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. 

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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.

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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. 

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The small gate you pass thru to enter.  It really gives the feeling that you are entering an actual West Texas ranch!
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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.

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The Potter County Courthouse.
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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. 

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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. 

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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.

 

 

Road Trippin’ to Tulsa

Memorial Day weekend, the family and I decided to all pile in the car and do a road trip to explore the state of Missouri. Since that route would take us north into Oklahoma, we decided during our trip planning to detour for a day to check out the city of Tulsa, located on the north side of the state.

Having already checked out Oklahoma City back in November of last year, Tulsa was the other big city in the state yet to be visited. With a population of just over 400,000 people, this place is home to a number of companies such as Bank of Oklahoma and QuikTrip. When doing my research, I initially thought that the only places to see there were the art museum, and a few works of public art, since that was the description Google provided of the city. After doing some more probing though, I found out that there were quite a few cool destinations that make the “Oil Capital of the World” unique in its own light.

The first part of the drive up U.S. 75 was mainly interstate, however after crossing the state line, there were a few times where the highway became a local road. After about 2 hours, we reached the small town of Atoka, where we had two options. Either continue on 75, or take the Indian Nation Turnpike. Opting not to pay tolls, we chose the former option.

It turned out that 75 became a country back road until reaching the I-44 junction. It was a good fifty minutes to an hour of driving until we started to see other cars close to the interstate. I didn’t feel unsafe, but my folks did. I can understand their reasoning, being that there weren’t a lot of other vehicles to be seen or even cell service for a good portion of it.  However, we passed thru some of the most quaint small towns I’ve seen to date. In those places, there was usually just a one street downtown, with a small city hall and volunteer fire station nearby. American flags were seen waving on the front entrances of many buildings and houses. I feel like this is the heart of America- beyond the big cities, the small towns and farming communities are what makes up the backbone of the country.

At last, we saw signs pointing the way to the interstate. After getting on I-44, it was about a one hour drive into Tulsa. Upon arriving, the first place we headed to was the Tulsa Air and Space Museum. Founded in 1998, this museum has 19,000 square feet worth of planes, exhibits, and artifacts depicting the history of aviation and the role Tulsa played in all of it.

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The Tulsa Air and Space Museum.

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A hangar packed full of planes and exhibits makes this a great place for anyone interested in aviation!

After entering and paying the $8 admission fee, we started walking around the museum. Just then, one of the docents told us that boarding was about to begin for a movie on- board an MD-80 jetliner that was part of the outside display. We lined up and went outside to see what this was all about. After stepping on board, we headed all the way up to the front of the plane. We then sat down in what used to be the first class cabin, with the original seats still intact!

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We entered thru the back of the plane. No idea what that random submarine is doing there!

The film, titled Flight Experience, talked about the history of the plane we were sitting in, careers in aviation, and Tulsa’s involvement in the aerospace industry. Without spoiling anything, I will just say as a pilot, I noticed that there were several parts that were far from being realistic. However, for someone that’s just interested in aviation, it is a clip worth seeing.

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Projectors on the side walls provided for a pretty cool experience.

After the movie finished, we got to see the cockpit as we disembarked. This plane was in service with American Airlines for 26 years and was used on their domestic routes.

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The flight deck of an MD-80.

Heading back into the museum, we started taking in all the exhibits. One of the first things that caught my eye was a fighter jet. This jet, a retired F-14, was in use by the U.S. Navy for many years before being donated by the museum. Standing next to it and being able to see it up close and personal was super neat.

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The F-14 protected America and her allies for over 30 years. Look at that wing!

There was a ladder that I climbed up to see(and hopefully sit in) the cockpit.  Unfortunately, the entrance to the cockpit at the top was roped off, but I could still peer in. The power in these fighters is incredible.

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Although a fighter jet is much different than the small single engine planes I fly, some of the instrumentation is still the same. The museum really did a great job of preserving this bird in its original condition, allowing visitors to see this mighty beast for themselves.

Another cool thing was the front facade of the Tulsa Municipal Airport’s terminal. Built in 1931, this terminal has had many famous people such as Amelia Earhart and Will Rogers pass thru its doors. It served as a gateway to a booming oil town and northern Oklahoma.

