Wednesday, August 14, 2013

From Shamrock, TX to Tucumcari, NM: High Plains Drifter


After yesterday's deluge, the Lone Star State's weather is behaving itself again as I trudge out of Shamrock to make the briefest of runs across the Texas Panhandle into New Mexico.

Route 66 exists in places alongside I-40, but so close it may as well be its hard shoulder. And after last night's torrential rains, common sense - plus a little namby-pamby tourist wobbliness - takes charge and I forgo America's Highway for...er...one of America's highways.

Texas is, after California and probably even before California, the state I would wager most non-Americans think of when they think of the United States. It's the state generations of Western fans grew up with, even though most cowboy movies were filmed on backlots around Los Angeles, or up in Lone Pine in the Sierra Nevada mountains (where I will be soon). That, though, is Hollywood's story: the film industry expanded in California because it had an agreeable climate and access to countryside that could be anywhere in the West.

Texas, on the other hand, prospered through, mainly, cows. They're everywhere, so it's understandable that people still think of Texas as cowboy country. It has the most farms in the US, and produces more livestock, in particular cattle, than anywhere else in the nation. Which is why most restaurants in the state will be serving variations of cooked dead cow.

Long before the cows, of course, were the dinosaurs, who roamed freely across the southern plains of before eventually turning into the more recent boon to the Texan economy, oil. It's at this point I must declare a tiny, but personal revelation: after many years visiting and driving through the US, I have never before noticed the Sinclair Oil company, which operates filling stations in 22 states in the American heartland between the Mississippi River and California. The reason I mention this now, is that driving on Route 66 has brought me in to close proximity to Sinclair's logo - a brontosaurus.

At first thought, this seemed to me a little like McDonalds replacing its golden arches with the outline of a cow, or KFC removing Colonel Sanders' visage and putting an actual chicken in its place. But, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I have now learned that Sinclair's logo is in fact educational and is, perhaps, the only example of a corporate logo having such value.

It evidently dates back to the Chicago World's Fair of 1933 where Sinclair sponsored a two-tonne animatronic brontosaurus that explained the role dinosaurs played in the formation of petroleum. This led to Sinclair selling toy brontosaurs (and, later, giant inflatable dinosaurs) at its filling stations as promotional gimmicks. The dino proved so popular that Sinclair eventually made it part of its logo, becoming yet another familiar visual fixture along highways like Route 66.

Oil, though, has added considerably to the Texan economy, and the state does possess roughly a third of the entire US oil reserve. This does lead to the misconception, perpetuated by Supertramp, that everyone's a millionaire here.

I would beg to differ, but with the vehicle of choice in Texas being, apparently, a sizeable V8 pickup truck, fuel is either dirt cheap or there's money abroad to pay for it. In Texas, pickups are utilitarian vehicles. In Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia they carry AK-47-toting thugs or large machine guns mounted on the back. Without wishing to make any correlation, a lot of such vehicles in Texas do carry gun racks. Even the police drive pickups.

Guns remain a Texan sub-culture: contrary to popular disbelief, people don't walk around with holstered 9mm pistols at their hips, and there are tight(ish) laws governing the ownership and concealment of guns.

Nevertheless, it is somewhat ironic that on the front door of the Texas Book Depository in Dallas - from the sixth floor of which Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy - there is a sign saying "No Smoking, No Firearms, No Photography". In that order.

Trying to encapsulate Texas in this tin shack of a blog is never going to do a state this vast any justice, especially as Route 66 just cuts a straight line across the top of the Panhandle. But it's worth noting that it is the state more people are moving to than anywhere else in the country.

Recent figures from the US Census Bureau showed that five of the 10 fastest-growing cities over the last couple of years were in Texas, with Houston the country's second fastest after New York. Employment has been the main factor swelling the Texan population, with the still booming oil and gas industry, as well as military-related industries drawing people in to reasonably well paid jobs. And once there, people find a relatively low cost of living - including no personal state income taxes.

Culturally, Texas is cooler than some might expect it to be. Austin is one of America's hippest cities, and another one of the state's fastest growing towns, with a thriving, college-fuelled music scene and the annual SXSW festival to its credit.

In fact, the state's contribution to popular music is wider than you might think - ZZ Top (whose Texan blues-boogie has been accompanying on my ride west), Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Lightnin' Hopkins, Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Scott Joplin, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Don Williams, George Strait, Jim Reeves, Waylon Jennings, T-Bone Burnett, Edgar Winter, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Miller and Janis Joplin are or were all Texas-born.

