Buried Treasures: Cadillac Ranch brings roadside culture to historic Route 66

by TYLER YORK//Editor-in-Chief

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AMARILLO—Just off a Texas highway, a pile of luxury cars sits nose-first in the dirt, stripped to the chassis, covered in graffiti, and baking in the sun.

A mere two-hour drive north to the historic Route 66 is a one-of-a-kind permanent fixture, one that indescribably draws people from around the country to express themselves in a way only Amarillo seems to offer.

Cadillac Ranch, as the art installation is known, has a history that spans more than four decades, having been set up originally in an Amarillo wheat field in 1974. But its inception story has an air of Hollywood mysticism that feels out of place in a setting like rural West Texas.

It all started with Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels of San Francisco, who, as a combination of architects and artists, were known collectively as Ant Farm.

Supposedly inspired by a children’s book about cars left at a bar, Ant Farm drafted the design for what would eventually be Cadillac Ranch. The piece itself would become a slanted tribute to Americana, as well as a celebration of the old classic Cadillac tailfin’s evolution through the years.

As the story goes, Ant Farm was given a list—a literal, physical note with names written on it—of millionaires who might be interested in helping to finance a new art installation. That’s when Amarillo local and billionaire eccentric Stanley Marsh 3 came into the picture.

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Ant Farm had the idea, and it seemed Marsh was their man with the land, money, and allegedly a desire to create a piece of art that would confuse the public who would make it possible. So in 1974, a row of 10 junkyard Cadillacs was loaded into Texas soil, nose-first, reportedly leaned at an angle that corresponds to Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza.

The installation stayed there for many years, before eventually moving from its original spot in 1997 with little fanfare. It was brought just a few miles down the road to its new permanent home, which is on the side of an Interstate 40 frontage road in a cattle pasture.

Perhaps the most surprising piece of history about Cadillac Ranch, even for those who are familiar with the project and its impact on roadside culture, is the fact that the cars were initially untouched. They stood exactly as they had been loaded in, and people would come to see them at all hours of the day, staying a respectful distance away and respecting the art for the visual appeal the artists intended.

But it wasn’t long before the more unsavory type of visitors began pulling off parts to take as criminal trophies, or graffiti tagging the cars. This happened slowly at first, but the practice grew so exponentially that it became the norm for visitors. After a certain point, it was explicitly encouraged by the artists themselves. The saying “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” comes to mind, and it seems the artists knew well enough to embrace the power of a subversive cultural art movement when they saw one.

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A typical day out at Cadillac Ranch is a revolving door of photography, paint, and travelers from all around the country—sometimes even from beyond the border.

“You get all kinds of people out there,” said Eric Miller, director of communications for the Convention & Visitor Council with the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce, regarding the variety of visitors Cadillac Ranch attracts. “There could be just as few as one car. I’ve been here when a couple church bus groups, I mean just came pouring off their buses.”

The art project has obviously cemented itself as a part of West Texas roadside culture, if not American pop culture at large. For nearly three years, Cadillac Ranch has even been featured on the front page of popular highway oddities website Roadside America, in the site’s Top Ten Trending list.

But what do visitors think about the installation?

Florida natives Keith and Charlotte Hines recently were passing through, on their way back from a wedding in California.

“It’s iconic for sure,” Keith Hines said, with his camera in hand.

There are usually few people in attendance without a device held out taking photos, at least on a mobile phone. Many bring along a more professional camera setup with them to document their visit.

There are some, however, who just seem to be at Cadillac Ranch to blow off some steam, like Oklahoma resident April Lamont, who was in Amarillo visiting some friends.

“It’s just fun to graffiti the cars,” said Lamont. “You’ve had a long day, you’re tired or upset about work or whatever stress, and you just get to let it all out. The cars are the canvas.”

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If you know what to look for, you can actually find Cadillac Ranch in some surprising places in the public view.

It’s featured in music videos by James Brown and Cage the Elephant, among many others. It was visually referenced on an episode of the popular animated show “King of the Hill.” Songs by Bruce Springsteen and Chris LeDoux are odes to the highway phenomenon. You can even find an entire set of mountains in Disney’s “Cars” movies that pays tribute—cheekily named Cadillac Range.

But what does it all mean? Is it a statement about materialism, a tribute to old cars, or just a fun thing for people to leave their mark on? For lack of a definitive answer, most people just need to experience it for themselves.

“Most of the time, if it’s daylight, somebody’s out there” said Miller. “It’s open 24/7, so you can even walk out there at night if you wanted to.”

If you happen to forget your can of spray paint, never fear. There is almost always a friendly fellow vandal nearby to lend you their leftovers.

[Photos by TYLER YORK/PLAINSMAN PRESS]

Author: Tyler York

Online Editor. Journalism student by day. Drummer for @drakehayesband by night. Game enthusiast.

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