Land Noises

The sky looked precisely like Oklahoma’s license plate, light blue with swirls of what I thought was a white cloud but is actually the outline of a scissor-tailed flycatcher. A lot of the ranch gates had cowboys on them—emblems of a lost frontier. (There’s a cowboy museum in Oklahoma City.) The interstate was built mostly in the 1960s and made backroads like 77 and the towns along it obsolete, and it’s in these towns where I saw the most Trump flags. One county was called Love. A welcome sign said THACKERVILLE AMERICA: WE BELIEVE IN OKLAHOMA. THACKERVILLE OKLAHOMA: WE BELIEVE IN AMERICA would have made more sense, but little did.

I’d stumbled upon the set of the Ronald Reagan biopic

Photograph by the author.

I live in Austin in a house close enough to Interstate 35 that from the back porch you always hear it. The sound is less like traffic than a moving body of water, something to which you can fall asleep. 35 runs from the Sunbelt to the Heartland, from the Rio Grande to Lake Superior, and I’ve come to see it as a sort of great American river. Looking out from a car window on 35 to city or town or farm or casino or oil field or wind farm or just plain country, I often think of W.S. Merwin’s “land noises floating there far-off and still.” As a river reflects a shore, a road does a land. And the land was tense in the days leading up to this fall’s election. On the Sunday evening between early voting and November 3, a driver whom I’d evidently upset stopped her SUV in the middle of the 35 frontage road, stepped out, and screamed. I didn’t roll down my window to hear her words, but she looked like she meant them. I had some research to do in Oklahoma and the Midwest, so the next day, on the eve of the election, I got on Interstate 35 and drove north.


Nov. 2

Heavy traffic during the pandemic always surprises me. Past Austin city limits, the congestion relented near a cluster of car dealerships. Near a bridge over the San Gabriel River, a man in a teal T-shirt was standing up in the back of his pickup truck, waving a Trump 2020 sign with both arms. He wasn’t smiling. If he weren’t holding a campaign sign, you’d think he was warning drivers about something bad up road. A corresponding flag, much bigger than the sign, was affixed to the bed of his truck. A billboard said GOD BLESS PRESIDENT TRUMP in yellow cursive, the same shade as the depicted man’s hair. The background was black and two hands, presumably God’s, rested on the President’s shoulders. (The divine had no face.) Another billboard asked CONFUSED? beside a photo of a man in a short-sleeved dress shirt with his head in his hands. JESUS OFFERS CLARITY. 83-FOR-TRUTH. The phone number would repeat all the way to Minnesota.

Advertisements made reference to this being the heart of Texas, which I found funny, because geographically the heart of Texas is about two and a half hours west, where there’s even a Heart of Texas Historical Museum inside an old county jail. In Waco, I turned off 35 and drove by Chip and Joanna Gaines’ (of HGTV “Fixer Upper” fame) Magnolia Market, which sits beside two inoperative grain silos. A line of masked-up fans snaked around the market, whose goal is “to inspire you to own the space you’re in.” I considered how Waco is most widely associated with home renovations and the 1993 siege on the Branch Davidian compound. Downtown has an outsized Beaux-Arts county courthouse with giant oak trees out front and a white dome that I thought was cracked but the cracks were just pigeons in repose. It was the day’s end and Texas Rangers in their big beige hats jaywalked to their cars, took off their hats, and drove away.

A high school band was practicing on a field off I-35 West, about twenty miles after the interstate splits into two directions for Dallas and Fort Worth. The fading sun was golden on the horns, a shimmer of the normal. 35 only splits one other time, for Minneapolis and Saint Paul—both times the mile markers start fresh. I wanted to watch band practice and exited onto the frontage road to find a place to make a U-turn but ended up getting lost in a town called Alvarado, where I found a lot full of fancy old hearses. As in towns in many places, pickup trucks drove around with one, two, or sometimes three Trump flags on the back—the only analogous thing would be vehicles donning the flag of a sports team on game day, but those flags are usually much smaller. I gave up on band practice and went on to Fort Worth.


Nov. 3

The night before Election Day, driving into the city, I’d seen a billboard for a so-called Trump store in a nearby suburb. I drove to the address that had hovered above 35, which turned out to be a strip mall with a dentist, Pizza Hut, nail salon, T-Mobile, and small market that advertised Indian groceries. A giant inflatable eagle perched above the threshold to the Trump store. Many flags, for the President but also the Gadsden flag and “Come and Take It” and others that were flapping too wildly for me to read them, were staked in the land in front of the parking lot, which was very busy.

