Getting to Amarillo was rough and leaving will be rougher, but in between I enjoy the safety of staying put. City limits make me feel secure. Amenities are at hand. Amarillo may be considered a sprawling cow town, but this urban density won’t be matched until Santa Fe where good art, bike lanes, Whole Foods, and a Democratic-voting populace will push Texas into the dustbin of my trip memories.
With nothing planned on my day off, I turn attention to the bike. I’m worried. Blue material is poking through the tire tread. Facing a desolate route to Santa Fe some 300 miles away, I need to address this here in Amarillo.
My first instinct is to text Josh, head mechanic at CoGo bike share in Columbus. He responds eight minutes later:
I passed through Atlantic City without gambling and am not about to do so now. I call two bike shops, but neither have the tire in stock. A third store is half a mile from my motel, so I pedal over for an in-person consultation.
At Sun Adventure Sports, Glenn already knows who I am. His friend Erick at Tom’s Bicycles in Tulsa told him about me. (After I got assaulted, Erick tuned up my bike for free.)
Glenn is from Amarillo but lived in Tulsa back in the days when he and Mike were the only racers from the now famous bicycle bar Soundpony. His wife, an anthropologist, is from Amarillo and they are based here now, which he says with slight regret. To me, Tulsa is a unique destination. Amarillo is an amorphous conglomerate of chain stores on the way to somewhere else.
He calls a distributor in Dallas to order new tires that will arrive tomorrow afternoon. I tell Glenn about my route and the cool things I’ve seen. I ask him about Cadillac Ranch, a row of spray painted cars planted nose down in the dirt. This outdoor art is one of the biggest highlights along Route 66 and lies just west of the city limits.
Glenn tells me about lesser known Combine City, which is not a city, but rather a dozen farming combines partially buried like the cars at Cadillac Ranch. His father owns this land along a lonely stretch of Claude Highway 15 miles to the south. I husband my strength for Cadillac Ranch and play armchair traveler by visiting Combine City via Google Maps.
Glenn also tells me about the Grand Canyon of Texas. Say what? After endless miles of flat farmland I don’t believe such topography exists here, but my mechanic-turned-tour guide is right. Domestically, Palo Duro Canyon is second in size only to its big brother in Arizona. It’s 30 miles south of Amarillo, but on a Citi Bike that will take most of the day, plus a stay overnight and a day to get back. It’s also getting cold to camp, which reminds me, I need to find a warmer sleeping bag.
Bells jingle and in walks a dude in a neon yellow vest with gear strapped to his bike, telltale signs he’s touring. Yet at first I think he’s a bike commuter. Then I remember this is Amarillo. There are no bike lanes and probably no bike commuters.
Ever play Pac-Man? That’s how biking in Amarillo feels. Maze-like streets abruptly end, forcing you away from where you want to go and somehow back to where you started, spooked by the pickup trucks on your ass like the ghosts out to get Pac-Man.
Doug already knows who I am because he rode with Max and Tyler, who I met in Oklahoma City. A big country can feel like a small town when you’re touring on a bicycle.
He’s from Philadelphia, went to Harvard, and is currently all over the place. After a job and relationship took a wrong turn in Texas, Doug is biking across America and then planning to move to Manhattan. He’ll find a new girl and a new job, but in his old field of corporate real estate. He does something savvy yet rapacious, but my ears plugged themselves during talk of the specifics.
“I foolishly moved to Houston to follow what I thought could be love, without first making sure it was solid, and then worried about finding work,” he says. “Being a 30-year-old man with no job and quickly dying confidence isn't sexy to anybody. So now I am going to roll the dice in the Big Apple.”
I hope his luck is better in New York than it has been on the road. This guy looks beat. Doug suffers from what I think is a nasty sunburn. The bulb of his nose is redder than an Irishman’s schnoz after a 50-year relationship with liquor. Yet neither UV rays nor alcohol is responsible for this cellulitis.
Doug admits that by picking his nose while riding, he introduced bacteria from his dirty fingernail right into his bloodstream. He went to the emergency room in Oklahoma City to have a giant abscess drained inside his nostril. Note to self: resist urge to pick face even though nobody is watching. I’ve already taken one detour to the ER, and getting punched by a meth-addled ax murderer makes for a better survival story.
