Driving Route 66 Texas: Amarillo

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The legendary Route 66 long ago captured the minds and hearts of traveling America. It wasn’t the only roadway system that crossed state borders but it was the one that came to represent the romance of the road. No mere pavement, it was adventure, and sometimes it was salvation. It soon became known as the Main Street of America, and dubbed The Mother Road courtesy of John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath. When it was finally completed, Route 66 was the first all-weather highway and it linked Chicago to Los Angeles. Americans took to the road with gusto. And there's no better place to see that history than Amarillo, Texas.

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Eventually, the USA moved on, quite literally, to the national highway system -- moving people and goods across the country faster and with much less "distraction." Towns faded, the historic road became obsolete. In 1985 whatever was left of Route 66 was decommissioned. It no longer had any official status.

But the road that captured the hearts of travelers never really died. Today, driving down Route 66 is still magic.

Two Roads of Route 66: Amarillo Blvd

Often called the Capital of the Panhandle, Amarillo survived the death of Route 66. Today it straddles the upstart highway I-40. It’s also an example of one of the difficulties faced by drivers seeking to follow historic Route 66 – multiple alignments. Since the path of Route 66 often involved using already existing roads, town planners sometimes "moved" the route by moving the signs, effectively rechanneling traffic. Each time the road "moved" it became an alignment.

Amarillo has two different roads both with the legitimate claim to be Route 66. Amarillo Boulevard (also known as Business Route 40, and even Route 60) is one of the alignments. The second incarnation of Route 66 it takes you a bit north of the rest of Amarillo which now spreads out south.

As you follow Amarillo Boulevard east, there are more and more ghost remnants, bits and pieces of the now legendary Mother Road. Defunct business with vintage cars parked out front, occasional arrows pointing to a shell of a store. But don’t give up on the road, there are oldies but goodies still open for business. Triangle Motel (circa late 1940s) was named after the odd-shaped lot where Highways 60 and 66 met. / The motel has received a Route 66 National Park Service Preservation grant to help restore the historic building.

Drivers who keep going east find English Field -- a piece of history on a piece of history. The story goes back to 1920 when Panhandle Aerial Service was started doing charters, stunts at fairs, and barnstorming. The original organizers were eventually joined by Harold English who renamed the operation English Airport. In 1952 it became Amarillo Air Terminal, a city operation, and then a historical site, the English Field Air and Space Museum. Unfortunately, this last incarnation has closed (although the hopeful signs are still there). Today all you can do is to walk the slowly decaying ruins and see one of the historic planes parked on the airfield.

Two Roads of Route 66: The Original Route 66

The first and original Route 66 has become Sixth Avenue, which for some unknown reason most residents call Sixth Street. Never mind that the maps and all government documents, including street signs, call it Sixth Avenue. For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the officially sanctioned Sixth Avenue, but don’t be surprised if you hear otherwise.

The section between Georgia and Forest Streets is listed on the National Register of Historic Districts and is a vital and fascinating area called San Jacinto known for its eclectic collection of shops, and architectural styles. One of the highlights is the Nat – the affectionate diminutive for the Natatorium. The building started out in 1922 as an enclosed swimming pool. Then it became a “dine and dance palace,” an antique mall, and in its most recent incarnation, a special event venue. The Bookstore is now the front part of the building and exudes history. It's also a pleasure to poke through the collection of 75,000 plus old books, but the store itself is part of one of Amarillo’s most interesting buildings. The 6th St. Antique Mall is the longest running antique store on the street, spread out over three different buildings.

At the corner of 6th Avenue and South Kentucky if you look carefully you’ll see an example of the quirky whimsy of Stanley Marsh 3. The man behind Cadillac Ranch also has a penchant for posting unusual signs throughout the city. For pure nostalgia, you’ll love historic Builtwell Automotive, pure Route 66 architecture and should you need an oil change – it’s still a working service station. The buildings housing Mustard Seed collectibles were once a meat market and a drug store. You can see the old tile floors peeking out from under rugs.

Texas Highway Rest Stop at Milepost 129

And finally, the Texas highway homage to Route 66 takes place at milepost 129 in the form of a rest stop. This special commemorative rest area is only going east and is about one hour east of Amarillo. With art-deco architecture, interactive video exhibits, and walkways reminiscent of the Route 66 complete with painted asphalt black with white lines down the center. Plaques by benches along the path tell the story of the road and the region. Our best advice -- stop in at the Travel Information Center at 9700 I-40 East. The staff are friendly, and extremely knowledgeable about Texas sights/attractions. We believe the best place to get information on the road is to walk into one of these travel centers and chat with the staff. Not all are as helpful and knowledgeable, but the one in Amarillo is a true treasure.

We also found Route 66 Adventure Handbook by Drew Knowles to be the best of the guide books and although sometimes dated, it was very helpful. Have a comment to share? Like us on Facebook - OffbeatTravelCom and post your comment.

Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

July 27, 2015

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