Of all the timely tips for travel, one of the hippest is to exit the fast lane and journey back to a time when a simple two-lane highway winding from Chicago to LA carried the pulse of American travelers. The legendary Route 66—made famous through song, TV, and Americana myth—runs through the Panhandle from Texola to Glenrio. This stretch of the Mother Road was originally 178 miles long and most of the highway remains today, albeit in the shadow of I-40. Of the eight states the highway goes through, Texas is home to the second-smallest 66 stretch (still, well ahead of the 13-mile Kansas portion), but there is plenty for Route 66 traveler to see and do. From the state’s first Phillips 66 filling station to a 72-ounce steak to the best pie on the route, there is more than enough to keep camera shutters clicking and stomachs full.
Any true Mother Road aficionado knows that, though the highway runs both ways, the quintessential Route 66 trip runs from east to west. So road trippers exploring the Lonestar portion should begin their trip in Shamrock. A town of around two thousand residents, Shamrock is home to the fabled U-Drop Inn. Once home to a restaurant and filling station, the building dates back to 1936 when it was ”the swankiest of swank eating places” on the highway. “It’s one of the best examples of art deco architecture along the route period, and probably one of the best in the nation,” says Arlington filmmaker Brian Greene, who created a documentary entitled Route 66—The Marathon Tour. The U-Drop recently underwent an extensive renovation and is now home to the Shamrock Chamber of Commerce. Though hungry travelers can no longer stop for a U-Drop burger and fries, the historic building remains one of the highlights of the highway.
A little more than twenty miles west of Shamrock lies the town of McLean. Those looking for a history lesson on the highway should visit the Devil’s Rope Museum to see the Old Route 66 Association of Texas exhibit. The display includes vintage motel and highway signs; artifacts from stores, theaters, and service stations; and a reconstructed Route 66 Greasy Spoon restaurant. Five blocks away is the first Phillips 66 gas station in Texas, but even though the building has been restored, patrons shouldn’t expect to fill their tanks. Those in search of a working remnant of the highway’s bygone days should look to McLean’s Cactus Inn. For as little as $35 a night, travelers can enjoy a true taste of nostalgia at the fifties motel.
Farther down the route the small town of Alanreed may be on its deathbed, but the near ghost town is home to a number of historical sites. The oldest cemetery on Texas’s Route 66 lies just southeast of the town and a bit farther west sits the oldest church, founded in 1904.
The road into Groom is marked by a leaning tower proclaiming the area “Britten, USA.” The water tower was purposefully built off-center to draw attention to the Britten Truck Stop, Garage, and Restaurant. The buildings have since burned down, but the crooked tower remains—an eye-catching gimmick. The heart of Groom contains another landmark—the tallest cross in the Western Hemisphere. At a height of 190 feet, the cross is visible from up to twenty miles away. Finally, the Bug Farm, in Conway, a recreation of the popular Cadillac Ranch with VW Beetles, is the last landmark before travelers finally see Amarillo.
Amarillo contains a variety of attractions, but the presence of the highway has had a profound impact on the town. Amarillo visitors consistently list Route 66 as one of the main reasons for their trip according to Eric Miller of the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce. Sixth Street, once home to the highway, now houses many antiques stores, restaurants, and clubs featuring Route 66 memorabilia. The Old Route 66 Association of Texas, along with business owners, has made an effort to preserve the vintage look of the streetscape through details such as light poles, paint jobs, and benches.
The Big Texan, a Texas landmark in and of itself, owes its roots to the highway. Co-owner Bobby Lee says it was the constant stream of out-of-staters on the highway that inspired his father in 1960 to open the Big Texan, the first authentic Western-themed “cowboy” steakhouse in Amarillo. “This is [Route 66 travelers’] only shot to see . . . the cowboys with the six-guns, and that’s what we’ve always played up here,” explains Lee.
While the restaurant was originally along the highway, it moved to the newly constructed interstate in 1970. Still, the general image of the big friendly Texas cowboy has never changed. As for that infamous steak, the challenge has remained steadfast since 1962—eat all 72 ounces in under an hour and your meal is free. The results have stayed the same too—one in six people actually finish, while the other five reluctantly ask for a doggie bag and fork over $50.
Beyond Amarillo, there is one final must-stop spot along the old highway before crossing the border into New Mexico: Adrian. Home to a mere twelve businesses and approximately 150 people, the small town of Adrian doesn’t have the bustling feel of Amarillo, but what it lacks in modern entertainment, Adrian makes up for in the quality of its burgers, pies, and people.
The main Adrian attraction is Fran Houser’s MidPoint Cafe. Originally built in 1928 (when Route 66 was still unpaved), the cafe was no more than a one-room dirt-floor structure. In the sixties, Jess Fincher and Dub Edmonds bought the property, modernized the restaurant, and named it Jesse’s Cafe. After I-40 went in, the restaurant went through a variety of owners and names, until 1990 when Houser bought and renamed it Adrian Cafe. While the highway had always been important to the restaurant, Houser soon realized how integral her location was to 66 itself.
“The president and founder of the U.S. Route 66 Association called me one day,” Houser says. “He said, ‘Kid, you better do something because you are at the midway point of Route 66. You need to change that name.’” It’s been the MidPoint Cafe ever since.
The restaurant is filled with cases of highway memorabilia and old pictures of Adrian. On any given day patrons will find a host of old-timers like former owner Dub Edmonds hanging out. “Adrian is real fortunate because we have so many people like Dub who had places along the highway,” Houser says. “[They] still get out every day for coffee and they reminisce—Dub waiting on [customers] or seasoning the food I’m trying to cook. He recounts stories that happened here, and the tourists love him.”
Houser is quick to point out that it is this kind of personal experience that travelers really look for. “I think it’s the people on the highway that are still here and visiting [with] the tourists that make Route 66 a destination in itself,” she says. “When they get to Adrian and meet someone like Dub, they feel like they’ve really met someone.”
When Greene was working on his documentary, he made his way to Adrian and met Houser, and both her personality and her pastries made quite an impression on him. “Having traveled the entire route, no doubt MidPoint is the best pie between Chicago and LA,” Greene says. “I fully believe it’s the best pie in the United States, and not just because I like Fran.”
Houser also likes to point out that while the pies are made by her pastry chef, she makes the cheeseburgers herself. “I have had people from Australia telling me that I make the best cheeseburgers they’ve ever had,” she says. From good stories to good food, MidPoint epitomizes the simplicity and sincerity that Route 66 represents. “[Houser] is wonderful, and she’s a reflection of the people you meet down the route,” Greene says. “It’s a lost America that most people believe doesn’t exist anymore.”
Fortunately, if you look in the right places, a piece of this “lost America” is easy to find in Texas.