High Plains Drifting
These leisurely drives explore a part of Texas where the vistas are spectacular, the history is rich, and the natives will want you to sit and talk a spell. Best of all, there’s elbow room to spare.
IMAGINE A LAND OF WIDE-OPEN SPACES and breathtaking vistas, a place that’s so rarely visited by tourists the locals haven’t turned cynical, yet is tailor-made for that great American pastime: the road trip. Such a place really does exist—we call it the High Plains of Texas. Long empty miles of uncrowded highways crisscross rolling hills and rugged canyons, offering endless horizons and spectacular panoramas under skies of a majestic vastness. And there’s hardly a billboard in sight. Why spend all that money vacationing in a foreign land just to bring back a photo of the perfect sunset? Go where the movie crews go.
History is relatively fresh here: The Red River War—eight major battles in all—which forced the removal of the area’s Native Americans to reservations in Oklahoma, happened a mere 125 years ago. The region was subsequently inhabited by pioneers, ranchers, pastores (“sheepherders”) from New Mexico, and farmers. Over the ensuing years, a relatively brief period of time, it has seen one eradication after another, from the buffalo to the Indians to family farms and now small towns. The deeper past is unusually rich: Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led an expedition of three hundred Spanish conquistadores onto the Llano Estacado in search of the Seven Cities of Gold in the sixteenth century, and Indian occupation can be traced back 12,000 years to the pre-Clovis people, who hunted mammoths and lived around Lubbock Lake, the site of the present Lubbock Reservoir. To get an idea of the way it was, drop by the region’s numerous museums, where each county’s memories are kept. Exhibits on the Red River War are currently on view at museums in Borger, Canadian, Canyon, Clarendon, Claude, Crosbyton, Lipscomb, Pampa, Panhandle, and Tulia.
The summer nights on the High Plains are the coolest in the state. This year’s exceptional spring rains have produced a proliferation of wildflowers (“And not a dang bluebonnet among them,” says Benjamin-based photographer Wyman Meinzer proudly), turning the countryside an emerald green and filling the playa lakes, the shallow basins that dot the prairie. The landscape radiates the same brilliant colors and light that informed the work of onetime Canyon resident Georgia O’Keeffe long before she moved to New Mexico.
The area’s minimum of typical tourist amenities may translate into limited lodging options (no resorts in these parts), uninspired cafe fare, and precious few golf courses, but it also guarantees that there will be hardly any fellow vacationers to compete with for elbow room. With that kind of stress relief in mind, I’ve mapped three drives that let you savor the Texas High Plains to the fullest. Just remember that people out here like to talk and almost always have a story to tell. Come prepared for long conversations, and don’t forget to sign the guest book.
Riding the Cap
Fluvanna to Turkey: a 150-mile crescent from southeast of Lubbock to northeast of Lubbock that can easily be done in a day or two.
The best way to appreciate this rugged place is to follow the brown swath on the official state road map that marks the Caprock Escarpment, which rises off the Permian Basin in the south and the Rolling Prairies in the east to form the Llano Estacado (the Staked Plains), a flattop 4,600 feet above sea level. The journey begins in the South Plains, at the southern terminus of the Caprock. (The South Plains are the southern half of the Texas High Plains—the northern half being the Panhandle; see “What Is the Panhandle?”) Fourteen miles northwest of Snyder, turn off U.S. 84 onto FM 612 and go west for five miles to the tidy little farming town of Fluvanna. It is dominated by a water tower, where you turn north on FM 1269 toward Post, 28 miles distant. Five miles north of Fluvanna is an overlook where the Cap unfolds in front of you, marking the great geological divide where the coastal plains finally fade away and the American West really begins. The dramatic wide-angle view takes in the southern edge of the Llano Estacado, which is the southern extension of the Great Plains, the sprawling continental heartland that extends 1,600 miles northward into Alberta, Canada. In other words, it all starts here.
