Our feet trembled with the sound of dozens of powerful motors as drivers in the car show in Amarillo, Texas, cranked up their rides.
Our friends Jerry and Jessica were no exception in their gleaming black-and-gold 1966 Shelby Cobra Mustang, the exhaust giving the tightly tuned small-block engine a gutsy growl.
My wife, Melissa, and I were along for the ride, so to speak, as Jerry and Jessica exhibited their classic Shelby at the Auto Club show, one of the many vintage car events in Amarillo—the perfect town for car outings because of its still-vibrant Route 66 Historic District.
The Mother Road and America’s love affair with the automobile thrives along 13 bustling blocks of 6th Avenue in this engaging Texas panhandle city. Dozens of antique shops, cafés, boutiques, nightspots and restaurants honor the old days on Route 66’s old path through town.
Between chatting with other car owners and showing off Jerry and Jessica’s own car, our plan was to enjoy a great visit full of Route 66 fun. That had started early this morning with a stop at The 806, a quirky artisanal coffee shop in an original Route 66 red-brick shop.
We sipped their rejuvenating brew just at sunrise as we headed for the car show, the day coming to life in sunbeams of gold, tangerine and magenta that perfectly matched our anticipation of the day.
Jerry and I stayed with the Shelby while the ladies headed out to try their luck at some of the Route 66 District Shops.
“I know just the place to start,” Jessica said to my wife. “I saw you shivering a little last night. Texas gets cold after dark, doesn’t it?”
“Who knew?” Melissa laughed.
“We’ll hit V’s Vintage,” Jessica said. “You won’t believe all the great old stuff in that little blue building. It’s run by a couple of genuine Amarilloans, so they know Route 66 and its crowd as well as anyone. Any antique, interesting thing you might want for your house, they’ll have it. And I bet we find a cool denim jacket for you, too. You’ll love it forever!”
Later, picking us up for lunch, Melissa struck a laughing pose to show off her new-old denim jacket, as promised.
“I’m starving,” Jerry said. “You guys have to try the street tacos at Smokey Joe’s Texas Café.”
In no time we were settled on the open front patio watching the traffic rumble by on 6th Avenue out front. With all the vintage cars in town for the show, it was easy to imagine it really was still the heyday of Route 66 as we enjoyed a lunch from Joe’s hot and spicy menu, washed down with beer served Texas-style, ice cold. The brisket and pork street tacos were perfect, and we all enjoyed nibbling the tangy pulled pork BBQ that Jerry thought he had ordered just for himself.
A couple at the next table laughed; they were sharing lunches too. They turned out to be locals, just like Jerry and Jessica, Matt and Karen.
“The food is too good to limit yourself to one lunch,” Karen laughed. “We have this problem every time we eat here. Matt never wants to share, but he wants to try my order.” She punched him playfully on the shoulder.
“Have you been downtown yet? You’ve got to check out the murals,” Karen said.
“They’re in the Federal Building, done during the Depression by a WPA artist,” Matt added, sneaking another bite of Karen’s taco.
They were right. The paintings were huge, and so was their subject: Texas history. Images captured Spanish explorer Coronado, cattle ranching, the oil boom and more, all in the literally larger-than-life, heroic scale of New Deal art.
“You’ve got to hand it to Texas,” Melissa said. “The Route 66 District. Antique stores. Vintage car shows. When it comes to honoring the past, Texas just goes big.”
Jessica shrugged. “They don’t know any other way. They can’t any more go small than a catfish can go dry.”
We kept the art theme cooking with a quick drive to Blue Sage Pottery & Art Gallery, along Route 66, where we oohed and aahed over the hand-thrown pottery and beautiful paintings of the Southwest produced by the owners, not to mention art in nearly every other medium exhibited by other accomplished artists.
After spending another couple of hours at the car show and comparing notes with other Route 66 fans, we dropped in on Alley Katz Antique Emporium—12,000 square feet of great stuff probably first purchased when you could still use a payphone for a dime, not to mention being able to find a payphone.
Multiple vendors vied to catch our eye with Route 66 knick-knacks, old ranch equipage, vintage drawer pulls of every sort, an ancient toy pedal car with an even older teddy bear sitting in the driver’s seat. Anthropologie tries for this same flavor at ten times the price. We carried out more than we carried in, leave it at that.
For dinner, an old-time trip to Amarillo wouldn’t be complete without a meal at The GoldenLight Café and Cantina. This genuine Texas dive was founded in 1946 and is the oldest restaurant still operating in Amarillo, possibly the oldest still-continuously operating in the same spot anywhere on Route 66.
Not that they’re afraid to try new things at GoldenLight—the chili recipe changes every thirty years or so as new owners step in. It’s definitely worth singeing your taste buds on as you admire the decades’ worth of Old Texas décor that has gradually accumulated on the walls: gaudy illuminated beer signs, concert posters for performers long-since retired, a street sign on informal loan from somewhere marking a wall as “Elvis Presley Boulevard.” Overhead, a corrugated tin ceiling makes a great sounding board for the continuously playing jukebox.
But next door in the cantina section, they’ve got the real thing. Live bands play most nights, and we spent a great couple of hours listening to an up-and-coming local group before stepping out into the street.
Melissa snugged her new denim jacket closer in the nighttime chill, but we were all still enjoying the warmth of friendship and good times. Tomorrow we’d have to head out, going our separate ways.
But good friends and Amarillo just have a way of sticking with you. We knew we’d see both again soon.
Check out Amarillo’s Route 66 and plan your own getaway.