Pondering Amarillo and the West Texas Plain: When Cadillac Ranch becomes Cadillac Desert

On the way back to Missouri from Arcosanti on I-40, on Sept 18m 2012, I came across something I had not seen before a row of old cars buried into a farm field just outside of Amarillo Texas. The symbolism of seeing those half buried cars led me to think about another project titled Cadillac Desert which talked about the unsustainable use of water in the Southwestern part of the USA. It was originally a book that later was made into PBS series.

Now you might say Amarillo just another boring mid-western high plains town, but I have a different story. Most places just aren’t as predictable as we sometimes like to stereotype them as. Amarillo and the great plains are a case in point. Yet the purpose to all this is that as I travel throughout the Southwest what I realize is this: the region is at precipice because that vital fluid water is something that has and continues to be taken for granted. We have taken water from natural stores and reserves at unsustainable rates to power a economy that rewards hyper-consumerism and suburban sprawl. Our politicians are so beholden to establishment thinking that they seem unable to offer any resistance to the forces that encourage business as usual in the management of natural resources. The economy in this region in particular is built upon growing crops like cotton and grains on massive farms that consume fossil water as well as fossil fuels.

Amarillo is a regional hub city that despite it location has several novel aspects. For starters its the commercial center for region located on a plateau that covers most of the panhandle of Texas including Lubbock to the south – the Llano Estacado. The plain is actually atop a very gently rolling plateau (despite it gently rolling slope, its considered one of the flattest landforms in the US) or Mesa that suddenly drops (about 300 feet) at the eastern most end into the Great or High Plains at the Caprock Escarpment.

FM 90: A 30 year Experiment in College Radio in the middle of the Conservative Heartland of America – One oddity is that it is a center for college radio. For some reason Amarillo College has continued to finance a College Radio station. So this is why traveling through Armarillo is something I enjoy – I actually have a chance to listen to some great commercial free radio while passing through the city – KACV FM 90 (actually 89.9). And it goes for a while outside in either direction because it is a 100000 watt station (last time I checked that was maximum wattage a station could send out). My thought after reading this local article about FM 90’s 30th anniversary is that it must be “mid-western Show me State (while Missouri is the Show Me State the motto is really reflecting a common type of midwestern pragmatism influential in the mid-20th century in tempering more left leaning ideals evident on the coasts) type pragmatism” that allows this to survive. The idea is that people come from all over the region to go to school to learn broadcasting and that builds the talent pool for the towns media and also builds on its maverick image. The question is why aren’t more regional colleges and universities opting for this model rather than the boring and bland NPR programming route?

The Big Texan

Something a bit more Texan in nature to experience while in Amarillo is the Big Texan. I’ve never been there, but have seen the big billboard signs which promise that if you order one of their famous 72oz steaks and you eat the whole thing – you get it free. I would say that’s a BIG reason why this country is so fat (we’re becoming a nation of fatsos) nowadays because we seem to promote overeating as some great feat worthy of rewarding with a free meal.

The Big Texan is best known for its 72 ounce (4.5 pounds or 2.04 kg) steak, nicknamed “The Texas King.” The steak is free to anyone who, in one hour or less, can eat the entire meal, consisting of the steak itself, plus bread roll with butter, baked potato, ranch beans, shrimp cocktail, and salad; otherwise, the meal costs $72.00. Those who have successfully consumed the Texas King meal have their names recorded and posted at the restaurant. As of March 15, 2011, over 8,800 people out of about 50,000 have accomplished this feat.

Those who take on the Texas King challenge are required to pay for the meal in advance, and if they are successful, their money is refunded. The steak is cooked to the participant’s preference, and the challenge takes place at a table for one on a raised platform in the middle of the main dining room.


There are spray paint cans that people leave at the site to enable others to spray graffiti onto the cars. The paint is rather thick in places actually forming a layered plastic crust over the metal car bodies.

