Amarillo – The Route 66 City of Texas

Historic Route 66 is one of this country’s most well-known highways, spanning from Santa Monica all the way to Chicago while stretching across portions of 8 states in the process. Texas wasn’t excluded from this 2,448-mile long roadway, with Amarillo as a stop along “The Main Street of America”. Over Thanksgiving weekend, my family and I headed up into the Panhandle region to see what this city of close to 200,000 had to offer. 

The drive up from North Texas took around 6 and a half hours. Taking Highways 380 and 287, we passed by towns like Wichita Falls, Vernon, and Memphis. Super flat plains dotted the landscape, with irrigation equipment stretching across fields like a giant grasshopper. A fair amount of traffic was present, although there weren’t many gas stations or rest stops. Upon arriving, we began our journey of exploring the largest city in the Texas Panhandle. 

Our first stop was Cadillac Ranch, located off Interstate 40 on the west side of town. While you won’t come across any horses or cows here, you will find 10 half-buried vintage Cadillacs, with thick layers of spray paint covering their bodies. 

Cadillac Ranch
The 10 half-buried Cadillacs making up this piece of public art.

This public art installation was the work of three men – Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, and Doug Michels. They were part of the Ant Farm art group, in the practice of non-traditional architecture and art. And non-traditional this surely was! Here, you are encouraged to spray paint your own design on the cars, making your own little masterpiece.

Cadillac Ranch
Young or old, this is a perfect place to channel your inner graffiti artist.

Why Cadillacs? Ant Farm loved the styling of the Cadillacs from the mid 20th century, especially the tail fin design and envisioned a work of public art stemming from it. With the financial backing of millionaire Stanley Marsh 3,  the land was secured and the art installation opened in 1974. 

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Today, Cadillac Ranch is one of the top destinations to visit in Amarillo. There was a constant stream of people coming and going, Krylon can in hand. Everyone parks their car on the side of the Interstate 40 frontage road and enters via a small gate. A short walk takes you across the field and right in front of the cars. From there, you get to work making your own design. 

Cadillac Ranch entrance
The small gate you pass thru to enter.  It really gives the feeling that you are entering an actual West Texas ranch!
Cadillac Ranch
Dad beginning to spray paint his Chinese name.

It was a neat 45 minutes spent spray painting our names on different Caddys and just having a great time!

Cadillac Ranch

Leaving Cadillac Ranch, it was off to our next stop, the Jack Sisemore Traveland RV Museum. Located on the grounds of an RV dealer, this free museum offered a great glimpse into the world of motorhomes, from vintage Airstreams to camping trailers. 

Jack Sisemore RV Museum

Themed after Route 66 and the spirit of road-tripping across the country, the museum contains many different models of RVs, including the world’s oldest Airstream and the first Itasca, serial number #1. The different generations are well-represented, with models dating back to the 30s all the way up to the 70s. The best part is that the doors on the majority of these models were open, and you could walk in and see how the interior layout was structured.

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world's oldest airstream

Jack Sisemore RV Museum

Not only were there a lot of campers, but many vintage memorabilia from the Route 66 days were also seen here, such as this soda fountain mock-up. Seeing all these relics made it feel like I’d gone back in time!

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We spent around 45 minutes here, seeing all the different artifacts. It felt like going to an antique store, except the stuff on display here was much larger! An RV museum isn’t something you come across regularly, and it was cool being able to get a glimpse of life inside a motorhome. 

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After that, we went to go see Amarillo’s downtown, an area I usually visit on any excursion. A couple of mid-sized buildings dotted the landscape, with the Potter County Courthouse close to the center of it all.

image of the Potter County Courthouse
The Potter County Courthouse.
amarillo tx downtown and potter county courthouse lawn
Downtown Amarillo, as seen from the front lawn of the courthouse.

This courthouse, the 5th used by Potter County, was built in 1932 at a cost of $420,000. From the exterior, it didn’t look that old! There’s not that grand and gorgeous appeal as that of Hood County’s in Granbury, but it fit in well with the downtown landscape. 

potter county courthouse entrance
Those doors are pretty neat. Looks like something that can be seen at Dallas’ Fair Park.

From there, we headed to The Big Texan Steak Ranch, the last destination of the day.  Much more than just your typical restaurant, this place can arguably be the busiest place in town.

The Big Texan STeak Ranch
The Big Texan Steak Ranch.

What draws everyone here? Their world-famous 72oz steak challenge. Finish the whole meal(consisting of the actual steak, a bread roll, a baked potato, a shrimp cocktail, and a salad) within an hour and its free. The idea came after founder Bob Lee decided to hold a contest to see which of the cowboys in the area could consume the most steaks in an hour, with a small monetary prize. Opening in 1960, it was originally right off…you guessed it, Route 66. It eventually moved to its present location off Interstate 40 in 1970. 

Since we were vegetarian, we didn’t eat at The Big Texan, however, we went in to look around. In addition to the main dining room, there is also an ice cream stand, bar, and gift shop located in the “lobby” area. 

The Big Texan Steak Ranch
Various coin-operated games were placed around the “lobby”.

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The Big Texan Steak Ranch
The gift shop sold t-shirts, postcards, and various other Texas and Route 66 souvenirs.

In the dining room, the folks up for the challenge sit front and center, on a raised platform with timers right next to them. Other diners aka those that opt for smaller portions get to watch the gobbling happen, and there is even an online webcam stream available! 

The Big Texan Steak Ranch dining room
The dining room with the contestant’s table up front.
The Big Texan Steak Ranch
The table where the contestants sit.

