Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Greetings from the Lone Star State!

A Roadside Rest Stop. After a few lesser adventures in lodging, our impromptu passenger Mark (TJ’s cousin) has been hosting us in style at Ambassador Hotel in Amarillo for the past few nights. No cinderblock walls, no gunshot holes in the windows, no local “entertainment” in the wee hours (e.g. parking lot parties that end in fights) … and no “slime in the ice machine” (apologies to Houston TV legend Marvin Zindler). Although we indeed ventured to the TX/NM state line, Mark convinced us to back-track to Amarillo with him for a respite. Who could say no to such a luxe accommodations upgrade? And, we’ve had reason to celebrate: our odyssey is at its halfway mark. So, a perfect time for savoring our progress, and for envisioning the sights and surprises what await as we trek further westward. TJ is running Mark to airport just now – he’s due back in Tulsa and the ER today. And, we’re due back on the road when the ‘Stang pulls into the porte-cochere. With a tall iced tea in hand, I’ve sunk into one of the deep and comfy chairs of the Ambassador’s lobby, and for the moment have forsaken my copy of Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By in favor of writing a bit, and watching conference goers (energy industry execs) mill about and network. Although the portion of Route 66 that runs through Texas is the shortest after Kansas, we’ve had no shortage of diversions during our pass through.

Luck o’ the Irish. As hitchhiker of sorts, we agreed that Mark wasn’t obligated to follow our rules of the road during his travel time. A fortunate loophole for us – as the random AM/FM radio choices had become a little routine to our ears. With iPhone in hand, and downloads in the mix, Mark and TJ created the soundtrack for our Panhandle push. Dubbing it “Kountrytime Karaoki”, we indulged in a bit of Texas-themed ear candy. Since we’re all frustrated garage band heroes, none of us could resist providing duets or back-ups for Ry Cooder ‘s “That’s the Way the Girls are in Texas”, George Strait on “Amarillo by Morning”, and Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”. Most entertaining was Lyle Lovett’s “That’s Right, You’re Not from Texas” – even Lyle’s Large Band would have liked what we collectively added to that one.

To be sure, our mobile juke joint “brakes” for roadside attractions, including those of Shamrock, TX. Mark explained that the town is famous for its St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. In keeping with this theme, our first detour was the venerable Elmore Park – home to a fragment of the Blarney Stone. We attempted no kissing of the stone, but the boys considered growing beards to honor one of the town’s quirky March 17th traditions. We also explored the Pioneer West Museum in the historic Reynalds Hotel, and took some time to appreciate the restored Tower Service Station and U-Drop Inn. It’s a laudable example of keeping history alive while re-purposing a structure’s function, and a somewhat famous one as well; in the film “Cars”, Ramone’s House of Body Art was modeled on the the U-Drop Inn. Even though we’d tapped Hasty’s Hamburgers for a quick lunch, our Texas-sized appetites could not be quelled by the usual drive-in fare. With rings and burgers freshly consumed, Mark pointed out that Mitchell’s Family Restaurant was just across the way. The glint in his eye was sly and inviting all at once… so with great gusto and an equal dose of guilt (they go hand-in-hand, don’t they?), we sampled a local favorite: chicken-fried bacon served with white gravy. Amazingly, we lived to tell the tale… As we finished our driving tour of the town and headed to our lodging, we found our visual moment of zen: a yester-year gasoline sign fronting an old, boarded-up gas station – and advertising the cost of filling up at $1.13 a gallon!

E Pluribus Unum… Kinda. After our raucous night in Shamrock, Mark’s kind invitation to spend some extra time in Amarillo was a tonic. Over toast and coffee we immediately re-configured our Texas plans. The resulting itinerary made for a big day of small towns – complete with all manner of larger than life, claim-to-fame sights. In McLean we visited Devil’s Rope Museum – the “largest barbed wire historic museum in the world”, and inspected the site of the 1st Phillip’s 66 opened in Texas (we were still fixating on that cheap gas sign in Shamrock, especially as the fuel gauge was nearing empty yet again on the ‘Stang). A few miles beyond Alanreed we doubled back in order to take the eastbound exit off I-40. We had to experience the Route 66 Theme Rest Area at mile marker 129. From the Deco inspired building to the large neon sign announcing the Donley County Route 66 “Safety Rest Area”, we had no doubts that we were enjoying Texas-sized hospitality. (Would we ever be satisfied with a simple turnout and an oil drum trash can again…?) We next encountered Groom, which is famous for the Britten USA Water Tower – or more simply the “leaning water tower”. Word is that the tower’s orientation is skewed to draw motorists off the highway. While studying the angles and pitch of the structure, we mused that perhaps Groom should be called “Pisa of the Panhandle”. Farther down the highway we took a stroll among the tribe of upended VW Beetles at The Bug Farm in Conway. We couldn’t resist “signing” a couple of the chassis as testament to our presence. But before settling into our Amarillo “spa” days, we were sure to visit Adrian – which is the half-way point of Route 66. In observance of this milestone, we ate up burgers and slices of “Ugly Crust Pies” at the MidPoint Café – going strong after 70 years in business (and the inspiration for Flo’s V-8 café in the film “Cars”). Back then through Vega, and on to our impressive digs in Amarillo.

