Holy Cow, It’s the Big Texan Steak Ranch!

     If you’ve heard one thing about the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, it’s probably about the challenge: eat a 72 oz. steak in an hour and your meal is free.

    While that may sound like a deal to a hungry cowboy, there’s actually a specific list of eleven rules that must be followed. There’s actually a “full meal” surrounding the 72 oz. steak that has to be eaten including shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and roll with butter. It’s a twin meal to the champion of the very first competition at the restaurant consumed.

     Holy Heartburn, Batman!

     When Bob “R.J.” Lee opened the Big Texan Steak Ranch in 1960, on the iconic Route 66 touting “huge, Texas-size steaks,” many of his regular customers were cowboys who came for dinner after working in a nearby stockyard. Lee noticed that out-of-town visitors were fascinated while watching these Texans try to “out eat” each other.

     As the story goes, one Friday night in 1962, Lee pushed several tables together in the center of the dining room, sat all the voracious cowboys together and told them he wanted to see who could eat the most one-pound steaks in an hour. The cost would be $5 per participant, and whoever won got to keep everybody’s entry fee.

     These cowboys obviously had no intention of turning down the dare.

     One fellow with a hearty appetite downed two steaks in just ten minutes…but he didn’t stop there. He requested a salad and shrimp cocktail with his third steak, and a baked potato and bread roll with his fourth and fifth. By the time the hour was up, he had devoured all the sides and four and a half pounds of steak (72 ounces).

     In response to the cheering crowd, the excited Lee stood on a chair and shouted that from that day forward, anyone who could eat the entire 72 oz dinner in one hour would get it for FREE…and the famous challenge was born.

     It became the restaurant’s biggest claim to fame and was advertised on billboards from Arkansas to Arizona.

     In the early 1970s when Highway 40 replaced Route 66 as the major thoroughfare, Lee and his family purchased land alongside the new highway to build a bigger, expanded version of his steak house dream.

     The original cowboy sign that greeted visitors for years was moved to its new location by helicopter! That would have been a sight!

     If you take the steak-eating challenge today, you are seated at a table on a stage platform in the restaurant, so everyone can watch your progress as the large digital clock above you counts down the hour allowed. Want to see if anyone is attempting it right now? Check out the live stream of the challenge table here.

     Now, I had no intention of attempting such madness, but I did want to check out the restaurant. I wasn’t prepared for how fun and HUGE it is!

     Pulling in to park between the steak house and it’s Old West theme hotel next door, visitors are greeted by the legendary cowboy sign as well as a towering statue of a boot wearing dinosaur propped in two-story tall sticks of fireworks.

     Wait….what? A dinosaur? Well, you just know there’s a story there too! Bobby and Danny Lee, “R.J.”s sons who now run the business share memories of seeing dinosaur statues on a special vacation that took their family across the historic Route 66. “Dino” smiles down on their patrons to remind them that “it’s not always about the destination, it’s about the journey getting there.”

     When you venture inside, be prepared to wait for your table at this popular restaurant. Once they hand you your pager, don’t just sit and wait for heaven’s sake…explore!

     Out back is a large covered beer garden (they have their own craft brewery on site) with live music, old-fashioned games, photo opps that include a stagecoach, huge rocking chair, 18-foot-tall cowboy boot and more.

     Inside try your luck at a carnival style shooting gallery where you can take aim at western targets like rattlesnakes, bad guys and bobcats as well as Frankentein, zombies and Dracula. Who needs Halloween?

     Outside be sure to check out the Texas-shape swimming pool, the motel, a horse hotel (yes, actually for horses), and RV park. And be sure to look down, because this attraction’s attention to details goes right down to imprinting cattle brands in the sidewalks.

     The gift shop has every version of a kitschy souvenir that you can think of, and a few you probably can’t. The night we were there, it was so crowded with tourists looking for that silly something to commemorate their visit that we needed to scoot sideways down the aisles to make any progress. (These are the times a good sense of humor comes in handy!)

     Once our pager alerted us it was time to chow down, the hostess lead my family into an immense, two-story dining room where chandeliers of antlers and wagon wheels hang from the ceiling.

     We felt like we were walking onto a saloon set soundstage of Bonanza or Gunsmoke, complete with swinging doors, taxidermy mounts, spindle railings, and the cowboy-hat-wearing waitstaff.

     Just about everything – including the margaritas – are garnished with some of the biggest jalapenos I’ve ever seen.

     While we waited for our food we enjoyed the two gentlemen who strolled the dining room playing western classics tableside for the diners. I kept my fingers crossed they would come our way, and lucky for us they did, asking for requests. (A personal note here: please be sure to tip entertainment like this as the tips usually make up the majority if not all of what they are paid for the pleasure they bring!)

     Kids meals are served in a cowboy hat that the kids can keep as a souvenir. My teenage daughter wasn’t hungry enough to eat one of the over-sized meals and asked if she could order from a children’s menu. The waitress smiled and said she could as long as she agreed to put on the hat afterward. Good sport that she is, she agreed and did…and no, she would NOT give me permission to post that particular photo.

     I couldn’t resist getting the southern classic chicken friend steak and have to say it’s one of the best I’ve ever eaten. I was relieved that it wasn’t plate-sized as well, but still couldn’t finish it off.

     The vintage look Route 66 / Texan Steak House pattern china was a great touch as well and didn’t go unappreciated.

     If you have any room left for ice cream after all that…they have an ice cream bar in the main, too! Be sure to at least stop long enough to taste a sample…it’s worth it. Then you can wobble back to your car.

     Generations of visitors have come The Big Texan and often share photos with the owners. It’s a tasty tradition. Bobby says he never tires of hearing their stories.

     Just a note: one fun thing we didn’t find out about in time is a complimentary limo service to and from the restaurant! The Big Texan offers a complimentary limo pickup from most hotels, motels, and RV parks in Amarillo, as well as Cavender’s Boot City, and The Starbuck’s on I40 and Grand. Not just any limo, of course! A stereotypical limousine complete with longhorns mounted on the front. Pick-ups start at 4:00 and they drive customers home until everyone they brought is delivered safely back where they are staying. Check their website for the number to make a reservation for this unique shuttle.

