Route 66 Revisited — Part 2

By Keith Smiley
We’re on our way to Yosemite for a few days, so to keep the blog fresh, I’ve split my post about driving out to California into four parts. One part will go up each day between Monday and Thursday.

My first day of driving was short — I didn’t leave Decatur until around 3 p.m., so once I passed through Little Rock, Arkansas, I decided it was time to start looking for some place to stay for the night. Apparently everyone else beat me to it. I drove an extra 40 miles looking for lodging; the cities of Conway and Morrilton were completely booked, and Russellville had only one motel with vacancy, which I was happy to fill. Camping was an option, but I passed on a KOA I passed that was so close to the interstate it might as well have been in the median. During my search, I noticed every hotel’s parking lot was full of pickups marked with construction and engineering company logos. I can only surmise they’re building something massive in northern Arkansas; probably a Death Star or an equally nefarious creation.

The next day’s drive was reminiscent of last summer, as I passed through Oklahoma — where I encountered the roughest highway of the entire trip — and into the desolate wasteland of northern Texas. Somewhere in this leg, a Texas highway patrolman pulled me over, told me to slow down, and sent me along. In the interest of not pushing my luck, I kept strictly to the speed limit until I hit the New Mexico border the next day.

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This Texas road only curves because it’s passing over the Interstate; on the other side of the bridge is about fifteen miles of visibility and nothing to see except abundant sky.

My fuel gauge was floating on E as I reached Amarillo — the only city of any note at all along I-40 in Texas — because I learned my lesson last year: if you stop for gas out in the wasteland, you’re going to pay a middle-of-nowhere fee of fifty-cents per gallon. I realized as I pulled into the truck stop for gas that it was the exact same exit that I stopped at last year; the motel I stayed at on my way to Denver was visible from the pumps.

Unlike the night before, there was still some light left in the sky when I decided to stop, so I sat in the parking lot with my maps, considering my lodging options. I gave a few dollars to a teenager who knocked on my window and politely asked for some sort of help buying enough gas for him and his mom to make it another 50 miles to their aunt’s house, then I went back to my maps. There were really only two options: a motel in Amarillo or detour slightly to Palo Duro Canyon State Park and hope to camp for the night. I reminded myself northern Texas couldn’t possibly be a huge tourist destination and headed south on a totally flat, curveless road to the park.

And sure enough, I found a massive hole in the ground — the second-largest massive-hole-in-the-ground in the United States, behind only the Grand Canyon, according to the park ranger at the entrance. The canyon was an interruption in the tedious, featureless landscape, and though the last light of dusk was disappearing as I paid my camping fee and started winding down the road into the earth, I could tell that this state park was — you might be as surprised at this as I was — quite pretty.

I realized the ranger was probably being honest when she mentioned she was raised in northern California and had grown to love the Texas landscape despite her initial doubts. “Now, I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” she said. I had smiled, said that I could see the land’s appeal. I wasn’t necessarily being sarcastic or condescending; what I’d seen before entering the park had drawn my interest. But driving into the canyon reminded me the West is fascinating in its vastness: you can probably travel a hundred miles in any direction from Palo Duro without the view changing. Yet here was a fissure in the Earth — a geographical hiccup compared to the consistency of the rest of the landscape — that was beautiful in its uniqueness.

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Sometimes, second-best just doesn’t cut it. Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas panhandle is the second-largest canyon in the United States, but the largest — the Grand Canyon — gets all the attention, including national park status and millions of visitors each year. I’m not sure about Palo Duro’s statistics, but I’ll assume the Texas state park sees significantly fewer new faces annually.

It was easy to find my campground — right past Water Crossing #4, which was as dry as the other three crossings before it — but the campsite numbers were difficult to see in the dark. After a couple loops around the Fortress Cliff area, I found my spot, between a family on the left and some kids my age on the right drinking beer and playing music from their pickup. I rooted through my trunk for the camping gear and was unrolling my tent when I met “Tex,” who I only call Tex because he called me “Kentucky.”

It was about 10 p.m. by this point and I was ready to go to bed, so I opted to be rude and continue setting up my tent while chatting with Tex, who stood off to the side. He asked me how I liked Texas; I mentioned the encounter with Highway Patrol, which Tex found amusing, then said the state was uninteresting at first but I was learning to appreciate it. He nodded along, then lifted up his left sleeve to reveal a colorful tattoo of the shape of Texas. “Yeah,” he said, “we pretty much love it here.”

The conversation continued for a few more minutes, during which I found out that Tex’s boss at 84 Lumber had transferred to Amarillo from a store in Louisville, Kentucky. Then Tex unexpectedly asked if I’d noticed that it smelled like beef. “Right now or just in general?” I asked, not sure of where the beef question was going.

“In general,” he said, then explained himself. “Just south of here is the beef capital of the world. We’ve got more cattle than anywhere else in the world.” When I passed through Texas last year, I drove by a few stockyards on my way out of Amarillo, but if they smelled like beef, the stench of manure was so overpowering I didn’t notice. I told Tex this, and he laughed. “Yeah, most of the time it just smells like that,” he said.

A few moments passed as I unfolded tent poles, then Tex asked me if I had a camera. I straightened up and said yes, remembering that he didn’t know I was a photographer and that my car was practically overflowing with cameras. Apparently it was a rhetorical question, though; even if I’d had the camera in my pocket, I wouldn’t have had time to fetch it before he turned around, pulled his shirt up and pushed down slightly on the waist of his shorts, revealing a “USDA Beef” logo tattooed on his lower back. “Beef capital of the world,” he repeated.

I just laughed. “I’ll have to get one of those before I leave,” I said.

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When there’s nothing else to photograph, look for wildflowers. At least they’re colorful. I should have gotten up early to shoot the first rays of light falling across the canyon, but then I would have been sleeping on the interstate, and despite what you’ve heard, that’s just not a good idea.

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