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Moving on, many artifacts talking about the different eras of aviation were exhibited in the glass displays. The explanations accompanying them were very detailed and allowed me to get an understanding of what made it so significant.

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The explanations were thorough and the artifacts well preserved.

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An old uniform worn by a captain at American Airlines.

This museum also contained a small upstairs section. It featured an aviation library. Its collections ranged from engine maintenance guides to pilot operating handbooks! If I had more time, I could have easily spent an hour or two just digging through its shelves.

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After leaving the Air and Space Museum, we drove around the airport to get a feel for things. Tulsa has a pretty big airport for its size. A big part of that is due to the largest airline in the world, American Airlines. American has their maintenance base here, so many if not all of their planes are flown in here to be serviced. As we drove right past the maintenance base, we could see a few big hangars. It was a very big piece of space they occupied.

Upon getting done having a look at the airport, it was off to downtown Tulsa.

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Driving into downtown.

One building immediately stood out as we were coming in – the BOK(Bank of Oklahoma) tower. Rising 667 feet high into the Tulsa skyline, it is the second tallest building in the state. It was built in 1976, and was designed by the same architect that devised the World Trade Center towers in New York City – and it shows!

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A striking resemblance to the Twin Towers in New York City.

What the downtown area was missing though, were people. In the 15 or so minutes we spent driving around, there was barely anyone to be seen walking the streets. Except for one place: The Center of the Universe, which happened to be our next stop.

Located on a bridge overlooking a railroad yard, at first glance it looks like just a circle with bricks paved around it.  However, it is really much more. When you stand in the middle and start to talk, you will hear your voice echoing like you are speaking into a microphone. Anyone else not standing in the middle doesn’t experience that effect. I did a few tests, with me shouting. I could distinctly hear my own voice echoing, while Dad and other visitors said they didn’t hear anything abnormal. As I looked around, I couldn’t seem to figure out why that spot was so special. I highly doubt the place is really the center of the universe, for so just a name that someone put on.

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The center is where the magic happens. Looks like just a normal piece of concrete to me, though.

Doing some research afterward, there have been a few explanations that come off as plausible. The first is that a hollow echo of sorts was created via an expansion joint in the inner circle, causing the echo effect. Since it was built on top of a bridge, I guess that could be a possibility. The second hypothesis is that the echoing is simply caused by the person’s voice reflecting off the half circular concrete planters located around the spot. Being that I’m not a physics major, I couldn’t tell which(if any!) of these explanations were the correct one. Nonetheless, it was a super neat and definitely very unique place, probably the only one of its kind in the nation.

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The concrete blocks that hold all that greenery might have something to do with the echo effect, some say.

From there, we were all hungry. We quickly decided on dinner at Olive Garden, which is one of our favorite restaurants to visit as a family. The drive there from downtown was about 10 minutes, and the food and service were satisfactory. What was different about this place though, was that they charged for a sample of their house wine. In Texas, Olive Garden provides this stuff complimentary, but seeing a 25 cent charge on the bill made me wonder if it had to do with state laws governing alcohol. Wasn’t a problem though, as we all just wanted to have a nice dinner and get going. (The wine was good and worth the quarter!)

After dinner, we checked out our last attraction in Tulsa, the Golden Driller statue. This statue is probably one of the most representative things of the city’s background in oil production. The nation’s sixth tallest statue, it was erected in 1952 on a temporary basis for the International Petroleum Exposition. It was then put up again six years later for the same exposition, and finally gained permanent status in 1966. It sits right outside the Tulsa Expo Center, where both locals and visitors alike can take in the sheer size and history behind this landmark.

This statue is worth seeing even if you are just passing by Tulsa on your way elsewhere. With this being Oklahoma’s state monument, it serves as a Route 66 like roadside attraction that reminds you of the industry that brought Tulsa and Oklahoma to life.

Upon getting done at the Golden Driller, we headed for the hotel. It was getting close to 7, and everyone needed some rest since we had more driving to do the next day. The main focus of our trip was tomorrow, as we would be crossing the state line into Missouri and checking out Springfield. Tulsa had been a nice stop, and now I know even more about the state that sits above us!