      For someone who, as a little girl, devoured anything having to do with the Old West the Big Texan was like stepping into a little slice of good-humored  heaven…even before the food arrived. As a kid I would have eaten it up. But it was just as much fun as an adult.

     I highly suggest putting the Big Texan Steak Ranch at the top of your to-do list when you visit Amarillo. Just be sure to bring your appetite!





Palo Duro Canyon: Adventure on a Grand Scale

     I thought that when people referred to Palo Duro as the “Grand Canyon of Texas” they were probably overstating things . . . until I saw it for myself.

     The second largest canyon in the United States, Palo Duro is 120 miles long, 20 miles wide and up to 820 feet deep. It’s the second largest park in the state park system – 28,000 acres (over 45 square miles) with 28 miles of hiking, biking and horse trails. That’s a lot of territory!

     People have inhabited the canyon for about 12,000 years, and its history includes exciting chapters like Comanches and the Goodnight Trail. But This time around our family just focused on the absolute beauty of nature.

     Texas bought the land for the park in 1933. Civilian Conservation Corps workers spent five years creating the park, a cabin for their home base, the winding road to the canyon floor, the CCC Trail, and the El Coronado Lodge (now the Visitor Center). The craftsmen used local stone and wood for building materials and furniture, and forged decorative metal ornaments.

Boots were definitely more appropriate for riding horses than walking the canyon!

     After our morning ride along the rim of Palo Duro Canyon (more about that in my last post)  we headed to the state park, ready to see more of the stunning scenery. Initially, we intended to swing in for a short visit since we knew the clothes we were wearing (long sleeved shirts, jeans and boots) were perfect for riding, but not for hiking. Once there though, the views lured us further and further into the canyon, anxious to see what was next.

    Just a couple of miles inside the entrance, we made our first stop at the visitor’s center (the original the El Coronado Lodge) that was built by the CCC, so it was fitting that exhibits included some fascinating relics of the Corps’ days in the canyon. There’s also a small gift shop, though I’ll mention a more “souvenir-y” option  later in this post.

 

     The vistas from the vantage point outside of the lodge were so enchanting, we knew we had to go at least a bit further into the park.

     We took Park Road 5 which winds down to the canyon floor, circles clockwise in a 16 mile loop and slowly climbs back up to the rim.

Be sure to pick up a copy of a map of the canyon and its trails before leaving the Visitor Center.

     The first, short trail we ventured out on was relatively easy, but it was quickly apparent that at 11:00 a.m. it was already too hot (in addition to inappropriate clothing) for us to take on any of the longer trails. We were still fairly close to the rim, and the canyon floor would be about twenty degrees hotter!

     The view from even the least challenging trails are more than worth the effort and heat!

     Each one we investigated offered increasingly impressive scenery.

     Some of the trails were quite rocky and others were red dirt that I would have expected more in Oklahoma.

    Four geologic layers are exposed on the canyon walls, that seem to change color depending on the time of day and season of year – just one of the reasons Palo Duro draws so many amateur and professional photographers.

     Once I heard the erosion features referred to as “Mexican skirts” it was hard to get that image out of my mind. It’s really appropriate, don’t you think?

“Mexican Skirt” erosion feature

     The park provides enough diversity in its habitats to be a comfortable home to quite a variety of wildlife, in addition to part of the state herd of longhorns. Coyotes, bobcats, white-tailed and mule deer, and many species of snakes and lizards. We saw several roadrunners darting across the terrain, which reminded me of living in El Paso when I was little – and the birds seemed to be everywhere.

Palo Duro Mouse…look at those adorable ears! Photo courtesy of WTAMU.
Lots of creatures large and small make their homes in the canyon.

     You might even spot some wild turkeys. Did you know that a group of turkeys is called a “rafter?” There’s your trivia for the day!

 

 

 

 

 

     Two threatened species also live in the canyon: the Palo Duro mouse (which only lives in three Texas counties) and the Texas horned lizard (the State Reptile of Texas).

     Along our driving route we passed several picnic and camping areas. When I return for my next visit (and make no mistake about it…there WILL be a next visit!) I’d love to stay in one of the cabins on site. Imagine waking up to these views.

 

 

     One of the most pleasant surprises we encountered was fields or wildflowers, as well as individual flooring plants that had stubbornly pushed their way up through the dry dirt. In central and south Texas many wildflowers were already past season in June.

    Indian blanket, American basket-flower (shown in photo), sunflower, paperflower, blackfoot daisy, tansy aster, sideoats grama, buffalograss, sand sage, yucca and prickly pear cactus decorated the canyon floor and made the area appear to be more of a place for living creatures than desolate and empty.

Like mother- like daughter. My girl doing what it takes to get the shot!

     Even though we traveled the majority of the distance by car, we drank a LOT of water. Staying hydrated in the canyon (which can reach 130 degrees in summer) is non-negotiable!










     But if you think this vast canyon, however arid, couldn’t possibly be romantic I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. Sharing this grandeur (not a word I use lightly) with the ones you love is a memorable experience.


     We pulled over one last time at the base of the canyon to check out the trailhead for the famous Lighthouse formation.

“Lighthouse” in the distance

     The Lighthouse Trail is the most well-known trail in Palo Duro Canyon. It’s considered a moderate hike ( 2.72 miles each way) but having arrived during the heat of the day without the proper shoes, we vowed to return at another time to venture off to see unusual 310 foot tall formation. I walked just around the initial bend of the trail to take a photo (though far away) of the lighthouse, which looked small in the distance.

     The park has posted multiple warnings about the danger of heat and dehydration at the head of the trail, and even staffed a tent with a ranger to provide information and advice to people before they set out. Although I certainly didn’t envy her, it was impressive how seriously they took visitors’ safety.

