Category Archives: Texas

Route 66 gems in the Texas panhandle and eastern New Mexico: Conoco Station/Shamrock Tx, Cadillac Ranch and El Manantial/Amarillo, Tucumcari,NM

(FYI: posting late…forgot to do earlier 😳)

We met an Iowa couple in Amarillo who was on a bucket list-trip, driving their sweet new Winnebago van (Iowa-built) on Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica. Now that’s on my list. We don’t have the same goal this trip, which is instead to get to Albuquerque with a minimum of dawdling.

But today we did get off interstate 40 several times to take in the sights on the occasionally nearby parallel 2-lane Route 66. So glad we did. Shamrock, Texas, just over the Oklahoma border, has a spectacular “Tower conoco gas station (found via audio storytelling travel app HearHere) circa 1936 that was restored for a pretty penny. It looks even more remarkable at night when it is illuminated.

Finally reopened in 2021, the station’s U drop-in cafe was closed because it was a Sunday but we could peak in and see it in all its retro glory. (Traveling on a weekend means a lot is closed, including the tourist office in Tucumcari, NM)

In Amarillo, we could not miss The Big Texan Steak Ranch, a crazy looking roadside mainstay since 1960, where you get your 72-ounce steak meal free if you can wolf it down in an hour. (Not just the 4.5 pound steak but a shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad, and roll and butter.) The Big Texan 72-ounce Steak Challenge has very precise rules, worth reading for a laugh. To date, there have been: 86,712 attempts, 10,035 champions. How Texas is that?! If you lose the challenge, you pay $72.

We instead found (thank you Yelp) a fantastic Mexican restaurant tucked under a highway underpass near a car shop that promised “we tow and crush.” El Manantial (named after the Mexican telenovela?) was packed with Hispanic families at 2:30 pm on a Sunday and we soon learned why. We had tiny little pork tacos, perfectly seasoned, and a standout speciality, tacos de Birria, lightly fried tiny tacos with red sauce and shredded marinated beef.

Because we were with dog, we found a picnic table at a nearby school playground (the sweet servers at the restaurant suggested). We crunched our way across yellow grass to the metal table for another January picnic. Like our Kansas picnic a day earlier, this one was in 59 degree weather but warmer. No Kansas wind.

On to Cadillac Ranch, a famous public art installation (free!) way out in a field of corn stubble — 10 Cadillacs driven into the ground, nose-down, their rears (once sporting tail fins until they were vandalized which apparently the artists and benefactor were ok with) sticking up from the dirt at an angle, supposedly akin to the angle of the great pyramid at Giza, slathered in many colors of dayglo spray paint. Visitors-in-the-know bring their own spray cans (or buy at a trailer parked nearby). Several were spraying away, creating big coagulated bubbles of red, yellow, green, blue, black paint. Far out! The Cadillac Ranch is the work of San Francisco “art-hippies” bankrolled by an Amarillo billionaire in 1974. Set against a dramatic backdrop of endless land and sky, it was a sight.

We were surprised by how bombed out Tucumcari, NM looked although there are a few cool buildings including a Spanish-style 1926 train station (now a railroad museum) and a building on Main street with lovely decorative terra cotta. Our HearHere audio made the town sound like it was far nicer than it appeared to us so maybe we or HearHere didn’t look closely enough.

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Listening to HearHere audio storytelling travel app’s podcasts through Oklahoma and Texas panhandle

Say you’re driving through the middle of nowhere — or so it seems — and wondering where you are. HearHere, a travel app featuring 1-2 minute (about my attention span) audio stories linked to the places you are driving through, can help with that, as we’ve learned today while driving through western Oklahoma. Who knew that El Reno, OK has an annual Fried Onion Burger Festival? Or Clinton, Oklahoma has a Route 66 Museum (not to be confused with the National Route 66 Museum we chanced upon further down interstate 40 in Elk City) and a well-preserved downtown lined with old red brick buildings. Or that Watonga, OK is home of Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck? We learned a lot too about Native Americans, tornados, wind farms, cattle drives.

Scissortale Park, OKC (the scissor-tailed flycatcher is the Oklahoma state bird)

The only problem: the podcasts can end up making your long drive even longer because they frequently made me want to get off the Interstate and see what the podcast was talking about. HearHere is the baby of actor Kevin Costner. After listening to a few audio stories, we bought a year long subscription for $35.

