I know that today’s target, Amarillo, Texas, is the largest town in the Texas Panhandle. I have two local points of interest in mind when I visit it. One is known as the Second Amendment Cowboy, an enormous cowboy figure, whose original mission was hawking car mufflers. Although he neither packs a pistol nor wears a holster, today he is reduced to shilling for unrestricted gun ownership. Ultimately I decide to take a pass since by happenstance yesterday Lola and I saw the equally gigantic Golden Driller near the Tulsa fair grounds on our way to have lunch in a park at the university.
You’ve see one giant figure, you’ve seen them all!
This leaves my second point of interest, Cadillac Ranch, in play. Cadillac Ranch is a large-scale installation of public art consisting of ten vintage Cadillacs buried hood first along old Route 66 (today Interstate 40). Rumor has it the cars are buried in the ground at the same angle as the Pyramids of Giza! The architectural and design folks responsible for Cadillac Ranch are also responsible for several other large, public art pieces, each invoking iconic American symbols. Of Cadillac Ranch, Motor Trend enthuses it “represents the glorious fin era of GM’s flagship brand…”
(photograph credit to Atlas Obscura)
As I’m driving, Craig calls. He wants to hear about my trip progress. When I tell him I’m headed to Amarillo, he reminds me that in early Spring he and Donna are headed to the Amarillo area to camp with their son, James, and James’ family, at nearby Palo Duro Canyon. Craig asks me to check it out while I’m there, and I agree.
However, I am still about 20 miles east of central Amarillo, where tonight’s “pet friendly” motel is located, when I see the turn-off for the Canyon. Oops! We proceed to Amarillo and check into our motel. It’s still only about 3 p.m., so, despite the additional driving, Lola and I decide to double back to the park and take a gander.
A quick spot check of the inter-Google informs me that Palo Duro Canyon, a place I’d never even heard of until two hours ago, is merely the second largest canyon in the entire United States, only exceeded by the magnificent Grand Canyon. To describe the geology of the canyon as spectacular layers of rock, steep mesa walls, caves and hoodoos is accurate but insufficient. The painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who is better known for her renderings of New Mexico and its people, also managed to capture Palo Duro Canyon’s multicolor glory while living and teaching in Amarillo for a time.
(Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Landscape, oil on board, 1916–1917, Panhandle–Plains Historical Museum, West Texas A&M University)
In person the place looks like the set of a western B-movie. It’s a place where the dastardly Cavendish gang might have ambushed a troop of Texas Rangers in a box canyon, leaving behind in its wake of destruction a single Lone Ranger, and his faithful companion, Tonto. For all I know that origin story was filmed right where Lola and I are standing. Yet, for all the romantic images it conjures, for my tastes, Palo Duro Canyon is too arid and probably most often too hot for enjoyable camping. My campsite preferences, in no particular order, would involve a body of water, a forest or an alpine valley.
By the time Lola and I get back to our motel it is dark. Cadillac Ranch will have to await our return trip next Spring.
Lola and I hit the road from Amarillo before sunrise. Today, I plan to stay off the westbound interstate that heads to Albuquerque in favor of a southwest route that runs through parts of the Texas Panhandle but then angles down into New Mexico, utilizing U.S. Highways 60 and 70. Our next overnight stop is Las Cruces,New Mexico.
Driving on U.S. 60, I pass the tiny town of Hereford in Deaf Smith County, Texas. A proud sign boasting that I am now in the world’s capital for high quality beef greets us.
Last evening, a plump and pleasant motel desk clerk gave me a glowing dinner recommendation, claiming that a restaurant located just next door, across the parking lot, had the best food in Amarillo. She assured me I wouldn’t be sorry. So, instead of enjoying tender and fresh steak, fairly watering in my mouth at this very moment, I settled for bland and mediocre Chinese. I’m tempted to give myself a sharp dope smack.
The spacious Chinese restaurant I entered had a full bar and numerous tables but was nearly empty when I arrived. A bad sign? Soon enough, I was the only customer. A worse sign?