     By that time we had worked up an appetite and exhausted our water supply, so we headed to the Palo Duro Trading Post on the rim for a late lunch. They don’t serve anything fancy, but you know those times you’re so hungry everything taste like the BEST (fill in the food blank) ever? Yep, it was one of those days. The staff was friendly, service fast and tables clean. Hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches and hot dogs seemed like the find of the day. And the ice cream? C’mon…what do YOU think?

     The Trading Post also offered a fun variety of souvenirs from T-shirts to mugs to jewelry, all very reasonably priced.

Happy with our visit and satisfied appetites, we left the park to go back to the hotel to take off those boots and give our feet a rest before heading out to see more of Amarillo.

     If you only have time to visit one place in the Texas Panhandle (and that would be a shame), Palo Duro Canyon State Park should be that place.

     When you go, remember to:

  • Bring and drink water

  • Wear sunscreen, a hat and protective clothing

  • Have your camera ready

  • Bring and drink water

  • Pick up a map before you head out

  • Wear comfortable, supportive shoes

  • And…you guessed it…bring and drink plenty of water!

     Do you prefer to hike, bike or drive through sites like this beautiful state park? I’m interested to know!

 

Saddle Up for a Trail Ride in Palo Duro Canyon

     When most people from other states of countries think of Texas, visions of cowboys riding their horses past oil wells usually come to mind. So it was no surprise to meet a young honeymooning couple from Germany when we showed up for our trail ride at a ranch in Palo Duro Canyon. They wanted to do something they thought would be a typical Texas experience – and riding horses was just the ticket.

     And honestly, you’ll never see me turning down a chance to ride horses. I had been looking forward to this particular ride since booking it a few weeks before our trip down Route 66. When I was researching horseback riding options in Palo Duro, one in particular caught my eye because it wasn’t the usual nose to tail ride…you know, where the horses walk in a single file as close together as possible in single file?

     Cowgirls and Cowboys in the West operates on the Los Cedros Ranch on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon – the second largest canyon in the United States. Horseback is an incredible way to see this breathtaking natural wonder.

     The ranch offers one, two or three hour rides. I chose the earliest time slot (8:30 a.m.) for a two hour ride for three reasons: it gave us a nice length of time in the saddle; the morning light was better for photographs; and the canyon becomes very hot quickly once the sun is up. That meant we needed to leave our hotel early enough to arrive at the ranch by about 8:15.

     When we arrived at the ranch, we were greeted by the young ladies that would be leading our ride: Sierra, Kensi and Halee. Young and friendly, it was also immediately apparent that they were also knowledgable horsewomen and experienced guides.

     Our group of six (my family of three, the honeymooners and a local college professor) were welcomed into a small bunkhouse type building where we were offered cold water and a briefing about how the ride would proceed. A quick look around the room included cowhide covered furniture and a bulletin board with great tidbits of information including local restaurants the crew recommended. True Texas hospitality.

     Safety measures were covered (my daughter is under 18, so was required to wear a helmet) as well as an overview of the types of terrains we would cover. We were encouraged to “stray” from the worn trail if we wanted as long as we basically stayed in the area of the group. Much to our delight we were also told that the ride would be stopping at two picture perfect locations along the rim.

     When you make reservations for a ride online, you are asked for specific information such as riding experience and weight, so that an appropriate horse can be chosen for you to use. Our little “posse” had everything from experienced (me) to one of the honeymooners who was a first time rider. Everyone was made to feel extremely comfortable about the process regardless.

     Once were were all assisted into the saddles of the beautiful Quarter Horses, we set out on our adventure. Along the way, the girls chatted about the canyon, the horses’ different personalities, and funny things that have happened on different rides. Sierra gave us some fascinating background history about the canyon along the way in a manner that felt much more like a friend talking with us than a tour guide.

     The ride proceeded at an easy pace beginning with watering the horses at a large tank, and starting out into the prairie grass region. It wasn’t long before we saw our first glimpses of the canyon, that became more stunning the closer we rode. We paused in several places to take in the view and, as promised, the girls offered to take photos of the riders at two particularly beautiful vistas.


     They pointed out a part of the canyon where coyotes live, the theatre in the base of the canyon where the park’s performance is held in summer months, and even dismounted to chase (unsuccessfully) a few horned toads to show us…which kept us laughing. They were so committed to making sure their guests had a great time!

     Eventually it was time to head back, and we watered the horses again on the way. Everyone was visiting like old friends, having shared such a memorable experience. When we got back to the bunkhouse, the owner of the ranch, Phyllis Nickum, was there to greet us with cold water and a chat.

     It was sad to call it a day when the ride was over, even though it was getting quite warm (I felt a bit sorry for the guest who were arriving for the later ride).     As a quick aside, most of the horse tack and equipment for Los Cedros is custom made at Oliver’s Saddles of Amarillo, the oldest family owned saddlery in Texas. We were each given a Texas shaped keychain made by Oliver’s after our ride as a souvenir, which was such a nice touch to the visit.

     We saw and did so many fun and interesting things along the section of Route 66 that we traveled on this trip, but the Cowgirls and Cowboys of the West experience is one that I can’t wait to go back and experience again.

     If you’re lucky enough to be in the Amarillo area, do yourself a favor, and leave time in your schedule for a visit to Los Cedros. Their website has detailed information about the different rides offered, proper attire and the background of the ranch.








Park & Play on Amarillo’s 6th Avenue

     When you hear “National Park Service,” you’re more likely to think of nature and hiking trails, but it also oversees other historic and natural landmarks, and national heritage districts as well. Surprised?

     Amarillo is home to one of these unique designations. The U.S. Route 66 Sixth Street Historic District is a 13-block stretch between Georgia and Forrest Avenues that provides a perfectly “populated” break for your trip across the Texas section of Route 66.

     Situated on a section of city’s Sixth Street (also called 6thAvenue…but that must not have been as catchy) that temporarily merged with the well-traveled Route 66, this stop is far from being your typical Route ghost town.

