Route 66 first enticed adventure-seekers on a transcontinental journey from Chicago to Los Angeles in 1926. Ever since, cross-country travelers have heeded the call to hit the open road in pursuit of freedom, new beginnings, and the rewards of a fresh experience.
Although the interstate highway system eventually pulled traffic away from this legendary artery of American heritage, Route 66 devotees can still explore much of the storied route. Texas claims 178 miles of the old road, much of it still intact as it parallels Interstate 40 across the top of the Panhandle prairie from the Oklahoma border westward to the New Mexico state line.
On a recent cold spring weekend, I chased the sun as I explored the famous road’s Texas stories.
Just 14 miles west of the Oklahoma-Texas line, Shamrock rises from the plains with a smattering of Art Deco buildings that date to the 1930s and 40s, when westward travelers stopped here en route from points east. I ponder the millions of life dramas that have played out—and still play out—along this highway.
Christened the “Mother Road” by Nobel Prize-winner John Steinbeck in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, Route 66 served as America’s main artery west during the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930s. When World War II erupted a decade later, the route funneled wartime supplies to the West Coast. Then, in the 1950s and 60s, as the heartland rebounded, car-crazy travelers rediscovered Route 66 as a thoroughfare to western vacation destinations, ushering in an era of neon-lit motor courts and cafés, kitschy tourist stops, curio shops, and roadside billboards.
One of the finest examples of Route 66 Art Deco architecture has been preserved and restored here in Shamrock: the Tower Conoco Station and U-Drop Inn, a National Historic Site. The building now serves as the local chamber of commerce, and it features a neon-festooned tower, walls of glazed tile, and intricate, geometric details on the fueling canopies and in the lobby. Kids especially get a big kick out of the place, which inspired the body shop in the Disney/Pixar film Cars.
It’ll take at least two full days to explore the Texas section of Route 66, and that’s an ambitious schedule. Pick up a map at the Texas Travel Information Center (exit 76 on the south side of I-40 in Amarillo), 806/335-1441. The Amarillo Convention & Visitor Council (800/692-1338; www.visitamarillotx.com) can provide details about destinations along the entire 178-mile stretch. Selected contacts follow.
- Shamrock Chamber of Commerce, inside the restored Tower Conoco Station, 806/256-2516; www.shamrocktx.net.
- Devil’s Rope and Route 66 Museum, www.barbwiremuseum.com.
- Golden Light Cafe, 806/374-9237; www.golden lightcafe.com.
- Copper Horse Antiques, 806/373-1100.