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