OKLAHOMA CITY TO AMARILLO
After sleeping for around 16 hours, I woke up refreshed and well-rested, ready to take on another day of driving. It was another beautiful day, filled with clear blue skies and it also happened to be Easter Sunday. I decided to get an early start on the road, which would take me from Oklahoma City to Amarillo, via Interstate 40.
Heading west, I passed through the towns of El Reno, Weatherford, Clinton and Elk City, and after two hours, finally stopped in Sayre, Oklahoma. Sayre is considered one of the best examples of what an Oklahoma town looked like during the Dust Bowl. I was searching for the ghost of Tom Joad, the main character in author John Steinbeck’s book The Grapes of Wrath. It should be noted that the book was received poorly by locals, as it projected an unfair image of Oklahomans being shiftless and shady. Below is the Beckham County Courthouse, which was used for certain portions of the film adaptation.Sayre’s economy was traditionally based on agriculture, natural gas and helium gas extraction. Nearby was the most productive helium and gas field in the United States. As I drove around Sayre, I noticed the town had seen better days. The town is fairly well-preserved like a snapshot in time just from the 1930s. After Sayre, I drove several minutes west to another great example of a Dust Bowl-era town: Erick, Oklahoma. The stretch of Route 66 between Sayre and Erick was the last to be bypassed by Interstate 40 in the 1970s. Erick has definitely seen better days. Much of the town is shuttered, and I didn’t see more than a handful of people when I was exploring. The town has lost over 50 percent of its population since the Great Depression. Amongst all the shuttered businesses, I did manage to see a few cool murals and an eclectic home decked out in old signs.Erick was well-noted as having some great motor courts and motels for travelers. I saw a few remnants of the motels and motor courts and tried to picture them in their heyday.Just a few miles west of Erick would be my last stop in Oklahoma; the abandoned Route 66 town of Texola, Oklahoma. Texola straddles the state line of Oklahoma and Texas, and is a classic example of a ghost town. Driving around, I did not see one person. The town is so deteriorated, it is really hard to imagine what it may have looked like at one point. There are NO services in town. As mentioned on the building below, there is “no place like Texola.”As I was rummaging around on one of the properties, I heard a distant bark of a dog. I thought to myself that the last resident of this godforsaken town had a dog tied up in the yard. No big deal. I heard the bark getting increasingly closer and more vicious. I started back to my car, slowly. As I was around 300 feet from my car, I made visual contact with this ravenous, likely rabid dog. I saw him making a sprinting beeline straight for me. I remember seeing my heartbeat in my eyes. Fight or flight time. All the scenarios ran through my mind. Would I kick or punch it when it started attacking me? Were there any weapons laying around I could use? Would the dog’s owner come out with a shotgun pointed at my head? I hurriedly ran to the car. I jumped in, just missing the mutt bastard. He was ready to chew any limb of mine he could. I started the car and drove down the weed-infested four lanes of concrete a ways. More abandoned places awaited.I made a U-turn to return to the interstate exit. Waiting ahead in the middle of the road was that damn mutt again, barking like the mailman had just walked by. I approached him slowly, he did not move. I swerved to miss him, and there he was again, viciously barking and chasing the car for a good 1,000 feet before he gave up. The balls on that dog!
After returning to Interstate 40, it was merely seconds before I had entered God’s chosen land: Texas. That giant flag wove bright. They sure do love their state flag in Texas.The eastern panhandle of Texas is odd in that there may have been some Irish settlers at one point, or they developed a kitschy fake Irish environment to attract passing Route 66 motorists, as evidenced by the old sign for the Irish Inn and the city of Shamrock, which includes a beautiful and fully-restored Art Deco Conoco service station.After the quick stop in Shamrock, I drove west to the next town of McLean. McLean, like many other Route 66 towns has lost half of its population. The town was very small at around 700 inhabitants, and reminded me of the Oklahoma towns of Sayre and Erick. There were some pretty cool buildings and roadside motels located around town.Most notable in McLean is a meticulously restored Phillips 66 station from the early 1900s.Getting back on Interstate 40, I began to see a plethora of wind turbines. In fact, throughout the entire 177 miles of Interstate 40 through the Texas Panhandle, I don’t recall one time where a wind turbine was not in my line of sight or periphery. I soon approached the Leaning Water Tower, which must have been a popular attraction on Route 66, because it even spawned the now-demolished Tower Restaurant.I was soon approaching the town of Groom, and there it was, in all of its glory, the United States’ first-to-third largest cross (depending on what source you refer to). The Groom Cross stands at just over 200-feet-tall, and was shining like a heavenly roadside beacon that has been saving sinning truckers for decades.As I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed many motorcycles parked in a straight line. I really didn’t think anything of it. Just typical outlaws coming for some spiritual reckoning on this Easter Sunday. As I walked closer, this motorcycle club was one that serves a higher purpose; the Soldiers for Christ MC! Could this day get any better? Could it get any more ironic? Why yes, it could, and it did. While I was admiring the fourteen life-size statues replicating the stations of the cross, I saw this:A newly-married bride, thanking Jesus for granting her wish of marrying her Soldiers of Christ boyfriend at the Groom Cross on Easter Sunday. How cute. How special. To show God’s favor, he halos of heaven could be seen right behind the Groom Cross. How heavenly. After all this churching on Easter Sunday, my heathen self needed to go to a more contemplative place that was more inclusive, the Stoner Patriot Peace Garden of All Faiths. This little gem sits on the Interstate 40 frontage road just east of Amarillo, and is a open space with a mix of rusted-out patriotic, religious and stoner signs and emblems. The last sign I read was “There is enough nuclear warpower in the world to kill the earth – over 18 times; but all it takes is once.” This contemplative sign prepared me for the next stop on the trip, the 16,000-acre Pantex Plant, the United States’ only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility. Located 16 miles northeast of Amarillo, this eerie and heavily-guarded facility has signs lining the perimeter fence that read “NO TRESPASSING: WARNING: USE OF DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED.” As much as I wanted to explore further, I was not about breach this fortress.As I approached the main gate, I was creeped out enough that I decided to just turn around. From the air, the heavily-guarded facility is truly sprawling. In the upper-right of the image, you will notice nuclear weapon and waste storage bunkers. There has been a lot of controversy locally and regionally about the storage of plutonium and nuclear waste, wellwater pollution and increased cancer rates. As I turned around in the main entrance and was back on the main road, I was suspiciously looking in my rear-view mirror, waiting for G-Men in black SUVs to come up behind me and question me as to why I was turning around in the driveway. Paranoia soon disappeared the closer to Amarillo I was.
