Texas, Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Texas Route 66: friendly and fun, but flat as a dollar bill. My first stop in Texas was Shamrock, home to the gorgeously incongruous U-Drop-Inn, an art-deco masterpiece transformed into a welcome center and gift shop [see my blog-post on the U-Drop-Inn]. Buying yet another shirt for my travels (while on the road I really should pack no more than three, do no laundry, and simply buy new shirts as I go along) I asked when the diner might open. Four more years was the reply, a requirement set by the folks who granted funds to refurbish this place. So, we're looking at around 2012 for a swell diner in Shamrock. I'll be there.

Further along I anticipated photographing the rusting Rattlesnakes sign ("Exit Now") but found only a mangled wreck. Turns out the sign was blown down in a fierce storm last year. I cranked up my CD of the soundtrack to Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show and kept driving. Hitting McLean, and photographing that town's awesome Cactus Inn sign, I stopped for lunch at the Red River Steak House. Normally I wait for Amarillo's Big Texas Steak Ranch, the place where you can gorge on a 72 ounce steak free, so long as you consume the entire thing within one hour, but Gary Turner had made me promise that I'd check this place out. I'm glad I did. The napkins are bandanas, the salads are mammoth, and the meat is so good that you ought to be ashamed for ordering steak sauce (table barbeque sauce for the fries is legal, though). I ordered the nine-ounce and promised myself to stick with six ounces the next time. That was a big meal!

My next stop was the Donley County Eastbound Safety Rest Area, only accessible from I-40. I'd read about this place, a huge Route 66-themed stop, and I was impressed. The place is built to resemble a deco-palace with lots of glass-block and strong vertical lines (decorative deco, not its streamlined cousin), and inside is a small but clever set of displays about the highway. As I pursue my academic project on Route 66 simulacra, this place will occupy a central section of the essay. Even though a real section of the old road lies just south of the rest stop, viewers of a video get the sense that they need never leave the interstate to visit the Mother Road: "You may be driving the modern Interstate, but you are also driving right through the heart of American history. You are traveling along the route of old Route 66, the narrow two-lane ribbon of concrete the reached from Chicago to Los Angeles, bringing millions westward in pursuit of the American Dream…"

Later, I return to the two-lane, slowing to photograph the famed leaning tower near Groom and sadly passing the site of the 66 Courts, which have now been demolished (here's an old pic). I then kick up to a high-speed race on the only stretch of road in these parts that allows 70 miles an hour. I don't stay long in Amarillo, pausing only to photograph the Cowboy Motel (oh, how I would have loved to see the long-gone Elite Court in its prime). My destination is Cadillac Ranch, the strip of ten cars buried in the ground that has inspired so many imitators. A couple days back I bought a couple of cans of spray paint, and I leave some messages on the graffitied cars, happy to share my cans with some kids who clearly regret not bringing paint themselves.

Arriving in Adrian I've reached the half-way point of my trip. I yearn to stop at the Midway Cafe, but it's closed. I'm about an hour too late. Bummed, I set up my tripod for a solitary shot on the road. Just then I spot an old yellow dog sauntering from a nearby motel, warily eying me. I squat down and offer my petting hand and the dog appears to snarl. I begin to withdraw my hand before realizing that the exposed teeth are not threatening; they are due to the effects of age upon this obviously friendly dog. Sitting near the door of the café, I pet the dog -- and accidentally freak out the woman closing up. Recovering from our mutual fright, I meet Fran, owner of the Midway. She's leaving for the day, but she's happy to chat a while, and even happier when I ask about buying a shirt. Soon I toss the tripod in the trunk and get a proper photo with Fran's help. Saying our goodbyes, I watch as Fran helps the old dog up a ramp into a battered pickup. She explains that she'd recently bought a new pickup, but that Sandy the dog wouldn't enter the cab; she's used to the old truck. So it's the old pickup for Fran and Sandy. I wave as they leave in a cloud of dust.

My penultimate stop for the day is Glenrio, marking the New Mexico border. Gas stations, motels, and diners rust and decay here. Based on the deposited bottles and shell casings, it's clear that locals gather to drink and shoot guns here, but very little else seems to happen in Glenrio any more. Beyond this place, the road becomes little more than gravel, but I ride a while to photograph the "modern rest rooms" sign painted on the back of a sunburnt outhouse. Getting out of the car, I look back down the dirt and stone road that stretches over the hill, across the border, and all the way back to Chicago. I started in snow and now sweat in my long pants. I've come a long way. [Continue...]

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All text and photos copyright Andrew Wood