I ain’t got no blood in my veins
I just got them four lanes
Of hard Amarillo highway
“Amarillo Highway,” by Terry Allen
When I was a kid growing up in the southeastern Texas Panhandle, all roads led to Amarillo.
We’d make a pilgrimage once every four to six weeks if we were lucky. We could buy the basics back home in Wellington, but Amarillo had Sears, Colberts and Furr’s Cafeteria. And somebody always needed to see the dermatologist.
I knew the route well. Down the little road to Quail and over to 287 at Hedley. Then Clarendon (Lelia Lake then Clarendon), Goodnight, Claude and Washburn. Just past the grain elevator at Washburn I’d make out Big 40 shimmering in the distance, the 18-wheelers streaming by like the sails of a wayward armada.
And soon enough, we’d enter a swirling convergence with Oldsmobiles “makin’ speed up ol’ 87”, F-150s trailing feedyard dust down Highway 60 and long-haul truckers coming in from everywhere. And the marvels of the highway system that got us there gave us a tremendous sense of oneness—Panhandle folk all, drawn to the Oz of the Plains and white chocolate stars at the Sears candy counter.
It all looked fairly easy on the map, but putting this network of roads together was quite an undertaking that spanned decades. My great grandfather A.W. Read of Memphis (I’ve mentioned him before) was part of an expedition that helped plan the Colorado-to-Gulf Highway through the southeastern Panhandle in the years before World War I. This was a time before the Feds got involved, and most highways were segments of routes charted and promoted by cooperating communities and civic leaders like my great grandfather.
This all changed in 1926 when the United States Numbered Highway System was put in place. The dusty trail A.W. Read helped blaze was branded U.S. Highway 370, which eventually became U.S. 287. And while that was big news down in Hall County, it was the designation of U.S Highway 66 in that same year that offered Americans a chance to see Amarillo (and Gallup, New Mexico).
Route 66 followed several courses over the years, but the Bobby Troup way to motor west on 66 is the alignment along Northeast Eighth Avenue (now Amarillo Boulevard East) to Fillmore, then south to Sixth Avenue and California bound via Sixth, Bushland Drive and West Ninth.
Prior to the 1950s, motorists from the north approached the city via River Road where a few remaining roadside amenities still hint at the highway that once was. And a trip from Canyon on U.S. 60 and 87 in those days meant a hard turn east on 36th Avenue, around a curve that still sports an old service station and tourist court, and up through town on Fillmore Street.
Now we have the E-Way (that’s the only proper way to refer to Interstate 27) that mostly follows the old Canyon road, but we’re going so fast we fail to notice. The Canyon E-Way, completed in 1956, was Amarillo’s mid-century modern moment and lives on as a living testament to the city’s phenomenal growth in the 1950s.
And that brings us back to Big 40, the quintessential Amarillo highway. It’s both the cause and cure of sprawl, and it’s pretty unavoidable if you want to get anywhere decently fast. Young drivers are drawn to its speed, and at that certain age when enough’s enough, we’re like, “oh hon, I don’t drive on I-40 anymore.”
And just like with old 66, you’ll for sure see Amarillo on Interstate 40 because about half the time you’re driving 6 miles per hour through road construction and you’ve got no choice but to look. But hey, it’s Amarillo. Just like in the old days, any road that leads to the capital city of the Texas Panhandle is the road to ride.