Continuing the religious exploration on Easter Sunday, I stopped at the tiny Wat Lao Buddharam when I arrived in northeast Amarillo. I parked my car and started walking around the grounds. The strong Texas sun was rapidly melting any residual snow that was left over, making for some pretty spectacular pictures. Seeing that I was a certified interloper, a man came out and asked me if I was visiting. I replied that I was, and he invited me inside. I was asked to remove my shoes before entering. When I entered, there were around 15 Laotian people inside. Couches lined the walls. A massive shrine was located near the front of the building. An elderly monk was sitting down and praying. The man who invited me in had me introduce myself to everyone in the room, and we all started talking for a few minutes. I had never been in a buddharam, and I asked if I could take some pictures inside. I can’t say that I have seen such a grandiose collection of deity statues in such a small place. These people clearly loved the Buddha, and were very friendly and welcoming to me. All this religion was making me hungry, so I high-tailed it to the iconic Big Texan Steak Ranch. Advertisements for this place are seen lining the interstate for hundreds of miles. They advertise a free steak. The catch is the steak is 72 ounces that you must initially pay for. You must eat the steak, shrimp cocktail, a baked potato, a roll and a salad within one hour.If you fail to clear the plate, you will have a bill for $72.00. If you succeed, you are rewarded with the free steak dinner and a trip to the bathroom (where said steak dinner will be coming out of both ends). What better way to celebrate our country’s excess and abundance than crushing a steak the size of a small baby? As for me, I settled for a small sirloin, a baked potato and salad, all washed down with a beer brewed on-site. After consuming the tasty steak, I decided to head into Amarillo and check it out. The trend of clear, blue skies continued in Amarillo, and provided a nice backdrop for pictures.After driving around Amarillo for a bit, I decided to check into my motel and rest for a little while. I was soon at the Travelodge (I know, what a cheap bastard). I walked in and coerced the front desk clerk to let me check-in early. I was successful, and I walked to my room. This is one of those motels where you access your room from outdoors. I didn’t mind the outdated furnishings from the 1990s. I didn’t mind the tube television. I didn’t even mind the love stains on the non-working lamp fixtures and other assorted decor. I did mind the sticky, musty, uncarpeted floor that reeked of ammonia and bleach (and possibly semen). Those cleaners didn’t even leave me enough towels to create a makeshift white carpet to walk on between the bathroom and the bed! I really found a winner. When I unpacked and tried to rest for a few minutes, the chemical fumes were really getting to me. I made a resolution to depart earlier than I thought for Palo Duro Canyon State Park, which is located approximately 40 minutes southeast of Amarillo. Palo Duro bills itself as the United States’ second largest canyon. After paying a nominal $5.00 entrance fee, I was soon driving to the only scenic lookout before descending into the canyon. After spending 30 minutes walking around and enjoying the scenic viewpoint, I decided it was time to hop back in the car and begin the descent into the canyon. The canyon was pretty impressive. It was nice to be soaking up the sun in nature. I did some hiking for about two hours and came across some beautiful landscapes. The pine- and sage-green foliage provided a nice contrast to the copper-orange dirt that was baking in the sun. After spending three hours on the canyon floor, I decided to drive back to Amarillo, with hopes of catching the sunset from the scenic viewpoint on the way out. Approaching said viewpoint, I saw blue and red flashing lights. When I pulled into the parking area, I saw a guy and what appeared to be his girlfriend being questioned by two state park police officers. Able to hear what was being said, I sat on a bench facing the canyon, and acted like I was taking pictures, when in reality I was using my phone as a mirror to see what was happening behind me. They were getting questioned because they may have been speeding, and the officer found them acting erratically, and found some unprescribed pills in the vehicle. They claimed that they had a prescription for them. The officer called their bluff, and said, “fine, I will let you go today….. on one condition: I want a call from the prescribing doctor within one week. Here is my card, they can call me at the number listed on it. If I do not hear from the prescribing doctor, I will issue a warrant for your arrest.” Realizing this officer wasn’t playing games, the boyfriend fessed up and took the rap. He was quickly arrested and thrown in the police cruiser. One officer could be heard saying, “you’re going to like the county jail, it’s really nice.” Was he being sarcastic, or did he feel sorry for the chap? We will never know. I soon realized the canyon viewpoint wasn’t even facing west, and that sunset wasn’t for another hour, so I departed the state park. On my way out, I saw a few Texas Longhorns grazing.I soon arrived at the Travelodge Amarillo West by sundown. I made sure to wear socks inside the room. I watched the tube television. Baked by the Texas sun and cashed out, I soon fell asleep, comforted by the fact that I didn’t have a black light with me.
NEXT UP: ROUTE 66 REVISITED (3ND LEG) AMARILLO TO SANTA FE