Via Wyandotte

The Will Rogers Turnpike, named for Oklahoma’s favorite son, cuts a quiet path through the state’s northeastern corner. Stretching from Tulsa to the Missouri state line, it treats travelers along its 88-mile domain to the sights of herds of cows, worn-out billboards, and minuscule towns centered around gas stations and churches. As a child, I slept through these drives on road trips to my grandmother’s house, curled up in the backseat of the family car. I would wake only as we slowed to split off the Turnpike into Wyandotte, the town in which my grandmother lives, an old set of roads intersected by a railroad track. 

In the fifteen years since, little has changed. Oklahoma is a state of two-lane highways and open fields, and nowhere is this clearer than along the Turnpike. Shedding its third lane immediately after the Tulsa city limits, it promises a tranquil drive to all who take its path. Wind-beaten, black-and-white signs after each exit proclaim a speed limit of 75 miles per hour, but the flat terrain and lack of hiding spots for highway patrollers make this more of a suggestion than a rule. When the Turnpike is empty—as it often is—it is easy to find oneself going 90, even 95, without ever intending to. Watching the countryside pass at speeds entirely inhuman, all of it blurs together into what may as well be a watercolor painting.

Fifteen years after those first road trips, I am now traveling along the same route to my grandmother’s house. I am in the driver’s seat this time, alone. The only noise I hear is the forceful exhale, and the quiet mechanical whirr, of my car’s A/C on its maximum setting. The sun is lazily draping its final light over the highway, but the Oklahoman July heat will last well into the night. I keep my foot pressed firmly to the gas pedal, cruising along at eighty-five miles per hour, quietly passing the few  other cars that appear. I watch green exit signs as they pass, waiting for the one that will lead me to Wyandotte. The town is too small, too far from the Turnpike to merit its own mention. Instead, I watch for the sign with “Fairland” printed in neat, white letters, that will take me in the right direction.

My exit comes into view as the last of the daylight dies away. The highway I merge onto is even emptier than the Turnpike before it. My headlights provide the only cone of illumination for miles. I slow down to a modest sixty miles per hour, and the weathered asphalt lightly buffets my car with each tire’s revolution. Amidst long strings of highway-side forests, I see occasional arrays of houses, worn-down and irregularly spaced.

Passing one of these tiny towns, I see a fireworks display in progress. A lone rocket explodes in a wild rainbow scattershot, then falls into nothing. Though I can’t see the source of the display, I can picture the scene perfectly. Families are gathered from around the street at a single house. Lawn chairs are spread across the porch, an open beer cooler between them. The younger children chase each other around the front yard with sparklers, their embers popping in the porch light. The older children gather at the foot of the driveway, where one father lights the fuse of the main display. This celebration is the same one that would have happened twenty, even forty years ago. It is the same scene  I grew up with at my great-grandmother’s house, and the same one my father grew up with before me, back when acquiring fireworks meant taking Route 66 to the nearest town with a fireworks stand.

The town fades in my rear view window. All the towns that follow are the same. Certain sweeping generalizations, in fact, may be made of all small towns in Oklahoma. Very small towns generally consist of a single street, appropriately named Main Street. Other towns have grown to include an intersection or two—generally provided by a Broadway or a Commerce Street—and have ceremonial stop signs. Most towns have their own post office, church, and gas station. Sometimes they include a grocery store, perhaps more accurately described as a convenience store with a produce aisle.

Wyandotte is easier to spot than other towns of its size. This is because, along the highway’s intersection with Main Street, there sits the town’s only multi-story building (and, perhaps, the only such building within a twenty-mile radius): the River Bend Casino & Hotel. The Casino looms large enough to hide all of Wyandotte in its shadow, and it has more parking spaces than the town has houses. Its lack of windows, along with the  parking lot’s periodic, day-round trickle of cars, has always given off a static feel to me. Adjacent to the looming River Bend is the Turtle Stop Gas Station, a truck stop with a mini-casino of its own. 

I slow down to make the sharp right turn onto Main Street. I drive past the Turtle Stop and bump over a set of railroad tracks before arriving in Wyandotte proper. I stop at both of its stop signs. No one there. I cruise past the post office and a furniture resale shop. Just before making the turn toward the town’s row of houses, I pass an empty, natural-grass football field. Across from that, the town’s entire school district: three buildings labelled “WYANDOTTE ELEMENTARY”, “WYANDOTTE JUNIOR HIGH”, and “WYANDOTTE HIGH SCHOOL”, all sharing a single courtyard.

The residential road shares the River Bend’s stillness. The houses, all built of wooden planks, are falling apart to varying degrees, their paint severely chipped. Old beater cars sit in front yards, often adjacent to automobile carcasses that look to be decades-old. American flags decorate the front yards. Some hang from uneven porch awnings; others stand freely in the yard or stand upright on the sides of mailboxes. Some homeowners have taken the additional, discomforting step of displaying the Confederate stars-and-bars alongside the stars-and-stripes. No one ever seems to enter or leave from these houses.

My grandmother’s house is set off from the rest, nestled between densely forested hills in an omega-shaped clearing. I pull into her yard and stop my car a few yards from the oak in front of her porch. After turning the car off, I open the door and step out. Taking a moment to survey the house before approaching it, I see there are still holes between the wall’s upper paneling and the roof. The white paint has chipped away to reveal the wood beneath. The side door still needs a top hinge. An American flag hangs wearily on the oak. Tired but still standing, this house is the same one I once knew as an adventurous child. My day’s journey over, I walk slowly to the front door, crunching leaves underfoot.

When I leave, before the sun rises, I stop for gas at the Turtle Stop. Semi-truck lights cast dull glares across cracked asphalt, but I am the only ambler in this sleeping parking lot. A breeze ruffles the air as I return to my car. My key twists in the ignition, and my car shudders as it starts. I crank my A/C to the max in anticipation of July heat that is fast approaching, then pull out onto the final eastbound stretch of the Will Rogers Turnpike. Wyandotte fades into the Casino’s shadow. Before the sun rises, both the town and the Turnpike are behind me, left exactly as I found them.

 

J.D. Wright hails from Altus, Oklahoma. You can find him watching Jeopardy! most evenings, or playing guitar while sitting under the Taco Bell poster in his room. Send him music recommendations or invite him to your band at j.d.wright@yale.edu.

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