Cadillac Ranch and Stanley Marsh Begs the Question: what is the the Meaning of Art – Finally there is Cadillac Ranch. I was zooming by and I caught in the corner of my eye this place on the I-40 outer road where people were stopping along the side of the road. That of course made me curious and I pulled off to check it out. I saw cars dug into the ground in a farm field.

This must be something big I thought, because they get more people coming to see the cars that come to Arcosanti in a day or so it seemed when I was there.

While Cadillac Ranch was created by 1974 by Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels, who were a part of the art group Ant Farm, the patron of the project was a Amarillo Millionaire named Stanley Marsh 3 (he uses the number three instead of letters because he considers it pretentious). Marsh is an eccentric millionaire heir whose family grew rich through oil. He funded a number of art projects in the area over the years. Possibly this influential Amarillo character helps explain the irreverent nature of Amarillo’s reputation. In addition to Cadillac Ranch, there are a number of other art installations funded by Marsh.

Not everyone in Amarillo likes his work though and some decry his attempts at creating public art says that it is not really very artistic. He responds: “Art is a legalized form of insanity, and I do it very well.” Also interesting to note that his wife Wendy is on the board of Amarillo College and possibly that explains FM 90.

Map outlines areas where there are gains and losses in aquifer density.

When Cadillac Ranch becomes Cadillac Desert – While it does not seem to be the meaning of art to me, seeing those cars upended into the earth symbolized something about the demise of a society that puts such a great emphasis on the car for its well being and prosperity. Indeed I was reminded of the book and companion PBS series called Cadillac Desert, which examined the unsustainable water consumption of the US Southwest that was fueled by an massive effort to dramatically transform this arid region into a food growing center as well as enable the rapid growth of several large cities. This was done by massive taxpayer funded public works projects that included pumping down aquifers and damming rivers bringing snowmelt from regional mountain chains The main rivers in the region the Colorado, the Rio Grande and the Sacramento have has seen major draw downs from agriculture, industry and municipalities that have led to significant reductions in flow. With the case of the Colorado – and with rare exceptions – it is now a loosing stream in Mexico, no longer exiting into the Sea of Baja in Mexico.

Every time I go through the Texas Panhandle area, I am reminded of the precarious nature of this region’s economy. While new discoveries of oil and gas have encouraged some more short sighted folk who continue to hold hope and promise that old 20 century technologies will deliver them prosperity in the 21st century, a more disturbing reality is that the water supply for farming and suburban growth that now dominates the cities in the region comes from the rapidly receding Ogallala Aquifer.

While this was one of the largest aquifers in the nation, rapid pumping to make the make the great plains the breadbasket for the world in the mid-20th century has made it one of the most depleted ones. Its estimated that the aquifer will be depleted in about 25 years if current pumping rates continue. One of the challenges is that the recharge rate into the aquifer is very low due to deposits of caliche. Current practices of development actually threaten existing recharge levels in the Playa Lakes of the aquifer where there is still some permiability.

While the drawdown is obviously unsustainable it is important to note that the total volume of the aquifer is down only 10 percent since the heaviest pumping began in 1950 so that still leaves a substantial reserve. Two wildcards that could affect the outcome and survival of the region are: the ability of technology improvements to reduce consumption and the impact of Global Climate Change on the plains.

4 thoughts on “Pondering Amarillo and the West Texas Plain: When Cadillac Ranch becomes Cadillac Desert

  1. Awesome Piece~ makes the old thought of “someone elses “junk” is anothers “masterpiece” come to mind…
    ,,,:) great writing and photography! Thank you Jeff!

    • And to consider that it was commissioned by an eccentric millionaire whose support was key to lots of offbeat art in the region adding to the place’s color and vitality. This included influencing the local college to fund alternative college radio programming. It was something I always looked forward to when I passed by on I-40. Sadly his life ultimately became a tragedy, a victim of his own transgressions and self-destructive behaviors.

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