Golden Light Cafe & Cantina – operating since 1946

     The district and its surrounding San Jacinto neighborhood was originally a streetcar suburb located west of Amarillo’s main business district.

A member of the National Register of Historic Places since 1994, it includes Amarillo’s most intact collection of commercial buildings from the Route’s heyday. Architecture lovers will spot elements of Spanish Revival, Art Deco and Art Modern designs.

     The Bussey Buildings (originally home of the first licensed beauty school in Texas), and Borden’s Heap-O-Cream (one of a chain of dairy product stores) are just two examples of historic buildings that have found new life in the district that now includes over one mile of art galleries, restaurants, antique stores, specialty shops and bars.

Sinclair dinosaur now stands guard over a tire shop

     The Natatorium, which is easy to spot because of its castle-like roof crenelations, was formerly an indoor swimming pool converted into a ballroom when Route 66 came to town. One of the hot spots in the area, it featured performers like Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey. It even had an underground tunnel to the Alamo bar next door. Now the large space offers shopping from over 100 vendors of antiques, handcrafts, jewelry and home decor.

     My daughter and I love antique and vintage shops, so we started our venture at Antiques Plus (2712 SW 6th Street) at one end of the district with a plan to take them all in order. We were immediately charmed by this beautiful shop. Antiques for me, and vintage clothing for her…and a comfortable place for my patient husband to sit and wait for us! Her selection was reasonably priced, and the sweet, chatty manager behind the register had great recommendations for our visit to the district.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     If you’re an antique lover, art collector or just love browsing interesting shops, you definitely want to add this district to your Route 66 itinerary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     There is no shortage of shops to visit and enjoy and we soon found that many were not only dog-friendly, but had official canine greeters as well. One of the most well-known is Lady at the Lile Gallery. You may have come to browse the inventive art (including items made from chipped off paint from the Cadillac Ranch), but Lady will certainly get the majority of your attention. Not surprisingly, the owner told us that many people come by just to meet or visit with the sweet pup.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     Luckily, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to choose from when your feet need a break: Mexican, burgers, pub grub, barbecue and more. And if your shopping hours take you into the evening, you’ll want to choose one of the venues that also offer live music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     The Blue Crane Bakery (2332 SW 6th) got a unanimous thumbs-up from everyone in our family. We stopped by this hip, family-owned bakery at the end of a long day to pick up a sweet treat after a long day of playing tourist.  Their freshly made Italian sodas are worth the stop alone, let me tell ya!

 

     Offered samples of some of the amazing baked goods, we found it impossible to narrow down our choice, so we ended up taking a small assortment of temptations back to the hotel…and didn’t regret it. There was even a surprise when we opened the box: a sprinkling of diminutive hand-folded origami blue cranes!

     For friendly customer service, assortments of offerings to include vegan and different dietary choices, and just down-right deliciousness, the Blue Crane definitely makes our recommendations list.

     People drove from miles around to visit Sixth Street back in the day, and they’re coming once again to enjoy all there is to see and do in the district

 

Long, Tall Tex Randall Rides Again

     If you think you have trouble finding clothes to fit, just be thankful you aren’t a 47-foot tall cowboy!

     You’ve heard the saying that everything is “bigger in Texas,”

     “Tex Randall,” the 47-foot tall, seven ton statue in Canyon, Texas was designed and built in 1959 by Harry Wheeler (1914-1997) to draw Route 66 tourists to his Corral Curio Shop and six-room motel. Wheeler, an industrial arts teacher, spent ten months forming the lanky cowboy out of six-inch wire mesh, rebar and concrete.

     And here’s the really amazing part…

     Though his clothes are painted on today, they weren’t originally! Tex’s first Western-style shirt was made by Amarillo awning, using an impressive 1,440 square feet of material. Wheeler sewed it closed in back with sailboat thread, and created sheet aluminum snap buttons and a belt buckle the size of a television screen.

     Levi Strauss’ nearby plant made real jeans for him that had to be sewn onto the statue on site. The pants were lifted into place with a crane, and Wheeler stood below, adjusting the “fit” and sewing them together. How’s that for a tall tailor order?

     Tex’s boots and features were painted onto the surface of the statue, and he was crowned with a Stetson style hat.

     As far as relics from the Route 66 heyday, this tall Texan definitely fits the bill. He became one of the roadside attractions that people would drive miles to see and photograph.

     Due to reconstruction of the highway, business at his shop and motel declined. That and personal business caused Wheeler sold the property in 1963. He refused offers to buy Tex that came in from Las Vegas and businesses along Route 66, preferring that his labor of love remain in Canyon.

     The following decades of Panhandle winds and weather shredded the figure’s fabric clothes; a semi-truck crashed into his left boot and the original cigarette was shot out of his right hand. The elements sandblasted away large portions of his skin, and his concrete fingers began to crumble.

     An Amarillo area businessman purchased Tex with the intention of moving him to his business, but gave up when he learned it would cost $50,000.

     In 1987, local community leaders began a “Save the Cowboy” campaign and raised the money to restore Tex. The no longer socially acceptable cigarette in his hand was replaced with a spur, new clothes were painted on to replace the lost fabric set, and he was given an 80s-style moustache.

     By 2010, it became apparent that a more thorough restoration of the statue was needed, and the Canyon community and Canyon Main Street volunteers rallied to save the icon.

     The Texas Department of Transportation stepped in to help and set aside almost $300,000 to turn the land around Tex’s boots into a park.

    Tex’s cameo appearance in the 2015 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue provided the exposure to increase interest in the project. After six years of fundraising and work, the project was completed in December 2016, and Tex received his own Texas State Historical Marker in 2017.

     Tex’s appearance now more closely resembles his original 1950s appearance, and much to Wheeler’s daughter Judy’s delight the moustache is gone.

     Tex isn’t the state’s “biggest Texan” any more … he is outsized by the Sam Houston statue in Huntsville, but this lanky character holds a special place in generations of Panhandle residents’ hearts and tourists’ photos.

