I was taking photos in downtown Snyder, Oklahoma, when a man approached me and said, “If you want to learn about the history of this town, go in that store and talk to A.J. He knows everything about this place.” The man proceeded to tell me that the building across the street used to be a hotel and is now haunted by a ghost, and about the three different defunct theaters in the town, demonstrating his own local knowledge.
After our short conversation, I went into the Toma Discount Food store and asked for A.J. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Woodward,” I replied. “You only think you had a big tornado,” he said. He then trash-talked our infamous 1947 tornado, one of the most powerful and deadly ever recorded, and said the 1905 Snyder tornado was much more lethal. He reached under the counter, pulled out a folder filled with black and white photos, and told me all about the devastating tornado that killed 150 of the 800 residents.
I ended up talking to A.J. for an hour. He told me about his family history, how they immigrated from present-day Lebanon, and about the 20,000 people of Middle Eastern descent in the area. He talked about Oklahoma history and gave his thoughts on the future of his hometown.
In Africa, they say, “When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.” When A.J. dies, a library will indeed burn. His knowledge and passion for the history of Snyder is likely to be unmatched by anyone else.
When I travel overseas, I’m used to locals offering me tea, beer, snacks, or stopping to chat. Visiting America for the first time in three years due to the pandemic, I had dozens of encounters with locals as I photographed the small towns in my home state. Meeting locals came as a big surprise and, like my travels overseas, were some of the highlights of my trip.
My strategy for photographing the small towns of Oklahoma is likely what caused the locals to approach me, often with a mix of curiosity and suspicion. I usually drove through town, making mental notes of photogenic buildings, then parked at the end of Main Street and explored on foot. It isn’t every day, after all, that a stranger walks around snapping photos of defunct gas stations, empty storefronts, and little liquor stores.
In Drumright, Oklahoma, a lady pulled up to me and said, “I want ya to know that you are all over the Facebook. The whole town is wonderin’ what yer doin’.” I explained to her that I enjoy photographing small towns and that her town is one of the most beautiful I’d come across. ” I’ll let ’em all know what yer doin’,” she said, satisfied that I wasn’t a thief, criminal, or pedophile.
My brother-in-law said I missed an opportunity. “You should have told her you were scouting locations for the next Wal-Mart.”
Of course, I felt suspicious of a few people I met. In Guthrie, a family I talked to told me that ghosts haunt nearly every downtown building. “Do you see the ghosts?” I asked. “Nearly every day,” one of the ladies said earnestly, as the others nodded in agreement.
I felt nervous and suspicious as I saw the numerous LET’S GO BRANDON signs, Trump T-shirts, and confederate flags, a stark reminder that although Oklahomans are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, most of them think January 6 was a good idea. Just in case I ran afoul of any deranged Trumpers, I kept a red MAGA hat (made in China) in my car. Luckily, I never had to break it out for an emergency, but I was ready.
In Freedom, a young man viewed me with no suspicion. He pulled up to me in a four-wheel-drive truck and enthusiastically said, “If you want to get a good picture, I’ll take you somewhere cool.” When I visit foreign countries, I never turn down help from locals, so I crawled into the truck, and he drove me down a pot-hole riddled dirt road to the top of the bluffs, where I had a commanding view of the plains to the north, the mesa lands to the south, and the Cimmaron River below.
The view and photo opportunity were great, but I most enjoyed chatting with the young man as we drove. Freedom has a population of 90 people, and he graduated with one other person. He said they often drove up on the bluffs while making a campfire and looking at the stars when they were in high school. He seemed happy and content with his simple life.
In Shattuck and Beaver, locals invited me into their garages to show me restored cars they were working on, and in Salina, a man emerged from a derelict storefront covered in dust. He was renovating the dilapidated structure, making it ready for a coffee shop. On the next block, a man burst from the God Project with an open bible balanced in his left hand and his right hand extended for a handshake. He had the intense fire in his eyes of a true believer, a look I’d seen before from friends who’d just returned from church camp or from people trying to interest me in their multi-level marketing scheme.