Here’s the NYTimes write up: When contemplating a road trip, any number of images might come to mind — and Kevin Costner probably isn’t one of them. Yet that may be about to change. The actor and director is a co-founder of HearHere, an app that uses your location and interests to play audio snippets (some narrated by Mr. Costner) about the history, culture and natural wonders of the places you’re driving through. There are morsels about the things you see (like landmarks) and the things you don’t, like the people who walked the land before you. The app, which rolled out last year, more recently announced an expansion, blossoming from road trip stories set on the West Coast to more than 8,700 stories across the United States, including details about the early history of Portland, Maine; the burning of Washington by British troops in 1814; and the first racially integrated housing in Philadelphia. Available only on iOS. Cost: Free for the first five stories; after that, $29.99 for 30-day unlimited access; $35.99 for a one-year unlimited subscription; $69.99 for three years.

The sculpture is a take on the weird tail of the Oklahoma state bird.

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Blanco, Luckinbach, Fredericksburg, Johnson City — Texas Hill Country

Finally got back here about 10 years after my first visit on a tour bus, visiting farms (a peach farm, lavender farm, winery) with some Iowa farmers. This time I had a rental car so I could zip off to fairly out of the way places on roads with names like Farm to Market, although not as many places as I wanted to hit. Need more than one day for that. Next trip I’d like to go to: Gruene, Comfort, Welfare, llano.

Blanco was almost my favorite because it seemed like a normal place almost, with more ranchers than tourists. I did stop at the gift shop next to the Rosebud Cafe where I found good local pottery to buy as gifts and expensive Mexican embroidery. The town square reminded me of Winterset, Iowa, with its limestone courthouse, but the Texas courthouse is smaller… It too has been a movie set (True Grit) as has the Winterset courthouse (Bridges of Madison County).

I kept making wrong turns to get to “downtown” Luckinbach but finally realized it was on “the Luckinbach Loop” and looked like a western movie set with a big parking lot and an old (authentic) post office. Inside the post office is a rustic gift shop and cozy bar in the back where two old guys with a hearty sense of humor were playing a mean guitar and banjo. Very versatile, they played “hillbilly disco” and even some bluegrass-ish Motown. They happily entertained a handful of people who had wandered in and sat on wooden benches in the little bar. The dance hall and beer garden, adjacent, looked like they’d be great fun for hearing live music. Love that there’s music all over Austin and environs (Austin bills itself as the live music capital…I guess Nashville and Memphis have other billing.) Also was live music at the airport now where we are sitting on mock bleachers in a mock food truck courtyard listening to a four piece band ( not the real Asleep at the Wheel, as the sign above them says.) (p.s. our flight ended up being cancelled just as we were boarding: mechanical issue. Now we have to stay overnight in Dallas. And leave for Dsm early. Hoping we get there tonight.)

Fredericksburg was too touristed and German for me, but there were lots of shops and German restaurants in old stone buildings along the long flat main drag. I ate a brat loaded with sauerkraut at the old German Bakery. I prefer the more grilled brats in Madison, Wisconsin.

I made a quick drive though the LBJ ranch in Stonewall and visited his reconstructed birthplace. His gravestone is across the road. The place is vast — 2000 acres. Unfortunately the Texas White House, LBJ’s House, is closed due to structural issues. That would have been cool. I really liked visiting Truman’s Winter White House in Key West.

I also drove past Johnson’s boyhood home in Johnson City, so named for generations of his ancestors that lived and ranched there.

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Blanton Museum/Ellsworth Kelly chapel, micklethwait craft meats, Hotel Cecilia, Uber Airport Ride app pick-up – Austin

Rainy day in Austin, not the best day to experience Ellsworth Kelly’s chapel on the university of Texas campus, next to Blandon Art Museum. It is spectacular when the sun shines through…a docent showed me a photo. Oh well, pretty cool without sun too. This also wasn’t the day to eat at micklethwait craft meats which I didn’t realize is a food truck. But we weren’t going to miss what may have been our best meal of the trip. Superb bbq brisket and pork ribs and delicious sides – beans, slaw, potato salad. Fortunately we found a dry picnic table with a big tarp over it and it wasn’t too cold. We also walked over to a hipster convenience store…name was Pickin’ or some sort and had a killer sandwich list and beer selection and good fancy coffees.  The rain let up a little son we Ubered over to South Congress so Dirck could see it. We had fun wandering through Allen boots, even though we aren’t in the market for cowboy boots and we stopped st the Hotel San Jose where I loved staying six years ago and visited its sister hotel nearby, Hotel Cecilia, which looked as cool.Sad to leave Austin and return to cold snowy Iowa but feel lucky we made it here. P.S. Austin is trying out a new approach to Uber pickups at the airport. The pickup is a line akin to a taxi line, a specially designated ride app pickup area in the garage where the rental cars are, a short walk from the terminal. Worked well. You order an Uber and then stand in a fast moving line and get the next Uber in line, taxi style except an Uber attendant emails your driver enters your pin/reservation number. Beats landing at a chaotic airport arrival area and trying to figure out which car is your Uber.

