Road to nowhere: Oklahoma's Donald J. Trump Highway runs through the Dust Bowl

Trump got 92% of the vote in desolate Cimarron County, Oklahoma. But locals remain skeptical, about everything

Published October 9, 2021 12:00PM (EDT)

Near the site of the proposed Donald J. Trump Highway in Boise City, Oklahoma (Russell Cobb)
Near the site of the proposed Donald J. Trump Highway in Boise City, Oklahoma (Russell Cobb)

Chris Polansky got out of his van at the Love's truck stop in Boise City, Oklahoma, to gas up. He'd been hiking and camping with his dog, Trout Fishing in America ("Trout, colloquially," Polansky said). Polansky and Trout found themselves in the most remote corner of the Oklahoma Panhandle, a place where literal tumbleweeds roll down Main Street past the headquarters of No Man's Land Beef Jerky. 

Polansky heard a cop tell him to get back in the van. The officer had been following him without sirens or lights, and Polansky searched for his license. Polansky dutifully sported a facemask, even though Oklahoma's laissez-faire attitude towards masking often devolves into outright hostility. 

As Polansky watched the officer in his cruiser, he noticed something strange: the cop put his driver's license in his lips as he wrote out a speeding ticket. The officer held Polansky's license in his mouth for almost the entire duration of the traffic stop. He was aghast. The pandemic had just torn through a nearby meatpacking plant, but then again, this was rural Oklahoma. 

"Of course," Polansky thought to himself as the officer scribbled out a ticket. 

One year after Polansky's ticket, Boise City and surrounding Cimarron County made news around the world. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a ride-or-die Republican, signed legislation dedicating one nearby stretch of road as the President Donald J. Trump Highway, starting this Nov. 1.

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For State Sen. Nathan Dahm, the Panhandle is the perfect location for the Trump Highway. "Calls from the Panhandle were some of the loudest," he told me in an email. "This was no surprise as Cimarron County had the highest percentage of votes for President Trump in Oklahoma and one of the highest in the nation. The woke left kicked and screamed and put up trigger warnings, but we're thrilled the new highway signs will soon be raised."

I half-expected parade preparations to be in full swing when I visited this summer. Not so. Mike Patel, staffing the night desk at the Townsman Motel, had never heard of the Trump Highway, but had a grim take on his adopted hometown. "The kids here, they leave for college, and they don't come back," he said. Boise City has been losing population since 1970. 

Braving a storm that brought both hail and tumbleweeds, I walked from the Townsman down Main Street to find Tangee Cayton, a counselor at Boise City High School, who was selling fireworks out of the shell of a brick building. Cayton, like many folks in town, shrugged off questions about the highway. "It could bring tourists," Cayton said. "But it could also bring haters."

Many of the folks coming in and out of the store neither knew nor cared about the Trump Highway. Locals wanted to talk about anything other than the former president: How Amazon Prime was killing local business, how this hail might knock out the GPS system on a tractor, whether the new Mexican place in town was any good. 

This surprised me. Cimarron County could very well be the most conservative county in the entire nation. In a statistic that resembles an election return from Russia, Trump captured 92% of the vote here. Joe Biden got a total of 70 votes in the entire county. Boise City's High Plains conservatism makes for a colorful subject on cable television. CNN stopped in the Bluebonnet Cafe and reporter Gary Tuchman asked a packed restaurant to raise their hands if they thought it was a "good idea to take the vaccine," to which he received blank stares. "What if President Trump was very robust and said 'take the vaccine?'" Tuchman insisted.

A roomful of glares shot back at Tuchman, who then sat down and tried to press the issue with a group of men in hunter orange. "Trump's a liberal New Yorker," one said. "Why would we trust him?" 

That comment touched on a streak of anti-urban bias that runs even deeper than Trumpism in this area of the country. Yes, you could shorthand it to libertarianism, but that implies a set of policy beliefs. What urban folks do not understand about a place like the Oklahoma Panhandle is that pessimism about social progress is rooted deeper than the prairie shortgrass.

