Route 66 may begin in Chicago and end some 2,278 miles later in Los Angeles, but guess which state fittingly lays claim to being in the center of it all? “It permeates the world to a ridiculous degree” is what John Steinbeck once wrote of Texas, though he could just as easily have been describing the country’s most celebrated highway, which was constructed in 1926 and has been steeped in the same open-range mystique ever since (never mind that it was decommissioned in 1985). And so, this past fall, on the occasion of Route 66’s ninetieth anniversary, I set out to drive the 178-mile stretch that cuts across the Panhandle to see where the two legacies intersect.
Because the Texas portion has been largely supplanted by Interstate 40, it can be driven in an easy two and a half hours if you stick to the freeway. But I drew my trip out over a couple of days so I could follow the brown Historic Route 66 signs into the seventeen or so towns along the way, which range in size and scope from the nearly abandoned, state-straddling Glenrio to the relative megalopolis of Amarillo (population: 200,000). It also just so happens that the thoroughfare’s halfway point is in tiny Adrian, where sojourners converge at the Midpoint Cafe to reward themselves with a slice of pie for making it the first 1,139 miles. I was treating myself to a wedge of coconut cream when a waitress exclaimed, “We got a new one! Guyana!” The customer who’d just left had written in the guest book that he was from Georgetown, Guyana, the seventy-fourth country represented for the year. In fact, at nearly each stop I made, I met people who’d come a lot farther than I had: a caravan of Norwegians at the U-Drop Inn, in Shamrock; a Japanese couple at Dot’s Mini Museum, in Vega; two students from Barcelona whose picture I snapped in front of the state’s first Phillips 66 station, in McLean. I suspect that many Texans, locals by comparison, haven’t made the trek themselves, but it’s an oversight that can be remedied with a couple of vacation days and the following itinerary.
SEE + DO
One of the first stops, traveling east to west, is Shamrock’s U-Drop Inn (shamrockedc.org/u-drop-inn), a 1936 former gas station where you can buy snacks and souvenirs and even recharge your Tesla. Twenty-one miles west, in McLean, is the Devil’s Rope and Route 66 Museum (barbwiremuseum.com), which reopens for the season on March 1, as well as Texas’s first Phillips 66 station, built in 1929 and about as big as two restroom stalls at Buc-ee’s. Marvel over the restored motorcycles and motor homes (including the oldest existing Airstream) at Amarillo’s Jack Sisemore Traveland RV Museum (rvmuseum.net) before passing the Cadillac Ranch on your way to the Milburn-Price Culture Museum, in Vega, housing a collection of Oldham County artifacts.
EAT + DRINK
Last year, eight hundred “ugly crust” pies were consumed at the Midpoint Cafe (route66midpointcafe.com), in Adrian (closes seasonally; reopening April 1), and who knows how many burgers have been polished off at the GoldenLight Cantina (goldenlightcafe.com) since the cafe opened, in 1946, along historic Sixth Avenue in Amarillo. The meat averse can try the vegan chili at the 806 Coffee & Lounge (the806.com).
A day spent in Amarillo’s Historic Sixth District, which Route 66 used to run through, will be part architectural tour (check out early-twentieth-century motels) and part vintage shopping spree at Sixth Street Antique Mall (6thstreetantiquemall.com), Alley Katz Antique Emporium (alleykatzantiquesamarillo.com), and the Nat (thenatroute66.com), a 20,000-square-foot former natatorium now filled with more than a hundred dealers.
The Courtyard Amarillo Downtown (marriott.com) is a chain hotel, yes, but it occupies the 1927 Fisk Building, a Gothic Revival beauty that is one of the tallest structures in town.