Right next door, in a Wild West-looking Main Street setup, is a mini-motel run by the restaurant. It’s a convenient place to call it a night should that 72oz steak meal leave you unable to move. All-in-all, they seem to have done a great job with turning a restaurant into a destination and experience. 

Big Texan hotel
The exterior of the motel.
Big Texan Steak Ranch
This dinosaur “Big Tex Rex” is just one of many things that let you know that this isn’t a typical steakhouse, if you didn’t notice the bright yellow building, that is!

In conclusion, the cities touched by Route 66 are always fun to visit, and Amarillo was certainly no exception. When I was first planning this trip, I envisioned this city as a relatively boring and slow town with absolutely nothing to do, and it turned out to be a place with its own culture and some pretty unique destinations. Regardless if you happen to be passing by on Interstate 40, or just want to check out an area of Texas different from the usual Austin or San Antonio tourist scene, Amarillo is a great place to experience the Lone Star State and Route 66 at the same time!

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People coming and going at Cadillac Ranch. It was a nice first visit to the Panhandle region, where the landscape is extremely flat and the land seemingly never-ending.

 

 

NTTA Safety Operations Center Floor

Watching Over North Texas’ Tollways: The NTTA Safety Operations Center

If you live in or visit the DFW area, chances are high that you have either gone on or at least seen the signs for the many toll roads spanning the Metroplex. It’s a complex infrastructure network, spanning 980 miles in the region. From Frisco to Grand Prairie, the North Texas Tollway Authority(NTTA) can probably get you there should you desire to take a toll road versus the freeway. But what goes on beyond what most drivers see to keep traffic flowing and the roads safe? I found out recently, with a visit to the NTTA Safety Operations Center(SOC), located in Plano.

NTTA Safety Operations Center
About to go behind closed doors!

Opened in 2015, the SOC is the 24/7 central “control room” for the five tollways that make up the NTTA system. Showing me around the facility was their director of system and incident management, Eric Hemphill. After taking me onto the SOC floor, the first thing that caught my attention was the huge video wall, full of surveillance cameras.

NTTA Safety Operations Center Floor
The NTTA Safety Operations Center.

Eric explained that there are nearly 2000 cameras in the system, and that they cover about 70% of NTTA’s footprint..or should I say tire tracks?

NTTA Safety Operations Center Video Wall
This video wall displays an array of cameras showing road conditions.

NTTA Safety Operations Center Video Wall
A roadside assistance unit helps with an incident on the Sam Rayburn Tollway.

All these cameras provide the folks in the SOC with a real-time view of road conditions. They work hand in hand with sensors built in to the pavement that detect when something goes awry. One example is when a wrong-way driver enters the tollway. Once detected, a big red message will flash below the video screen, alerting SOC dispatchers to pull up that associated camera and notify law enforcement.

picture of NTAA tollroad control room with wrong-way driver detection
If you want to drive the wrong way, don’t do it on NTTA roads! The SOC is alerted immediately thru a network of sensors.

Speaking of dispatchers, they are the heart of the SOC. There were four on duty when I visited, although staffing varies based on conditions. Every dispatcher has a different job, from monitoring the alarms and cameras to fielding 9-1-1 calls.

NTTA Safety Operations Center Dispatchers

NTTA Safety Operations Center
Extra workstations allow for more staff to be called in as conditions warrant.

NTTA Safety Operations Center map
Maps allow dispatchers to get a global view of traffic conditions.

9-1-1? Isn’t that handled by the individual cities? It is, however, the SOC serves as a secondary 9-1-1 answering and dispatching center for calls that originate on the NTTA system. As Eric explained, say you have an accident. When you dial 9-1-1, your call first goes to the municipality in which you are located in. After verifying that fire/EMS assistance isn’t needed, you will be transferred here. A dedicated DPS dispatcher will then send state troopers your way.

What if your car suddenly breaks down? Thanks to all those cameras and some advanced technology, the SOC is notified when a camera detects a non-moving object(such as a stalled car). From there, a dispatcher will send a roadside assistance unit.

NTTA Safety Operations Center Roadside Assistance CAD Screen
This screen shows the dispatcher the location of all the roadside assistance units.

Roadside assistance units, provided free of charge, help with jump-starts, flat tires, and more. They will even provide you with a small amount of gas should you run out and be stranded. These folks stay busy – I heard a constant stream of phone calls and radio traffic. However, the winter season is when it gets real crazy. Of course, prevention is the best strategy, hence why the SOC has pavement temperature sensors all throughout the system.

NTTA Safety Operations Center Pavement Temperature Sensors
Probably can’t see it clearly, but Fort Worth is showing almost 129 degrees on the pavement. Now that’s hot!

With these sensors, dispatchers are able to know if the road is getting to a dangerously low temperature, and ensure sand trucks and other personnel are mitigating any risks. Another part of prevention is notification of important messages to drivers – that’s why there are overhead message boards at various points. These message boards are controlled right here at the SOC.

NTTA Safety Operations Center Overhead Message Board Controller
All the overhead message boards are controlled thru this program.

Having images of funny highway sign messages in my head, I asked Eric if the employees could change the text to whatever they like. His response – “They can, but only once, because they won’t be working here afterwards.” Accurate answer, I’m sure!

As we concluded the tour, I have to admit I was pretty impressed. Having lived in the North Texas area my whole life and taken the various tollways countless times, I had no idea there was this much technology(or cameras) in the background. The roadside assistance vehicles were something that I’ve seen before in the past, but the many other technologies in the SOC help keep drivers and first responders safe as they get to where they need to go!

NTTA Command Center Map
After taking the toll countless times, it was cool to see what goes on behind-the-scenes.

Thanks to the folks at the North Texas Tollway Authority for showing me around to make this post possible!