Living Large. Tempted as we were to hole up in the Ambassador and be pampered for days on end, we took full advantage of the local points of interest. First on our list was the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum. TJ was in his element – taking in the works by Texas, Taos Society, Santa Fe and New Mexico artists. Mark gravitated to the paleontology, geology and archaeology collections (ever the scientist), and we were all captivated by the Museum’s presentation of Native American arts. For something completely different, we then made the pilgrimage to Stanley March 3’s Cadillac Ranch. As we toured the oddly totemic Caddies, I wondered (but not aloud) if anyone had thought to do this with Mustangs… Much graffiting ensued, just as it had with the Conway bugs. Driving around back town, we discovered an SM3 bonus: road sign art installations. The diamond-shaped signs tend to turn up in Amarillo’s residential areas, looking much like standard traffic signs at a distance. Each slogan provides the driver with a variety of insights and existential bon mots: “Hot Pepper”, “Orange Stars in the Sky”, and “Life is Like That Sometimes”. We also toured the Kwahadi Museum of the American Indian, the American Quarterhorse Hall of Fame – and trekked about in Palo Duro Canyon. Seeing the amazing colors and textures of that landscape portended vistas of New Mexico and Arizona we’d soon be seeing.

Friday Night Lights. To close out our time with Mark in a memorable way, TJ and I thought the obvious choice for dinner was Amarillo’s famed Big Texan Steak Ranch. Surprisingly, Mark demurred, saying that he had other plans for the evening. This from the man who introduced us to chicken fried bacon! With a mixture of intrique and concern about Mark’s seemingly sudden engagement, TJ and I nonetheless set forth in search of our gustatory plunder. Although neither of us attempted the 72-oz steak challenge (free if entirely consumed within one hour), we took advantage of salads, soup, cowboy beans and an abundance of side fixin’s – all under the watchful eyes of elk head mounts and chandeliers whose style screamed wild west tavern. We’d hoped to catch a live music show at the Old Natatorium, but hit the venue on a dark night: no local talent appearing due to emergency maintenance. Upon returning to the Ambassador we were sidetracked by the evening event signs posted in the lobby. Open to suggestion and in search of cheap entertainment, we wandered over to ballrooms, hoping to snag a vicarious taste of the doings. In the first ballroom we found a dinner speaker addressing the energy execs, and noted that small wind turbines with working rotors anchored the centers of each table. The next ballroom was twice the size of the first – festooned for a high school homecoming event. We marveled at the centerpieces: 3’ tall goal posts with corsage like groupings of mums and ribbon streamers cascading down the sides of each, and tiny footballs popping out from the floral mix as if arcing toward the goal posts. As we gently pushed into the overflow SRO crowd, we saw Mark on the podium with a young man wearing a letter jacket over his white shirt and bowtie. TJ grinned and looked up – realization brightening his face. “Of course… now I get it,” he said. “That young man is Joe Tandy. Mark cared for him during his Amarillo years – his first post-residency job. The kid was in a horrible accident, and Mark did the ER in-take. He continued to work with him through the recovery, and they’ve kept in touch ever since. He’s almost like an uncle to Joe – especially since Joe’s grandmother brought him up.” “So this is a big night for them both”, I said. “Truly,” TJ replied, as Mark and a young woman in a formal and dazzling tiara placed the homecoming king’s crown on Joe’s head. “To go from nearly dying as a child to being an all-state football player is something big indeed”. “Texas-sized?” I suggested. “Indeed,” answered TJ, “in every way.”

Getting the Big Picture. Although TJ and I have traveled this road through our childhood nostalgias and romanticisms, Mark travels it from a place of memory and hope. For him, the road is about the past and the future all at once. Even though he’s well acquainted with the ghosts of Route 66, the highway’s magic always has a way of tempering the realism and clarity born of his experiences. Through Mark’s eyes, TJ and I became enchanted by the road all over again.

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