Texas Nos­tal­gia

Route 66, the Cadil­lac Ranch and Buddy Holly all part of the at­trac­tion


Even the plane ride from Hous­ton to West Texas was fas­ci­nat­ing. On the flat, farm­land-cov­ered plain be­low us scores of mys­te­ri­ous-look­ing crop cir­cles could be seen. We soon learned that these were caused by “cen­tral pivot ir­ri­ga­tion,” us­ing deep arte­sian wells and long, wheel-sup­ported pipes that cir­cled the wa­ter source.

We were head­ing to the ma­jor Pan­han­dle city of Amar­illo, pop­u­la­tion 200,000, whose growth in the late 19th and early 20th cen­tury was en­hanced by the rail­road, cat­tle drives and Route 66, the fa­mous transcon­ti­nen­tal high­way that wound its way from Chicago to Los An­ge­les.

From the air­port to down­town we took In­ter­state 40, the multi-lane high­way that re­placed much of the Texas por­tion of Route 66. But to its credit, the city of Amar­illo has pre­served a sec­tion of the old high­way in the his­toric dis­trict and en­cour­aged arts and crafts stores, an­tique shops and restau­rants to lo­cate there.

His­tory was also ev­i­dent in our down­town hotel, Court­yard by Mar­riott. Un­like most Mar­riott ho­tels, this one is on the Na­tional Regis­ter of His­toric Places and was orig­i­nally the 11-storey Fisk Bank Build­ing, dat­ing from 1928. It’s sur­rounded by other ren­o­vated his­toric build­ings like the Santa Fe Rail­way head­quar­ters and the old Para­mount Theatre (built in 1932 in Pue­blo Deco style). Just down the wide street (ex­tra wide for cat­tle drives) we had din­ner at the Crush Wine Bar, a great venue for Texas tacos, beer on tap and an ex­cel­lent se­lec­tion of wines.

On our first full day in Amar­illo, af­ter a great cup of java at Palace Cof­fee, we vis­ited sev­eral of the city’s fas­ci­nat­ing and quirky mu­se­ums. First was the Amer­i­can Quar­ter Horse Mu­seum, hon­our­ing the versatile rac­ing and work horse that’s had such an im­pact in North America. Close by was the Kwa­hadi Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can In­dian. Built as a replica Pue­blo In­dian kiva, the colour­ful mu­seum fea­tures the crafts and cul­ture of the Na­tive Amer­i­cans who first in­hab­ited the area.

Af­ter a great Tex-Mex lunch at Braceros on old Route 66, we stopped by Cadil­lac Ranch, one of the world’s unique sculp­tures. Look­ing a bit like Stone­henge from a dis­tance, 10 vin­tage Cadil­lacs, sev­eral with big fins from the 1949-63 era, are half buried, nose first, in a straight row. Graffiti is en­cour­aged and all 10 of these land yachts are cov­ered in rain­bows of colour.

Two more Amar­illo ve­hi­cle ex­hibits kept us busy and en­ter­tained for the af­ter­noon. Bill’s Back­yard Clas­sics has one of the big­gest dis­plays of vin­tage and clas­sic au­tos we’ve ever seen. It in­cludes a 1928 Ford Paddy Wagon. At Jack Sise­more’s RV Mu­seum, dozens of his­toric recre­ational ve­hi­cles are on dis­play. Par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing is the world’s old­est Airstream, a 1935 Tor­pedo owned by the Hol­man Family of Panama City, Fla., for 81 years.

We were told that Amar­illo has more than 500 restau­rants but its most fa­mous, by far, is the Big Texan Steak Ranch. Sit­u­ated close to Route 66 and along­side In­ter­state 40, this mas­sive eatery has a car­ni­val at­mos­phere with a big gift shop, a live rattlesnak­e, a shoot­ing gallery and games of chance. Serv­ing more than 500,000 guests last year, its big­gest nov­elty is the 72 ounce steak, “Free if you eat it all in one hour.”

The man­ager told us that about three peo­ple a day try to con­sume the four-and-a-half­pound chunk of beef but only one out of six succeed. The other five pay $72.

