If you’ve driven through Amarillo, the only Texas city on Interstate 40, you might have seen advertisements for “The Big Texan,” a steakhouse on the outskirts of town where your 72-ounce steak is free if eaten in one hour; you might have also seen The Big Texan advertised on billboards as far away as Arkansas or Arizona. If you hear the name, you might remember something about the time Oprah Winfrey had to tape her show in the Amarillo Little Theater because the Texas Cattle Feeders Association sued her for saying she was afraid of mad cow disease.You might also have heard about the Cadillac Ranch, a Stonehenge-like art installation on I-40 of ten Cadillacs, their noses buried in the prairie soil and their Detroit tail fins outlined against the Texas sky.
You probably don’t know that the eccentric millionaire who commissioned the Cadillac Ranch once locked a kid in a chicken coop for vandalizing one of his other art projects or that he was later accused of sexually assaulting ten teenage boys he groomed with cash, drugs, and cars. But that’s the kind of thing that happens out on the edges, even if it doesn’t end up on billboards.
Cattle are big business in the Texas panhandle. When the wind blows from the southwest, you catch the unmistakable smell of the feedlots, where hundreds of thousands of cows spend their last days filling lagoons with manure. The meat-packing plants are responsible for most of Amarillo’s diversity, jobs that have drawn immigrants and refugees since the end of the Vietnam War. And so, you can get better pho in Amarillo than in most cities twice its size (approximately 200,000 people in 2018), and excellent food from almost every region of Mexico. But no one in town would dream of using the Spanish pronunciation for Amarillo.
Amarillo is a city on the edges of half-a-dozen cultural and geographic regions: the western edge of the American South, the eastern edge of the Southwest, the southern extremity of the Great Plains and the northernmost city in Texas. This cocktail of regional identifications can be corrosively seductive to white men (like me); the Southern Lost Cause myth blends with Western Libertarianism of the Sovereign Citizen variety and snuggles right into a Texan assumption of innate superiority. I was born in Amarillo not quite a hundred years after it was founded, shortly after McClellan and MacKenzie starved the Comanche and Kiowa nations into submission by destroying their winter settlements in nearby Palo Duro canyon. While more than a century has passed since that frontier genocide, Amarillo remains a far-flung outpost, isolated not only by hundreds of miles of grassland in every direction but also by its own aggressive identity.
Though only its fourteenth largest city, Amarillo’s violent crime rates outstrip every urban center in Texas except Houston (its largest) and Lubbock, Amarillo’s only neighbor on the High Plains of the panhandle. When I was growing up, street brawls between preppie kids and punks were commonplace and sometimes fatal; in 2017, the rate of violent crime in Amarillo dwarfed the national average for metropolitan areas with populations over 100,000, with 166% of the national overall crime rate, and higher for murder (168%), assault (243%) and reported rape (284%).
No matter how shocking, statistics are bloodless; the violence is not. I’ve never been a violent person, and I was lucky or paranoid enough to escape serious damage, but more than one friend in high school was hospitalized from taking a beating. One was pulled out the window of his car by a grown man who slammed his head into the door and stomped him when he hit the ground; my seventeen-year-old friend’s great crime had been accidentally driving down this man’s private road. An eerily similar thing happened to my brother this year, while driving through our mother’s middle-class neighborhood: the man in the truck behind him decided he was driving too slow, so he sped around him, blocked his car at the next intersection, and got out in the street to shout obscenities at him. When my brother stepped out of his car, the man tried to choke him out in the grass of a random front yard. That egregious assault isn’t part of the crime data because it was never reported to the police.
People who live in Amarillo don’t believe the violence is exceptional, or don’t want to believe it. I’ve shown statistics to family members who are positive the numbers can’t be true. They simply deny the data or ask me why I’m trying to make Amarillo sound like a bad place. Other people in town are afraid of larger cities, assuming that more people necessarily means more violence. People in Amarillo accept outlandish aggression as normal, while its geographic isolation makes the rest of the world something other than a standard for comparison; “out there” becomes a screen for projecting local violence onto a grander scale. If it’s bad here, people wonder, what must it be like out there?