FM 1269 rejoins U.S. 84 five miles later. From there, it’s less than twenty minutes northwest into Post. The town was founded in 1907 by cereal king and visionary C. W. Post, who bought 225,000 acres of untilled prairie to prove to the world that free men and the principles of American enterprise were an unbeatable combination. Post was the designated commercial center of a farm colony, which C. W. Post eventually sold to his “colonists.” Later the town acquired a bit of a honky-tonk reputation since it was wet while Lubbock, half an hour north, remained dry. Over the past twenty years, Post has developed an entirely different reputation—as a tourism magnet for the South Plains—largely through its Old Mill Trade Days (Fifth Street and Texas Highway 207, 806-495-3529). A Friday-through-Sunday event on the weekend before the first Monday of every month (July 2—4 and July 30—August 1 this summer), it covers five acres of the old Posttex Cotton Mills, which C. W. Post built for his ideal town in 1911 and was its leading business until Burlington Industries shut the plant down in 1983.
The Trade Days in turn have generated a significant volume of activity in the redbrick storefronts along five blocks of Main Street downtown. On July 5 the Tower Theater (117 Main, 806-894-3552) presents the Post Opry, a free show featuring Rusty Hudelson’s Knights of the West Revue. Hudelson, a professor at South Plains College in Levelland—the first college in the United States to offer a degree in country and western music—pays tribute to Roy Rogers and cowboy music as well as western swing and engages in a yodeling duel with his daughter, Tania. Across the street and one block down, the Garza Theatre (226 E. Main, 806-495-4005) presents live theatrical performances most weekends; July’s play, Curse You, Jack Dalton, is pure melodrama.
Randy White’s contemporary pictograph of a Kiowa raiding party in front of the Warlords Museum (220 E. Main, 806-495-2958) a few doors down adds a certain edge to the Post streetscape. “It’s not just artifacts,” White says of the museum’s assemblage of stone tools, pipes, tomahawks, leggings, and other relics that belonged to the Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Apache peoples who once lived in the area. “This is part of the culture of the region.” White’s modern paintings will be on view at the Algerita Hotel gallery (131 E. Main, 806-495-4000) through July 11.
The OS Ranch Museum above the OS Ranch Store (201 E. Main, 806-495-3570), in a building erected by C. W. Post in 1911, exhibits the more conventional art and antiques collection of civic leader Giles McCrary (don’t miss the Fabergé eggs). The Garza County Historical Museum (119 N. Avenue N, 806-495-2207), in the old sanitarium behind the courthouse, has an extensive collection of papers and artifacts pertaining to the town.
The lodging of choice is the Hotel Garza (302 E. Main, 806-495-3962), a Western prairie modern inn built in 1915 and restored seven years ago by owners Janice and Jim Plummer; rooms are available at Patsy’s Guest Cottage, ten blocks west, as well (double rooms in the inn and cottage start at $45). The local chat ’n’ chew, George’s Family Restaurant (202 Broadway, 806-495-3777), serves up a decent version of Greek souvlaki in addition to the usual chicken-fried steaks, burgers, and Mexican plates.
Leaving Post on FM 651 north, you enter the big ranching country below the Cap. Crosbyton, one of the gateways to the Cap, is 38 miles away. From Crosbyton, it’s only a 35-mile jog west on U.S. 82 to Lubbock, where several major motel chains, including La Quinta (806-763-9441; rooms $70) and Sheraton (806-747-0171; rooms $80), are clustered around the civic center downtown. If you prefer a bed and breakfast, the Woodrow House (2629 Nineteenth Street, 806-793-3330, 800-687-5235; rooms $85—$105) is directly across the street from the Texas Tech campus.
Back in Crosbyton, head north for ten miles on FM 651 to Blanco Canyon, where Coronado camped in 1541 (a fact that was discovered only three years ago) and where Mount Blanco, the now-abandoned first permanent settlement on the South Plains, was established, named after the landmark outcropping of caliche. Turn right on FM 193 and head east for ten miles, turning north on FM 28 for eight miles, then east again on FM 684 for thirteen miles into Roaring Springs, a quiet little town with perhaps the biggest spring on the South Plains, part of a private resort. Tempting as the 61 degree water may be, the $1,295 membership fee is a bit steep for someone just passing through.
From Roaring Springs, go north on Texas Highway 70 to Turkey, 34 miles away. Along the route, which passes through the town of Matador and the ranch of the same name, the Caprock Escarpment—encompassing Caprock Canyons State Park beyond Quitaque (Kit-a-kway)—is clearly visible to the west.