I was prescribed a single antibiotic, but Doug has a pharmacopeia of drugs to prevent infection from traveling north to the brain.
“I’m on more pills than Magic Johnson!” he exclaims. I try to suppress laughter.
Just here for a pit stop, Doug isn’t dawdling around Amarillo. I can’t blame him, but would enjoy hearing more about his adventures over dinner and cold beer.
Adding mechanical insult to physical injury, last week his back tire blew out. For the third time. He thought he was over-inflating the tube or pinching it when pulling the tire back on, but turns out the metal belt woven into the tire was frayed and chafing the tube. The tires date back to the 90s, so it’s time for an upgrade. Luckily he had a spare to fix the back tire, and now wants a new front tire before entering the unforgiving desert in New Mexico.
Doug is more prepared than I am. He invested in maps, the durable ones produced by Adventure Cycling that detail the best bike route paralleling old Route 66. I never expected to make it this far, so I never mailed away for the $90 maps before I left New York. Now that I’m on Route 66, I haven’t been at an address long enough to receive them.
I bought a digital version, but never got the GPS exchange format file to work on my smartphone. I’d gladly pay top dollar for an inferior PDF copy, but Adventure Cycling doesn’t do that. Instead, in Google I trust. Its maps have guided me for free, but bad decisions like Alpha Road negate the cost savings.
The Harvard grad packed the maps. They fall into my trembling hands while Doug is across the room with an associate. I snap a dozen photos, giving myself what Adventure Cycling won’t: basic pinch-to-zoom images of my upcoming route. Necessity trumps guilt; I don’t want any more Alpha Roads in my future.
Doug departs and I wish him well, but my thoughts won’t be enough. Two hours later his chain jams from a raised abrasion. He’s able to remove the faulty link and swap it out with a spare, but he doesn’t have a tool to put the links back together. In the dark he manages to put on a spare chain, but will have to wait until Santa Fe for a full fix.
He’ll face more mechanical problems, bad weather and even lose his bike key in the California desert — with his bike locked at a gas station. I admire his perseverance. Doug is a doer. I am doing, too, but without bike knowledge, tools or maps. If my chain breaks or tube fails I don’t know what I would do. I have no backup plan.
I would have quit two time zones ago with a fraction of Doug’s issues. He is a fighter and good at fixing stuff. For me, one flat tire, one punch in the mouth, and one replacement set of tires are the worst mechanical and medical disruptions I’ll face. This is just enough adversity to make my trip meaningful, but not enough to abandon the bike and fly home.
With the rest of the day to kill, I’m ready for food. Something authentic and bikeable are my only prerequisites. The bike shop guys recommend El Tejavan for true Mexican, none of that Tex-Mex junk.
I know I’m gonna like this place just from the location. The restaurant is on an interstate frontage road, a backdoor connector for motorists, but home on the road to me.
Melina greets me with soft brown eyes and cheerful red lips. My waitress senses that I’ve wandered in off the street but am not local. Her English is fine, but when I slip in a few words of Spanish we switch to her native tongue. It’s the first time I’ve used Spanish in months and feels good to express myself on a new wavelength.
There is one thing I’m curious about and maybe Melina can help. Amarillo in Spanish means yellow. So, how do you pronounce this city en español if the name is already Spanish, although pronounced differently in English.
She smiles and answers, “AH-mah-REE-yoh” just like the color yellow in Spanish, but then changes her mind. She drops her voice and grunts, “Ama-RILL-AH.”
We both laugh. It’s true, that’s how they say this place — with an “a” instead of an “o” at the end of Amarillo.
Melina brings me horchata and a basket of complimentary chips and salsa, which is my baseline test for any Mexican place worth its salt. Homemade corn chips are perfectly crunchy and savory while the salsa is chunky and zesty. The rest of the meal is excelente.
With my stomach full and Spanish back to form, I decide to invest in a warmer sleeping bag. I’m not planning to camp anymore, but just in case I need to in November or December or whenever the hell I finish this ride, I will freeze to death with my current lightweight gear.