     If you plan to go by and say “Howdy” to Tex, swing into 1400 North 3rdAvenue, Canyon, Texas.


 

Hit the Brakes – It’s Cadillac Ranch!

     Chances are if you’ve seen any photos of Route 66, a shot of the infamous Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo was among them. The row of ten, graffiti-covered Cadillacs buried nose-first in the ground has become famous around the world.

     Their make and models are no longer discernible due to weathering and layers of paint, but everyone seems to know they’re Cadillacs.

     The public art installation gained immediate attention from its inception in 1974 by eccentric businessman-turned-artist Stanley Marsh 3 (he thought the III after his name was too pretentious).

     Marsh commissioned the Ant Farm, a radical art group consisting of Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Dough Michaels, to carry out his plan.

     The classic Caddies dating from 1948 to 1963 were purchased for about $200 apiece and were installed with their original paint jobs. Depending on their drivability they were either hoisted or driven into the holes that became their almost-final resting places in a wheat field just outside the city limits.

     The temptation to visitors to leave their mark on the unusual sight became a rite of Route 66 passage, and didn’t seem to bother Marsh who embraced the enthusiasm of the new tradition.

     In 1997 urban sprawl necessitated moving the interactive folk art attraction a couple of miles down the road to its current site in a former cow pasture on I-40. The cars were carefully moved and reset in their original order and angle. It’s said that even some of the surrounding debris was moved to the new location with them, but that seems more like a bit of a Texas Tall Tale in the making.

     The cars were repainted in their original colors in 2002, and in 2003 they were painted in flat black to mourn the passing of the founder of the Ant Farm.

     Other than those two efforts, the colors and patterns have constantly evolved thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of visitors. It will never look exactly the same, even if you visit two days in a row.

     The Cadillac Ranch was one of our most anticipated stops along our trek across the Texas section of Route 66, and it didn’t disappoint. It almost shouts, “Just enjoy and don’t take yourself so seriously.”

Brooks & Dunn video

     You may even recognize the Ranch from Brooks & Dunn’s “Honky Tonk” music video  or Pixar’s animated ‘Cars’ movie – where its silhouette was used as the design for a mountain range.

     But let me steer you in the right direction for your own Caddie Outing . . .

     First of all, it’s free…so there’s no excuse to pass up the opportunity to visit. Plan to bring at least one can of spray paint per person to join in the fun.

     Heading east on I-40, take Exit 60 (Arnot Road). Pass through the intersection with Love’s Truck Stop and keep an eye out for cars parked on the side of the road to your right. Yes, the Cadillac Ranch is open 24/7/365 so there are always cars.

     Don’t expect a big touristy, lighted sign shouting the location, though. What you’ll see first is a turnstile gate and parked cars before you spot the Caddies propped up in a pasture in the distance.

     Typical for a summer day in the Panhandle, it was hot and windy so hats, sunscreen and water are essentials.

     The day we visited there was a fellow selling key chains and other quirky mementoes made from paint that had chipped off the cars, by the gate out of the back of his truck. Enterprising, but we passed. You’ll see large pieces of this layered paint on the ground surrounding the cars, so you can pick up one to make your own creation if you like.

     Once you pass through the turnstile a wide dirt path leads out to the Cadillacs.


     Note: the turnstile gate was the only access I saw while I was there, so unless a visitor in a wheelchair has assistance to get through the tight gate and has their folded chair passed as well, I’m not entirely sure this would be accessible. I would advise calling the visitors’ bureau who might know of another way in.

     I’ve also heard that the site can turn into quite a mud pit after a rain, but our timing didn’t make that an issue.

     We purposely wore clothes that we didn’t mind getting speckled with a bit of paint, since the wind chose exactly where the spray went.

     Don’t hesitate to jump right in and leave your mark on any or all of the cars. It’ll last at least until the next “artist” comes along.  Be aware if you’re climbing on or inside them that though they’re remarkable sturdy…they are deteriorating and shouldn’t be 100% trusted to support you!

     Some people even spray-painted messages and patterns in the dirt surrounding the cars, which was so hard it made a pretty good canvas.

     Visitors are asked to carry out their empty spray cans to toss in the trash bins along the fence line, but of course not everyone does. Be a bit of a hero and pick an extra one up to throw out with yours!

     The only traffic jam these cars see any more are the crowds that surround them. We chatted with people from several states and different countries and of all ages, and everyone was having a ball.

     Off-beat? Yes. Fun? Absolutely! The Cadillac Ranch makes my list of must-stops along the road.

Route 66 Kitsch & Culture in Vega

 

   The next stop on our Texas Route 66 trip was the charming little town of Vega, the county seat of Oldham County. Locals, or “Vegans,” are some of the friendliest folks you’ll find along this trek. The people here and their love of the history of Route 66 are a perfect example of how the road and its travelers can become the fabric of a community.

     Walking around the courthouse square, it was easy to spot the show stopping mural of a white buffalo on the side of a building at the corner of South Main and West Main – just across from the Bee’s Knees Café (whose “Sweet Tea” sign would have tempted me into sitting on their bench for a spell if they’d only been open!).

     The massive painting screams Southwest pride and will capture the heart of anyone who loves the area’s history, wildlife and deserts. It is one of four murals painted by talented art partners Joshua Finley and Valerie Doshier in 2014. Tragically, Valerie died of a brain tumor just two years later. What a beautiful legacy of public art she left for passersby to enjoy for years to come.

     The children’s book character of Cheeky Maneeky whose stories she had outlined before her passing were later brought to life by her mother D’Ann Swain’s writing and Finley’s illustrations.

     Another of the duos’ murals appears on the side of a 100+-year old building at 1005 Coke Street that used to serve as the town’s lumberyard. Expanded a few years ago, it now houses the Milburn-Price Culture Museum that displays memorabilia from around Oldham County including a 1926 Model T affectionately named “Tin Lizzy.” (But I’ll say a bit more about her later.)

