Leaving Amarillo, I weave through residential streets laid out in semi-circles and curves to break up the grid pattern of six-lane corridors with strip malls on either side. The result of this urban planning kinda looks like Pac-Man’s maze.
At the western edge of the city limits stands a Starbucks. I’m tempted to stop, but reaffirm my commitment to shun national chains. Two blocks behind Starbucks, development ends and open fields begin. This is going to be my life until Santa Fe.
A street marker for Helium Road rattling in the breeze is the first sign that despite blue skies I have an invisible problem coming my way. Like helium, the wind is colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-toxic. Amarillo was the unofficial helium capital of America. It sold the gas to the federal government, especially during the World Wars and later to NASA.
I pedal hard against the headwind. Adrenaline pumps me toward a landmark just three miles ahead.
A row of cars point nose down in the dirt of a fallow field. It’s no accident. Cadillac Ranch is best described as the “hood ornament of Route 66,” although it debuted in 1974, about a decade before the road’s decommissioning.
This is not a ranch, but an art installation — and a popular one. Planted in a field are 10 Cadillacs in order from oldest (1949) to newest (1963). Tail fins tilt skyward at the same angle as the Great Pyramid of Giza. Some say this is Texas’ homage to Stonehenge, but don’t spend too much time looking for mystical meaning here.
Three artists from San Francisco created it with backing from a wealthy and quirky benefactor. Stanley Marsh 3 (he disliked Roman numerals) was one of Amarillo’s favorite sons until the secrecy of his sordid past unraveled with a series of sexual abuse lawsuits. (Read more about his bizarre life here.) Public backlash against Marsh threatened the existence of Cadillac Ranch, but the cars could stay when it came to light that Marsh did not own the land — his wife’s family did.
Early photos are mesmerizing. The cars look fresh off the road, simultaneously suffering from a puzzling misfortune. They remind me of slices of bread stuck in a toaster. If the Earth shook or the winds shifted, maybe they’d pop out and drive on their merry way.
By the time I get to Cadillac Ranch, it isn’t the cars that catch my eye so much as the graffiti coating them. After decades of defacement, encouraged as part of the art's evolution, the cars look like junk. Empty aerosol cans litter the site. Out of metal to leave their mark, visitors tag the hardened dirt instead.
Getting the bike next to the cars is the most labor intensive photo op of the trip. A cattle fence with barbed wire surrounds the site. Instead of a gate to unlatch, there’s a walk-in entrance with tight, right-angle turns to allow humans to squeeze through while preventing livestock from doing the same. It also prevents my bike from rolling right in.
What I need is a crane, but luckily a guy leaving sees what I’m trying to do. From the other side of the fence he helps me lower the 45-pound bike gently to the ground. No one is on the receiving end when I’m leaving, so I struggle not to impale myself or the tires as I heave Countri Bike over the fence.
I reattach the trailer and hit the road again. The wind hits back. Every revolution requires the effort of three. I’m on Route 66, now reduced to a frontage road running next to modern I-40. I have no immediate connection with traffic on the interstate, but we clearly see each other and the whine of semis in the wind is haunting. I wonder what drivers think of me. Do they praise my strength and send me positive vibes to conquer the panhandle, or do they mock me for being an idiot alone in the elements without engine or enclosure.
I don’t really care because I’m doing something they’ll never do. I’m seeing America by my own might, inching across the landscape come hell or high winds. Nevertheless, I admit to being car envious now. This wind is really a problem. A weather app shows sustained 18 mph winds from the west gusting to 22 mph. It will only get worse.
An SUV pulling a U-Haul trailer passes slowly then stops. Jay and Jess hop out. They’re migrating west from Brooklyn to Colorado with their two-year-old son. Tired of the struggle and expense of making things work in Greenpoint, they’re relocating to Ft. Collins for a better life. Their family is from the area and their parents gifted them their house so they’re not under pressure to find new jobs right away to pay the rent.
Stunned to see a Citi Bike in the Texas panhandle, they pulled over. Jay remembers reading about my trip in the news after I got punched. I fill them in on why I left. Here on the barren plains of north Texas, three former New York City residents share common grievances of why the Big Apple no longer felt like home.