In Amarillo, men worry that their trucks might be too girly, so they buy them larger and louder, and customize them with off-road tires and brush guards that they’ll never need. Cats are suspiciously feminine, so men joke about trying to run them over. Homophobic slurs are common, and I’ve heard men openly brag about specific instances of gay bashing. Over half of Amarilloans identify as Evangelicals, an explicitly patriarchal brand of conservative Protestantism. Pastors bemoan the fact that more women than men are active in churches and tell women to submit to the divinely ordained male heads of their households. I couldn’t begin to count the number of Sunday school lessons and sermons I’ve heard insisting that Jesus was a manly man with beefy carpenter’s arms, not the feminized hippy from children’s books. When Christ said that “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” it was a message to God’s warriors to be offensive to the secular world. Failure to offend others is being ashamed of the gospel.
I can’t say what role Amarillo’s isolation plays in making it such a violent place, but it keeps people from recognizing the extent of the problem, even as aggression creates more isolation. Aggression drives people away but also demands a suspicious vigilance of the people around you. Neither community nor intimacy are zero-sum games, and they can’t be built by aggressive posturing. But when you’ve isolated yourself, it’s easier to feed the pride and resentment that make violence feel good. Violence lets you dominate another person’s attention, emotions, and body. And the longer they carry the wound, the more power you’ve exercised.
Unsurprisingly, white male aggression more or less defines the politics of the region, where Donald Trump is extremely popular. Amarillo is divided between two counties; Randall County—which includes the whiter, southern half of the city—voted 80% for Trump, the poster boy of white male pride and resentment (Potter County includes the northern, more racially diverse half of Amarillo, and Trump “only” got 68%). Nearby Wheeler County, where I also have family, voted 90.5% for Trump.
Growing up in Amarillo taught me to be aggressive, to treat public interactions as zero-sum contests, and to fear kindness as a show of weakness. When I left Amarillo, I found that I didn’t like the person this had trained me to be. I wasn’t friendless or joyless, but I was always angry and frequently lonely. Breaking away from that way of living wasn’t easy, or straightforward. I did not want to be an angry or aggressive person, but I’ve never been more angry or more aggressive than in those years I was trying to separate myself from Amarillo. I saw the racism and misogyny in my hometown, and I took it upon myself to be offensive to the culture that defended oppressive ways of life. I was a white man, so I used white masculinity’s privileged access to anger, and I hurt a lot of people before I learned better. I was foolish enough to think I could tap into the deep cultural power of white male anger without injuring the people who are always hurt by patriarchal violence. It took me years to learn that it is dangerous for men like me to use the affect and social privileges of patriarchy to denounce white supremacy and misogyny. The effects of the environment I grew up in outlasted the ideologies I had grown out of.
When I go back to Amarillo, once or twice a year, to visit family, I am doubly vigilant. I keep an eye on the dangers of the environment; I keep an eye on myself. I’ve done enough attacking, and I am learning to be kind. But all the cues for a relapse are still there: the men who cut into your personal space, talking loudly and offensively, just to see if you’ll say anything about it. The Confederate flags in truck beds and “turn or burn” messages on church signs and billboards. The t-shirts and bumper stickers and practiced demeanors that beg for someone, anyone, to take offense. All the things that put me on edge, all of them, still do.
But I go back to Amarillo because that’s where my family lives, or most of it, and I don’t want the city to separate me, anymore, from the people that I love. Many don’t understand me and might not appreciate this thing that I’ve written. I’m sorry for that. But I can’t be done with Amarillo. I have two nieces living there, one who just turned seventeen, and one who is two. I love them dearly. I think about them. And I worry for them, out there on the edge.
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Frederick Coye Heard