The Panhandle calls itself the ”Top of Texas.” It’s also the halfway point of Route 66, and the final outpost of cultivated land before the western deserts – a stop on the way to somewhere else, for many. Nevertheless, it offers some quirky attractions that highlight its role in Texas.
I never would have considered living here if it weren’t for the small towns like Borger that exist solely for the industry that looms like Mordor on the horizon. Though not Texas’s biggest oil producer, the Panhandle is nevertheless filled with pumping jacks, scattered around like grazing animals.
The Panhandle oil boom coincided with the construction of Route 66 in the 20’s and 30’s, which connected Chicago with southern California. Naturally, the increased oil production was linked to Americans’ ever greater mobility. So while boomtowns brought settlers to the Panhandle, Route 66 brought many more through it, on a stretch that corresponds essentially to the modern Interstate 40. The crossing of a couple hours takes you past a few throwback stops like the Midpoint Café, and the U-Drop Inn.
In an unassuming field just outside Amarillo, you’ll find a Stonehenge of the automotive nostalgia espoused by Route 66. Cadillac Ranch is a row of ten mid-century Cadillacs buried nose-first in a dusty field as if they had just hurtled off a cliff. Ostensibly, the attraction is the Cadillacs themselves, aligned at the same angle as the Pyramids of Giza, but in reality the cars are too decayed to appreciate as such. Most people stop by just to leave their spray-painted mark on these relics before continuing on down the Interstate.
One of the newer additions to the Panhandle’s economy is wind power, a natural resource abundant in this part of Texas. Nearly a fifth of the state’s electricity is generated by the wind sweeping over the plains. Down in Houston, we witness a constant stream of trucks towing 150-foot long rotor blades out west – an impressive sight. More impressive, though, to see hundreds of them in action while flying low over the Panhandle, or stopping along the side of the highway to listen to the powerful whoosh of the flexing blades as they turn.
Driving across the Panhandle may induce tunnel vision, but if you zone out completely, you’ll miss some interesting details, like an anomaly among the rows of wind turbines, or a small hill on the flat horizon. Passing a wind farm near the tiny town of Groom one day, I noticed what appeared to be a rigid and immovable wind turbine: a towering white cross. I nearly passed it by, but decided to take a closer look. The 200-foot tall cross, it turns out, is an advertisement of sorts an unexpected installation. Dozens of life-sized statues stand in an array around the base of the cross, depicting Christian symbols: the Last Supper, the fourteen stations on Jesus’s journey to Calvary (the aforementioned hill – manmade, of course), an empty tomb, Saint Michael crushing a demon, and many others. Completely unexpected, but certainly worth the stop!
In the shadow of the turbines, the land not cultivated with wheat or cotton is mostly inhabited by cattle, who number in the millions – many times more than humans. The cows are destined for meatpacking plants on the outskirts of Amarillo that account for the vast majority of Texas’s beef production – and Texas makes no small contribution to the national supply. Unsurprisingly, barbecue is ubiquitous, and you’d be hard-pressed to attend an event that doesn’t have a smoker out back. One of my favorite small-town restaurants was a mom-and-pop bbq joint where mom and pop struggled to turn out enough brisket to satisfy the brisk stream of customers.
They say ”everything’s bigger in Texas,” and when it comes to beef, Amarillo doesn’t hold back. From Oklahoma to New Mexico, the interstate is marked with billboards drawing drivers in for a free meal off the grill at the sprawling Big Texan Steak Ranch. Nothing is truly free, though: the 72-ounce steak costs $72 if you don’t finish it in under an hour along with all the customary sides and condiments. I ate at the Big Texan many times and witnessed several grotesque attempts at this challenge, but more often than not, the contestants end up paying for every ounce of that steak!
My Life on the Plain
I lived in the Panhandle for over a year and experienced its quiet, small-town life. I became a regular at the handful of Main Street restaurants, where it seemed I always ran into someone I knew, and where the owners knew my order. A night out in town usually meant a visit to the vintage movie theater with its flashing vertical corner sign, and a trip into the city meant hurtling down razor-straight country roads for an hour, occasionally slowing down to dodge a tumbleweed.
It may sound counterintuitive, but I felt somewhat claustrophobic living out on that windswept, treeless plain hundreds of miles from the coast. Daily life in the Texas Panhandle certainly feels remote. But the region’s role in Texas’s economy, and its central position on the ”Mother Road” make it hard to dismiss completely, so I’m happy I had the opportunity to experience this side of life in Texas.
Before you go:
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