At the heart of the Llano Estacado, midway across the Texas Panhandle, Amarillo (pop. 199,924; pronounced “am-uh-RILLo”) is a busy big city that retains its cowboy roots. Center of the local ranching industry that handles some two million head of cattle each year, Amarillo handles nearly 90 percent of all the beef in Texas and some 30 percent of the national total.
Old Route 66 followed 6th Street through Amarillo, past the brick-paved streets of the Old San Jacinto district around Western Avenue, where you can wander among ancient-looking gun and saddle shops, numerous Wild West-themed clothing shops, and kitsch-minded antiques shops. To eat and drink with the Coors-drinking cowboys and cowgirls of Amarillo, head west to the GoldenLight Café (2906 SW. 6th Ave., 806/374-9237), a fairly funky roadhouse famed for burgers, homemade hot sauce, green-chili stew, and Frito pies. Next door, the GoldenLight Cantina hosts frequent live music.
Amarillo is best known for its many good steakhouses, the most famous of which has to be the 450-seat Big Texan Steak Ranch (7701 I-40 East, 806/372-6000), which started in 1960 along historic Route 66 and now stands on the east side of Amarillo, off I-40 exit 74, marked by a false-front Wild West town and a giant cowboy atop a billboard. This is the place where they offer a free 72-ounce steak, provided you eat it all—plus a table full of salad, baked potato, and dessert—in under an hour. If you don’t finish everything, the cost is $72; regular meals and good “normal” steaks are available as well.
There’s a Texas-shaped swimming pool at the Big Texan Motel (806/372-6000, $70 and up), and dozens of moderate chain motels stand along the I-40 and I-27 frontages, so rooms shouldn’t be hard to find.
Vega and Adrian
Between Amarillo and the New Mexico border, the landscape is made up of endless flat plains dotted with occasional oil derricks and Aermotor windmills. The one biggish town, Vega (pop. 931), has a photogenic collection of former and still-functioning businesses, including a 1920s Magnolia service station.
West of Vega, the main event hereabouts is both a geographical and culinary magnet: the hamlet of Adrian (pop. 172) and the unmissable Midpoint Café (806/538-6379, daily Apr.-Nov.). One of the route’s most enjoyable places to eat, located more or less at the halfway point in Route 66’s long ride between Chicago and Los Angeles—both of which are some 1,105 miles away—the Midpoint is friendly, has great food, and basically epitomizes all that old-fashioned hospitality that makes Route 66 such a special experience. Be sure to check out the fine selection of Route 66 books and “midpoint” souvenirs, or just stop by for a piece of baked-from-scratch Ugly Crust pie. As more than one satisfied customer has said, you can taste the happiness.