The at­mos­phere at the Big Texan was great fun (chick­en­fried steak and “moun­tain oys­ters” were pop­u­lar of­fer­ings) but, for nor­mal ap­petites, quan­tity sur­passes qual­ity.

The next day we drove south to the su­perb Palo Duro Canyon State Park. This 120-mile gorge was slowly carved by the Red River over the last mil­lion years. It’s sec­ond in length only to the Grand Canyon. Pop­u­lar with campers, the to­pog­ra­phy is rugged, colour­ful and spec­tac­u­lar.

On our drive to Lub­bock, two hours from Amar­illo, we stopped at the Pan­han­dle-Plains His­tor­i­cal Mu­seum in the town of Canyon. It’s the largest his­tory mu­seum in Texas and has some ex­cel­lent oil drilling and wind­mill dis­plays. Of course, be­ing Texas, there’s also a large collection of his­toric guns.

Like Amar­illo, Lub­bock is a de­light­ful small city for vis­i­tors. The pop­u­la­tion of 260,000 sup­ports the 35,000 un­der­grad­u­ates at Texas Tech Univer­sity. Its sports teams are well known but we were even more im­pressed by the Span­ish ar­chi­tec­ture in all the build­ings (tan stone and red tile roofs) plus the re­mark­able out­door pub­lic art collection through­out the cam­pus.

Lub­bock’s main claim to fame is Buddy Holly. Born here in 1936, the rock ‘n roll leg­end had a se­ries of hits and in­flu­enced other great per­form­ers like Elvis, the Bea­tles and El­ton John be­fore los­ing his life in a Iowa plane crash at the too-young age of 22. His memory is pre­served at his low-key gravesite, in streets (Buddy Holly Av­enue), the Buddy Holly Cen­ter (filled with mem­o­ra­bilia from his career) and the new Buddy Holly Hall of Per­form­ing Arts and Sci­ences.

This acous­ti­cally-ideal con­cert hall, de­signed by Di­a­mond Sch­mitt Ar­chi­tects of Toronto, will hold 2,200 in its main au­di­to­rium and 425 in a smaller con­cert venue. The US$155-mil­lion project, all pri­vately funded, will be fin­ished early in 2020. Other medium-sized ci­ties should be en­vi­ous.

Buddy Holly is fa­mous. Texas wines should be. A grow­ing grape and wine industry, par­tic­u­larly in West Texas with its hot days and cool nights, is mak­ing waves in som­me­lier cir­cles. We vis­ited Lub­bock Un­corked, the an­nual Wine ‘n Dine fes­ti­val in the city’s Amer­i­can Wind­mill Mu­seum (the largest in the world with 160 wind­mills in­side and out­side). Tast­ing sta­tions fea­tured only High Plains Texas wines and were gen­er­ally im­pres­sive, par­tic­u­larly the Tem­pranillo, Mal­bec and Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon.

Our favourite mu­seum in Lub­bock was Silent Wings, lo­cated at the site where glider pi­lots were trained for Sec­ond World War duty be­tween 1942 and 1945. Lit­tle known to the pub­lic, glid­ers were towed by al­lied air­craft into en­emy ter­ri­tory and then silently dropped with troops and ar­mored ve­hi­cles. Many crashed but most were very suc­cess­ful in rout­ing the Ger­mans. The mu­seum in­cludes a 15-minute film and sev­eral of these en­gine­less airplanes that played a key role in the war.

We couldn’t leave Texas with­out bar­be­cue so filled up with ex­cel­lent brisket at Evie Mae’s Pit BBQ in Lub­bock. The lines are long but the free beer in tubs of ice make the wait worth­while. We also had to have a great steak and found the best one at La Sirena in Lub­bock. Not a Tex­as­themed res­tau­rant but Latin Amer­i­can. A fine end­ing to an all-too-short visit. As we were told sev­eral times, “Y’all come back!”


Grafitti is en­cour­aged at Cadil­lac Ranch.


The Silent Wings Glider Mu­seum.


A Cana­dian connection at Amer­i­can Quar­ter Horse Mu­seum.


The Hol­man family’s 1935 Airstream is the world’s old­est.

The Buddy Hol­ley gravesite show Hol­ley, with an ‘e’ — the orig­i­nal spelling of the family sur­name.

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