county Hazmat coordinator to get it cleaned up.

You want to take one of the Electrolit bottles as artifact. It seems important. The driver gives you a look that it would be inappropriate.

You photograph the contents and toss the backpacks over the retaining wall. The driver advises you to wash your hands with a sanitizer in the van.

Back in the vehicle, a passenger asks, “What were you doing?” You say found some empty backpacks, and leave it at that.

The tour goes on. You pass old mines and slow down in Oatman–a hokey Old West town with burros roaming the streets. The driver doesn’t stop. “Nowhere to park…too many bikers in town,” he says.

The trip ends in Bullhead City.

You get back to your home, several states away participate in normal routines: You go to work; meet friends for lunch; read about local politics; buy groceries.

During the weekend, you download the images from the trip and the image of the Electrolit, with its bursting, happy colors intrigues you. You search the word on Google; nothing comes up. You know what it’s for: to re-hydrate illegal aliens.

At work you Google “Border Patrol, Arizona Sector.” The first webpage that comes up is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Tucson Sector. At the bottom left corner is a link: “Report Suspicious Activity to: 1-800-BE-ALERT.” You think the dump could be suspicious activity.

You call; a voicemail answers. You leave a deferential message, saying you are not trying to waste their time, but you discovered a huge dumpsite, possibly an illegal alien transfer point at Sitgreaves Pass on the Oatman Highway. You would like to know more about it, whenever it’s convenient to call back.

At night, when you can’t sleep, you try to imagine what happened at the pass. It must have happened at night, of course, in the winter; that’s why all the winter coats. Did it happen once or dozens of times?

You find something on the Internet describing how illegals are snuck across the border, and then packed into trucks to head north to a point where the vehicles stop at a remote location. There they are met by vans and smaller vehicles. The aliens toss off the winter gear and slip into street clothes. The vehicles go in different directions; to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas.

It could be this, or a lay-up point (doubtful, too far north), or just a dump site.

You find a video on YouTube capturing in “night vision” a coyote sneaking illegals into Arizona. You are mesmerized by the video, and watch it over and over again. You analyze it by sequence and camera angle. You forward it to friends and post it on Facebook.

Months pass, however, and you forget about the backpacks and the Oatman Highway.

Searching the web one weekend, you come across an article written by an early Route 66 free-lancer, Thomas W. Pew Jr. It’s a 1977 piece he did for American Heritage magazine; it’s about the great Okie exodus on Route 66.

Among others, he interviews Merle Haggard’s mother, Mrs. Flossie Scott. But what makes your eyes refocus is a conversation with Ed Edgerton, who ran a filling station at Sitgreaves Pass…the rebar and concrete you kicked months ago.

Edgerton tells Pew he frequently gave gas to the Okies, so that they could coast down to Needles. Then he summed up what it was like in the Depression for the Okies:

“Frightened they were, those people were frightened and they come through thinking they were headed for the promised land where they’d say ‘everything’s going to be all right.’ I warned them about those ideas. But they went on and, well, they didn’t find the promise land.”

All those backpacks make sense now.



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