There are historical reasons for this pessimism, as the Panhandle has seen its share of tragedy and farce. Those historical forces, however, have stemmed not from government intervention or liberal elites, but rather from a sort of wildcat capitalism that once brought the region to the brink of famine. 

*  *  *

Boise City, which is closer to Denver than to the state capital in Oklahoma City, was founded in a swindle. In 1908, the Southwestern Immigration and Development Company published a brochure advertising 3,000 lots for sale in a town of paved roads, tree-lined streets and handsome buildings, supplied with water from an artesian well. The brochure claimed that "King Corn and King Cotton grow side by side, yielding in excess of forty-five bushels of corn and a bale of cotton per acre."

By the force of American knowhow and bootstrapping, this Great American Desert would, the developers claimed, become the latest stage of Manifest Destiny. Only 30 years later, this area became the epicenter for what the environmental historian Donald Wooster has called "one of the three worst ecological blunders in history."

Even before the coming of the Dust Bowl, however, there was trouble on the frontier. For starters, the folks at the Southwestern Immigration and Development Company did not have title to the thousands of lots they sold. Midwesterners who knew little of life in an arid land in the former Comanchería arrived to find they'd been scammed. There were no trees, no buildings, no paved roads and a dry riverbed. Contrary to the advertisement's claims about King Cotton growing next to King Corn, no cotton could be grown in the Panhandle. Despite it all, the settlers took up the difficult task of breaking the land, making the thin soil produce wheat.

The region's anti-government sentiments are rooted in the lawless origins of the place. The Oklahoma Panhandle had been ceded to the United States by Texas so that the Lone Star State could remain a slave state (the Missouri Compromise of 1820 prohibited slavery above 36.30 degrees north latitude). But the place was neither part of Kansas nor the Cherokee Nation. It was a place without a government, a Public Strip open to all sorts of bootleggers, swindlers, and outlaws.  

Federal agents eventually arrested the leadership of the Southwestern Immigration and Development Company. Three men were charged with "grossly misrepresent[ing] the natural resources of Boise City and Cimarron County," and sent to the federal penitentiary in Fort Leavenworth, although they were later pardoned by President William Howard Taft.  

After its dubious beginnings, a brief period of prosperity ensued. In the 1910s and 1920s, the Panhandle became a wheat producer during "the Great Plow-Up" of the Plains. World War I caused the price of American wheat to double, and the government proclaimed that the key to winning the war was to plant more wheat. Little did the government know that it was planting the seeds for the region's destruction.  

On April 14, 1935, a darkness appeared on the horizon. Fluttering birds landed dead in yards. A "norther" picked up strength, turning dust particles into projectiles that felt like shards of glass on exposed skin. As cattle breathed in, their lungs filled with dust. At first, they lost their bearings and circled around, looking for water. Then they fell over, dead. 

Swirling dust stripped cars of paint, felled trees and filled the intestines of livestock. Static turned people into electric livewires. Children died of dust pneumonia. By 1940, 43 percent of Cimarron County's residents had fled. The capitalistic urge to break the land and squeeze profits from wheat farms with little precipitation had destroyed the natural vegetation that kept the thin topsoil in place. Once a drought hit, northern winds turned cold fronts into black blizzards. 

Survivors' stories are the thing of disaster movies. A child playing in the yard, lost in the blackness, wandered into a ditch and was suffocated by the dust. A woman whose car died in the static electricity of a dust storm pulled off the highway to seek help, only to become lost in dust so thick she could not see her hand in front of her face. In 1937, a reporter from Collier's toured the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles to find, "famine, violent death, private and public futility, insanity and lost generations."

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Today, the Dust Bowl is remembered as a terrible aberration that paired the dire economic conditions of the Depression with a rare drought. According to most environmental historians, however, it was a manmade ecological disaster that reflected an American desire to take risks, consume natural resources and ignore the advice of experts. An object lesson for our times of coronavirus and climate change if there ever was one. 