My sleeping bag was fine in August when it was 85 and humid along the C&O Canal in Maryland, but now it’s November and higher elevation awaits in New Mexico and Arizona where it’s cold enough to snow.
Amarillo is so spread out that for once I forget personal objections and shop at Walmart for convenience and low prices, just like the rest of ’merica. I have been doing my best to avoid big box stores and other chains. Limited exceptions include Subway foot-long veggie sandwiches, Dairy Queen blizzards and shakes, or a regional franchise I’ve never tried.
I’m also partial to Motel 6 because it’s the cheapest reliable national lodging chain. Local motels can be hit or miss, and the misses can be disgusting and/or dangerous. I will have great experiences in New Mexico and Arizona at local motels, but my scariest experience is here in Amarillo and at Motel 6.
That night cops swarm the parking lot outside my room. I don’t know if it was a stabbing or drug related crime, but the black pickup truck outside my room is covered in white powder to find fingerprints. I push the dresser against the door and hide under the covers hoping to see morning.
My one stop and one shop at a Walmart
I enter Walmart in search of a sleeping bag. About seven months later, this will be the scene of workplace violence that makes national news when an angry employee, an Iranian immigrant who had been passed over for a promotion, takes hostages and is killed by the SWAT team with no other casualties.
Timing is everything. Today is calm but sleeping bag selection is not good. The low temperature bags I seek are the size of hay bales. The only compact one is rated for 40 degrees, which sounds sorta warm enough to me. I will later learn, in trial by ordeal at Joshua Tree National Park, that sleeping bags rated for 40 degrees aren’t designed to keep you toasty in the cold; they’ll simply keep you alive.
The other survival item on my shopping list is an air horn, which I’ve heard is effective against chasing dogs. I’ve noted the air horn advantage over sprays. Doug feels differently. In his online journal he writes:
To find an air horn in a store the size of an airport hangar, I enlist the help of an associate. She leads me through the store in vain (it would have been in the birthday celebration aisle), but along the way I spot a different kind of fun. It won’t keep away dogs, but it will pimp my ride.
Countri Bike gets more street cred thanks to $1 sticker packs of sparkly alphabet letters, shiny patriotic stars and colorful U.S. states. I haven’t been this excited about stickers since second grade when I kept books of stickers for trading with classmates before maturing into baseball cards.
At self-check out, the machine goes berserk. It can’t handle such swag. Lights flash and a recording of “help is on the way” draws Sheila over to shut the machine up and help me scan the items.
“Oh, are these stickers of all the states?” she crows with interest.
How embarrassing. A grown man caught buying stickers at Walmart. This is why I used self-checkout in the first place.
“So yeah, well, it’s because I’m riding a bicycle across the states and I’m going to put them on my bike.”
“Oh, why that’s great. Where are you from?”
“Oh wow, well we have some rich folks in Amarillo who would have loved to take you around town.”
Rich people? I’m not sure how Shelia knows them or why they might be interested in a New Yorker on a bike, but I let her know I’m here for another night waiting to get my tires changed.
Outside, in a shady spot next to the garden center, I affix the stars and states on the bike. Chinese sticker makers are certainly not geographers. Each state is equally sized, so puny Delaware stacks up the same to titanic Texas. They also forgot Indiana.
That evening I return to a place called Ruby Mexico. It’s a bit on the inauthentic side, but great happy hour specials and free wi-fi win me over. It’s also not far from my hotel, and I don’t want to catch up on writing at a crime scene. Not my genre. I stay at the restaurant for hours and nobody bothers me until an airborne Sweet’N Low sachet lands on my table.
My first thought is to ignore likely bullying from drunk locals at the bar who saw my laptop and think I’m brainy.
“Hey you,” shouts April from across the booth. She and her girlfriend Jamie are finishing up dinner and drinks.
“I think you’re adorable.”
Oh boy. I was actually packing up and ready to call it a night. I don’t have the energy to see where this goes four margaritas later, but I give them my elevator speech of who I am and where I’m going.
“We will pray for you,” they say in unison and give me their business cards.
I’ll need more than prayers to make it the next few days when the wind will whip me into submission.