Turkey is the hometown of Bob Wills, the fiddler who invented western swing music, and it celebrates his legacy every year on the last weekend in April. The town, bouncing back from a steady loss of population, has gussied up its main street with metal art silhouettes of cowboys, windmills, and the like and a revolving fiddle statue dedicated to Wills. The best place to hear some fiddling is in the back of the Peanut Patch restaurant (Second and Main, 806-423-1051). Owners Silvia and Allan Boeshart, expatriates from Switzerland and Ohio, respectively, are swing fanatics. Silvia’s $12.50 prix fixe dinners are some of the finest cooking found along the Caprock, relying on fresh vegetables and fruits, and herbs snipped from her garden. When I visited, she had prepared beef consommé, hearty roast beef smothered in mushrooms, new potatoes, field greens, Eyes of Texas salad (black-eyed peas and salmon), yucca blossoms with tomatoes and bell peppers (a variation of a Comanche delicacy), and homemade strawberry ice cream. Since Turkey is dry, you’re advised to bring your own wine.
Bunk at the Hotel Turkey (Third and Alexander, 806-423-1151, 800-657-7110), a restored fifteen-room hotel that was built in 1927 and is operated by Gary and Suzie Johnson; a room for two with breakfast starts at $75. Or continue north on Texas Highway 70 for 44 miles to Clarendon and dude it up seriously at Frank and Terri Hommel’s Bar H Ranch (800-627-9871, 806-874-2634), a working cattle operation nestled in a broad valley three miles west of town on FM 3257. The Bar H offers meals, overnight accommodations, and extended stays; a double room is $65, including meals and activities (Germans, it seems, are particularly keen on paying for the privilege of helping out the cowboys with their daily chores during roundups and cattle drives four times a year). Or you can continue on from Turkey to Amarillo via Texas Highways 86 west and 207 north through Quitaque; the Quitaque Quail Lodge (806-455-1261), a bed and breakfast in a rambling ranch house on 38 acres three miles west of town, is a comfy overnight option (double rooms are $75—$95). Head up the Cap on Texas Highway 86 to Silverton, then north on Texas Highway 207 to the Mackenzie Reservoir, through Tule Canyon (where in 1874 Colonel Ranald Mackenzie destroyed more than a thousand horses belonging to Indians after the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon) and the Palo Duro Canyon (save a few minutes to view it from the south rim roadside picnic area), to Claude, where you pick up U.S. 287 to Amarillo, a 108-mile trip from Turkey.
While in Lubbock…Check out the Ranching Heritage Center (3121 Fourth Street, 806-742-2482) near the Texas Tech campus, with a collection of real ranch buildings, including a primitive dugout dwelling and a barn from the famous 6666 Ranch, and exhibits devoted to various aspects of ranching and the lot of the pioneer woman. Next door, the Museum of Texas Tech (806-742-2490), which has an extensive collection of spurs and several pieces by sculptor Glenna Goodacre, is currently featuring a traveling exhibit about the Jazz Age in Paris.
Lubbock Lake Landmark State Historical Park (2401 Landmark Lane, by Loop 289, 806-765-0737) is the site of the oldest culture unearthed on the South Plains, the pre-Clovis people, dating back 12,000 years; digs are ongoing through August 15. The grounds also include a one-mile archaeological trail and a four-mile nature trail.
The city’s newest museum is the American Windpower Center (1501 Canyon Lake Drive, 806-747-8734), an indoor-outdoor collection of windmills. The center was inspired by the work of Texas Tech home economics professor Billie Wolfe, who began cataloging the fast-disappearing icons of the plains before her death, in 1997. There are currently fifty windmills inside and fourteen taking the breezes outside, including a rare double windmill.
Prairie Dog Town in nearby MacKenzie Park (Fourth Street and Interstate 27, 806-775-2687) is one of the country’s few remaining colonies of these cute rodents.
It’s not exactly the Napa Valley, but on an improvised tour of three area wineries you can learn about the state of the state’s grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, Merlot is coming on strong, and Shiraz is in the works), then sample the products. A designated driver is suggested. Llano Estacado (806-745-2258) and Caprock Winery (806-863-2704), are within five minutes of each other a few miles south of the city off U.S. 87. The smaller Pheasant Ridge (806-746-6033) is fifteen miles north of town and east of New Deal (take I-27). The season’s grape harvest starts in mid-August.