Inside, “Say You Love Me” was playing on high volume, followed by “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” The store must usually be a small office space, because there were three or four glass-windowed offices on the wall. A Trump Store customer can purchase doormats, pens, cowboy hats, masks, mugs, koozies, polo shirts, sweatpants, T-shirts, and a lot more. In one of the would-be offices were larger-than-life-size cutouts of the President, Melania, and Ivanka. Come take your photo with the Trumps, a piece of paper taped to the glass said. One shopper, seeing I was alone, offered to take mine.

Three young women in short shorts, oversized tees, white sneakers, and scrunchies—students at a nearby college—were getting decorations for their election-night party. “We want to support the future President,” the bubbliest one told me. A mother and son were taking requests from the whole family—they’d gotten excited watching the rallies on television the night before and had decided to make the trip from their town an hour away. “I think we’ll know, but I don’t think they’ll admit it,” the mother said of an election-night victory. I greeted one of the store’s two employees and said I’m a reporter and asked how long the store had been open. “Sorry, ma’am. I’m too busy for that,” he said, loud enough for shoppers to hear. One, a man about my age, then looked at me with an expression that made me think it was best to leave. A woman in expensive-looking exercise clothing walked out with a life-size cutout of the President.

I drove half an hour southeast across Fort Worth to a poll by the Tarrant County Tax Collector’s office in Stop Six, a predominantly Black neighborhood, where, on the last day of early voting, there had been an incident. A caravan of Trump supporters had driven around the poll site, honking their horns, signs and flags on display. Onlookers had called it blatant intimidation and stopped one of the vehicles—a pickup wielding an enormous blue Trump flag—and told the driver to get out of their neighborhood. A citizen journalist had filmed the scene up close and it went viral. People said the police had been escorting the caravan; the police said they had been there to prevent an escalation.

On Election Day, there was a big gathering in front of a car wash, across the street from the poll site. The mood was buoyant, the music was loud and good, and people seemed happy to see one another. Several men carrying large guns, mostly ARs, stood on the sidewalk. I spoke with a couple of them; they told me they lived in the neighborhood and if they weren’t out there to prevent voter intimidation who would. The Trumpers wouldn’t be back, they said; they really didn’t anticipate any issues. A man wanted to know if I wanted any lunch; they’d set out a whole spread. A regal late-middle-aged man leaned on a cherry red pickup truck and smoked a cigar, wearing binoculars around his neck and a gun in a holster high on his right thigh over faded jeans.

More people set up camping chairs on the sidewalk across from polls. Two members of the Fort Worth Opera showed up and performed a few songs on a flatbed trailer, including one from the musical Spamalot. A teenager rode up and down Miller Avenue on a chestnut horse. One of the men carrying ARs, who wore intricately embossed gold-framed sunglasses, talked to me about the right to carry and what it was like when the caravan came to the polls the previous week and how he wanted to quit smoking before his upcoming thirtieth birthday. I asked for his name. He paused a moment then spelled out A-M-G-O-D.


Nov. 4

The plains open north of Fort Worth. Taupe grasses, black cattle, a broadening and flattening. It’s a topographical sensation, the feeling of being acutely aware that you’ve left one landscape and entered another. Trump flags and signs were ubiquitous, of course—they had become part of the topography, too. At a certain point one nearly stops noticing them.

A run-down sign for DW’s Adult Video hovering over the interstate seems to be the last thing you see before leaving Texas and crossing Red River, a wide, silty river that is in fact red. The river is the border with Oklahoma. The mile markers start over in each state. I was now in the Chickasaw Nation. I took the back highway, 77, from which I could see many oil rigs. Pine trees appeared, in small clusters. The sky looked precisely like Oklahoma’s license plate, light blue with swirls of what I thought was a white cloud but is actually the outline of a scissor-tailed flycatcher. A lot of the ranch gates had cowboys on them—emblems of a lost frontier. (There’s a cowboy museum in Oklahoma City.) The interstate was built mostly in the 1960s and made backroads like 77 and the towns along it obsolete, and it’s in these towns where I saw the most Trump flags. One county was called Love. A welcome sign said THACKERVILLE AMERICA: WE BELIEVE IN OKLAHOMA. THACKERVILLE OKLAHOMA: WE BELIEVE IN AMERICA would have made more sense, but little did. A child pushed a baby in a stroller.

