PHOTO BY SHANNON RICHARDSON

When it comes to pop culture, no highway other than Route 66 can lay claim to being at the top of the charts. It has been memorialized in song, print, television, and on the silver screen. More than 200 books have been written about it, all in the last 35 years. When troubadour Bobby Troup wrote his iconic Route 66 song in the 1940s, he only picked a handful of cities to rhapsodize over.

Amarillo was one of them.

Aerial photo by Chris Hale

This city has had a ringside seat to all of it since the highway’s inception in 1926, from the diaspora of Okies during the Dust Bowl, to mid-century road trippers after the War, to heritage tourists and nostalgia-seekers looking for the fast lane in the present. From Chicago to Santa Monica, Route 66 has carried those seeking hope and those hoping for a good time.

And now a 10-day festival is scheduled to catapult both the road and our city into prominence this June. It’s a fitting honor for the highway that put Amarillo on the map—and in song—as we lean into the 2026 centennial celebration of Route 66 a few years from now. The festival kicks off with the Coors Ranch Rodeo on June 1 and concludes June 10 with live music, the community market, and a summer free-for-all. Bus tours, the downtown cattle drive, and many other events will highlight what was once known as the Main Street
of America.

Come Together

The Amarillo festival results from an alliance of key stakeholders hoping to put Amarillo at the forefront of Mother Road celebrations. The Amarillo Convention & Visitors Bureau, in conjunction with the Route 66 Centennial Commission, the Big Texan, and various Panhandle communities and individuals, have assembled a team whose mission extends beyond this year to at least the highway’s 2026 centennial. This is just the beginning. More than just a celebration, this effort is also about tourism and a national spotlight.

“Route 66 put Amarillo on the map, not only in America, but all over the world,” says Richard Ware II. The Chairman of Amarillo National Bank, Ware is also President Biden’s Texas appointee to the Route 66 Centennial Commission. “When Americans started to ‘See the USA in your Chevrolet,’ it always included a trip along Route 66, and brought so many people through Amarillo.”

Kashion Smith, Executive Director of Amarillo Convention & Visitors Bureau, and a hospitality industry veteran, concurs. “Whether you’re in a Route 66 city or not, this was the beginning of how Americans traveled. It’s part of the fiber of who we are. To be a Route 66 city, especially one that was not bypassed when I-40 came through, is the key to our success as a tourist destination.”

PHOTO BY RALPH DUKE

While it is sometimes difficult to parse out who is traveling Route 66 from the roughly six million annual visitors to Amarillo, Smith sees the festival as an opportunity to cement Amarillo’s place on the travel radar. “What we are trying to do is bring the destination part of Route 66 back to the Panhandle. It’s a place you spend multiple nights, and not just pass through,” she says.

Bobby Lee, whose father started the Big Texan along Route 66 in 1960, is quick to chime in. “Route 66 came right through Amarillo. We’re the Mississippi River, and they had to cross it here,” he says. “It’s about families traveling, and seeing the West. Amarillo is the first thing they see in the West, and Route 66 is such an important part of our history.”

While this kind of excitement is infectious and a necessary ingredient for laying the foundation for future festivals, none of this would matter if Amarillo did not have the good fortune of being located along the 35th parallel.

Start Your Engines

Amarillo has long been at the crossroads of human travel. In the 16th century, Coronado criss-crossed the region, his men on horseback plying an ocean of grass that had only been seen by indigenous peoples before. In the 19th century, cattle drives and military wagon roads carved out paths across the windswept plains, soon to be supplemented by the coming of the railroad.

PHOTO BY JERED LOPEZ

It was early in the 20th century that the first roads as we know them were scraped out of the unforgiving soil. A postal road from Oklahoma allowed for mail deliveries. Named auto routes like the Ozark Trail allowed early motorists to travel long distances through the region. 

But it was not until the coming of numbered federal highways, which became law on November 11, 1926, that Route 66 and all the others we can still drive today were born. Route 66 was never “built” in the traditional sense. Rather, it was stitched together from previously existing roads. As far as Amarillo was concerned, 66 came into town from the east along that old postal road, and exited to the west along a prong of the Ozark Highway, 178 miles roughly from border to border.

Tulsa’s Cyrus Avery was the champion behind Route 66, and he wanted to chart a southerly arc through eight states that—naturally—went through Tulsa, but quickly made its way to the 35th parallel. His idea was that the climate at our latitude seemed good enough for a viable all-year route. He was right … most of the time.

Ware is no stranger to the role that transportation has played in our history. “Amarillo has always been a transportation hub since the railroads crossed here. Then, highways continued to drive transportation through Amarillo, which caused many businesses to locate and prosper here.”