When I told him that I was photographing small-town Oklahoma, he said, “This town has so much history. Bonnie and Clyde holed up in that building across the street when one of them got shot, and a veterinarian patched them back up. You see what it is now – no judgement,” he added quickly. Now, the old brick storefront is a marijuana dispensary.
I plan to return to Oklahoma again in a year, and I hope to meet more people like A.J., who possess a love of history and Oklahoma. These encounters make travel special, even if I’m traveling back to my home state.
Oh, you moved! How long have you been in Taiwan? I guess it’s been a while since I met you in Bangkok, so it could have been years ago. I was due to go back to Thailand with my husband in early 2020, but obviously that didn’t happen. Tell us about your new life in Taiwan … I’ve only ever been to the airport!
Meanwhile, nice to see you posting here about your home state. I often forget that my own countrymen can make for visits as good as those one finds abroad, so thanks for the reminder!
We moved here about 2 years ago and we love it. Compared to Thailand the weather is better and life is very easy – no traffic jams, everything is clean and organized, 5 minute walk to work. I need to write a post about it. But I miss Thai food and Bangkok was more fun despite the frustrations.
I was very surprised to have such interesting encounters in Oklahoma. Walking around with a camera often opens doors, I just didn’t expect it in my home state. I guess it pays to be open.
I have been wondering how you and your wife managed during the Pandemic. Glad to see your photos again. I love that you are photographing small town Oklahoma.
We moved to Taiwan at the start of the pandemic so we’ve mostly avoided it. I was back in Oklahoma for the first time in 3 years and I really enjoyed seeing family and taking photos. I must have stopped in nearly every town in NW Oklahoma. How have you been?
We’re about to embark on our first ever USA road trip….here’s hoping we have as many interesting encounters as you did!
There are few things better than a great USA road trip. My one piece of advice – take the backroads. Avoid the interstate at all costs. Skip 2-land divided highways if possible. Take the narrow one-laners and stop at local diners and walk the main streets. You’ll be rewarded.
What areas do you plan to visit?
Thanks for the advice, Jeff – we definitely intend backroading at least some of the time, though time schedules mean that sometimes we’ll have to hit some bigger roads too. It’s a California road trip but extending to Arizona and the Grand Canyon.
I’m envious. There are many rural areas of California and Arizona that look extremely photogenic. I thought about going out there on my recent trip, but I’m glad I stayed near home and explored the under visited part of America. Have a great trip!
Thanks Jeff, our next post will detail the outline route, and then (COVID tests permitting) we’ll be on our way next week.
And look who’s back in the blogging world! It’s been a while, Jeff. Glad to read your travel stories again. If anything, the pandemic has ‘forced’ us to explore places closer from home — often ones we tend to overlook all these years. It’s interesting to read about your descriptions of these small towns in Oklahoma, especially how friendly the people are despite their political ideology. I noticed the same thing here in Indonesia. Some of the most conservative places (whose politicians often give remarks that can be seen as intolerant) have among the friendliest people in the country. This would make a good thesis, I believe.
Like Lex, I’m also curious about what you’ve been seeing in Taiwan. I have a lot of good memories from my trip there in 2013.
The people I met in rural Indonesia were exceedingly friendly. I remember it taking forever to walk down the streets sometimes since so many locals chatted with us. And as you say, I suspect they were some of the most intolerant people you will find. It is a paradox. I could write my opinions on my I think that occurs in rural America, a good thesis as you say, but that will require a lot of mental energy and thought that I’m not sure I’m ready for yet 🙂
I am excited to start writing again. One of the best parts of writing was getting to meet fellow bloggers like James, Lexi, and Sue Slaught. Hopefully we can meet up sometime in the near future.
