Cadillacs and crazy cows, deep in the heart of Texas

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The Independent Online
THERE IS a soppy song about Amarillo that, years ago, Jimmy Young would play over and over on Radio 2. Its first rhyme was "pillow", but the rest of the lyrics escape this correspondent. But otherwise, this blur of motel- and restaurant-chain-neon, way out here in the Texas panhandle, doesn't get a lot of attention.

On-the-Road addicts may beg to differ. The highway that bisects the sprawl may be Interstate 40 now, but once it was part of the fabled Route 66. Much more importantly, it was off this road, just beyond the western edge of the city, that 10 shiny Cadillacs were miraculously planted nose-first into the mud back in 1974, their tail fins and chrome bumpers pointing skywards at an angle.

The cars were the brainchild of a local gas-and-oil heir, Stanley Marsh 3. (He has never favoured romanising his numeral). He created it with the help of Ant Farm, then an avant-garde San Francisco art troupe, and called it "Cadillac Ranch". The cars became a monument to American pop art - a prairie Stonehenge. With them, Mr Marsh achieved exactly what he had wanted: he put Amarillo on the map.

Over the years, Mr Marsh, 59, has continued to hone his attention-getting skills, with mixed results. A few months ago, he disinterred all 10 Cadillacs, now battered and scrawled-over with marker-pen and spray-paint. He moved them two miles further west and returned them to the dirt in exactly the same bonnet-down fashion. By the old site, he put up a sign: "Grave sites for Rent or Sale".

Mr Marsh, who lives in a small mansion called Toad Hall with a VW Beetle buried in the garden, offered various explanations for the change of location. For instance: the "girls", as he calls the cars, were in danger of being swallowed up by the expanding city and preferred the smell of manure to fumes. He told one reporter that in their new field, they had a better chance in the county fair square-dancing competition.

But one alleged recent venture - abducting the teenage son of a local lawyer whom he famously dislikes and locking him in a chicken coop with only his underpants on and surrounded by pecking birds - has landed him in some awkward legal difficulty. He faces criminal charges of kidnapping and assault as well a civil suit from the boy's family, and could go on trial later this year.

Nowadays, however, quite another name is on the lips of Amarillo. That, of course, is Oprah Winfrey, the queen of talk-show TV who has been here since late last month, defending herself in the federal courthouse in her beef defamation trial. Moreover, having been forced to bring her entire show to town, she has been drawing in some pretty famous names. Her guest this Friday was Garth Brooks, the country star. In these parts, let me assure you, Mr Brooks is a big deal indeed.

So odd is Ms Winfrey's travail - she faces millions of dollars in damages for slandering beefburgers - that it might almost have been one of Mr Marsh's little notions. Who ever has heard of someone being hauled before a judge for defaming a foodstuff? (Actually, food disparagement laws exist in 14 US states; the Oprah case, stemming from a show she did on mad cow disease, will be the first time they are tested.)

And indeed, Mr Marsh does have something to do with it. Among his various business interests there is a large cattle feeding-station, and he is one of the ranchers suing Ms Winfrey. He happens also to be the owner of the local ABC TV station, which finds itself with the best local story in years. The station's pyramid-like roof, by the way, is decorated with bright flashing lights to attract UFOs.

It is not clear whether Ms Winfrey's presence in town delights Mr Marsh or infuriates him. (In a rather abrupt telephone conversation, he did agree to be interviewed by this "magazine", which he professed to admire very much - but not just yet). She has surely brought the spotlight back onto Amarillo. But for once, Mr Marsh finds his antics are eclipsed. And because there is a gag-order on all participants in the trial, he has had to resist the temptation to stage any kind of Oprah-related stunt.

But Ms Winfrey will not be here forever, and then Mr Marsh can return to pondering his own legal predicament, which came about because of a new living-art project that he embarked upon in 1993. For five years he has been been erecting fake, diamond-shaped road signs all across the city. No two are the same. They may bear a poem, or a just a picture. Among those seen last week: a pink rabbit, and Mona Lisa with "Men Have Loved You" written underneath.

It was allegedly for stealing one of these signs that Mr Marsh decided punishment was due to the teenage boy, Ben Whittenburg. The Whittenburgs contend he deliberately lured boys into making off with them, especially by putting out one batch bearing the legend "Steal This Sign".

If convicted, Mr Marsh could spend 20 years in prison. But if he remains free,he will doubtless continue to heed the advice on a bumper sticker, just visible beneath the graffiti and doodles on one of his "girls" on the Ranch: "Practise Random Senseless Acts".