     The mural at this site depicts the famed XIT Ranch, whose history will be at least vaguely familiar to anyone raised in the state an subjected to local history books. The Panhandle ranch encompassed a mere three million acres (yes, really!) and was conceived in 1879 to fund a new state capital building. At its peak, it raised 150,000 head of cattle, represented by the large longhorn statue who,…ahem…has a “66” brand instead of an “XIT.” The last of the cattle were sold in 1912.

     What’s most likely to catch your eye as you approach the building is the world’s largest branding iron laying on the ground beside the parking area. The XIT iron, made by Greg Conn, was designed so that visitors who drove into the lot at night could cast an immense “XIT” shadow brand onto the side of the building with their headlights. It’s certainly impressive even if you only visit during the day.

 

There are countless vintage gas stations in every stage of repair and disrepair along the route, but the restoration on North Main Street (Coke Street) is sure to make visitors smile.

 

     Colonel James T. Owen opened the “Hi-Way” Magnolia station in 1924 on what was then the Ozark Trail, a partially bricked and partially dirt road. It was only the second service station built in Vega. Owen was an important figure among highway boosters rallying to have Vega as part of the upcoming Route 66.

     Edward and Cora Wilson leased the station from Owen just a couple of years after it was built. The Wilsons lived above the station until 1930, in two cozy rooms with one sink. They had to go downstairs to access the bathroom. Can you imagine? Right on Main Street.

    After the Wilsons, a string of businessmen leased the property including E. B. Cooke and A. B. Landrum. One operator, Kenneth R. Lloyd, claims to have actually married his wife at the small station before moving upstairs to live.

     The station went back under family control when Owen’s son Austin took over the operation in 1933, and entered into a lease with Phillips 66 Petroleum which charged him one cent per gallon of gas sold. The average price of gas was 18 cents per gallon, so that was a pretty good profit!

     By 1937, the year J. T. Owen passed away,  Route 66 was paved through Vega just south of the station.

     Vega’s Magnolia station shut down its pumps in 1953. From 1953 to 1965 the building was home to Slatz Barbershop.

Before restoration, 2002

     The service station remained vacant for decades, until Vegans rallied to restore it. The before and after photos are pretty impressive, don’t you think?

     Restoration was completed in August of 2004, and now the station contains mementos of its previous life. The museum is open on special days or by appointment, but you can glimpse many of its contents through the large windows. A glass-globed pump and blue oil pump sit out front.

 

 

 

     If you’re into the more “kitschy” finds along Route 66, it’s hard to beat Dot’s Mini Museum on North 12thStreet. Dot Leavitt’s family ran a refrigerated storage facility named the Vega Zero Lockers. For years they provided services to locals and travelers along the Mother Road, including “Jugs Iced Free.” Sounds like a pretty good deal, considering most cars didn’t have air conditioning! It was also the only place to buy ice on Route 66 between Amarillo and Tucumcari.

     Determined to share reminders of the era after the interstate passed Vega by, Dot began an informal collection of Route 66 artifacts and memorabilia, which turned into her “mini museum” in 1963.

     Known for her sweet and chatty nature, Dot became instant friends with all who stopped by to learn more about her unlikely treasures. She is said to be the inspiration (along with Lucille Hammons from Hydro, Oklahoma) for the character of “Tin Lizzie” in the Disney/Pixar movie ‘Cars.’ (See? I told you that “Tin Lizzie would come up again!) The character, voiced by Galveston native Katherine Helmond, owned the Radiator Springs Curio Shop and was the oldest auto in town.

“Tin Lizzie” from ‘Cars’

     Dot passed away in 2006 at the age of 89, and the collection is in the care of her daughter, Betty Carpenter.

     If you’re lucky enough to run into Betty on the property, she’ll show you around. There wasn’t a sole in sight on the hot afternoon of our arrival, so we satisfied ourselves by taking some photos of Dot’s whimsical outdoor collections.

     There’s quite a variety to see, including a gravestone for a newspaper that no longer exists, a waving cowboy made of reclaimed metal parts, signs with humorous bits of advice, and…my very favorite…the cowboy boot tree.

     The living tree, decorated with discarded boots of all shapes and styles, actually gets more fascinating the longer you look at it. Taking in the details, you’ll find “well-loved” boots weathering to the point of stitching unraveling, sole nails protruding and heels expanding like the “grow capsules” my daughter used to play with that expand into interesting shapes when you drop them into water. It’s definitely a no-place-but-Texas kind of thing.

     The yard of this diminutive museum alone is worth pulling into the town of Vega.

     If you’re into staying in “rooms with a past,” you’ll definitely want to check out the historic Vega Motel that opened as Vega Court in 1947. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s one of the last remaining tourist courts on the Texas stretch of 66. The Lucky Horseshoe “residence” at the Vega Motel recently opened as an accommodation option for road weary travelers, with enough room for the entire family. Here’s the link. (If you haven’t ever stayed in an Airbnb before, this code will get you $40 off your first booking!)

     There’s even a barber shop on the property, so if you’re in need of a trim after getting windblown on the road…you’re in luck. The rest of the motel is currently undergoing renovations, so I’m looking forward to heading back that way to check on the progress!

     The last thing I wanted to search for before we had to move on down the road was this wonderfully weathered Pepsi-Cola sign…and I feel lucky have have found it.! If you’re in the area and want to see this beauty for yourself, it’s on the original Route 66 between 14th and 15th Streets. And yes, those of you who know me well know that I’m a Dr. Pepper girl through and through, but who could resist this beautifully hand-painted relic?

The building also had “ghost signs” advertising “ice” (which would have been welcome in the heat!) and “Cafe.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     Just in case you’re interested, Oldham Country has the longest stretch of Route 66 stencils painted on the roadbed, at ever other mile marker beginning east of Wildorado (don’t-cha just love that name?) all the way to the west of Adrian. And though I don’t advise sitting on the road for a photo opportunity, there are a surprising number of places on the original Route 66 alignment that you’d be hard-pressed to spot an on-coming car. I settled for snapping my shadow rather than taking a chance. Just sayin’.