Welcome back Jeff! I’ve been enjoying your pictures on IG, but it’s great to hear the stories with them. When we drove across Canada last summer we loved reaching a small town where we could spend time talking to the locals. Sounds like you met some real characters! Maggie
We stopped in Beaver Creek on one of our road trips to Alaska and had a fun experience hanging out at a local bar with the colorful locals and some college girls from Quebec who were up there on a research project. It was quite an interesting mix of people. People in rural Canada and rural America usually aren’t in a hurry and have time to chat.
I here that San Antonio has some amazing places to photograph and a free place to stay.
I’ll take you up on that next summer! I really want to explore more of Texas. I hope you and your family are doing great.
You’re alive! Welcome back to the blogosphere! I wondered if you made it to Taiwan and from reading the comments it appears that you have. I hope you post about it.
I saw you the last time I traveled overseas, just before we’d ever heard of COVID or corona viruses. I’ll write about Taiwan soon – I’ve been putting it off for 2+ years now 🙂 Good to hear from you.
So happy to see you back in the blog-o-shpere!! Love seeing your pictures on IG, but it isn’t the same as hearing the story. AJ sounds like quite a character.
I’ve missed writing and seeing the photos and stories of my blogging friends. I’m happy that you are still writing and exploring.
A.J. is definitely a character and it was clear this wasn’t the first time he’d talked to a stranger about the history of the area. He reminded me of my grandmother who was the same way.
It does seem like small town folks are more up for a chat. I’m rarely in one, but was in the little town of Palouse, Washington for a couple of hours a month or so back and ended up having more conversations with strangers than I’ve likely had in Portland in a couple years. (They too, were wondering why a group of guys were wandering around town with cameras.)
I think the pace of life is different, and perhaps being an outsider they were curious. There isn’t much going on in these small towns in Oklahoma so people have time. I did chat with a guy in Oklahoma City when I was photographing a defunct marijuana dispensary and he was asking if I was taking photos because I was thinking of buying it 🙂
I think I discovered your blog as we were going into a lockdown, so it’s great to see you back in the swing of things. Love these dispatches from remote corners of America: they’re a great reminder of how people are multi-faceted and different. Looking forward to reading more.
Thank you. I did’t have a lot to say when I wasn’t traveling during the pandemic and I missed blogging. Do you have any trips planned this year?
Same here. I’ve done a couple of trips (Iceland, Mexico) plus some European jaunts for work, but I’m looking forward to Chile later in July!
Jeff, I suspect you’re doing more than the folks at Oklahoma tourism about promoting your home state to an international audience! These small towns have so much character and it’s clear that interacting and spending time with interesting characters like A.J. made all the difference. If I came from that area and had money I’d buy a few derelict old buildings and turn them into restaurants, art galleries, or even boutique hotels.
A couple months ago I wrote an article promoting this year’s lantern festival in Kaohsiung. Did you go? I was so impressed with the photos of the venues – there was this funky waterfront building by the port and a cool-looking performing arts center in a park elsewhere in town.
Do you have a link to the story about Kaohsiung? I did go to the festival and it was truly mind-blowing. Some things like that don’t live up to the hype, but this surpassed it. Kaohsiung isn’t Singapore, but they have built come funky buildings and revitalized the bay area. 20 years ago it was a dump, now I think it is one of the most underrated cities in Asia.
Yep, here’s the link. It was a special feature commissioned by the Kaohsiung city government: https://www.destinasian.com/blog/news-briefs/kaohsiung-lights-up-for-the-2022-taiwan-lantern-festival
What I didn’t really get at the time was why Kaohsiung City Hall wanted to put money into a Southeast Asian publication to showcase a one-off event nobody could visit from abroad (since borders were still closed)!
That is interesting that they would promote that festival since the borders are closed, but maybe they are planting a seed for the future? This city has tremendous potential for tourism, I’m just not sure if people will travel here when it finally opens. I know we are really excited to leave the country and travel as soon as the quarantine rules go down to zero.