At Oklahoma City limits, a mud-caked white truck with the back window blown out drove past me at twenty miles over the speed limit. It had three oversized Trump flags fastened to its bed and wove in and out of traffic. A heat wave was hovering across the region just after an ice storm. Around the city were piles of brush waiting to be collected, vestiges of freeze. “I’m not here to declare that we’ve won, but I am here to report that when the count is finished we believe we will be the winners,” I heard Biden say on the radio. He was leading by thirty-five thousand in Michigan.


Nov. 5

I enjoy eavesdropping in diners and bars and beauty salons. Since the pandemic began, I’d not done this once. For no good reason, I made an exception in Oklahoma City two mornings after the election, when I went to a diner and ordered a coffee and two fried eggs and sat in a booth. The walls were painted royal blue and pasted with scattered slips of paper: QR codes, for safety, but some people still came in maskless. A woman in a window booth spoke to two friends about going to drag shows in the ’70s. “They were not advertised, of course,” she said. After her party paid, she used her wallet as a mask on the way out. A circular table closer to me seated one quiet woman and three men who were quite large and whose voices carried. They talked about telehealth (“they’d rather you do it online; they don’t wanna see your face”) and a truck one of them got with just 14,000 miles on it and an accident (“after I broke my neck I couldn’t drive for eight months”) and a place called Midwest City and some organization or establishment that had given out 150,000 pounds of food. The booth in the far corner, whose occupants I could not see, were talking about someone’s sister-in-law and what it would take to flip either a house or the House.

A man and a woman walked in and sat at another booth in the window. He had a long white beard and carried a blonde spotted wooden cane and wore a black baseball hat with Veteran stitched on it and Tevas. She was younger and wore a paisley dress and a cropped black jacket. The waitress thanked them for wearing masks. I chatted with the couple on my way out and asked to take their photograph, which would end up being too backlit and just their silhouettes. The woman was dressed up because she had just gone to the funeral of her sister-in-law, she said, who had suffered from dementia and died all alone. From Covid. She was worked up about the election and seemed grateful to have someone besides her partner to whom to vent. They’d not been watching results on their television because, like a lot of people in Oklahoma, theirs hadn’t been working since the storm. The man thought that ultimately it was a good thing. The power was also why they had to dine out. She was originally from Ohio and he from Brooklyn. He had come to Oklahoma for energy work, he said. I thought he meant oil at first, but he meant energy like the kind you can’t extract. The woman volunteered a life hack: if your power goes out and you can’t blow dry your hair, just hop in your car and use the vents.

Visitors mostly in their sixties and seventies walked around the reflecting pool at the nearby Oklahoma City National Memorial, where two towering bronze structures—the Gates of Time—stand at the narrow ends of the water. One says 9:01, the minute on April 19, 1995 before Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck packed with explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, revenge in part for the Waco siege, which had come to a horrific end two years to the day prior. The other gate says 9:03, the shallow water between them a mirror, 9:02, the detonation. The bark of a surviving elm tree bears blast scars; a large branch had been severed in the recent ice storm. A visitor was smoking under a pine tree next to a woman who looked very bored or tired or both. Another visitor, there alone, took photos on an iPad. A tall white apartment building looked over the site; I wondered at what point new residents stop noticing the memorial and how the reflecting pool looks from high up. On the westside of the memorial is a chain link fence where visitors had placed stuffed animals, American flags, lanyards, stickers, T-shirts, notes, and, more recently, masks. A woman with a melodic accent posed by the fence for a photograph. “Take it this way, it looks more sincere,” she told the man with her. She didn’t smile in the photos. “I wonder how many people died. Maybe it will tell us up there,” she said after the photo was taken. 168. McVeigh was arrested ninety minutes after the bombing, by an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper on Interstate 35.

Late that afternoon, I drove north forty minutes to a town of about ten thousand called Guthrie, the first capital of Oklahoma. I walked through the brick downtown in the direction of a Masonic temple, one of the world’s largest, built in the 1920s oil boom. A teenager rode a skateboard alongside a honey-colored pit bull, whom he was pulling on a leash. An old man in a hunter’s orange sweatshirt sat on the porch of a white bungalow. A hand-painted wooden American flag that said ’MERICA was propped in a yard across the street, which I took a photograph of, prompting a woman to emerge from a brick house and yell something. I apologized. No, she just wanted to be sure I saw the leftover Halloween decoration, too—a skeleton passed out in the bushes. I hadn’t noticed.