September 3 marks the official opening of the Buddy Holly Center (Nineteenth and Avenue G, 806-767-2686), a cultural facility in the old Fort Worth and Denver South Plains Railway Depot. The classic Spanish-mission-revival edifice also houses a Texas musicians hall of fame and the Buddy Holly Collection, the city’s first permanent exhibit dedicated to its most famous native son. The depot anchors Lubbock’s nightlife district, which includes the Cactus Theater (1812 Buddy Holly Avenue, 806-762-3233), one block from the Holly Center, where impresario Don Caldwell stages theater productions. West Texas Music, the Play—which provides an overview of the genre from Buddy Holly to Waylong Jennings to the Dixie Chicks—runs from July 9 through 31.
Buffalo Springs Lake (806-747-3353), a natural spring-fed lake five miles southeast of Lubbock on FM 835, offers two swimming beaches, water slides, boating, hiking and biking trails, camping areas, and RV hookups.
North Toward Kansas
Childress to Perryton to Amarillo: a three-hundred-mile semicircle that can be driven in one, two, or three days, depending on what kind of hurry you’re in.
The Canadian River breaks on the east side of the Panhandle offer some of the most pleasant scenery in the entire state. The land really opens up into real Giant country. The mesquite, part and parcel of the South Plains, has faded away here, yielding to lush grasses on undulating slopes that resemble the foothills of the Rockies, and the landmarks become fewer and farther between, building up to the drama that is the Canadian River Valley. The fall foliage in the hollows and valleys along this route is famous for its show of colors. The route is one that Tom Copeland, the diector of the Texas Film Commission, recommends to crews for shots of unsullied ranchland.
Starting at Childress, turn north on U.S. 83 and go through Shamrock (55 miles) and Wheeler (another 16 miles). Twenty miles north of Wheeler on U.S. 83 is the turnoff to the Buffalo Wallow battleground monument, another significant site of the Red River War, near where the Kiowa and the Comanche held a wagon train under siege. Head east on FM 277 for 7 miles, turning right (south) onto a dirt road for another mile to the marker.
Back on U.S. 83, go 7 miles north, then turn east on Texas Highway 33 for a picturesque 35-mile meander across the Oklahoma line to the main 30,000-acre section of the Black Kettle National Grasslands. This is where, in November 1868, the Seventh Cavalry, commanded by Colonel George Armstrong Custer, fought the Battle of Washita against Cheyenne chief Black Kettle. In a dawn raid Custer wiped out a Cheyenne village and succeeded in killing Chief Black Kettle. This victory stopped Cheyenne hostilities and enhanced Custer’s career, which endedin 1876 at Little Big Horn, in South Dakota.
Backtrack on Highway 33 and resume going north on U.S. 83, which broadens into a four-lane route that drops into the Canadian River Valley. Be on the lookout for Aud, the fifty-foot-long dinosaur sculpture on a rise on the east side of the road three miles south of the town of Canadian. Never has a plant-eating brontosaurus appeared so fierce.
Canadian, the Panhandle’s river town, comes as close to small town perfection as it gets in these parts. Most of the brick storefronts on the four-block Main Street are occupied, the restored Palace Theatre (210 Main, 806-323-5133) shows movies, the River Valley Pioneer Museum (118 N. Second Street, 806-323-6548) has a new exhibit on the Buffalo Wallow fight, the courthouse is immaculately landscaped, and the nearby homes suggest prosperity without bragging about it. Canadian has two motels and three B&B’s, including the Emerald House (103 N. Sixth Street, 806-323-5827), with rooms starting at $45, and the Thicket (seven miles northeast of town on FM 2266, 806-323-8118), whose rooms start at $53.
Leaving town, veer northeast toward the Oklahoma border on U.S. 60 for eight miles, turning north at Glazier onto Texas Highway 305, a lightly traveled, shoulderless two-lane. After fourteen miles you’ll stumble upon Lipscomb (population: 48), tucked in the woods just east of the highway. Once one of the largest communities in the Panhandle, Lipscomb almost dried up and blew away after the railroad came into the region but passed it by. Present-day Lipscomb is dominated by what appears to be the loneliest county courthouse in Texas, at least around sunset, when wild turkeys pick their way across the lawn. But the town started reinventing itself four years ago, when Debby Opdyke and Jan Luna opened the Naturally Yours gallery in the old bank building (104 E. Main, 806-862-2900), where pastel artist Amy Winton’s landscapes are on display during July.
