3 a.m., Sunday, Oct. 16, Norman, Okla.
Fell asleep early and awoke in a 2 a.m. fog upon receiving a phone call from Kenny Via. One thing led to another, including a text-message exchange with Jun in Los Angeles, and now I am wide awake.
Serenity reigns at the Interstate Drive Walmart, deep in the heart of Sooners country. I feel good, even though I should be sleeping. We finally got a workout in today, and more significantly, showered for the first time in eight days.
It’s good to be clean.
It’s balmy, something like a soothing 60 degrees. A gentle breeze blows in off the freeway, just a long, open-field Greg Pruitt jaunt to the west.
One thing is certain: They love their Walmarts in Oklahoma, almost as much as they love their Sooners. In Norman alone, two of the megastores coexist within 3.5 miles of each other.
It’s easier to find a Walmart in Oklahoma than a whore in Tijuana (not that I’d know, but it sounded good).
We’re holed up in the lot to the east of I-35, which runs south through the sprawling Dallas metroplex and then Austin, San Antonio and all the way to Laredo and the Mexican border.
About 10 minutes ago, I stumbled into the Oklahoma Sooners team store tucked inside the Walmart, up front with the restrooms, the nail salon, the photo studio, the customer service counter and Arvest Bank.
The latter, not surprisingly, is just another cog in the Walton machine of economic dominance. The chairman of the board is none other than Jim Walton, son of Sam Walton, and the two ventures work hand in hand to tilt the fields of opportunity in their favor and assure the Walton well will always be a gusher.
In the store, corporate blue blends harmoniously with Sooners red. Cash registers, 30 of them, form an unbroken line from one end of the store to the other. Oklahoma banners hang in a third of the aisles.
It’s been a couple decades since I’ve been in a college team store, and I’m blown away but the glut of merchandise.
It staggers the senses.
There’s the bread and butter: all manner of Sooners T-shirts for $10; long-sleeve Tees for $12; hoodie sweatshirts for $20; and baseball caps for $10. What else? My favorite is the curved-claw hammer, retailing for the always-low price $15.97.
There’s something for every Sooners fanatic.
A set of four coasters goes for $5.96. Spare tire cover, $29.97. Three baby bibs for $11. Baby knit hats for $10. Sooners camouflauge ball caps for $7. Or how about this: A long-sleeved, ribbed cotton shirt emblazoned with “Oklahoma Sooners, Est. 1890. Peace and Love. Cultural Heritage Community.”
There’s a leather-look letterman-type jacket, black with red trim. Tag says the outer shell is 95 percent polyvinyl chloride.
What the hell, I think, is polyvinyl chloride?
Sounds like a horrific chemical compound added to napalm to make sure jungles burn with just the right, demoralizing shade of orange. Or maybe an embalmer adds a dose of polyvinyl chloride to formaldehyde to ensure corpses don’t start smelling like slaughterhouses. Polyvinyl chloride: It kills mosquitoes dead!
Oh, Google says, PVC. Duh. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean any of the above is untrue.
Out here on the Walmart road, one gets used to continuous whoosh of traffic on the big freeways. It’s almost comforting, certainly more comforting than waiting for a tow truck just a few feet from the highway. We feel safe here. Everything is reassuringly familiar, which I think gets at the evil genius of the international chain-store system.
Walmart or Target, Big Lots or Best Buy, North Dakota or South Carolina, wherever you are, it’s always the same. It numbs the senses, like whiskey or weed, but it feels all right. It comforts the traveler with a spurious sense of being home.
A lot of people don’t think much of Walmart, but most people have a hard time resisting the allure of low prices. Even my pal Jefferson Pepper succumbs to a good deal every now and then. Of course, those lower prices are made possible by always-low wages, economies of scale and predatory pricing that allow Walmart to crush the competition all across the country and world.
We are guilty. We haven’t spent too much money at Walmart, but we slipped a little today. Milk and a sippy cup for Max, and three yogurts, and three gallon water refills (37) cents and a jar of Riverwalk salsa, medium ($1.58).
My 81-year-old mom, who had to listen to me whine about her bourgeois lifestyle for far too long, refuses to shop at Walmart. She’s a better man than me.
