Day 37 – Plains, Trains, Automobiles and the Occasional UFO

I spent the night at an Economy 8 Motel in McCook, Nebraska. Not a Super 8; an Economy 8, even though the sign looked just like a Super 8 logo with one word changed, and some of the items inside the room were branded “Super 8”.

Some people steal hotel towels; it seemed like these people had stolen an entire hotel.

Somewhere in Kansas, my passenger-side door had frozen shut. I thought that, in trying to open it, I may have unlatched the door. But, there was no way to latch it again without shutting the door—and the door was frozen shut.

Between McCook and Ogallala, a large bird clipped my radio antenna and smashed into the upper corner of the windshield, on the passenger side. It hit hard enough that I was worried it may have caused some damage (to the pickup, not to the dead bird), and this seemed confirmed when the wind noise from the passenger side was suddenly very loud. I pulled over at the next gas station I came to, and found no dents or breaks—but the unlatched passenger door was now open. The bird had jarred the ice loose.

I closed the door, and continued on to Ogallala.

Ogallala—two l’s, then one l, and 3 total a’s—is a town I had been through before on a family vacation. At least, we had stopped to take photos at nearby Lake McConaughy (it is misspelled—too many u’s). However, I do not recall seeing the aliens in the Ogallala water tower.

I like to think that I am pretty observant of things like that, and more likely than most to notice things like odd signs. This one, for instance, despite horrible grammar and spelling, is sure to keep the Dallas Cowboys rumor mill spinning. Somebody alert Matt Mosely. I am not sure what T.O. plans to do with his tire, but I have a theory that this fact is what caused Bill Parcells to finally call it quits.

As I was driving by the Ogallala livestock auction, I noticed this sign announcing the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship. Really? I had no idea such a thing even existed. It seems like exactly the sort of thing that would be shown on ESPN 8 (the Ocho).

I made a U-turn and parked back at the sale barn. I figured the banner simply meant that such an event was coming to Ogallala, or perhaps that their auctioneer had won the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship. I certainly did not think that the Championship would be held there, that afternoon, and that I would walk in just minutes before the competition started—but that is what happened.

This may surprise some of the Jacqueses out there, but I have not been inside a sale barn very many times in my life. Most people have never been inside one, though, which has led to some futile efforts on my part to try to explain how a livestock auction works. For the uninitiated, perhaps this video I shot will give you some idea.

The competition that day was actually a regional qualifier for the real World Livestock Auctioneer Championship, which would be held “in Missouri, I think” according to one contestant I asked. There were four regional qualifiers, and the top two auctioneers from each region would duke it out for the World Championship.

The Ogallala competition had 29 contestants, hailing from pretty much every state within 500 miles and at least one Canadian province. Each auctioneer would auction off 8 lots of cattle, which, if you do the math, works out to a lot of lots. I didn’t want to spend all day there, and I wasn’t buying anything, so I just stayed for the first few auctioneers.

So, how do you determine which auctioneer is the best of the best? According to the MC, who is the reigning champ, the three judges scattered throughout the room would score each auctioneer on elements such as “vocal clarity”, “bid recognition”, and “would I hire this auctioneer?”

Speed was not one of the factors considered. As a kid, I remember wondering why auctioneers had to talk so fast. Wouldn’t it be easier if they just spoke at a normal speed, and just said the bid and ask prices once instead of repeating them like a machine gun with a sticky trigger? I wondered if the speed talking was just a secret form of job security: not everyone can talk that fast, and since that is the accepted way for auctions to be conducted, people would have to hire a professional auctioneer to conduct their sales.

I still don’t have an official answer for the question, but as a marketer, I imagine it has to do with psychology and efficiency. The rate at which people shop for groceries, or the speed with which they eat their food at restaurants, has been shown to be influenced by the speed of the music being played in the store. The faster the beat, the faster people go about their business. So, the super-fast staccato would cause bidders to act more quickly, preventing a 232-lot auction from lasting until next Tuesday. Also, it probably produces a greater sense of urgency or excitement in making bids and becoming the winning bidder.