Opdyke and Luna also revived a forgotten Great Plains social tradition by building an open-air dance platform next door to the gallery, where they stage community dances every month from May through October. A midsummer dance is scheduled for Saturday, July 17, with music provided by Frankie McWhorter, a former member of Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys. A $7 catered meal is served before the dance at seven (fried turkey, potatoes, and biscuits are on the menu for July). During the dance, Luna dishes up cowboy cobbler from Dutch ovens for $2.
Janie Hathoot followed Opdyke and Luna into Lipscomb in 1998, opening her Yellow House Studio and Gallery (806-862-2608) in a restored boarding house at the corner of Oak Street and Third Avenue in “uptown Lipscomb,” a couple of blocks off the square. In conjunction with the dances, Hathoot offers a gourmet dinner on Friday evening ($25, reservations required), accommodations in a three-room guest house ($50 a room, including breakfast), and an open-house gallery show on Saturday afternoon. July’s visiting artist is Brian Asher, who specializes in pen-and-ink drawings of men, horses, and cattle, subjects reflective of his day job as a working cowboy in Guthrie.
Lipscomb’s main attraction, needless to say, is solitude and quiet, allowing contemplation of a way of life that has all but disappeared. “People have gotten so far away from entertaining themselves,” Opdyke says. “We provide the setting. After that you have to take it upon yourself to say ‘hi’ to your neighbor and create your own entertainment.”
From town, backtrack south for three miles, then turn west onto FM 1920 for five miles, when it turns into FM 3260. Continue west on FM 3260 for nine more miles, cutting through magnificent ranch country dominated by grasslands and mesas smoothed by wind erosion, until you reach Texas Highway 23. Go north briefly on Highway 23, then turn west onto FM 3260 for ten miles. If you need water to cool off, pull over at Wolf Creek Park (806-435-4559), a county facility that offers camping areas, swimming, hiking trails, boating ramps, and other amenities, including 137 RV hookups. The park’s Lobo Trading Post serves hot meals and stocks supplies.
From Wolf Creek, continue west on what is now County Road U for eight miles until it rejoins U.S. 83, then proceed north on U.S. 83 for thirty miles to Perryton, a farming community dominated by grain elevators in the “Wheatheart of the Nation.” At the north end of town I stopped in at the Museum of the Plains (1200 N. Main, 806-435-6400), where Sarah Thompson was cataloging everything from bottle collections to vintage automobiles, all stuffed into three large warehouses. She led me to an exhibit about Harold Courson and the Buried City. In 1907 archaeologists first uncovered the site of a large Indian settlement along three miles of the south bank of nearby Wolf Creek, with communal structures and an extensive irrigation system. Fourteen years ago, Courson, a rancher-oilman who owns the land where the Buried City is located, designated portions of it as an archaelogical conservation easement, the first in Texas. Three site excavations are in progress elsewhere on the creek. If you decide to stay over in Perryton, there are five motels in town.
From Perryton it’s only 46 miles to Liberal, Kansas, via the Oklahoma Panhandle and U.S. 83. Or you can head back south on U.S. 83 for seven miles, picking up Texas Highway 70 and continuing south toward Pampa for twenty miles to the intersection of FM 281. Either continue south on 70 for five miles for an inspiring vista from the north rim of the Canadian breaks,or turn west on FM 281 for 21 miles to the turnoff to Adobe Walls, the site of more than one Anglo-Indian battle where the tide turned against the native residents.
There are few signs directing you to Adobe Walls, so be on the lookout for County Road 21, where you turn south. After three miles, turn left again on County Road P for 8.8 miles (it’s a dirt road for the last 6.5 miles). I relied on my trusty copy of The Roads of Texas (Shearer Publishing) to get me there. The road ends in a small protected valley just below the Caprock, the site of two significant fights that turned out to be defining events in the conflict between the red man and the white man. At the first battle of Adobe Walls, the largest Indian battle during the Civil War, the federals, led by Kit Carson, came up short against the native home team. According to the monument, the second battle, on June 27, 1874, pitted 700 “picked” warriors from the Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne nations led by Quanah Parker against 28 buffalo hunters, who overcame long odds to score a victory, the first in the series of victories that are collectively called the Red River War. The site is surrounded by the Turkey Track Ranch, which has No Trespassing signs posted around its perimeter, an ironic twist considering whose property this was 150 years ago. A hundred yards away is a second marker, which commemorates the Indian fighters who perished in the 1874 battle. “They died for that which makes life worth living on the Plains which they enjoyed for generations,” reads the monument.
