Is This the Way to Amarillo?

I'm back! I took a month off to finish writing the book proposal and move to Tulsa, OK.

The only place of importance in the Texas panhandle is Amarillo. Every highway sign points to it. Tony Christie sang about it, and Is This the Way to Amarillo became a huge hit in his native England. (Not so much the United States… people in Amarillo haven’t even heard of this song.)

Billboards starting in Oklahoma count down miles to The Big Texan, an Amarillo steakhouse with a dino-sized 72 ouncer. It’s yours free if you eat it — and side dishes — within an hour and without leaving the table or even standing up. Many have tried and many have failed to finish 4.5 pounds of meat in time, and get billed a reasonable $72. Count me out. I’ll stick with Big Vern’s in Shamrock.

It’s morning in Groom and I've survived the night in the spooky boarding house. I hit the local grocery because no services are available until Amarillo. My projected distance of 48 miles is fewer than the previous two days, but when done I’ll be weeping like a willow, as Tony Christie would say.

I continue to parallel I-40 West. The only thing on the empty horizon is straight road. I focus on cracks in the pavement, looking for patterns and meaning. The air is dry, the sun is hot and the sky is blue to infinity.

After an hour, a landmark looms in the distance. Not so tall or memorable as Groom’s cross, but it’s something to break the horizon: a highway overpass. I squeeze myself into a shadow, the only shade I’ve had all day, and rip open a bag of Wheat Thins I bought that morning. I eat too many crackers that I should be saving for later, but I want them all right now. I battle myself to stop eating and reach a cease-fire with two-thirds gone. The salty aftermath triggers a furious thirst. I drink water, too much. I have at least five more hours with no point of resupply.

Thirty miles from Amarillo, Google Maps suggests two ways to get there. I take the road less traveled, turning away from Route 66 and I-40 to save a few miles. The potential downside is something called Alpha Road. There’s no street preview, which is a red flag. No Google car has ever been on this road, meaning it could be unfit for a vehicle. What about a bicycle? I’m about to find out.

I’ve learned a lot about Google bike directions since getting lost in New Jersey. Because of unknown surface conditions, I avoid roads without previews. They may look like roads on the map, but in reality could be ATV trails or cow paths. Alpha Road, what are you?

Against my own advice, I turn off Route 66 and onto Texas-207, pedaling two miles south into strong headwinds. Google voice navigation preps me to turn right onto Alpha Road in 600 feet. I then expect to hear something like, “Continue on Alpha Road for four miles,” which is about the most I’ll do on unpaved roads because rough conditions can slow my pace to a crawl.

I turn onto Alpha Road and almost fall off the bike. The dirt I expect, the distance I don’t. Google tells me to continue for 11 miles. This is going to take a while.

Alpha Road, Bicycle Blues
Pedal after pedal I’m crossing the panhandle. Vast plains surround me. Farmland and sky, nothing to break the horizon except wind turbines slowly chopping the air. Paw prints point me forward. What will I find?

Packed dirt makes for smooth riding — at first. Something shiny catches my eye. It’s glass and totally out of place. Not just a small shard or two, but pieces as if a chandelier from heaven came crashing down.

I can’t make sense of why so much broken glass is scattered like dangerous breadcrumbs along an unused road. Dirt gives way to gravel, but the glass continues and the gravel itself becomes uneven and sharp. With the treads on my front tire beginning to separate, I’m forced to dismount and walk the bike for fear of popping a tube on the bike or trailer. Most cyclists only have two wheels to worry about. I have four!

A cottontail rabbit scampers from the brush across the road. A snake appears, slithering across my path. Its raised head is motionless and focused, reminding me of a commuter dashing through Grand Central.

Alpha Road is more alive than meets the eye... or the map. The water around me is closing in until it covers the path. The road runs through a lake. Am I hallucinating in the Texas sun? The water is shallow so I try to ride through it, but wheels sink into the soft soil and I dismount with a splash.

Water fowl skip across the surface and take flight, unimpressed at my clumsy encroachment on their habitat. To me it's an obstacle course, but to migratory birds this is a rest stop called a playa lake. It's the most important ecological feature in the Texas High Plains, yet is also threatened thanks to road construction (looking at you, Alpha).

My shoes squish like soggy sponges. The mysterious glass, sharp gravel and unexpected water are sapping my energy more quickly than the miles I have left to Amarillo. Ranch houses in the distance are the only lifelines if Alpha Road proves to be more than I can handle. To ward off despair, I reach for a snack. The crunch of Wheat Thins fills the air.

When Alpha Road finally ends, so does my peace with the pampas. I trade dirt in the grasslands for asphalt cutting towards the city. To get on US-287, I rattle across railroad tracks moments before automatic arms come clanging down to warn of an approaching train.

The highway shoulder is wide, but the speed limit is a scary 75. An SUV full of assholes screams at me from open windows. Panic sweeps over my body. I’m bracing to get run off the road or pelted with beer bottles, but the threat disappears into the distance.

I enter Amarillo unscathed, yet too exhausted to snap a selfie with the welcome sign on a median of I-40. Walking my bike across the interstate seems like a bad idea even when at full strength.

Instead I ride to a store because I’m out of fluids. Hana Travel Plaza is a trucker’s delight. Parking aplenty, diesel cheap, restrooms clean and cafeteria fried chicken. There’s also a store with pricey chrome truck parts and LED light bars, turn signal lamps and accent lights that could add flash to a trucker's trailer or my bike trailer.

Too dehydrated to contemplate such accessories, I stagger over to a wall of coolers stocked full of energy elixirs and sugary carbonation. I want to squeeze in between the bottles and cool off. Then I see another way to beat the heat. Coconut water is in stock. I haven’t seen this for sale since St. Louis. Nothing to me is more refreshing. I buy two and sit outside on the curb gulping them while diesel fumes singe my nostrils. Paradise isn’t always perfect.

Tony Christie, I now know the way to Amarillo and it sounds a lot better in your snappy 70s song than in real life. It may be the only dot on the map in the Texas panhandle, but Amarillo is so spread out that it spills into an adjacent county. City limits extend about 15 miles wide, and that’s not counting Rick Husband airport, named for the hometown astronaut who perished aboard Space Shuttle Columbia when it disintegrated coming back to Earth in 2003.

Crossing Amarillo isn’t as dangerous as atmospheric re-entry, but plodding along interstate access roads and unending strip malls is no Earthly delight either.

Part of what made today so draining was the lack of interaction with humans. Both Alpha Road and my route through Amarillo feel like two long days. After a breakfast and lunch consisting of apples, guacamole and Wheat Thins, I’m ready for a big dinner. The Big Texan is too far, but my nose catches a scent. The smoker from Tyler’s BBQ is blowing meaty fumes across the parking lot and into my motel room. Dinner solved, dinner served.