At least the young couple has their next move mapped out. I do not. In fact, at this pace I doubt I’ll make it to Vega where I plan to spend the night. Jen asks if there’s anything she can do for me — water, fruit, a pack of gummy candies (moms with young children always have these on hand). Really the only thing I want is a ride, but they’re not going to throw out their toddler on the roadside to make space for me and my bike.
With nothing more to say, we take a windswept selfie to mark this chance encounter as my unattended bike and trailer topple over in the wind.
As they drive away, safe in their SUV, I feel the pit in my stomach. I think about my past life in New York, that while not perfect, was steady and comfortable. Certainly better than plodding through the Texas panhandle on a bicycle on a gusty November afternoon. I’m alone again, internally unsettled and externally overpowered by nature, now packing sustained punches of 22 mph.
There’s nowhere to seek shelter. Cycling is futile. I begin walking across America, wishing I had buried the bike at Cadillac Ranch.
With so little to look at, I strain my eyes to scan billboards as soon as they appear on the horizon. I don’t just read, I study. The advertised service. The exit. The choice of words. Punctuation. Font. Colors. The hidden message that nobody else sees.
I even look at signs on the other side of the interstate. It’s a good thing I do because I would have missed a yellow and green advertisement for $29.99 rooms. Could it be true? Instructions to the Royal Inn are simple: Exit Now - Under Pass & Right.
The faded billboard doesn’t give me hope the motel still exists, but I’m even less confident moving 13 more miles to the larger town of Vega. It’s almost 4 p.m. and with this wind I’ll never make it before dark.
I’m beat. I heed the command to “Exit Now” and pedal towards the rusty, battered grain silos of Wildorado where local streets aren’t paved and houses — the few that stand — have windmills in their yard.
A quick check of Google Maps yields a surprising result. Not only does Royal Inn still exist, but it gets four and five star reviews. Users say it looks nostalgic yet clean, like something your 1970s grandmother would own. It’s less than $35 a night. There’s a restaurant next door. Food. Shelter. Say no more.
The motel manager (Indian, of course) proudly lives in a two bedroom unit with living room. Fancy digs. He lives where he works and he works 24 hours a day. Don’t worry, his commute is pretty short. He doesn’t need a car or even a Citi Bike. He just rolls outta bed or off the couch whenever someone rings the bell.
He asks where I’m headed. The next notable settlement is Tucumcari, New Mexico 95 miles west. What does he know of it — good restaurants, watering holes, attractions? With typical Indian gesticulation, he bobbles his head with displeasure. Tucumcari? Oh no, no, no. He hasn’t been to Tucumcari since 1994 when his brother lived there. It’s too big he tells me. It’s just down the road I tell him. He prefers small towns and Wildorado is just the one for him.
Next door, Windy Cow Cafe is just for me. I’m the only patron at this cute spot named for the two things Texas has too much of. The restaurant beats expectations with whimsical wall art and the best fried catfish, oh-so-moist, and homemade tartar sauce. I choose sides of slaw and mashed potatoes and order coconut cream pie for dessert, which I totally deserve.
Unlimited sweet tea refills replenish my fluids that the wind stole over 21.2 miles. Today is my worst performance to date, but I’m lucky to land here rather than on the side of the road in a tent.
I’m sipping tea the color of amber sun rays that soften this harsh landscape to one of beauty. I’m not fooled. I’m thankful to be sitting in here and not pedaling out there. My straw sucks on ice just as my eyes widen in disbelief. Out of nowhere a black guy passes by on a bicycle... two things you don’t see in this part of the nation.
He’s young and wearing stylish black frame glasses. He’s on a fixie and has no helmet or belongings other than a shoulder bag resting flat on his back as if casually riding home after work.
But we’re far from anywhere cosmopolitan. He can’t be a bike commuter all the way out here, so where is he coming from and where is he going? There’s nada til Vega and he won’t make it before sundown. His gaze is calm and his movement sleek, riding unarmed and unafraid into the windy darkness.