When we mapped out our Route 66 itinerary, I had one big goal for our stop in Amarillo: to visit Robert Smithson’s Amarillo Ramp.
Amarillo Ramp is Smithson’s final piece of land art and, sadly, also the site of his death. In 1973, the plane in which he was surveying the work in progress crashed, killing Smithson, the pilot, and a photographer also on board.
Unlike Spiral Jetty, Smithson’s other famous earthwork here in the United States, Amarillo Ramp sits on a working ranch northwest of the city. So we couldn’t just drive up to it, like we did when we made our pilgrimage to the Jetty.
Nor are there any clearly noted instructions or directions on how to get there online, and you can’t see it from afar. But as a member of the Weird Minimalist Site-Specific Art Fan Club, I had to at least try to see it somehow.
Reader, I did the internet sleuthing so you don’t have to: if you want to see Amarillo Ramp in person, just email Bradley Holland. He’s part of the company that owns the land of both Amarillo Ramp and Cadillac Ranch.*
Along with Jon Revett (AKA Jon the Lion), an artist and professor at West Texas A&M, Holland coordinates a semi-regular volunteer effort to maintain the site and keep it clear of the mesquite, brush, and, well, general natural entropy that does its best to reclaim the area.
The morning of our scheduled visit, we woke up to gusty winds and a sheen of ice across every surface at the Big Texan RV Park. This was the first part of our trip where snow had been a looming threat in the forecast—and, in fact, a few inches had fallen in Amarillo just before we set off on the route.
As Revett wrote in an essay on his work at the site, “West Texas weather is the crazy doorman to Amarillo Ramp, and no one is on the list.”
But if Holland wasn’t concerned about getting stuck out there, then why should I be? Undeterred, we piled into his car and set out for the ramp.
Bouncing along rutted roads, we watched the Texas plains shift under gray skies as we drove. Two unlocked ranch gates and many turns later, we reached the overlook of Amarillo Ramp.
I wasn’t sure how I should be feeling when we finally saw it.
Like Ben Gibbard chasing down the memory of Jack Kerouac under the Bixby Canyon Bridge, Smithson’s presence wasn’t immediately felt. What was more apparent—and very Smithson-ian in its own way—was the effect of the passage of time.
Amarillo Ramp itself is a hilly berm, a curved C-shape rising gently above the earth. The valley in which it sits was originally Tecovas Lake and served as an irrigation pond for the ranch, but it’s no longer artificially flooded.
Decades of erosion have softened the ramp’s shape and flattened its height, but it’s still easy to spot. On this mid-November day, the surrounding grasses were pale yellow and gold, waving in the blustery wind and setting the rusty red earth of the ramp in contrast.
Holland pointed out the site of the plane crash, off to the left of the ramp, and we took our time walking the length of the ramp as the forbidding wind whipped around our bodies.
A few neon green-painted rocks and metal stakes pockmark the red soil, slowly fading evidence of an “update”/defacement to the ramp about a decade ago. A cow skull sat at the “nose” of the ramp, placed by some earlier visitor for reasons left open to interpretation. Talisman? Warning? Memorial offering? All of the above?
Being out there with a guide meant I was in conversation for much of my visit to Amarillo Ramp, and my time for reflection came later as we drove away from Amarillo toward the sun and Tucumcari, New Mexico.
The effort involved to get to Amarillo Ramp was worth the experience of laying eyes on the artwork, for as long as it still exists. It may not be as visually arresting as Spiral Jetty, but the fact that it’s still there in some form is a testament to the lasting power of art.
The debate over how ephemeral Smithson intended these works to be will likely continue long after they have crumbled into the earth or sunk into the Salt Lake, but I’m certainly grateful to be able to visit while I can.
The land is still owned by the family of Stanley Marsh, who commissioned both works. If you’re being polite, he was eccentric, and if you’re not, he was an alleged sexual predator. But he passed away in 2014 and I have no firsthand experience with him.
The guys at O’Brien-Marsh LLC were unfailingly professional, generous with their time and information, and as I can see it, have a genuine interest in being caretakers of the art. They want to keep it or make it as accessible as possible, and make sure people like me can experience it for years to come.