A desert road from Vegas to nowhere… Someplace better than where you’ve been… – from “I’m Calling You,” theme song from “Bagdad Cafe”
In the past I’ve considered the Great American Nowhere to find its best expression in several thousand square miles of near perfect flatness spreading over southwest Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, southeast Colorado, and just a small bite out of northeast New Mexico. This is where climate forces farming to yield to cattle ranching, or to grasslands, or to nothing at all. It has precious few people, ferocious spring winds, and a rare, empty huge-sky beauty. It feels much like the landscape (both real, and psychic) evoked in that haunting song from Bagdad Cafe.
But now I’m moving the American Nowhere a bit southwest into New Mexico’s Rio Arriba County, west of Taos across the Gorge Bridge on US Route 64 through some twenty miles of treeless sagebrush, past the tiny town of Tres Piedras with its dramatic clusters of enormous granite rocks, continuing ever upward into Carson National Forest winding through the Tusas Mountains (the southern extension of Colorado’s San Juan mountains), through a pass that summits at some 10,000 feet, now downward into the Chama River Valley where you’ll want to stop and stretch in the tiny unincorporated town of Tierra Amarilla, known simply as “T.A.” by locals.
Good old T.A. One fascinating aspect of this town: as Rio Arriba’s county seat, it may well be the only county seat in the country that’s broadly described as a ghost town. While there are about 750 people in its zip code, most of them are scattered among farms and ranchitos throughout the area, with very few folks left in the village. The area is beautiful, in its empty and forgotten way, with wide open stretches of lush pasture land guarded to the east by the Brazos peaks, with the green meadows and fields spreading west to distant mountains.
On US 64, T.A.’s shops and cafes and gas stations are now mostly shuttered (from what I’ve read), but when my wife and I cruised through there back in the late 90s on several occasions (heading for Four Corners or Chaco Canyon or Chama or Dulce) we always stopped at one place (name long since forgotten) to shoot pool and have some good – or at least decent – home cooking.
So for me it was “good old T.A.” After an hour or more on the road we’d land at this little cafe, a cozy and familiar haunt whose name changed a few times because it was always being bought and sold, and be thankful for its warmth and well-stocked bar, its flat pool table and a menu featuring T-bones and chicken fried steak. T-bones: $6.95. We shot pool, my wife had possibly her best game ever here, we ate the steaks and then drove on.
The last time we cruised through T.A. – after we’d left Taos for Atlanta and had a hankering to drive back that way sometime around 2008 – the village was more ghost-townish than ever, and the cafe was gone. Either burned down or demolished. There’s not much reason to go back there now.
It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m thankful for the forty-some odd years I was able to drive around the west on one excursion or another, with family, with wife, or alone, and ending up in so many privately-owned cafes or steakhouses with formica tables and paper napkins printed with all the branding irons of the local ranches, and looking around at the faces of local ranchers and truck drivers, and feeling totally at home eating with these strangers. I sensed, even way back then, that these places would slide into history, into the American Nowhere, become extinct, overwhelmed by the chains.
On our last driving trip west, some four years ago, my wife and I drove off interstates for hundreds of miles through Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, and more, and we both made a point of finding one more local steakhouse out there on the prairie and the plains, and except for a few cafes in the middle of larger towns we came up empty. They’re gone.
But memory serves me in “good old T.A.”, with a smile: juicy, hefty T-bone for $6.95 (with mashies and a salad).
The audio link here features a construction manager for the Jack in the Box restaurant chain leaving a voicemail message for a colleague while on the road near Dallas. It’s actually pretty well-known, but if you haven’t heard this guy describing a near-accident and the aftermath, you won’t soon forget it. Yes, it’s real: both the manager and the male “victim” in the story have since come forward to identify themselves.
Cheers, all. There you have it.