The Meanderthals

Deep in the heart of a 72 ounce steak

A word about Oklahoma: booooooorrrrrrring.

I’d sooner spend time in Passaic than in the vast expanse of nothingness that lies between Arkansas and Texas. Oklahoma is an endless yawnfest compared with the fascinating diversity and beauty of Arkansas and the enormity and complexity of Texas. Even the state’s shape is a boring rectangle. I should imagine its permanent inhabitants suffer justifiably from a world-class inferiority complex, wedged in as it is between states with at least some character.

No wonder Sooner football is a religion. The state has about as much appeal as Jesse James at a Sandra Bullock fan club meeting, and about as much personality as a 13 year old boy at a Tupperware party.

Here the wind might come sweepin’ down the plain, but it’ll damn near blow you off I­-40 if you’re not paying close attention as you battle for space between the pickup trucks and 16 wheelers. Oklahoma cowboys must have used Velcro to keep ‘em in the saddle, else they’d be blown off their mounts and wind up in Nebraska.

After a couple of hours blasting across I-40 (no blue highways for us in this state, the interstate offered a 70mph and a quick traverse of the nation’s 20th largest state), we decided to grab a few laughs and spin a few slots at the Lucky Star casino in El Reno, OK.

What a bust. Having lost a few bucks and both senses of humor, we sullenly hit the road again and made a beeline for the Texas border. Gabi even put the kibosh on my bright idea to invest in a pair of overalls after seeing the chain-smoking slobs at the casino stretch the limits of their suspender jeans.

It dawns on me: casinos are the weapons Native American are using to get even with us. Vote no, Massachusetts.

Never thought I’d look forward to the land of the Bushes with such anticipation, and Gabi – ever the mobile research maven – found a fun town with food, entertainment and a clean bed at another Days Inn.

In Amarillo, Texas.

We stopped off along the way in Alanreed, TX, a ghost town of a hamlet that has one functioning business and a handful of inhabited houses and, after a tour of Amarillo, it seems to me that this town might be headed in the same direction. Lots of empty storefronts and complete desolation Main Street ON A FRIDAY NIGHT doesn’t bode well for a bright and prosperous future.

We searched for about an hour for a place to grab dinner, but eventually gave up and retreated to The Big Texan, a somewhat legendary roadside fine-dining establishment that seemingly advertises its “free 72 ounce steak” starting somewhere in Rhode Island. The fine print reads that you have to eat the side of beef in less than an hour, and they put the hopeful carnivores on a stage under the watchful eye of a monitor and a digital timer so the crowd of a thousand or so diners can cheer them on.

It’s quite a sideshow, as if the restaurant itself weren’t enough. This outdoes the Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus, Mass. in terms of breadth, scope and kitschiness. Stuffed animal heads line the walls, crooning old men with guitars and fiddles patrol the tables, singing requests for tips, and everyone’s dressed in western garb. Not quite as extreme as the three cowboys who, as I write this, just got off the elevator in the hotel with spurs on, but pretty damned close.

We passed on the steak and Gabi went for the fried shrimp while I gave the pork ribs a shot. We both made it halfway up the mountain of food and left as a chubby adolescent settled into the seat of honor to take his shot at Big Texan immortality. Our backs to the dessert display – full quarter slabs of cake – we watched for a moment and headed to the hotel for some sleep and an incredulous review of our first Texas dining experience.

It’s now 7 a.m. and a crew of high school students just cleaned out the continental breakfast at the Days Inn. One of the chaperones stopped by for a chat, and he told me the group’s headed to Clarendon for a contest.

I bit: What kind of contest?

“We judge livestock competitions. Poultry and beef,” he shared, the dead-ended exchange drawing to a merciful close as he headed off to stare at cattle and chickens for the day and we headed out for something slightly different.

New Mexico looms promisingly beyond, and with every passing moment the tumbleweed-strewn flatlands of Oklahoma become just a state we passed through.


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