From Adobe Walls, return to FM 281 and head west. After eleven miles, turn onto Texas Highway 207 and head south to Stinnett (six miles) and Borger (eleven more miles), where the Hutchinson County Historical Museum (618 N. Main, 806-273-0130) has a detailed exhibit about the Adobe Walls battles and the various tribes that once lived in the area. From Borger, head west on Texas Highway 136 to Fritch and the Lake Meredith National Recreation Area, gateway to the largest lake on the Texas High Plains, a dammed-up portion of the Canadian River.
If there’s enough daylight left, take a guided tour of the Alibates National Monument, six miles south of Fritch (you need to arrange for the tour in advance: 806-857-3151); it commemorates the area’s extensive flint deposits, which were prized by Native Americans across the continent. A six thousand—acre grass fire last summer exposed numerous ancient firepits and ruins, which park rangers will gladly point out. Just don’t take home any souvenirs.
From Fritch, you can head south and west on 136 for 38 miles to Amarillo, crossing parts of the original Santa Fe Trail. Or, if you want to continue on to New Mexico or Colorado, loop back around the lake via FM 687, just east of Fritch off 136, to Sanford, where you pick up FM 1319 northwest for 8 miles, then turn onto FM 1913 and proceed north for 3 miles to Texas Highway 152. Head west on 152 toward Dumas, 20 miles away, where you continue westbound on U.S. 87 for 39 miles to Dalhart, Presidio’s opposite as the cool spot of Texas. The town goes full-tilt cowboy the first weekend of August for XIT days, celebrating the fabled ranch with a rodeo, wingding, and free barbecue for more than 20,000 folks. The XIT Museum downtown (108 E. Fifth Street, 806-249-5390) rates a visit, too.
Get Your Kicks…
TEXOLA TO GLENRIO: A 178-MILE straight shot on Interstate 40—with side trips in search of the Mother Road of America, Route 66—that can easily be done in a day.
Although 92 percent of the Texas portion of the famous highway still exists, most of it was converted to frontage road for I-40. It isn’t much fun to drive, and none of the stops in the Panhandle rivals the neon luminescence of Tucumcari or other Route 66 towns in New Mexico, Arizona, and California. But as flat and boring as Texas 66 might seem, just follow the brown Historic Route 66 signs off the interstate and you’ll find plenty of highway history about the storied road. Drive it long enough and you half-expect George Maharis and Martin Milner to pass you in their ‘vette.
The Texas portion of Route 66 began at Texola, across the Oklahoma line, but the first significant town on the highway was Shamrock. At the crossroads of I-40 and U.S. 83, it’s a bustling place today, but much of the growth has occurred to the north of downtown, away from the four-lane divided part of 66. Even though a number of motels have been remodeled, the strip has not been quite the same since the U Drop Inn Cafe closed last year. However, Leah’s downtown (100 S. Main, 806-256-2644) is highly recommended for homemade soups and sandwiches, pies, and fresh cherry limeades.
There’s more to glean in McLean, twenty miles west at exit 141, where the old highway splits into two one-way streets, with several blocks of the town sandwiched between them. Within the city limits are the Mclean-Alanreed Area Museum (116 N. Main, 806-779-2731), with exhibits detailing the World War II prison camp in town that housed German POWs, the first Phillips 66 service station in Texas (Route 66 West, two blocks west of Main Street), and the remodeled Cactus Inn (101 Pine Street), a functioning relic from 66’s glory days.
The main attraction, though, is the Devil’s Rope Museum (100 Kingsley, 806-779-2225), which is dedicated to barbed wire, the fencing that did more to tame this particular part of the country than anything else. As intriguing as the drift fence, post maul, and earth auger fencing tools may be, my attention was diverted by replicas of the red Burma Shave signs, a faded highway memory of my youth, posted at the entrance of the Route 66 Museum, which is housed in the same building and is the official home of the Old Route 66 Association of Texas.