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Kemuri Tatsu-ya, antone’s, launderette – Austin

Tex-Jap sounds bad (unlike Tex-Mex) but Kemuri Tatsu-ya is a restaurant that fuses Texas and Japanese fare. Interesting idea and sort of worked. The restaurant designer must have had fun, mixing good ole boy Texas and Japanese izakaya (informal pub) decor, think cattle skulls and lanterns. Perhaps the most natural mashup we had was well-grilled smoked pork ribs with gochujang hot red chili paste. The corn with crema and chilis tasted almost Cuban. The ramen dipped in a broth with brisket bits was tasty but unwieldy.

East Austin seems to be the place for inventive food by young chefs, maybe because they can afford the rent, although that may be changing with gentrification.

It seems still at that point where pioneers like Launderette feel out there, geographically and gastronomically, which I appreciate…I credit my parents for this. They ran an art gallery in an otherwise prosaic neighborhood and it felt like a happy surprise to encounter an interesting art gallery. Launderette was hopping (glad I reserved tables at all these places). Excellent unusual burger (pork and beef), frites and mussels. And mean margaritas! Louder than I like but diners were a happy lot.

Our friend Art recommended Antone’s, a blues club that turned out to be a block from the Hilton (where we have a great view from the 17th floor). Antones was sold out Sunday but almost empty Monday with no cover and we lucked out with the Brad Stivers band. Brad plays a mean guitar– rockabilly and blues — and sings well too. Realized he’s my son Noah’s age. Only 28. We hoped to see his drummer Lindsay Beaver’s band Tuesday but Brad filled in for her. Bigger crowd. Lindsey is booked at the Des Moines Marriott downtown on feb 15 so maybe we will catch her there. Didn’t know the Marriott has live music. Turns out it’s the annual Des Moines bluesfest!

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Suerte, The Driskill Hotel Bar, Austin by bike, Gueros Tacos

I rode all day on a bike around Austin’s Lady Bird Lake before noticing the name of the bike I’d rented was the same as my grandson’s (aka Linus). Fitting end to a fantastic day. Coming from subzero Iowa, Austin was glorious — in the 60s, flawless blue skies, breeze. I may have gotten a sunburn. I’ll take it.

I rode about 12 miles, I think, all the way around the lake trail plus a jog up the hill on South Congress to meet an old friend and native Austinite (Allison) for lunch at the popular Guero’s Taco Bar. It was almost warm enough to swim at glorious Barton Springs Pool – a huge natural pool carved out of springs- in Zilker park and I had my suit this time (unlike 6 years ago when I vowed to revisit some day and swim) but I decided I didn’t have enough time and I loved riding too much to stop. swimming there remains on my wish list.

The trail system along the narrow Lady Bird Lake and on passageways between huge skyscrapers downtown is impressive and I felt safe sharing the trail/bike lane with pedestrians, scooters and cars. My rental from Austin Bike rental and tours got off to a rocky start when I walked past the place three times before realizing it located in a metal storage container plopped down in a food truck court in a small pocket of undeveloped surrounded by glass high rises. (How very Austin.) And the container was locked. eventually some nice girls arrived and I was on my way with a very comfortable and sturdy 7 speed “Linus” bike, a helmet, lock and pack to carry stuff.

Breakfast was at a little cafe and yoga studio terrace on the north bank of the lake – with a lovely view of early morning kayakers and paddle boarders. It was MLK Day so a busier Monday than usual. Great to see so many people out enjoying the day and lake.

Austin is a boom town, as my friend Allison confirmed at lunch, packed with new buildings and trendy restaurants. We went to one last night called Suerte, which serves some form of masa (corn meal) with various proteins, think masa tacos with flavor-packed pork or goat meat. Afterwards, we wandered over to the famous old Driskill hotel where the bar was hoping with elegantly dressed members of Austin’s film crowd, celebrating the SAG movie awards. Great people watching and live swing band in old western bar. perfect opening night in Austin.

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Next time in Nashville: where to shop!

For our next trip to Nashville (or Austin):

NYTimes March 2017:

NASHVILLE — The novelist Ann Patchett, who lives in this city, has said that she brings out-of-town visitors to two places: the Parthenon, the replica of the ancient Greek structure in Centennial Park, and United Apparel Liquidators, or U.A.L. as devotees know it. Both are temples of a sort.

