The Bug Farm, Conway, Texas

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The last town before Amarillo– or the first after leaving– on Old Route 66, is the ghost town of Conway, TX. Before I40 was routed 1/2 mile north of town, Conway consisted of ranchers and farmers who settled in the area in the late 1800s. The town grew after the Choctaw route of the Chicago Rock Island and Gulf Railroad came through in 1903.

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In 1967, the Crutchfield family opened a service station and souvenir shop at the I40 exit to Conway. Two years later, the town peaked at a whopping population of 175 people, but a year later, more than half of them had moved away. By 2000, only 20 people remained, and by 2002, the Love’s truck stop across I40 was the main draw in the immediate area. Undeterred by the big guys across the highway, one of the Crutchfields had an idea to lure in customers. He had always loved the Cadillac Ranch out west of Amarillo, so why not create a parody of the attraction east of the city? He put his knowledge of off-road equipment to use and buried five Volkswagon Beetles nose-down, a la Cadillac Ranch, in front of their station. It wasn’t long before the spray painting began.

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The stunt brought in the local media and drew in some customers, but it was’t enough to sustain the business. In 2003, the Crutchfields bugged out of town, and it has been abandoned ever since. But, that doesn’t stop kitsch-seekers like us from making it a destination point. I’ve heard it’s a great spot for geocaching, if you’re into that. The Bug Farm, or the Bug Ranch, or the Slug Bug Farm or the Slug Bug Ranch, or the Bugg Farm, or the Rattlesnake Curio and Souvenir Shop– whatever it’s called, all that’s left now is a deteriorating roadside attraction with Crazy Train written ALL OVER IT. (Quite literally!)

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Speaking of souvenir shops, I think I need to interject something here for a quick second. I was a little surprised at the lack of nick-knacks, tchotchkes, tshirts, and other miscellaneous crap available with “Rt66” emblazoned on it. Though relieved not to be nagged constantly for a bunch of crap by my kids, I am sure we could have found something wonderful that we couldn’t have lived without. I’m not sure how I’m going to survive without a Rt66 keychain, or how I am gong to feel in six months when I am not yelling at the rest of the Crazy Train when I retrieve a broken Rt66 snow globe from under the seat of the car. But I digress. Back to Conway.

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The Crazy Train had almost as much fun at the Bug Farm as they did at Cadillac Ranch. We climbed around an old Ford(?), took a fantastic family picture, and William even found a partially filled can of spray paint and the kids got to leave their mark both east and west of Amarillo. We were the only ones there, and it was a little warmer and slightly less windy than Cadillac Ranch had been. It’s definitely worth a stop.

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Preface to Route 66

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When we decided to go up north to Route 66, I was really, REALLY excited. Not because I’m a history nerd, but, for all y’all who don’t know me, I’ll give you a partial autobiography of the Crazy Train’s navigatrix.

Primarily, I am a photographer. As far back as I can remember, I usually had a camera with me. So when I joined the yearbook and newspaper staff in high school, toting a camera was nothing new. I majored in Photocommunications at St Edward’s University in Austin and afterwards, began (but never completed) an MFA in photography (someplace else). While life took me in other directions, photography was always my touchstone. After having kids, I dabbled in family portraiture, but that’s just not my wheelhouse. (Environmental portraiture, yes, this stuff people do today? Not so much. I jokingly call myself a MWAC to my photo friends, and they just laugh at me, saying if anyone is NOT a MWAC, it’s me.)

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To get to the heart of my love of photography, you don’t go back to my roots–I started too young for that. You can’t really even go back to the first years where I started to explore in photography. But if you go back to college where I first learned about the specific artistic movement that would grab me and bring out the artist deep within me, then you see why the idea of Route 66 was so exciting.

It was during my studies in photocomm at St Ed’s that I first learned about the art of documentary photography and the photographers of the Farm Securities Administration (FSA). It was from my professor, photographer Sybil Miller, that I learned how photography, quite literally, changed America.

The (FSA) was created in 1937 (an evolution of the Resettlement Administration) in the US Department of Agriculture as a part of FDR’s New Deal. From 1937-1944, the FSA became famous for its small, but highly influential, photography program. Economist Roy Stryker headed up the Information Division of the FSA and launched the documentary photography movement. Though not a photographer himself, Stryker understood the power of the photograph and promoted the camera as a tool to document society. In an age before digital manipulation, TV, and the 24-hour news cycle, a photograph provided solid proof of the conditions and the details in which so many Americans lived.

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Stryker had a knack for attracting top-notch photographers and for getting the best work from each one. He sent them into the field fully prepared for what they would encounter, and they all knew that an educated, sensitive, understanding, and compassionate photographer could effectively transfer the feelings and emotions of an otherwise silent portion of our population onto film, and in doing so, could cogently share those feelings with the rest of the nation. He was responsible for launching the careers of some of the most gifted and influential photographers in American history. Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein….

