The Great American Road Trip – Amarillo, Texas

I’m back in the homeland – warmly greeted back to Glasgow City Centre off of the airport shuttle bus by a junkie immediately and incomprehensibly demanding money. Before that though, I’ve got a pile of pictures to go through. Most of them are on film, and I had planned to whack them into a shop to get developed rather than spending the time and effort to do the deed myself. At one point the likes of Tesco and Asda offered Dev only at about £1 a pop. I don’t have a car to get to the bigger shops anymore, and naively thought that Boots would do a similar deal. When they quoted me £5 for a 24 hour service per film, I decided just to suffer the pain of doing the bloody thing myself after all. As a result, the updates are going to be out of chronological order. Not that it matters to anybody except me, but some sort of explanation has to be given.

Cadillac Ranch
Grace and I took to the road for the final days of my States-side travels this time around, racking up the following stats:

1,600 Miles
5 States
4 Cities
$253 on accommodation
$180 on petrol
2 5-hour energy shots
7 coffees
4 motels

Our route took in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, a bit of New Mexico, and began and ended in Colorado. Amarillo in Texas was undoubtedly the highlight, and I won’t spend much time on the other places in this post, as they can come later (when the films get developed). A quick synopsis basically includes running away from dodgy motels in Wichita (Kansas) in the wee hours of the morning, and a whole lot of nothing in Oklahoma. It’s more fun to explain with pictures though.

Things didn’t exactly start perfectly when I took to the wheel – pulling out of a petrol station onto the left lane of the highway, and onto incoming traffic. In my defence, Grace did something similar in Texas, and she’s been driving on that side of the road her whole life. I got the hang of things pretty quickly though, although I did keep smacking my hand on the door as I sub-consciously reached for where the gear-stick should be. The last time I drove in the US it was an automatic car, and for some reason I expected it to be a lot harder to drive a manual one – with the reverse turning out to be true.

We managed to avoid getting stopped by the police, or any other major vehicular disasters along the way, and even survived the indignity of towns like Groom in Texas, which was signposted as having a petrol station, but which turned out to be a complete ghost town – with an eery silence, and lack of people around. All of the businesses were listed on the sign that you can see in the picture below – all of which were either closed, or with lights on… doors unlocked etc… but nobody there.

Truly bizarre.

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After deciding that a lot of the roadside ‘attractions’ that people speak about were actually just complete dumps (such as a ‘grand’ motel that Elvis used to stay in), and with a hangover of distrust lingering from our experience in Wichita, we put the foot down to make it to Amarillo. After hours on the road, 2 lanes of traffic turning into 5, and my brain rapidly melting by this point, I’m pretty sure I had earned my American driving stripes. Despite the long, straight roads, the truck drivers we came across apparently couldn’t stay within their own lanes – whether from exhaustion or intoxication I’m not sure. There was a couple of points where I was sure a gigantic eighteen wheeler was going to plow into the side of us. Give me a windy country road any day.

After a night spent in a different establishment, we checked in to the Big Texan Motel, which looks a bit like this:

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This was by far and away one of the coolest places we’d stayed, with the whole thing in a wonderfully over the top Western style. It even had saloon doors on the entrance to the bathroom (don’t worry, there was a proper door to the actual toilet, thank God)

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Even the bed sheets were amazing – suede, with a rather fetching black and gold pattern on them. If it wasn’t for the exorbitant price they would have charged (not to mention my own morality and the impracticalities of actually getting them on the plane), I would have been tempted to take them away with me. Not sure Grace was quite as enamoured with the design as I was mind you.

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This place was a fine example of the sort of thing that people associate with Route 66. Ludicrously over the top in so many ways, the sincerity of the people that worked there left you never quite sure what was an exaggeration and what wasn’t. Whilst at home something of this ilk would simply be too cheesy and over-done to bear, the beauty of the American kitschiness seems to straddle that line of reality and stereotype. Sadly, and as I mentioned earlier, it seems like most of these treasures are unable to do just that. Where there are roadside motels left with quirky neon signs and unusual colours that haven’t been lost to development, the reality is that they are often run down and dilapidated. It isn’t kitschy to stay somewhere with cockroaches just because it once might have been a gem of Americana. It makes you wonder whether or not it would be possible for any of the types of places we passed to actually be rejuvenated and made commercially viable, or if that is inevitably the real poignancy of Route 66 – the death of the small town communities and businesses from the construction of the interstate highways. Not everywhere can afford to be like the Big Texan.

