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.

 

 

downtown of West, Texas

The Tiny Texas Town Shook by a Fertilizer Plant Explosion, Five Years Later

April 17th, 2013 began just like any other day in the tiny town of West, located just north of Waco. In this tight-knit community of under 3000, the adults went to work, kids went to school, and it was life as usual in a small Texas town.

West, Texas welcome sign

However, before the day ended, life as residents knew it would drastically change. At 7:50PM, the West Fertilizer Company plant exploded after a whole stock of ammonium nitrate caught on fire. Two schools, a nursing home, and numerous neighborhoods nearby sustained extensive damage. With 15 people killed and another 200 injured, the West tragedy was one of the worst industrial accidents in Texas history.

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An aerial view of the explosion site a few days after the event. (Photo by Shane.torgerson / CC BY-SA 3.0)

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President Barack Obama delivers remarks at a memorial service for the victims of the fertilizer plant explosion at Baylor University in Waco on April 25, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

After an extensive investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms concluded that the incident had been an act of arson. To this day, there have been no strong leads. But whatever happened to this tiny community, stricken with grief and overwhelmed by loss? I wanted to find out, so I paid a visit to West over Labor Day weekend to see how much recovery had been done in the five years following the disaster.

downtown of West, Texas
Downtown West.

Once inside the city limits, it was only a few minutes before I reached the former plant site, where the explosion originated. What was an area flooded with first responders and later investigative personnel now sat there as a vacant lot.

west tx explosion plant
The former grounds of the West Fertilizer Company.

Talking with West Mayor Tommy Muska, he spoke very highly of the immediate recovery effort. “After the explosions, over 140 charitable organizations from all over the country came to lend a hand. From the Salvation Army to various churches, it was truly a faith-based recovery process.”

Not far away from the explosion site was the new combined middle and high school. Before the explosion, they were two separate campuses, with the middle school located right behind the plant and the high school just down the road. Both buildings suffered severe damage, and were rebuilt as one facility on the site of the high school. Classes were held at a temporary location until the new campus opened in 2016.

West,Texas middle and high school
The new West Middle/High School, opened in 2016.

The new school looked very nice, and was a gleaming example to the world that West would only let a tragedy like this make them stronger. Another sign of this town’s comeback were the many new homes seen in the neighborhoods lining the plant. Many of them were damaged beyond repair, and had to be razed. The new homes taking their place looked nice, and had I not known they were in West, I’d have thought this was a new development in Frisco or something!

west, texas new homes

west, texas new homes

Although recovery has come a long way, reminders of that tragic day can still be found. Just down the road from the plant site, I saw this now-abandoned duplex. Damaged in the explosion, the brick held but the windows and doors didn’t make it.

West, Texas abandoned duplex

Beyond physical damage, Mayor Muska said that post-traumatic stress disorder is still an issue for many residents. The community has stepped in to help heal emotional wounds as well, with Baylor University providing counseling services and other guidance to residents.

Another reminder of this incident came in the form of something much more positive – a park containing a memorial, commemorating the lives lost and providing a peaceful place for all. Mayor Muska said the memorial is expected to be dedicated next year, on the anniversary of the explosion.

West, TX memorial park
This park and memorial, located just behind the plant, will remember those killed in the explosion.

As I left West, I could feel the spirit of the community, and how strong they were to pull through this disaster and prevail. Despite all that happened, Mayor Muska said that today the local economy was healthy, and that the residents are very blessed. I could feel the same resolve while visiting Joplin, Missouri as well, the site of an EF5 tornado in 2011. As Americans, we may not agree on everything, but at the end of the day, everyone coming together to overcome tragedy is what makes our country so great.

West, TX Water Tower