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The Demise of a Sacred Space

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July 22, 2011 by Steven Worden

Will someone please turn Texas over? To borrow from the last words of the martyr St. Lawrence as he was being grilled alive over a blazing fire: “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.”

Texas is done on this side.

Drive on down I-35, past acres of yellowed corn stalks, stopping only to gas up and feel the heat bear down on you as you fumble with the nozzle in your haste to get back into the air-conditioned car. Speed on down the Interstate, past the Waxahachie turnoff and scan the horizon for the familiar outline of Carl’s Corner with its signature 10-foot tall dancing frogs cavorting across the roof of the truck stop. But you look in vain. Carl’s Corner, as it was, alas, is no more.

Carl’s Corner, a town founded by Carl Cornelius in order to serve alcohol in a dry county, consisted for years of a somewhat seedy truck stop, café, and lounge just off the highway, conspicuous for its oversized dancing amphibians.
If, as John Kelso might put it, we were to get into our “wayback machine” and travel back into the 1980s, we could have walked into a cluttered truck stop, made our way past racks of questionable trucker “literature,” taillight bulbs, gimme caps, past a row of rental showers, and on into an amazingly tacky lounge complete with cheap tinsel, tiny flickering lights, and lurid artwork. It fairly reeked of blasted hopes and broken dreams.

But then,a friend of Carl’s by the name of Willie Nelson began to hold his July 4th Farm Aid benefit concerts in the area, attracting thousands of devoted fans. The truck stop immediately capitalized on its new-found celebrity, hawking Willie Nelson souvenirs and paraphernalia to droves of admirers. After weathering a fire and other setbacks, this joining of forces reached its full flowering in 2009 when the truck stop was rechristened, “Willie’s Place.” A full remodeling of the operation included a gallery of Willie Nelson photos and memorabilia – a fully detailed shrine to Willie Nelson and Family – lovingly assembled by his admirers. Willie Nelson mugs, key chains, cigarette lighters, all were offered for sale. It was even possible to purchase a small patch of a head bandana once worn by Willie himself. The café was renamed the Blueskies Café and a Sirius/XM radio station transmitted cosmic cowboy music from an adjacent studio. In keeping with Willie’s environmental consciousness, one could even top off one’s 18-wheeler tanks with “BioWillie,” a bio-diesel fuel marketed by Nelson.

The Man, himself, would make an occasional appearance in the theater that replaced the lounge in the rear of the truck stop. As fans later told of it, you could see Willie eye-to-eye up on the low stage, he was that close to the audience. After a show, he would sometimes hang around to talk with admirers, pose for photos, and maybe even hug a fan or two. No wonder Kinky Friedman, author, humorist, and frequent candidate for Governor of Texas, called Willie Nelson, a “redneck Dalai Lama.”

As the French sociologist Emile Durkheim would observe, anything – a rock, a spring, a tree, a pebble – can be seen as sacred. It only has to call us to the transcendental and the ideal, as opposed to the common, mundane, everyday, and material reality. Over the past 30 years, fans and admirers of Willie Nelson, tourists, and just frequent fliers on I-35 made a dusty patch of Texas prairie into a kind of sacred space – a tribute to quirky creativity, humor, music, and community with a touch of environmentalism thrown into the mix.

Unfortunately, the wacky and the idealistic often lose out to the standardized and the bland. The profane – in the form of a foreclosure – overtook the sacred of Carl’s Corner and Willie’s Place. As of a couple of months ago, instead of dancing frogs, we now see a generic truck stop with standardized family dining, regular diesel, and a normalized corporate business model. Little of its former incarnation remains. R.I.P Carl’s Corner. We will miss the frogs.

Steven Worden

PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas

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