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After eating some of the best Mexican food I’ve ever tasted in my life at a building that looked like it was about to fall down at any minute, and painted entirely as a giant Mexican flag, we returned to find that our neighbours for the evening were a whole pile of bikers. Upon closer inspection, fortune would have it that they were a group from Portugal who were travelling from Chicago to LA, rather than the Hell’s Angels. Despite being fairly loud and filling up the bar with smoke (they haven’t banned that in Texas yet, and man does it make a difference), they were remarkably quiet the rest of the time.

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Amarillo has been on a vague sort of list of places that I would like to see for a fairly long time, for a variety of reasons. As well as the Big Texan, the City has a plethora of creative quirks that make it stand out anywhere, not just Texas. As well as bizarre sculptures in random places, the whole place is adorned with unusual ‘road’ signs thanks to eccentric local millionaire Stanley Marsh. If you’ve got 7 or so minutes, watch the interview ‘Road Does Not End’ with him here.

Amarillo Road Sign

The real gem in the crown though (and another project for which Stanley Marsh is responsible) is the Cadillac Ranch.

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A whole series of partially buried cars sit in a field along the old Highway 66, with no signs, pomp, or ceremony. Wikipedia can fill in the blanks, but the ranch is a wonderful contrast to a lot of mainstream American culture. Sitting alongside a visual bombardment of signs for chain motels, fast food places, and other demands on your attention (and wallet) is a space where people are encouraged to come, interact, and spray their own messages. It’s particularly significant given the attitude towards private property, land, and the consequences of trespass in the US.

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I got a ton of film pictures, and Grace took up digital camera duties whilst I took to scrawling a few things on the cars.

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I spotted a ‘CYMRU’ sign on one of the bonnets, so had to make sure Scotland was represented in at least some form or another, although I don’t think I’ve got a promising career as a graffiti artist in my future.

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A helpful man took our picture.

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Grace took this, which I like a lot.

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My efforts didn’t quite come close to the quality of this contribution sadly…

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It may have helped if it hadn’t been so stupidly windy the whole time. I had at least a tablespoon of sand in my eyes, and Grace’s dress almost blew off more than once.

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We returned to the Big Texan Steakhouse to eat, and have some beer brewed on site. It says a lot that the UK is only really just waking up to craft beers, when a place like this has been brewing their own for years on-site.

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The inside was no less elaborate than the out.

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I’ve never been a big fan of steak; slabs of meat aren’t really my thing. There’s always that whole pressure and snobbery around how well you have it cooked as well. Apparently if it isn’t still mooing then you are some sort of Philistine, which I’ve never understood or gone along with. However, since we were in Texas, and there wasn’t much available for the gluten intolerant (or the vegetarian… or anybody else really), I opted for a medium-well done steak. The menu made it clear that anything else would be considered unacceptable, and I didn’t want to test that out. Texans have guns after all. It was good, but not something I’d bother with very often. I remain unconvinced. Sorry.

The man sitting down in this picture clearly would disagree though, as he managed to eat his way through 72oz of steak, as well as various sides within one hour – getting the whole thing for free.

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It’s interesting that even despite not being too far into Texas – at the very North part that juts out – people were very ‘Southern’, and fiercely proud of where they came from. In some ways I guess that it shouldn’t be too surprising when we consider the size and constituency of the UK, although there is at least some sort of gradient from England to Scotland.

In total, my State tally (of places I’ve actually visited, as opposed to just passing through) is sitting at 12, and that is where it will remain for a while. I’ve even managed to avoid both New York and Florida. A bit of a result, given that that’s the most common destinations for most Scots.

The trip was worth doing – seeing Amarillo in particular. Having said that, and for the reasons I mentioned earlier, I’ve come away from the experience with a bit less enthusiasm for the romanticism of the open road. Sure, you can have a great time and see some amazing things, but it’s not quite just a matter of jumping in a car, safe in the knowledge that wherever you end up you’ll be able to find a clean, well-run, affordable place to stay or eat that actually has that authentic American character. I’m sure these places still exist (we definitely found a few), but you need to seek them out; they’re definitely not as plentiful as we might imagine, or have been led to believe.

I’m not quite ready to give up on the hunt yet though. Maybe one day we’ll manage to get an airstream trailer and discover more places like Amarillo.

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