Related stories:

Getting Our Kicks on Route 66

Glenrio Ghost Town: Exit 0

Stories Along the Road

A Hero on Route 66

Adrian – Midpoint of Route 66

The Bent Door Cafe’s Quirky Origin

 

The Bent Door Cafe’s Quirky Origin

BENT DOOR Café & (Phillips) Midway Station

 

     Can you see it? Yep, the door is actually bent but not because it is damaged.

    There’s nothing cooking in the kitchen of Route 66’s Bent Door Café in Adrian, but it’s still one of the most recognizable stops along the Mother Road. A highly frequented photo stop along the Texas Stretch of the route, it had a bustling business during its heyday when it was a 24-hour café and gas station.

     Parts of the building have been on this site since the 1920s, but it was during the 40s that it gained its unique appearance.

     When Robert Harris returned from serving in the military in World War II, he put his efforts into wheat farming. After a particularly successful year in 1947, he used his profits to buy the original small structure and began looking for a way to turn it into one of Route 66’s unique attractions.

     The answer came from an unlikely place. Nearby Dalhart Air Force Base began selling surplus military in 1948 after being decommissioned. The imaginative Harris purchased the top portion of the air control tower that included angled windows for viewing the airfield. He incorporated the tower into the northeast section of the building, replacing one of the angled windows with a door been to fit the slanted walls of the structure. How’s that for an unusual vision?

    Harris celebrated the completion of this dream with a huge dance with a live band and BBQ for the community. Oddly, the very next day he closed the business and went to Germany for two months. There is speculation that he just wanted to see if the project could be done.

     His mother took charge of the business, selling it to Manuel Loveless who turned it into Tommy’s Café in the early 60s.




   The attention-grabbing look was a success in luring travelers off the road for food, gas and souvenirs. A former waitress shared memories of the café being filled with stranded people during winter blizzards.

     But being unique couldn’t save business from declining when I-40 was built bypassing the small town.

     That era of the café closed in 1972, and the café and station were sold to a family that let the architectural oddity fall into disrepair, eventually losing for non-payment of taxes.

     When Harris got wind of the building being slated for demolition in 1995, he bought it back. The county gave him the ultimatum of having it back in operating order in just two months or the demolition would be carried out.

     Despite the heavy damage to the building, Harris wasn’t about to see it torn down. He worked around the clock for two straight months to restore his one-time dream. He set a reopening date for September 9, 1995, but he café never re-opened.

     Oddly the Bent Door Café was never the official name of the business.

     In July 2006 Roy and Ramona Kiewert purchased the property and began the process of gradual restoration that’s still ongoing. You can follow the progress on their Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/Thebentdoor/

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    The Kiewerts also own the Fabulous 40 Motel next to the Bent Door. Don’t you just love the name? If the motel doesn’t catch your eye, the old rusted pickup with a huge wooden “66” in the bed sure will.

    The motel was built by Kenny and Marjorie Callstrom in 1967. Ramona Kiewert explained the origin of the name to me this way:

     “When the building was being built, the original plans were for two buildings with 20 rooms each (40 total), and at the same time Interstate 40 was going in so…Fabulous 40s Motel on I-40.”

    The 20-unit motel closed in 2004 after the couple passed away, but luckily relatives kept the property in fairly good shape. After being shuttered for more than a decade, the Kiewerts came to the rescue. They are restoring the property room by room, but several of the guest rooms are open and receiving great reviews.

    A quick check on traveler review websites show just how much visitors enjoy the friendly family that hosts them, and the free continental breakfast served in the recreation room.

    As I walked beneath the carport at the Fabulous 40 to take photos further onto the property I was greeted by Ramona who was evidently alerted about me by a motion sensor. She was so sweet that I wished I was able to stay overnight, but I had to settle for a short chat and some photos.

    The Fabulous 40 is alive and well, making guests feel like a part of the Route 66 family.

     As if they didn’t already have their hands full, the Kiewerts have also rescued a 1920s Phillips station, moving it all the way from Vega to Adrian three years ago! It doesn’t appear on Google maps as of the date of this blog post because the Google images haven’t been updated, but it’s there. Once known as Knox’s Phillips 66, it patiently waits on their property for its turn at restoration.

Adrian – Midpoint of Route 66

    Leaving Glenrio we headed just 25 minutes east down Route 66 to the tiny town of Adrian, whose claim to fame is being the “geo-mathematical” midpoint of Route 66.

     1139 miles to Los Angeles and 1139 miles to Chicago, or as they like to say, “When you’re here, you’re halfway there!”

     Like so many other small towns that dot I-40 across Texas, Adrian began when it was chosen as a stop on the Rock Island Railroad. Never mind that the first train didn’t arrive at the station until 1909.

     Even though it had its own printing press, post office, lumber yard, blacksmith, brickyard, bank, and running water pipe the scarcity of water and recurrent droughts kept the farming community small and by 1915 the entire town was made up of only 50 people.

     After we took a left at the first intersection after Exit 22 and went over the overpass, and the iconic Midpoint Café appeared on our right (not that there are so many other buildings around you might get confused!).

     Midpoint is the oldest continuously operated café between Amarillo and Tucumcari. It was once a one-room building with a compacted earth floor built in 1928. A waitress named Zella Crin brought her dream of owning her own BBQ restaurant to Adrian and leased the building, naming her café Zella’s. True to her roots, she had the wood for her fire pit brought in from Oklahoma.

     In 1947 the café, which was then open 24/7, was enlarged to accommodate the growing number of visitors traveling Route 66. After Zella passed away, Jesse Fincher and Dub Edmunds bought the place in 1956 and operated it as Jesse’s Café along with the gas station next door for 20 years.

     When business took a downward turn because of I-40 bypassing the town (is this story starting to sound familiar?), they sold it in 1969.

     Terry and Peggy Creitz operated the restaurant as Peggy’s Café, and another owner changed it to Rachel’s before the café was sold to Fran Houser in 1990.

