Trip Review: Cadillac Ranch
April 14, 2017 / By Chris Oudean & Katie Hnatik
Cadillac Ranch is a roadside attraction on the outskirts of Amarillo, TX that has more meaning and history than is obvious at first glance. It’s made up of 10 Cadillacs planted nose first into the ground in a large field.
Cadillac Ranch wasn’t a main attraction for us on our trip to Texas. We were there to explore Palo Duro Canyon, but we would be passing through Amarillo on our way back to Colorado. Out of curiosity, I had looked up attractions in the city to see what we might be able to add to our journey as a side-trip. A picture of Cadillac Ranch came up and I instantly recognized it from a TV show about American roadside attractions that I had seen when I was a teenager, though I didn’t remember much, and all-in-all knew little about it beside what can be inferred from a picture.
On Sunday morning, we drove through a neighborhood to a frontage road along I-40. This frontage road happens to be part of route 66. As we approached the ranch, parked cars lined both sides of the road and people were spray painting signatures and pictures on the edges of the asphalt. Crossing the street toward a field, there were two small dumpsters, both wildly colored with graffiti and filled with empty cans of spray paint. The connection between graffiti and this place might be common knowledge to a lot of people, but it was new to Chris and I.
You can see the cars from the road as small, symmetrically spaced shapes silhouetted in the distance. We walked through an open gate into the field and started down the wide dirt path toward the cars. It was instantly obvious that people were actively painting graffiti on the cars. I had a vague recollection that this was a thing here. As we got closer, we could make out all the paint on the cars, a collage of colorful names and drawings, layer upon layer. There were more people than I expected. Whole families were there and it seemed to be mostly kids and teenagers that were painting. It gave the impression that this is just what you do on a warm Sunday morning in Amarillo – pack the family in the car with some spray cans and head to the ranch to get your paint on.
The paint on the cars is thick, so much so that the corners and edges of the cars are rounded and distorted. On closer look, the paint has a rippled, almost scaled texture from day after day of paint layers slowly drying. On downward facing surfaces, the paint is spiky, forming icicle-like shapes as it drips. There are decades of history in these colorful layers.
Cadillac Ranch was created in 1974 by Chip Lord, Doug Michaels, and Hudson Marquez. The three made up the group Ant Farm, which was an avant-garde art and architecture collective from San Francisco. It doesn’t take much reading to realize that they were a rebellious group.
The project was sponsored by Stanley Marsh 3 (yes, he pronounced it three, not the third and not depicted in Roman numerals as he felt that they were too pretentious). Stanley was a wealthy, eccentric, Amarillo character who reveled in random (and absurd at times) humor. In a letter responding to Ant Farm’s inqiry, asking whether Stanley would be interested in sponsoring the project, Stanley replied “It’s going to take me awhile to get used to the idea of the Cadillac Ranch. I’ll answer you by April Fool’s Day. It’s such an irrelevant and silly proposition that I want to give it all my time and attention so I can make a casual judgment of it.”
Cadillac Ranch is said to be a statement on American consumerism. It features ten Cadillacs created from 1949 through 1963, each featuring a different iteration of the tailfin. These cars are a symbol of luxury and materialism. For the every-day working person, these cars were most likely out of reach. They were a dream car. They are something that would be owned by the elite class and thus represent separatism between classes. To take these cars and bury them face down in the dirt, in a cow pasture is somewhat poetic. This symbol of separation between classes buried in the earth, seems to illustrate that material differences are meaningless in the end. It puts this piece of luxury into reach of everyone in society. By allowing and welcoming the defacing and graffiti of them, it brings us all together. It turns this symbol into something tangible and shows that it doesn’t hold the meaning that it is fabled to have.
It emphasizes the impermanence of life and materials. What you paint this morning, will be different by the afternoon. It brings focus to the moment and the action at hand because what is left behind won’t last.
The graffiti wasn’t something that was planned. The cars were buried with their original paint and before long, people began to vandalize them. Windows were smashed, parts of the tailfins were taken, speakers stolen, chrome and doors removed, and of course, they were painted. In a lot of ways, this is what has made this place so popular and helped it to stand the test of time, outliving some of its creators. Rather than discouraging the defacement, it was welcomed. They would even hire painters to come and repaint the cars to a solid color every so often to create a blank canvas for visitors who now come from all over the world to see the cars and leave their temporary mark. These clean, solid layers never last more than a few hours without new graffiti.
The cars are haunting. They are a combination of decay and fresh life. The metal underneath the paint is deformed and rusting, no doubt being held together by the thick, colorful layers. “One day, it may be Chassis Ranch,” Chip Lord was quoted in Amarillo Globe News. The graffiti that started with no doubt malicious intent is now celebrated. It’s counter-culture turned culture. I can’t help but think of teenagers coming here 43 years ago, youthful and rebellious, carving out words or initials by moonlight and I wonder where they are now and what they think of what has become of these cars.
The artists themselves have different interpretations of the meaning of the installation. According to an Amarillo Globe News article in 2003, at the 1994, 20-year anniversary of Cadillac Ranch, Doug Michaels told the Globe that the cars represented changes in the cars’ fins and that they “thought about dolphins sticking their tail fins out of the ocean and those dolphin fins became Cadillac tail fins.”
Overall, it was a monument to the cars themselves and done without seriousness. It’s silly and joyful. According to Marquez, “The spirit of Cadillac Ranch is ‘Welcome, look at this, isn’t this fun?’”
None of the artists, nor Stanley Marsh 3, expected the ranch would become as popular or last as long as it has. Marsh had initially stated that he wouldn’t leave it in place for too long, not wanting others to feel that it was some sort of junkyard. Now, it’s an icon known worldwide. It’s been featured in movies and music. The number of visitors to the ranch over the years isn’t known, but is estimated to be over one million. Doug Michaels has been quoted as saying, “The culture chooses its icons; The artist doesn’t really have that choice.”
There is yet another duality to the ranch in this way: the deeper meanings that can be drawn from it and the simple fun of it, and you are free to take from it what you will. So if you happen to be near Amarillo, take a detour and visit this oddity. It’s worth the stop and seeing it firsthand.
Tips for your visit
The cars are located in a large field. The path to the cars is all dirt. If it’s raining, the dirt will be all mud, so plan to get your feet dirty, or wear rubber boots.
Bring spray paint, or something of your choosing for making your mark. We really didn’t know that graffitiing the cars was a thing, but in hindsight, I wish we would have. How often do you get to add to such a widely known icon. Add your mark and take some pictures. The cars will never be the same as they are on your visit.
If you forget your paint, don’t fret. The dumpsters are filled with cans of spray paint. If you are up to scavenging, you are likely to find one that still has some life in it. Otherwise, the folks visiting the ranch seem to be rather friendly. We witnessed painters offering up cans to those that were empty-handed.
Don’t walk downwind of the cars. The smell of paint is strong. You’re fine if you’re upwind, but we made the mistake of walking along in front of the cars while a draft of wind picked up and it was overwhelming.
Be careful on the cars. Climbing on them seems to be popular with visitors, but the cars underneath the paint are old. It would be wise to keep this in mind and maybe not trust in the strength of the paint to hold your weight.
-See more photos in our “Texas Photo Gallery“
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