We crossed the border into Oklahoma somewhere by a chicken farm at the intersection of two dirt roads. I remember because we had to stop to load another map into the GPS (Garmin Nuvi 500). On these roads there’s no indication you’re in a new state, no sign, no welcome center, no fanfare at all. Just the smell of chicken poop and the hum of the ventilation fans.
We followed a winding river into Tahlequah and found a motel on a rise just above town. The sun was setting, kids were splashing in the pool, the neon signs of the strip glowed in the fading light. There’s nothing better than a $35 motel right out of the 1950’s.
We showered and walked downtown. There was nothing going on despite the fact that this was a college town and game day. The streets were abandoned. There weren’t any bars to go to. We found a nice restaurant next to the creek that winds through town and puzzled over why this downtown, basically connected to the campus, wasn’t more of a party town. Religion? Strict drinking laws? Who knows. It was still the the most lively downtown we’d seen since Athen’s Georgia. There was a bike shop, two bookstores, restaurants and shops.
All across America beautiful downtowns are abandoned. People have fled to the strip malls in search of cheaper prices and poorer quality. How can it be that these historic towns, many of them with a village green in the middle, hold no sway over Wendys and Walmart. We ate at a downtown sandwich shop in Lawrenceburg Tennessee on their last day of business. They told us the court house had been moved out of town and that had killed it. No one had any reason to come down here anymore.
America seems to be shifting from individual little towns with their own characters and identities to an endless strip of box stores. But not everywhere. And this trip has been great for discovering living, breathing little towns all through the South East. We just have to go deeper into the country, farther from the interstates and we discover the American Dream is still alive. Hardware stores, grocery stores, little mom and pop cafes. It’s all still there, hiding in the backcountry lanes of that other America. The one too small for Walmart to sniff it’s greedy, monstrous nose at.
The next day we wake to pouring rain. We are evicted anyway because it is the weekend of The Cherokee Festival and there isn’t an open room in Tahlequah. We head off in the rain. The dirt roads are now mud roads. We pass a billboard that says “Elder Abuse Is Not The Cherokee Way.” we slop our way into Salina, then over the reservoir on a windy bridge. We make it as far as Pryor Creek. Out on the highway now the remnants of Storm Isaac blow us around and pelt us with rain. Yet another cheap motel and we are tucked cozy inside, dry, warm and safe. Thank God for the $35 motel.