From McLean you can pick up some of the longest portions of the original 66, functioning as the frontage road on the south side of the interstate. Turn south at the Texas Highway 70 interchange and go about half a mile and you’ll find traces of old Jericho, a ghost town identified by an abandoned tourist court. This was the beginning of the Jericho Gap mud segment of the road, the last unpaved stretch in Texas, which was finally paved in the thirties.
Get back on the interstate and, a few miles west of McLean, turn onto FM 2477 (exit 128) and go north for three miles to Lake McClellan (806-779-2590), a dammed-up portion of McClellan Creek that was a historic camping ground for Route 66 travelers and today offers hiking trails, campsites, and RV hookups.
Groom, at exit 112, thirty miles west of McLean and forty miles east of Amarillo, is home to Ruby Denton’s Golden Spread Restaurant (407 Front Street, 806-248-7021), a longtime fixture of the old 66, and two great roadside monuments. First up is the leaning water tower on the north side of the interstate, marking the remains of the Britten USA truck stop. It may not be Pisa, but it stands out. A mile farther west is the 190-foot-tall cross made of steel tubing, the largest cross in the Western Hemisphere, operated by Cross Ministries. Steve Thomas, a structural engineer from Pampa, dreamed up the cross in response to the X-rated businesses that were popping up on the thoroughfare. The structure was completed in 1995 and has since been embellished with life-size bronze sculptures around the base depicting the stations of the cross, by Panhandle artist Mickey Wells. Though some 20,000 visitors a month pull over, Thomas acknowledges that not everyone likes it: “You should hear what some truckers say on CB radio.” But the appeal is undeniable, especially at night when the cross is illuminated.
Follow the brown 66 signs for fourteen miles from Groom into Conway, riding some of the original shoulderless two-lane road on the south side of the interstate. Another eighteen miles brings you to Amarillo, where, a couple of miles north of I-40, you’ll find the Old Town San Jacinto Historic District, a mile-long section of old Route 66 along Sixth Street, just west of downtown. This portion of Route 66, the only urban stretch of the highway in Texas, was rendered obsolete in 1953 when the Amarillo Boulevard bypass was built on the north side of town, effectively freezing the San Jacinto trolley-car suburb in time. About five years ago, Old San Jacinto started coming back to life, and these days thrives as a primary focal point for Route 66 aficionados. A slew of antiques shops and malls featuring nineteenth-century collectibles and fifties kitsch have popped up, notably the Nat Antique Mall and Cafe (2705 W. Sixth Street, 806-371-8685), which is in a historic building that once housed a swimming pool (“Nat” is short for natatorium) and later was the swankiest dance hall this side of Dallas, where the likes of Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, and Little Richard performed.
There’s also an abundance of galleries, shops, restaurants, and bars, and even a biker-fashion shop, Leathers, on Sixth. The one must-see place is the Golden Light Cafe (2908 W. Sixth, 806-374-9237), perhaps the only burgers-and-beer greasy spoon to rate a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. In continuous operation since 1946, it is Amarillo’s oldest eating establishment and serves up the quintessential road food experience along with some sublime burgers, chili fries, and other traditional fare. Old San Jacinto is hopping on most weekends, when Europeans outnumber the natives. (For Old San Jacinto information, call 806-372-US66.) Most major motel chains are represented along the part of I-40 that passes through Amarillo. The two Travelodges (800-578-7878; rooms from $40) and the Best Western Santa Fe (800-528-1234; rooms from $66) have an outdoor pool. Three B&B’s—Parkview House (1311 S. Jefferson, 806-373-9464; rooms $65—$135), the Galbraith House (1710 S. Polk, 806-374-0237; rooms $85—$100), and Auntie’s Place (1712 S. Polk, 806-371-8054, 888-661-8054; rooms $85—$225)—are near I-40 in the Pleamonds Eakle historic district.
