The long way is via Interstate 10 from Orange to El Paso, which will put some 850 miles on a hard-working odometer. However, if you choose the Panhandle run, the short trip on Interstate 40, which parallels I-10 about 500 miles north, the Texas crossing is a mere 178 miles.
But who would want to take I-40 when the enterprising rider can weave his or her way along the remains of Route 66, covering 187 Texas miles? Which are just as long as Delaware miles, but that’s no never-mind. Some of old U.S. Route 66 (Texas) has been supplanted by I-40, but we will only have to deviate to the interstate for a couple of short stretches.
On this trip we’re headed east to west, which is uphill all the way, as the altitude of the Great Plains gains 2,000 feet in the 170 eagle-flying miles between the Oklahoma and New Mexico borders. Things appear to be pretty straight and flat around these parts, but we should not forget we are climbing toward the Continental Divide.
If you are a serious Route 66 buff, you will probably get on the old road at Erick, in far western Oklahoma, and since I always like to start a trip with a tune, I would stop by the Sandhills Curiosity Shop, located in the City Meat Market, where songsters Annabelle and Harley Russell make any sort of music you might want. The place, which hasn’t sold meat in 40 years, is a wealth of collectabilia and music. A&H put on a heckuva show…all because they love making music and singing songs. Especially about Route 66.
Leaving Erick you’re on old 66 going west. Imagine yourself being some Chicago native back in ’28 who’s heard about oranges growing on trees in California. You are sick and tired of your factory job, have a few bucks saved, a five-year-old Harley, and decide to see what life is like west of the Mississippi River. You’ve gone through Erick and are now in Texola, right on the state line, and this is where the woods end and the prairie begins. And the road is still dirt. If you’re lucky, it’s been dry, and the J-model you are riding is coping quite well. You look ahead, and it is as if the horizon goes on forever. A sign reads: Welcome to Texas! Another, smaller sign has the numbers 66 inside a shieldlike emblem. Yup, you’re on the right road; U.S. 66 had become an official highway a couple of years before, in 1924.
Just for the record, the state line is about 2,150 feet above the level of the Gulf of Mexico, the nearest bit of ocean. You’re putting along on your old tank-shifting twin, probably doing about 35, maybe 40 mph in third gear, meeting an occasional horse-drawn wagon, sometimes making the animals skittish. Then you roll by as quietly as possible; it’s not necessarily the noise that scares, but the image of this 20th-century centaur on two wheels. A Model T comes toward you, blowing up dust. The road is straight, and if you were up high on a horse instead of a low-riding V-twin you could probably see where you’d be spending the night.
In half an hour you roll into Shamrock, a busy town with a couple of garages, diners and the new Reynolds Hotel just a couple of blocks south of 66 in the center of commercial activity. The railroad runs by on the south side of town, the Red River on the north, and there is oil in the ground. This is a real hub of business and social life, founded by an Irishman you might have guessed, back in 1893.
You wake up in the morning and it has become the 21st century. The Reynolds is still standing, but it is the Pioneer West Museum now. The J-model has become an Electra Glide with a newer type of twin-cam engine. Route 66 got paved back in 1938, which meant a steady flow of vehicles and prosperity. You could stop at the U-Drop-Inn for breakfast, right on the corner of 66 and Route 83, except this architectural delight now houses the Chamber of Commerce. So today you go to the new Irish Inn instead. The town was built during the boom times, but then the oil gave out, and later the interstate bypassed the place, and Shamrock has gone into a snooze.
Bacon and eggs all finished, you throw a leg over the FL, push a button, and rumble west on 66; there might be an old pickup or a beat-up Buick sedan on the road, but 99 percent of the traffic seems to be
on the parallel interstate, with big rigs, motorhomes, SUVs and all the other vehicles streaming along at 70 or 80 mph. You and the Electra Glide are happy at 50.
Twenty miles along you come into McLean. During World War II there was a POW camp nearby and the prisoners, happy to be out of the killing zones, would work on the local farms and the roads. The town had the minor distinction of having the last traffic light on I-40, but when the interstate was opened in 1984, the town’s tourist trade died and the light was taken down. The major attraction in McLean these days is the Devil’s Rope Museum, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Devil’s Rope? That’s barbed wire, and until you visit the museum you know nothing about the history of that little invention, which changed the Great Plains forever.
Next town is Alanreed, prospering as a farming community a long time ago, growing wheat and oats, but mega-farms have pretty much put the little guys out of business. Just beyond Alanreed old 66 turns to dirt, going down through a couple of rough washes, and generally not being much fun for the next 10 miles. This is the infamous Jericho Gap, the dread of every 1930s motorist on a rainy day. With the miracles of modern highways this treacherous section can easily be avoided by getting onto the interstate and going one exit west to the town of Jericho. Sensible enough, but you’d miss the experience that travelers of the ’30s went through.