Regardless, if you are a livestock auctioneer and think you have the vocal clarity and bid recognition to be a champion, you can enter in the 2008 World Championship. After taking some photos and filming the above lot, I went to the sale barn café for lunch. The auctioneer in the video, Dan Clark, sat down at a table nearby. I asked him how the 29 competitors were selected. He said they just had to be sponsored by a local sale barn—which sounded a whole lot like just convincing your boss to pay for gas and a hotel in Ogallala.

I drove northwest from Ogallala on highway 26, a road which ran right alongside a railroad track. A very busy railroad track, it turns out.

Just outside Oshkosh (B’gosh!), I saw a mile-long train carrying nothing but coal chugging along. That’s a lot of coal, I thought. But just a couple of minutes later, I saw another mile-long coal train, on the same set of tracks. They were heading in the same direction, which was good, because otherwise we would have had a very messy math problem on our hands.

Very, very messy, because just a couple of miles beyond that I saw a third mile-long coal train on the line. And then a fourth. And a fifth. And a sixth. And a seventh. After a while, I decided that BNSF might start getting nervous about the same guy stopping to take pictures of every train. I didn’t want to get labeled a terrorist, so I just snapped photos through the windshield to help me keep count. 8. 9. 10. All heading east on the same track, and all hauling coal from what must be the world’s largest coal mine somewhere in Wyoming. And all on barely 30 miles of track.

Well, more than 30 miles of actual track, I guess, since I was moving in one direction at the same time that the trains were moving in the opposite direction. So, if a pickup leaves Oshkosh at 2:30, heading west at an average of 60 mph; and the lead train leaves Oshkosh at the same time heading east at 35 mph, but accelerating at a constant rate x, and the 10th train enters Broadwater at 3:00 traveling east at 45 mph, but decelerating at rate y, then depending on whether you are measuring distance at time t0 or t1, you would have…let’s see…carry the 2…

…a train wreck.

In keeping with the theme, for now I’ll skip what happened in the evening and get to the automobile part, which took place the next day.

Carhenge is a relatively famous roadside oddity. When I told my friend Rob in Dallas about my trip, his first comment was, “if you’re passing through Nebraska, you can see Carhenge!”

Carhenge is a reproduction of England’s Stonehenge. Instead of stones, it is built out of junk cars painted stone grey. How and why Stonehenge was built has long been a bit of a mystery, so perhaps it is appropriate that the how and why behind Carhenge are also unexplained. A bulletin board at the site had several pages of information on Stonehenge, but not a word about the cars sticking out of the ground a few feet away. According to Rob, rumor has it that Carhenge has its origins at a family reunion. I’d say the story pretty much writes itself from there: a bunch of Nebraskans sitting around at a family reunion, drinking and telling tall tales, likely with an empty field and a few old Chevys rusting nearby.

Since then, it has grown into the Carhenge and Car Art Reserve, with several other pieces of junk art scattered up and down a hill. There is a covered station wagon, a dinosaur, and a large wind chime made from a truck frame, log chains, and sprockets. A gravestone made out of a Yugo proclaimed the death of foreign cars—rather prematurely, now that Toyota is becoming the top American car manufacturer. I was particularly impressed with a large salmon, which was identified as the work of an artist in Canada.

Carhenge itself consisted of a large variety of makes and models, which had been simply buried nose-up or nose-down in the ground, or attached to the vertical cars with welded chunks of pipe or angle iron. The cars had not been stripped first, and still contained tires, engines, and all other visible parts. It gave a much clearer impression of how big these old cars were by seeing them standing upright, 15 feet tall even though a good percentage of each car was below ground level.

Several other people stopped by Carhenge while I was out there, all of them appearing to be business travelers out on their lunch break. I wandered the grounds with one of them, a man from the Lincoln area who had business with the city of Alliance. As we wandered over to a collection of brightly-painted cars that were labeled “The Four Seasons”, he commented, “that’s different.”

He said it in a patronizing way, but I thought he had come up with a pretty good description of the entire Carhenge display: that’s different.

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