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FDR’s Brains Trust underestimated these photographers’ ability to produce images that breathed life and emotion and art and empathy and truth into the era. The eleven photographers who worked on the project took on this task of “introducing America to Americans,” and produced approximately 250,000 images– half of which still survive today in the Library of Congress. It wasn’t until these photographs were introduced to the nation that America really understood the depth of the Dust Bowl, the Depression, and the plight of the American migrant farmer.

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So, let’s put two and two together. Old Route 66 appealed to me, not just because I’m a history nerd, but because I wanted to walk in the footsteps of some of my favorite photographers–the very men and women who have influenced my vision for the last 20+ years. I wanted to see the places they visited and photograph some of the places they photographed.

But, time marches on, and, to my disappointment, it has trampled all over Old Route 66 like a steamroller over a flowerbed. Texas is usually wonderful about preserving our historical places, but this was not true for the 178 miles of Texas’ portion of “The Main Street of America,” the road taken by hundreds of thousands of Americans during the 1930s. This legendary road that follows the path of Native Americans, conquistadors, cattle and oil barons, cowboys, and Dust Bowl refugees has been replaced by US40, and is mostly unmarked (as Rt66). The iconic signs are gone, both from the road and from many of the places that made it famous. (Route 66 is the ONLY National Highway to be decommissioned from the original 1926 grid created by the US Highway System. Shameful.) The landmarks have all but disappeared. And, without a doubt, our stretch of The Mother Road will disappear into myth and lore, replaced by something newer, something better, and sometimes, by nothing at all.

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The Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Texas

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We are suckers for roadside kitsch. We LOVE them. So, of course, the Cadillac Ranch was tops on our list of MUST SEE attractions. As a Native Texan, I thought everyone had heard of the Cadillac Ranch. It’s legendary. But, it has come to my attention recently that there are people who have never heard of it. I even talked to a non-Texan who has driven past it multiple times and never knew what it was. When I told him we were going, he had NO CLUE what I was talking about. He said it sounded like a brothel. OMG… NO!

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For all y’all who’ve never heard of the Cadillac Ranch, here’s your history lesson: Stanley Marsh 3 was an eccentric Texas millionaire who believed that rich people had a responsibility to behave unusually and interestingly. He was a legend in his own time for his pranks. He believed in art for the sake of art, and he had a hilarious sense of humor. I read in TX Monthly that once, he threw a party for some Japanese businessmen where he only invited men who were over 6’4″ to reinforce the stereotype that all Texans are tall– HILARIOUS! His eccentric sense of humor has been displayed throughout Amarillo over the years through various installation art pieces and public pranks. Oh, Stanley Marsh 3…. If I was a bazillionaire, I think I’d use your pranksterism as inspiration!

The most famous of Marsh’s art pieces is the “Hood Ornament of Route 66,” the amazing homage to the golden age of American automobiles and Route 66 and roadside kitsch and just plain AWESOME– The Cadillac Ranch.

In 1973, Marsh invited a San Francisco artists collective called the Ant Farm to his Amarillo ranch. The group bought 10 used Cadillacs (model years 1948-1963) from salvage yards, averaging $200 each. The cars were partially buried, nose down, in a line facing west, along Old Route 66. At first, all the Caddies were their original, factory colors, but over time, visitors and tourists started scratching their names in the paint and spray-painting the cars. And then the vandals and souvenir hunters stole everything they could pry off the vehicles (windows, doors, radios, etc.) until Marsh had to have the axels welded to the frames to prevent future theft.

The great thing is, Marsh LOVED the fact that everyone visited and spray painted the Ranch. He encouraged it, and always said he thought it looked better every year. In 1997, the entire shebang, including the trash, was dug up and moved 2 miles west to escape urban encroachment. There are always people visiting and painting. I bet that if you visited every day for a whole year, you’d see a different picture every day.

OK, enough on the Cadillac Ranch itself. Y’all want to hear about OUR trip, right?

IMG_0897.JPGWe arrived at about 10:30 on a Monday morning. Clear skies, cold breeze, practically empty. And yep. We are THOSE PARENTS. We are the parents who stopped at Home Depot on our way there and bought $20 worth of spray paint and then turned the kids loose to explore the aerosol arts. It was fantastic. Three kids, six cans of spray paint, ten Cadillacs, and, for the most part, we had the place to ourselves. They made art, they ruined their clothes, they got covered in paint that was next to impossible to get off, but they also made memories that will last way, WAY longer than any of those other things.

To quote William, “It was the best day EVER!”

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