What does it all mean? Is there anything close to a thread that ties this ramshackle narrative together?
We’re here on the road, like so many before, trying to make sense of the American experience. Where’s Ken Burns when you need him?
Into the second decade of the 21st century, you have to wonder if we’re approaching the end of the road-trip era. Should the world’s oil supplies peak and produce Mad Max-style chaos, nobody will be wandering the highways and back roads, especially at the obscene rate of 13 miles per gallon.
It’s hard to see the end from here, though, the way the great army of semis maraud across the country night and day, making 1,000 miles per every 200-gallon tank of diesel. You’d think we were living in the 1950s, when domestic oil supplies seemed bottomless and everyone in Oklahoma City had an oil well in their backyard.
Aside from abusive labor practices and questionable pricing policies, the real secret to Walmart’s reign is cheap products made on the backs of children and other exploited laborers in foreign sweatshops. Just about everything in the Sooners store, not surprisingly, is made in China. Just like the rest of the store.
Everything from the “Peace and Love and Cultural Heritage” shirt to the baby bibs to the fucking hammer is made in China. The PVC jacket? Check.
A casual survey only turned up two items made elsewhere: The tire cover, shockingly, was manufactured in Williamsburg, Va. The camo cap comes from Vietnam.
I’m tired of Walmart.
I wander back to the behemoth and turn off the propane. A plastic Sooners cup, discarded in the parking lot, takes a quarter turn on a stiff breeze, then rolls back into place.
It’s 4:35. Time to go.
With Becky and Max asleep, I raise the blinds and drive out of Norman in the direction of Oklahoma City. First up is Moore, a ghastly piece of sprawl that gave the world Toby Keith. Enough said.
Next stop, Oklahoma City.
When the famed journalist Ernie Pyle drove into Oklahoma City for the first time in 1937, he was stunned to find it illuminated by a spectral phalanx of oil wells. Oklahoma, and Oklahoma City in particular, had gone crazy for oil.
“The glare in the sky vanished around a bend, and reappeared again at the next curve. I topped a little rise, and the fog of lights divided slowly into individualities. I saw tall buildings all lighted up, still far away. I thought, My but Oklahoma City’s a big place. Never knew it was so big. Lots of big office buildings, with people working in them this late at night, too. Why, it looked like the New York sky line, only the buildings all seemed about the same height. The tops made a ledge of light across the sky.
“And then it suddenly hit me, right between the eyes: those weren’t buildings all lighted up. They were oil derricks. Oil derricks right in the city.”
Everywhere he looked, derricks reached for the sky. There were wells, wells, wells everywhere. They were wedged between houses, plopped down next to gas stations and erected on golf courses, on the state capitol, even up against the governor’s mansion.
And it had all happened at once.
“Three months before this visit of mine, there had been only two oil wells in the northern part of Oklahoma City. Now there were at least 300, and new derricks were going up almost by the hour. Residential sections were being gutted. People were wild for oil.”
When we went to Texas in the spring of 2010 for the Old Settlers Music Festival, we spent some time at the Oklahoma History Center. An outdoor exhibit shows off various types of wells and oil-extracting machinery and told snapshot stories of the great Oklahoma oil boom. Somewhere I have a notebook filled with anecdotes culled from our walk through the derricks and an hour spent in the library.
The only thing I can find is an anecdote located deep in the bowels of my text message outbox. It detailed the sad fate of a driller named Charlie, recounted years later by a fellow driller with the improbably wonderful name of “Dog-Tired Simms.”
“Charlie liked his jug,” Dog-Tired told an interviewer. “It was his ruination. Charlie got drunk, got sloppy, and the next thing you know the boiler blew up, raining iron, tool dresser and Charlie for 15 minutes by the clock.”
Seventy-plus years later, Dog-Tired Simms is long dead and oil derricks no longer rule the Oklahoma City skyline. You still see a few here and there, maybe some of them are even operating, sucking the last few barrels out of a motherlode once thought to be inexhaustible.
Even if there were a battalion of oil wells in Oklahoma City, they’d still get lost in the billion-watt glare of 21st century corporate sprawl.
It’s so bright out here, you can’t see a thing.