Roads were very fluid in the old days, often changing from year to year as engineering improvements happened. The westernmost reaches of 66 in the Panhandle weren’t paved until around 1937, having replaced an earlier roadway through ranch land that hugged the old Rock Island Railroad tracks. And Amarillo leaders could not agree until about 1930 on the exact route it would take through town, as evidenced by numerous mentions in the Amarillo Daily News. It got political. Drivers had to pick their way through town carefully.

Lee waxes poetic about the role 66 played in Amarillo, especially for his family’s business. “It was like having a playhouse on Broadway, but instead of being on Broadway, we were in Amarillo. Route 66 is what brought people to us. It gave us the stage,” he says.

Today, brown-and-white TXDOT signs mark the primary route through town, making navigation easy. The route follows Amarillo Boulevard from the east, then heads south toward Southwest Sixth Avenue on the one-ways, and finally westward. 

Of course, everything changed here when I-40 opened, and it was only a matter of time before 66 lost its luster, as it had elsewhere. The final nail in the coffin was pounded in June 1985 when Route 66 was removed from the United States Highway System. 

Lee recalls that sinking feeling all too well. “When I-40 opened in March 1968, our business shrank overnight. My father had one choice: die, or move.” And so they moved. Fortunately, Route 66 nostalgia took root a few years later.

To The Future

While this year’s festival is focused on the present, the efforts going into it are a bet on the future. “We’re taking the bull by the horns,” says Lee. “We want to be ahead of all the other states. We’ve got lots of activities and little Easter eggs for people to find during the festival. We are setting the standard for all the other states, and they will be looking to us in the future.”

PHOTO BY JERED LOPEZ

It’s a glimmer of the same optimism that caused early motorists to head west on 66. “With us getting ahead of the curve, we’re coming out stronger than any other state, and faster. Nobody has come out of the gate with partnerships like we have, and all of the counties are coming together,” says Smith. “Once we finish this first festival, we hope to be the most popular spot by 2026.”

The value of this forward thinking is not lost on shopkeepers like Jill Zimmer, who owns two businesses on Southwest Sixth, known colloquially in Amarillo as Sixth Street. “We have a great tourism opportunity with the festival, and I think it will increase our traffic here immensely,” she says. “This mile-long stretch will be humming with tourists wanting to come down to see what Sixth Street is all about.”

Zimmer, who has owned her businesses for 15 years, swells with hometown pride. “It’s amazing how many tourists come down here, from all over the world. They want to see route 66. I love being down on Sixth Street.” 

In fact, her portion of Route 66—that magical mile between Georgia and Western—is often the face of the Mother Road in these parts. While Route 66 spans about 42 miles across the entirety of Potter County, including Amarillo, it is this one mile that is perhaps best known. “This stretch is just so much fun. There are such unique shops and places to eat or have a drink. This is just my area,” she beams.

“Our two most famous tourist attractions got their start on Route 66, with the Big Texan, originally on Amarillo Boulevard east, and the Cadillac Ranch, west of Amarillo, with the mystique of a fun place to visit,” adds Ware. “Europeans are especially fascinated with the Wild West, and Amarillo is a destination for many to dream of vacationing in the west.” Those international tourists, Lee notes, are often very knowledgeable. “The Europeans often know more than we do about Route 66,” he says.

Ware continues in a broader tone. “Celebrating 100 years of Route 66 has really caught on, especially in the Texas Panhandle. Towns along the way each have some historic spot to celebrate, and Amarillo plans on being the party capital for the center of Route 66.”

To that end, Smith understands the role this all plays in counting heads in beds. “Our office has now taken the mentality that we are a destination, and we will market ourselves that way,” she says of the CVB. “With Route 66, we better cultivate it and do it well.” It’s a point well taken, because other states will be vying for the same clientele. “We don’t want to be lost in the mix. When people see a Route 66 festival sign, we want them to think of Texas first.”

Ware responds, “You can see this as a three-year party that will enlarge Route 66’s image in everyone’s mind, while we all have a good time celebrating our history.” It’s a party, but it’s also marketing, Smith says. “It is important that we grow our mindset about Route 66, that it is about the city and not so much the pavement. The branding is for the whole town. We are a Route 66 town,” she says.

That gives the inaugural 2023 festival a heavy future-forward mindset. “Let’s have fun with the history, and remember what brought it. And then that traveler will hopefully be here in future years, but it will all feel different by 2026. That is the goal,” Smith explains. 

If Amarillo residents find themselves humming Troup’s whimsical tune, itself penned while on a road trip down 66 some 80 years ago, don’t be surprised if they stop when they get to the chorus. “You’ll see Amarillo!” 

And that is precisely what this festival is all about.

Author

  • Nick Gerlich

    Nick is Hickman Professor of Marketing at West Texas A&M University, where he has taught since 1989. He led the College of Business in their transition into online teaching in 1997, and has taught more than 125 online courses since then. In his spare time, he travels around the country, including his beloved Route 66, in search of vintage signage and other outdoor advertising. He can be found on Instagram @nickgerlich.

    View all posts