On the western edge of Amarillo you’ll find the famous Cadillac Ranch. Take exit 57 (Hope Road) from I-40 and cross over the bridge, continuing west on the two-way south frontage road. (Note the hand-scrawled sign at the northwest corner of the Hope Road interchange: “Bates Motel: Each Room with a Shower, Taxidermy Ahead.” It appears to be mischief courtesy of the Caddy Ranch’s creator, Stanley Marsh 3, whose works appear throughout Amarillo and in Adrian.) The field sculpture was recently moved farther out of town to allow for better viewing. The ten Cadillacs buried in the ground are getting pretty ragged, but the work endures. Just be sure to lock your car if you walk into the field for a closer look.
From Amarillo it’s 33 miles to Vega. Don’t forget to roll your windows up twenty miles beyond the city limits lest you be overwhelmed by the fragrance of the biggest cattle feedlot on the whole interstate. Leave I-40 at the Vega exit, riding a short stretch of old Route 66 to Vega and turning right on U.S. 385. Drive a block to the bank, then turn left on Main to ride this one-block piece of the original highway, which ends abruptly next to Dot’s Mini Museum (105 N. Twelfth Street, 806-267-2367), a most delightful collection of memorabilia and folk art dedicated to Route 66. The curator, Dot Leavett, and her late husband once ran a grocery store and meat locker on 66, and she has devoted her life to honoring the road’s glorious past. More than once visitors have serenaded her by performing Bobby Troup’s famous song “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” in her yard.
Get back on I-40 and head to Adrian, the last place on the interstate that looks like the Midwest. Follow the brown Route 66 sign into town and to the MidPoint Cafe (the west end of town, 806-538-6379), the literal midpoint of the Mother Road, where the sign says 1,136 miles from Chicago and 1,136 miles from Los Angeles. The cafe is one of the highlights of the Texas stretch, especially if owner Fran Houser is working the kitchen. She’s a font of knowledge about the historic route, and she makes pies to die for (her burgers are also recommended). The diamond-shaped sign next to the cafe that reads “If a man could have half his wishes, he would double his troubles” is courtesy of—who else?—Stanley Marsh 3.
About ten minutes out of town on the interstate, just past the Stuckey’s at mile marker eighteen, the road falls off the Cap onto the scrubland that defines the West. The Texas part of Route 66 ends at the New Mexico line in Glenrio, a ghost town that’s home to a collection of abandoned tourist courts and service stations and, as Fran Houser likes to put it, “three people, thirty-five cats, and fifteen dogs.”
While in Amarillo… Yeah, it’s the height of High Plains kitsch, but the Big Texan Steak Ranch (I-40 exits 74 and 75, 800-657-7177, 806-372-6000), the place with the 72-ounce-free-steak challenge, deserves mention for branching out this summer with the Big Texan Opry dinner show every Tuesday and the Route 66 Musical Review dinner show every Thursday through August. There will also be frequent Chuckwagon Concerts starring cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphey and reservations-only campfire breakfasts in the courtyard with Indian storyteller Hody “Long Bow” Porterfield. Cowboy Poets breakfasts are held the second Saturday of every month at eight-thirty in the morning.
The American Quarter Horse Heritage Center and Museum (2601 I-40 East at Quarter Horse Drive, 806-376-5181, 888-209-8322) pays tribute to the working horse of the Plains with hands-on exhibits, videos, paintings, the Quarter Horse Hall of Fame, and live demonstrations in the corral out back.
If it’s Tuesday, eavesdrop at the Amarillo Livestock Auction (100 South Manhattan, 806-373-7464), where the transformation from cow to beef begins and auctioneers demonstrate their verbal skills, starting at ten in the morning.
Thompson Park, north of downtown, west of U.S. 287, is the home of Wonderland Amusement Park (806-383-3344, 800-383-4712), with a municipal swimming pool, a small zoo, a golf course, and plenty of green space. The park hosts the biggest Fourth of July celebration in the Panhandle.
The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, sixteen miles south of Amarillo via I-27, is the single best repository of Western heritage on the Texas High Plains (2401 Fourth Avenue, 806-651-2244).
Texas, the outdoor musical staged every summer in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, east of Canyon off Texas Highway 217, plays through August 21 nightly except Sundays. Most performances are sold out well in advance; for ticket information: 806-655-2181, www.texasmusicaldrama.com.
Elkins Ranch (806-488-2100), near the entrance to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, offers visitors a glimpse of ranch life with horseback rides, Jeep tours, cattle drives, and Saturday-night cowboy suppers.