I talked to a lot of Panhandlers about the Dust Bowl, and no one seemed to be drawing the same conclusions as the environmental historians who study it. Rather, people talked about the grit and resilience of their grandparents and great-grandparents, who stayed on while weak-kneed cowards fled to California. If there was a lesson to be learned about the Dust Bowl for them, it was this: Everyone lies, take what you can while you can and never, ever trust the government.  

World War II brought one more indignity to Boise City. A B-17 Flying Fortress taking off from Texas mistook Boise City for a practice bombing range. The B-17 passed over the town several times, dropping a single bomb each time. Bombs nicked a Baptist church, crushed a garage and sent truckers fleeing out of town. A 1993 commemorative plaque proclaimed that, all those years later, the town was "still booming." 

Almost every conversation about Boise City's precarious existence eventually turns, not to Trump's highway, but to the neighboring town of Guymon, which is growing at the fastest clip since the pre-Dust Bowl days. Guymon's revival began when Seaboard Foods built a pork processing plant there in 1996. (More recently, half the plant's workers contracted COVID.)

Tangee Cayton recalled teaching students of dozens of nationalities, from Ethiopian to Guatemalan, in Guymon's public schools. With a population of about 13,000, Guymon now has loft apartments and Latin-fusion restaurants; Boise City, with less than one-tenth that many residents, has No Man's Land Beef Jerky and Cimmy, a life-size Apatosaurus of rusted iron. Cimmy, along with the World War II bombing plaque, make for eccentric roadside Americana, but there's little hope for the long-term viability of the town. 

Parker Furniture, across the street from Cayton's fireworks stand, has been in business since the Panhandle's halcyon days of the 1950s. Hank Hankla's family ran the store, and young Hankla drove all over the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles delivering furniture or laying carpet for the family business. Hankla remembers Boise City as an all-American town with four baseball teams and a Juilliard-trained music teacher. The postwar years were full of promise, but the perils of life on the High Plains were inescapable. 

"We had dust storms into the 1950s," Hankla remembered. "That's the first time I saw a person in a face mask." Hankla recollected raising stakes on barbed-wire fences. If the tumbleweeds caught in the barbed-wire, dust piled up, burying houses. "You had to respect the dust," he said. 

In fact, Guymon's resurgence worries many people in Boise City. Melissa McGaughy, a history teacher in the public schools, said there's a segment of the population that would rather watch the town die than become a multicultural, multilingual community. She'd seen it happen before. One Panhandle school district recently closed, and there's talk of another shutting down as well. With Oklahoma spending less per student and less on teacher pay than surrounding states, it's hard to see how the pattern of decline can be reversed. 

Boise City has much to recommend it: cheap real estate, virtually zero crime and a population willing to drop off a pot roast on the porch if someone catches COVID-19, which Melissa McGaughy did, twice. The first time felt like the flu, but the second bout landed her in the hospital. The town pharmacist delivered drugs to McGaughy's door, and a stranger brought over a watermelon. McGaughy may not always see eye-to-eye with her neighbors, but she says many of them have been "wonderful" through the hard times. She also suspects that a lot more people have been vaccinated than Gary Tuchman's video at the cafe, or even state health data, might suggest. "We don't have a county health department, and that's caused lots of issues," she said. 

None of those issues, safe to say, will be addressed by the coming of President Donald J. Trump Highway. "Boise City might be dying," McGaughy said, "but we're a couple good turns away from thriving. We need to start by accepting that things aren't what they used to be." 

By Russell Cobb

Russell Cobb is associate professor of Comparative Literature and Latin American Studies at the University of Alberta. His book ""The Great Oklahoma Swindle: Race, Religion, and Lies in America's Weirdest State" was selected as 2020 Book of the Year by the Oklahoma Department of Libraries. His writing has appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, NPR and elsewhere.

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Conservatives Donald Trump Dust Bowl Kevin Stitt Oklahoma Reporting Republicans U.s. History