Some trucks and vans were parked in front of the temple, whose grandeur and size made it look like it did not belong there. I assumed the vehicles were construction until I got closer and saw a yellow sign with an arrow and CREW. I met a driver who was sitting alone in a camping chair in front of one of the trucks. He told me I’d stumbled upon the set of the Ronald Reagan biopic, staring Dennis Quaid and Jon Voight. They’d built White House sets inside the Masonic temple; apparently, the Oval Office recreation was especially impressive. Some actors dressed in dark suits emerged from the temple and hurried down the steps.

A lighting guy asked me if I’d like for him to sneak me in, very quickly. And quietly, as they were rolling. We walked up the marble steps. I noiselessly mouthed wow—the structure had been designed to do that, inspire awe. He led me behind a red velvet curtain into an old theater where a scene was being filmed, but the back of the set was facing us on the stage, so it was just bright lights and some makeshift walls and sound that I wasn’t able to linger long enough to decipher. On the way out, I noticed a statue of a woman near the doors, cast in bronze and standing on a marble pedestal. Her finger was to her lips, the goddess of silence.


Nov. 6

I drove north on 35 toward Wichita. The land is flat and vast and golden wheat. There should be an entire verb for a pickup truck kicking up dust on a dirt road. Oil rigs and wind turbines shared the same foreground and background. I had promised a shopkeeper in Guthrie that I would pass through Blackwell, a tiny town that he said had a gorgeous Art Deco hotel, or used to. The town, as he put it, had gotten “all dried up” once I-35 came around. The shopkeeper dealt antiques and measured the despair of a place by exquisite buildings that had nobody around to appreciate them. A faded mural at the edge of Blackwell said A SHOT WAS FIRED AND BLACKWELL BEGAN SEPT 16, 1893. Blackwell now wore the patina of American disrepair. It takes much longer for a town to end than it takes for it to begin. The old hotel, four-story brick with white accents, was boarded up and wore a Sorry We’re Closed sign. It was indeed gorgeous, though from the shopkeeper’s description I’d anticipated something taller.

35 becomes a toll road in Kansas. The only other place you have to stop your car and roll down your window on the interstate is thirty miles north of the Rio Grande at a Border Patrol checkpoint, which from a distance also looks like a tollbooth, but it has German Shepherds and armed agents in uniform who you ask you if you’re a citizen. Outside of Wichita I passed a hand-painted sign of fetus that, in cursive, said PERSONHOOD FOR EVERYONE. Then came AFTER YOU DIE, YOU WILL MEET GOD, beside the same phone number I’d seen outside of Austin: 83-FOR-TRUTH. (A few weeks later, I’d call and ask the sportscaster-like voice on the other end of the line what question he got more than any other. He would chuckle a moment and say that people most frequently called from the road, wanting to know how to tell if they were going to go to heaven or hell.)

In Wichita, I checked into a hotel where I was given a room on the sixteenth floor overlooking the Arkansas River, which was murkier than I’d imagined. ESPN and the Weather Channel played on two big screens in the lobby. A man nursed a martini alone in the windowless hotel bar. If there weren’t a pandemic, I’d have sat down to chat with him. For now, I just quietly watch people and drive. Biden addressed the nation late that night: “There is no reason we can’t own the 21st century. We just need to remember who we are. This is the United States of America.”


Nov. 7

The election was called on Saturday morning, at 10:24 Central Time. I heard three discrete hollers of elation. Maybe they came from the sixteenth floor or another floor or even the street—how sound moves in a big-box hotel can be surprising. I looked out the window over the river and the edges of downtown Wichita, where I expected things to look somehow different, changed, reflective of the news. A man rode a bike beside the river. Some geese sauntered across a street towards the convention center next door. There was hardly any traffic.

I rode the elevator downstairs to return my key and asked the lobby attendant if she could please turn on the news. The two televisions were still set to ESPN (college football) and the Weather Channel (Hurricane Eta). She was nice enough but exuded unease; she said she didn’t know the channel. “Something neutral,” I proposed. Anything really. “We’ve had some complaints,” she admitted. A man, her colleague or manager, rushed, maybe he even ran, over.  “I wouldn’t do it,” he said, pausing between each word. She explained that I was a guest and had made a request. She turned on CNN. I watched for one minute. The manager or colleague watched me watch, arms crossed. When I left, he hurried over with the remote. The hurricane was reorganizing itself over the Caribbean.

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