I could not help but eavesdrop on the staff engaged in multiple conversations back in the kitchen or ignore the tinny sounds of a local radio station playing Top 40 music. My teenage server was pleasant enough, but she had a bad case of acne. Being either overeager to please or else bored from lack of activity, she stood hovering by my table, silently watching me eat. I noticed an attractive Asian woman carrying a bucket and mop. She had other options, but began by first wiping down the booths and tables closest to me, then wet mopping the floor until I was left on a small island. The whole time she seemed oblivious to my presence. The hour was still early for supper, but I had the distinct impression the staff were anxious for me to finish up, then depart, so they could close early. After I scurried back to the motel the plump desk clerk was nowhere to be seen.
Here, beyond Hereford, cattle are freely grazing in the enormous fields that border U.S. Highway 60, for miles in both directions without interruption. There is nothing romantic about this scene; in my mind’s eye, I still see dusty cowboys on horseback driving the huge herds to market along the old Chisholm Trail.
Shortly, we pass an enormous meat processing plant. Observing numerous nearby railroad cars, I briefly am reminded of grainy black and white films I have seen depicting the machinery of the concentration camps. For many cows this place marks the end of the trail.
At the intersection of Highways 60 and 70, traffic gets held up by a long stoplight. It seems odd to me that one is installed here in the middle of nowhere. Finally, I am permitted to turn left, but almost instantly come upon a railroad crossing and second red light. I have to chuckle, knowing that by nature I don’t have great patience. As I sit idling I wonder what I would do if I got stuck in such a desolate spot by an endless and slow-moving freight train. I am sincerely tired of Texas.
Fortunately, I make the crossing and realize I now am in New Mexico. Even better, over the course of the next couple miles, the other remaining motorists begin to drop from sight in my rear view mirror. Suddenly, there are neither cars behind nor ahead. Now, on this bright, beautiful morning, except for me and Lola, Highway 70 is a deserted ribbon of black asphalt in both directions for as far as the eye can see. It feels exhilarating.
My heightened mood persists when, for the briefest moment, out of the corner of my eye, I spot a handsome, bushy tailed red fox standing solitary against the perfect blue sky on the railroad tracks running parallel to the highway. In my life I have spent considerable time exploring outdoor places, but until this moment have never encountered a fox in the wild. Next, almost as if on cue, a large hawk swoops low over our vehicle, before veering off to my right and passing from sight. To the right where the hawk disappeared, I glimpse a snow-capped mountain rise up some place in the far southwest. I wonder what range it belongs to.
Quickly, New Mexico surpasses my fondest hopes for a scenic road interlude. By the time I pass a dry gulch with the sign informing me I am now west of the Pecos, I feel positively giddy. Instantly, my mind flashes to the mustachioed visage of Yosemite Sam, “the roughest, toughest hombre west of the Pecos.” I am smiling ear to ear.
And soon as I see the first road sign for mysterious Roswell, New Mexico, I decide we’ll do some unscheduled sightseeing. I am disappointed to discover that Roswell is a fair-sized city. Traffic on the main drag is surprisingly thick, heavy and slow moving for mid-morning on a Thursday. I am expecting to find numerous UFO tourist attractions but don’t. Roswell seems to have more mundane business to attend to.
I only encounter one actual alien, who is working at a local gas station.
Eventually, on my way out of town, I stumble on a nondescript UFO Museum. Well, at least now I can boast that I’ve been there, done that.
The White Sands Testing Grounds are far more interesting—and far spookier, too. It is a national monument, a park, a popular tourist destination, but also a military base where world’s first atomic bomb was detonated. Large parts are off limits to civilians. It remains a place where secret missiles tests are conducted from time to time.
In choosing to come to Las Cruces and temporarily abandoning the interstate highway system, I have chosen wisely to follow the road less traveled. The distance is greater, but the time has fairly flown. On the spot I declare Route 70 my favorite leg of the trip.
Only when I am nearly arrived in Las Cruces, do I realize how close I am to the city of El Paso, Texas. Once upon a time, long ago, my parents lived here and almost made it their permanent home. I think how different my own life path might have been.
In Las Cruces I am going to meet up with a friend. Then tomorrow, Lola and I will take the last leg of our road trip. With any luck, before nightfall we be at our Winter quarters.