Texas does have, however, one questionable mark hanging over it: earlier this year the state - which has the highest rate of legal executions in the US (more than 500 since 1982) - announced that it was running out of the drug pentobarbital used in lethal injections. With 11 inmates put to death so far this year, and a further five to come, supplies have become scarce due to drug companies objecting to their products being used for capital punishment. Despite the shortage, the state said it was "confident" that it would be able to continue with the deaths, despite the shortage. Now there's a thought.

But, back to the road. Less than an hour's drive from Shamrock along I-40/Route 66 is Amarillo. Let's, first, get the business of that song out of the way: Neil Sedaka's cheesy hit - made even bigger by British crooner Tony Christie - put the city on the map for no other reason than "Amarillo" was the only place name Sedaka could find to rhyme with "pillow". Thus, Sweet Marie could have been waiting anywhere else.

It's unlikely, too, that Marie would have chosen Amarillo in any case. It's a bustling, functional town, providing the economic hub of the Panhandle, and work, such as at the 15-year-old Bell Helicopter factory, which produces aircraft for the US military on a site adjacent to Amarillo's "international" airport. Frankly, though, there isn't much to keep anyone in Amarillo, beyond hotels and shopping.

© Simon Poulter 2013
On the western edges, however, is a bizarre photo opportunity - the Cadillac Ranch. In 1974 local millionaire philanthropist Stanley Marsh III commissioned a collective of artists to create a piece of art by burying 10 Cadillacs nose down in the mud as a symbolic representation of the marque's evolution.

Like most artistic obscurities, it's hard to truly understand the concept, though there is something decidedly Storm Thorgerson about the entire scene. It has, though, become a minor landmark on Route 66, with visitors encouraged to apply their own spray paint signature to the vertical car corpses. Unfortunately, this also leaves the area around the exhibit littered with discarded spray cans.

© Simon Poulter 2013

While still in Texas I reach the exact midpoint of the entire journey at the small community of Adrian. With 1,139 miles to Santa Monica, or 1,139 miles the other direction to Chicago, it's a significant landmark on the trip, deep in the heart of farmland and, it would appear, the world's largest collection of wind turbines.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Adrian is another must-do photo opportunity, and its Midpoint Cafe is a delightfully kitsch throwback to the era of cars with fins, and before the fast food chains and franchises took over.

Food at the Midpoint Cafe is excellent, the coffee beats Starbucks into a crocked hat, the decor is authentically tasteful, and it has free WiFi and a gift shop. All in all, a stop you shouldn't miss.

There has been no shortage of the perfectly acceptable kitsch and nostalgic along the road since leaving Chicago. Some attractions have been accidental - run-down empty shells of businesses that, during the road's heyday, would have thrived.

Where, however, the attractions are still going strong is because they've been invested in. Which brings me to my resting place for the night, just 40 miles over the New Mexico border in Tucumcari.

In an area first populated 10,000 years ago, with dinosaurs abundant millions of years beforehand, Tucumcari has had a long history, particularly during the tribal era when the area was the hunting domain of the Apache, Comanche and other tribes (nearby Tucumcari Mountain is one of those classic flat-top desert erections directors of Western movies would have Indian warriors looking out from before attacking a wagon train...).

The town started to grow at the beginning of the 20th century when the Chicago, Rock Island and Union Pacific Railroad turned Tucumcari into a major town. Route 66 brought even more business Tucumcari's way. Today, however, it's the nostalgia for 66 which turns the town's commercial axles.

© Simon Poulter 2013

66 itself runs through the town, still lined with vintage-looking motels replete with traditional flashing neon signs. Don't be put off by this: at the charming Blue Swallow Motel, owners Kevin and Nancy put the extra effort into making this a very special stopover indeed, and well worth avoiding the chain motels further back up the road as you come off the interstate.

From the stunning sign out front, to the charming and perfectly maintained period detail in each of its 12 rooms, to the provision of free bottles of water and even an individual garage to park your car next to your room, the Blue Swallow Motel is a treat and a simple, but absolute highlight of the trip so far.

And there's history to it. Opened in 1941 - a brave move then as wartime rationing was limiting cross-country travel - it was taken over in the 1950s by Lillian Redman, bought for her by fiancé Floyd as an engagement gift. Lillian had lived in Tucumcari since 1923, and originally moved to New Mexico with her family in 1915 in a covered wagon. The story goes that Lillian walked alongside the wagon. As a tribute, Room 6 of the hotel is now the Lillian Redman Suite, complete with open bathtub and a cute writing desk - where this post is being written - which contains a model of a covered wagon that has been turned into a desk lamp.

Unlike the other anonymous hotels I've stayed in, this is the first stop along the way where other guests gather in front of their doors to compare notes of their own road trips along Route 66. Some are doing it for the nostalgia, others for the more relaxed pace. Others, like me, just to say they've done it.

Tomorrow:  A Saucer Full Of Secrets

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