The small clothing chain has three stores in the Nashville area. The flagship is also in the city, in a strip mall of no distinction, half-hidden between a nail salon and a Chinese takeout place. Ms. Patchett took the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert, shopping there one day last year, and during a literary talk that night, they dished about the Christian Dior flats that Ms. Gilbert purchased.

“They were so beautiful,” Ms. Gilbert told the audience, “I was licking them in the store.”

Better still, Ms. Patchett noted, the designer shoes were “10 percent of what they had once cost.”

Technically, U.A.L. belongs to the booming retail category known as off-price. But where discounters like Nordstrom Rack and T. J. Maxx have a bargain-basement atmosphere and leftover-seeming merchandise, U.A.L. feels like a designer boutique. Imagine walking into Jeffrey in New York or Fred Segal in Los Angeles and discovering it’s having an everything-must-go fire sale.

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Bouldin Cafe, Lost luggage…Austin

Also had breakfast with an old friend who grew up in Austin at a friendly hippie dippie place, Bouldin Cafe, in an old house in First Avenue just west of south congress in a neighborhood full of small gentrified houses and new modern homes squished onto lots where other small houses presumably once stood. The neighborhood reminded me of East Nashville, full of interesting activity and creative types. It was a fun neighborhood (albeit a little hilly) to explore by bike. I was dying for something cold to drink when I came upon this funny guy in a giant lemon, really, who was selling “cups of happiness.” And so they were! Cute name for his business too “Austin City Lemons.”

At the Austin airport, I passed a good live band playing on a stage in front of an open air bar that was packed with travelers. Couldn’t get a seat. shades of south by southwest. I foolishly volunteered to check my luggage at the gate (since the plane was so full) and as a result went home from the Des Moines airport without my bag. Thanks American Airlines (it did arrive today).




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Night out on the town in Austin…c-boys on South Congress

When I was last in Austin, about five years ago, my friend (and Austin social director) Pat took us to The Continental Club which was swinging on Saturday afternoon, full of lively two-steppers dancing to some band or other. This time we went to the sister (brother?) of the Continental Club, C-Boys, a little further south on South Congress. An old grey bearded guy Paul Oscher, who “played with Muddy” (as in Muddy Waters) was on the small stage with about four other musicians, playing a mean blues guitar and a small collection of dancers, including one particularly eccentric heavy set guy doing what looked like early Martha Graham improvisational modern dance. (he and his partner were later seen at a table by the bar molding globs of what appeared to be play dough around their spent beer bottles. No danger of Austin losing its weirdness, it seems.

On the weirdness front, the strangest sight during my bike ride along the river/lake today was a man who as I approached him was indeed completely naked. Except for what could most accurately be described as a penis pouch. Reminded me of Fire Island in the 1970s, when my little sister, then in grade school wrote this short letter home: We went to fire Island. I saw a naked man. love Jill.

The bike ride, by the way, was a great way to see the city and easy pedaling on my borrowed 3 speed from the way nice Hotel San Jose (which for some unknown reason did not charge me for the bike, as advertised; this on top of upgrading me to a suite priced over twice what I was charged.) I was sorely tempted to swim in Barton Springs, a huge spring water fed natural pool that appeared to be carved out of the river/lake and was open on a muggy day of on and off rain. I also stopped at the Whole Foods, the first ever, and it was indeed impressive. I particularly enjoyed riding along some ramps that are built into the south bank of the river/lake, past egrets and ducks and geese and an amazing collection of turtles crowded onto a log in the water.



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Thank you Hotel San Jose — Austin, Texas

In the “it pays to ask category” I give you this short tale. After one night in a room overlooking busy South Congress street and the immortal Continental Club across the street (which I would rather visit than sleep, or try to sleep, across the street from) I politely inquired if there was a quieter room available tonight. and here I am in a beautiful quiet suite at the rear of this super stylish rehabbed motor court, upgraded to boot with no additional cost. Thank you!! After a long work day here, this is a very nice place to land. Only problem is I may not want to leave. And I have plans with an old friend tonight.
I haven’t had much time to explore but did enjoy a BBQ pork sandwich at Jo’s Good Food, next door and dinner with some work colleagues at Vespaio, a welcoming Italian restaurant also on South Congrss. Also fun to browse in a few of the vintage shops and boutiques and cowboy boots stores here, although most seem pretty pricey. look forward to exploring a bit more tomorrow before my flight home.




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