     Houser redubbed it the Adrian Café and ran it until she retired in 2012, renaming it Midpoint Café to capitalize on it’s unique location along the Mother Road.

     But its location on Route 66 isn’t its only claim to fame. Houser and her café were the inspiration for Flo and Flo’s V-8 Diner from the movie “Cars,” and the characters of Mia and Tia were based on two of her employees at the time, sisters named Christina and Mary Lou Mendez. You can even spot Fran and her café mentioned in the film’s credits.

     What was once a gas station next door is now an antique and souvenir shop named the Sunflower Station. In front is an old, red pickup that visitors have written their names all over. Most seen to have been done in a white sharpie, so if you’re planning to stop in you might want to bring one along.

     Now owned by Donna and Dennis Purschwitz, the Midpoint’s bright, cheery interior filled with retro chrome and Formica tables and shelves neatly filled with Route 66 memorabilia is probably one of the friendliest stops you can make on the Route.

     Though word has it their burgers are tasty, we’ll have to take others’ word for it because we didn’t arrive until 2:00…after the “grill was closed.” We were momentarily disappointed (and hungry!) until we realized they WERE still serving their famous “ugly crust” pies. Pie for lunch? Well…if we must!

     Coconut cream, whiskey pecan (yes, you could taste the whiskey), and chocolate pie…just to make sure our bases were covered. A white board near the register lists your choice of “ugly pies” for the day, but one peek in the refrigerator case and you’ll want to run off with all of them.

     The lesson here is, of course, to remember to double check their hours online if you head their way. Their Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/MidpointCafe/

     A rocking chair reserved for the mother of the family sits by a pie safe in a corner of the dining area to rest in after baking her famous pies.

     The staff is relaxed and chatty, which encourages the patrons to make small talk with each other as well. We met several people from different countries there who were vacationing in America strictly to drive the entirety of Route 66. Everyone was in a great mood, because…pie!…and offered to take photos of each other in front of the Midpoint photo op sign across the street.

Can you tell it was windy?!

     Inside the diner is a small gift shop with what we later realized were some of the cutest, most affordable Route 66 theme shirts and souvenirs. I couldn’t leave without a Midpoint Café shirt with a map of Route 66 on the back.

     I look forward to going back one day and trying one of their burgers and, of course, more pie.

     In my next post I’ll take you to another iconic stop just a few yards away. You won’t want to miss this one!



A Hero on Route 66

My last blog post about the stories behind the deserted buildings in the ghost town of Glenrio was about a dark occurrence in the local history. But these same buildings witnessed happy times, laughter, friendship and, occasionally, a heroic act.

     Thirty-eight year old bus driver John David Hearon braved a blizzard on foot for 8 hours to save his passengers, and his struggle came to an end in Glenrio.

At nine in the morning on a Saturday in February 1956, Hearon was driving 15 passengers from Amarillo westward in his Continental Trailways bus. Even though he was only driving 25 mph in the driving snow, the bus became stalled in a snowdrift between Adrian and Glenrio.

Because radios weren’t required on public buses at the time, (and obviously it was long before mobile phones) there was no way to call for help. There was half a tank of gas left to keep the engine running for heat, so Hearon decided to wait for assistance to arrive since the passengers were remaining calm.

The snow was soon piled waist deep.

Fuel began to run low about 2:30 p.m. and no search party had arrived. There was no food or water on the bus, and some of the passengers hadn’t eaten before leaving Amarillo (luckily, Hearon had).

He made the decision to go for help telling his passengers to stay together on the bus, and which way he was headed. Though he felt the Adrian might actually be closer, he headed west toward Glenrio to avoid walking uphill and into the wind.

The driver was only wearing his bus line uniform of trousers, a jacket, a cap, gloves and low shoes. As he began walking the snow quickly packed into his shoes and caked his pant legs before freezing into heavy ice. He later commented that though it made it more difficult to walk, the ice probably kept his legs from freezing.

He raised his jacket to cover his mount and nose for protection.

While it was still daylight he came across several stalled cars, three with people inside. He stopped to get warm in one before returning to his search.

After dark he could only tell if he had wandered off the road by the depth of the snow, and had to struggle to get back on it.

Hearon struggled on foot through the blizzard for eight hours and ten miles. When he would fall, he forced himself up knowing that his passengers were depending on him. He had lost all sense of time by the time he reached Glenrio, totally exhausted and suffering from frostbite.

Courtesy of Goole maps

The blowing snow hurt his eyes and he lost all sight in his right eye by the time he reached Glenrio. He could barely see out of his left eye, only being able to see the glare of light coming from Joe Brownlee’s gas station (the same station mentioned in my two previous posts).

He fell, exhausted, 1,000 feet before reaching the station, too weak to call out for help. He started whistling, which drew the attention of the men inside who hurried in to help him inside. They warmed him up and as soon as the ambulance arrived set out to find the bus.

Brownlee was the first to arrive at the bus in his power wagon, and brought supplies for the passengers, who had been without food for half a day. The two sandwiches that were on board during their wait had been given to 21-month old Patricia Henderson, daughter of Ruth Henderson of Rayville, Iowa.

     State police followed snowplows to reach the bus next, and rescued the passengers soon afterward. The bus was pulled from the snow with heavy equipment and driven to Glenrio, where the passengers were cared for and fed. By the time the passengers were rescued they had been stranded for 23 hours, but none required hospitalization.

They were driven to another bus in Albuquerque to continue their trip without ever having the chance to thank the brave man who risked his life to save theirs.

His doctors said that if he had ever stopped moving that it was likely he would have frozen to death.

While he recuperated in the hospital, his eyes covered in bandages, he recounted the experience to visiting journalists. He received cards and letters from all over the country.

Continental Trailways offered Hearon two extra weeks with pay, and the Treasure Island Chamber of Commerce in Florida provided he and his wife with a free vacation when he recovered.

After all this time, its unlikely that anyone seeing Brownlee’s abandoned station now remembers the story of the heroic bus driver who suffered through waist high snowdrifts to help his stranded customers.

Photo via Google maps