Out of Jericho Route 66 makes a couple of right-angle turns, following the old section lines. A hundred years ago Uncle Sam was happy to give land to settlers, in the hopes that they would prosper and enhance the U.S. economy, and roads were often laid out along these dividing lines. A horse and buggy did not worry much about the occasional 90-degree turn, but it will give the Harley rider moving along at 60 mph a wake-up call.
Coming into Groom, on the north side of I-40, is the mildly famous “Leaning Tower of Groom,” an old water tower which has the words BRITTEN USA on the side of the tank; to tell the truth, I have never figured the deal out. Why the name Britten? Is Britten a suburb of Groom? Doubtful, since Groom has only a few hundred people. Was the tower angled on purpose, or did some soils engineer screw up? Was this a marketing idea, to attract the tourist? Considering the fact that there is no place anywhere near the tower to spend you money, I doubt that. I’ll probably go to my grave not knowing.
On the other side of Groom is a really tacky piece of Christian bad taste. Somebody got the idea of building the biggest cross in the world, and tried to do so—but there is a bigger one somewhere else, I don’t know where. This one stands alone out in the middle of the plains with somebody there to take donations, of course. I pulled into the parking area, stopped the engine, and heard another motorcyclist saying to his passenger, “I really don’t think that this is what Christianity is supposed to be about; Jesus was a humble man.” Amen.
Beyond Groom Texas Route 66 runs arrow-straight across the plains, just south of the interstate. Couldn’t get much straighter if you used a chalk line, and about the only sights are the occasional windmill and water tank. After passing the few houses that constitute Conway, Route 66 crosses over to the north side and becomes Amarillo Boulevard, going past the airport, which used to be known as English Field when the Army Air Force was using it during World War II. A few old planes are parked in some sort of museum, but you have to make a phone call to get somebody to come and open the place up. The airport is at 3,670 feet, so you have been climbing a mite since leaving Texola.
Route 66 runs through the middle of Amarillo, as is right and proper. I-40 skirts the south side of the city, and if you want to partake of that famous free 72-ounce steak at The Big Texan Steak Ranch & Motel, best to stick to the interstate. The trick to getting the free steak, as I am sure 99 percent of us know, is that you have to eat the whole damn thing, along with a salad, baked potato, shrimp cocktail and roll in something like an hour; if you fail, you pay the $50. A little history here: a Kansas fellow named Bob Lee built The Big Texan on Amarillo Boulevard back in the 1950s, and prospered. Until 2 p.m. on November 15, 1968, when I-40 opened up, and 95 percent of his business disappeared. If the tourists would not come to him, he would go to the tourists, and re-opened along the interstate. You’ve got to move with the times.
Amarillo is a big town, with about 150,000 inhabitants, and Tripp’s Harley-Davidson shop, in case you need a clean T-shirt. Old 66 meanders through city streets, and a number of merchants have taken advantage of the nostalgia that the Mother Road has created, and sell yesterday’s junk as today’s antiques. If you want more information on Texas Route 66 you can stop in at the Texas Tourist Bureau along I-40.
West of Yellow, which is what Amarillo means in English, old 66 stays just on the north side of the interstate. But at Exit 62 swap over to the south side frontage road and you will see 10 Cadillacs augered into the earth at about a 45-degree angle. This is Texas art as conceived of by one local rancher, Stanley Marsh, who stuck them in the ground in 1974; the observant will notice that these are the best of the tail-fin models, beginning with a ’48 and ending with a ’64. Just walk through a gate in the fence, and bring your spray can, as graffiti is encouraged.
Get back on the north side and old 66 takes you through Wildorado and Vega, little towns made prominent by huge grain elevators. Dry-land farming was quite popular along here for years, and still exists, although slowly the communities are disappearing as people move to Amarillo and commute to the corporately owned farmlands.
Next town you’ll find is Adrian, the midway point between Chicago and Los Angeles, 1,139 miles in either direction. Right at that spot is the Mid-Point Café, serving up to truckers, motorcyclists and tourists. From Adrian you can stay on old 66 a few more miles, until you are forced to get on I-40 and get off at the next exit, Glenrio. That little town lies right on the New Mexico state line, and the zip code for the place, although there is no post office, is listed in New Mexico. Forty years ago the place had a couple of motels, a gas station, a store and a garage, but again, with the opening of the interstate, everybody headed to Tucumcari or Amarillo. A few people still live there, but the motels are defunct and there is no place to buy so much as a candy bar.
Glenrio is on a little rise, about 4,200 feet, and if you follow the main (and only) street, old 66, into New Mexico, you will soon come to a fence, and beyond the fence you will see the abandoned bridge over Trujillo Creek. You have to go back to the interstate. Sorry about that. U