By the time we reached Texas I felt like we had tackled much more of Route 66 than we actually had. The official midpoint for the Mother Road is in Adrian, Texas, which meant we still had another half yet to go. Texas turned out to be the perfect transition point, leaving behind the forests and farms of the Midwest and finally entering the broad expanses of the American West. We would soon be in “Cars” country and I for one couldn’t wait. Even so, Route 66 only just barely crosses Texas and it’s easy enough to drive through the state in just a day or two. Don’t be fooled though, there’s a lot to see and do on that short drive including these experiences that I know I’ll never forget.
Retro Chic in Shamrock
There are plenty of retro buildings along Route 66, some truly old and others made to look that way. A big draw to Route 66 is the opportunity to revisit the so-called Golden Era of America in the 20th century, to revel in nostalgia and the Mother Road provides plenty of opportunities to do just that. But none are perhaps as remarkable as what we discovered in the very small hamlet of Shamrock, Texas. Long used as a bison grazing area by Native Americans, when Europeans arrived in the late 1800s they turned the region into a center for agriculture and later oil. Route 66 cut a trail through town in the 1920s and after the Mother Road was paved, the now iconic Tower Station and U-Drop Inn Café was built. Erected in 1936, this was the only café for more than 100 miles and maybe that’s why it’s such a work of art. The art deco glazed brick design is perfect in nearly every way and thankfully it’s been restored to its former glory. As it turns out, this building in the middle of nowhere is actually one of the most architecturally important buildings of its kind and if it looks familiar, that’s because it was featured in the movie “Cars” and a replica even stands in Disneyland. As odd as it seems, this strangely placed treasure truly is a key stopping point on Route 66. For a touch of modernity, there’s also a robust Tesla charging station located next to the old service station, a wonderful contrast of old and new.
Wide Open Space
To be honest though, much of the drive through Texas isn’t all that interesting. We first started seeing more wide-open spaces in Oklahoma, and that was only enhanced in Texas. As I said though the drive is short; at 150 miles, it’s the second shortest time in a state (Kansas wins with just 13 drivable miles). But it was a mentally important section of the drive. It helped me transition to the western part of the country and to see more the Texas Panhandle, a part of the country new to me. The Panhandle is a little different from the rest of the state; there are no metropolises, no urban jungles, instead small towns and hamlets rest by the side of the road as they have for generations. Halfway to Amarillo, our phones started beeping. It was an emergency alert about fires off in the distance. Oddly enough, we had seen the epic smoke from those fires for a long time, at first assuming they were storm clouds before realizing they were the result of what must have been a truly enormous set of fires. We stopped, along with other drivers, to take some photos of the phenomenon and to just soak up the fact that we were there, in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the country. Route 66 for me was about experiencing more of my own country, and I was thrilled with how completely I was succeeding.
Amarillo & Buried Cars
Approaching Amarillo, by fast the largest city in the Panhandle, I was excited. The area is home to a couple of world-famous and incredibly kitschy sites on my to-do list and I couldn’t wait. Before reaching them though, we took a brief 5-minute detour off of Route 66 to visit another weird spot; one that may not be as famous, but which is just as fun. The Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo may get all the attention, but I loved the VW Slug Bug Ranch a lot more. Also just outside of Amarillo, the VW Slug Bug Ranch is a tongue in cheek nod to the more famous Cadillac version. Five half-buried, heavily graffitied VW bugs sit silently, just waiting for someone like me to come by and snap a pic. And since I mentioned the Cadillac Ranch, yes, that was an important stop for us as well. Created in 1974 from the creative minds of two architects turned artists and one patient (and wealthy) patron who decided to back the project, today it’s one of the most famous unofficial official American landmarks out there. Every day hundreds of people show up at this quiet spot alongside the road, paint can in hand to add their own bit of color to the cars.
Driving into Amarillo, it was at first strange to leave behind us the dusty plains and once again reenter civilization. It was also hard to believe how far we had already traveled; just a few days before we were in the dense forests of the Missouri Ozarks. To be honest, I’m not sure what I think of Amarillo. Before stopping at our hotel for the night, we drove the entire Route 66 through historic Amarillo and it was a little depressing. Maybe it was just the part of town we were in, but it seemed to me as though the city clearly had better days. I’m sure there are some redeeming qualities to Amarillo, I just didn’t experience many of them. One highlight though – and I’m being honest here – was our hotel for the evening, the Courtyard Amarillo Downtown. The hotel in Amarillo is particularly notable thanks to a recent renovation as well as its location in a historic building. The Fisk Building in downtown Amarillo was built in 1927 during the city’s oil boom and its unique architecture that so well defines the era has thankfully been well preserved into the 21st century. During the remodel, Courtyard not only retained these art deco elements, but included them in every aspect of the new design, creating a gorgeous and welcoming space that is completely unique. That’s not the Courtyard experience I expected and it deeply impressed me.
There was one final spot in Amarillo I had waited years to see, but there was a little disappointment with the visit. I had grand plans for the Big Texan in Amarillo, Texas, but alas, I had overdone the food aspect of the Route before I got there. In 1960, The Big Texan Steak Ranch opened on Route 66. Its kitschy signs and buildings quickly becoming a hallmark of the drive. It was here where the concept of “if you can eat it, it’s free” was also born. Still today, hundreds of people attempt the challenge every year of eating in one hour a 72-ounce steak with sides and an appetizer. If you can manage this Herculean feat, then the meal is free. If you can’t, well, you’ve had a nice meal in the process. I wanted to try the challenge for myself, but an upset stomach prevented me. I promise though, I will return one day and join the ranks of those who have eaten at this still popular restaurant.
Before leaving Texas we had one last very important stop to make – The Midpoint Café. I had purchased a number of guidebooks before the trip, but only two were ones I actually used every day of the trip itself, and on the cover of one was a photo of the café. Finally standing in front of it was a surreal moment, as was realizing that the adventure was already half over. The days had flown by and even at that point I knew it was a trip I didn’t want to see end. The café itself is fine, the food (and especially the pies) looked good and it has a robust gift shop where I bought a mug. But more than the establishment itself, the café is a critical moment for any Route 66 through-driver. It’s a moment that is of mixed emotions for sure, and one that signifies the importance and magnitude of the trip itself.
This post was created in partnership with Marriott International, but all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.