History repeats itself.
Nearly fifteen years ago I drove across the country. It was winter and I chased the sun down Route 66, alone and carefree.
The monumental snowstorm hit me in Texas—more than a foot of snow fell in less than six hours. The blizzard happened so fast, I watched as huge semi-trucks pushed forward for a mile and then gave up the fight, stuck in the endless pile of white. A little while later, the state patrol closed I-40 and turned me back around. This is how I came to spend five days in Amarillo, Texas once upon a time.
This year the snow hit before I arrived: 19 inches dropped in the finger snap of a day (breaking a 120-year-old record). When I arrived three days later, much of it was already melted, but the drifts at the airport were so high, had I packed my Flexible Flyer, I could have easily sled down from the door of the plane.
Welcome to the Texas Panhandle, where the weather’s as big as the land. The first time I was here, snowbound and sans internet, I spent my days wandering the thrift shops among the beige-brick blocks of downtown Amarillo. I was an unpaid intern, Grunge was still a thing, and I’d found a goldmine in the racks of cheap, hip, used clothing in the part of Texas that so few acknowledge as Texas.
All these years later, back in Amarillo, I found myself once again perusing the racks of so many vintage clothing stores, amazed by the fashion treasures of decades past. Though I’d spent the afternoon browsing the well-crafted exhibits of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, the real history of this flat and faraway bit of Texas is stuffed onto the shelves of shops along this painted stretch of Sixth Avenue. Beyond the biker bars and playful homage to Route 66, Amarillo offers some of the best antique shopping in America.
I don’t mean great big warehouses with rows upon rows of rocking horses—in Amarillo, every little piece seems to come from somewhere nearby, be it a faux crocodile clutch or a tiny glass-blown medicine bottle. One might conjecture that these treasures are the remnants of the prairie lifestyle—the wise conservatism of “waste not, want not.” Travel has shown me that people in remote places—especially islanders—tend to hold onto objects and make do much longer than those of us in the bustling, connected world.
Indeed, Amarillo is an island amidst an ocean of land. Driving the city’s red brick roads felt like rolling waves and the street of antiques felt like a tidal pool from forgotten America. As I drifted from one store to another, I watched shoppers react to the objects they discovered with delirious joy. At Rag And Bone Antiques I ran into the vivacious and couture-conscious Keitha Jones, an Amarillo native (and who, as you can see in this video, deserves her own reality show).
Like most Texans, Keitha and her friend Ash Marie were beyond hospitable and happy to offer me direction. With leather belts and bloomers, they navigated me through the esoteric laws of assembling artsy vintage outfits.
“It’s all about feathers right now,” Keitha instructed me, before moving onto a woman’s red silk underthing, “It’s called a garter and it was made for a teensy tiny person, but if you could fit in it—God!—it would be fabulous.”
It would be fabulous, I’m sure—I know so many people who would love to shop on this city’s Sixth Avenue versus another city’s Fifth Avenue.
After trying on a half-dozen outfits, Ash explained why she shops here, “The fashion in Amarillo is . . . you either buy it at the mall or you buy it used. So usually, buying it used is the better way to go. I prefer it—it’s usually more unique, something that you can’t find anymore.”
Ash Marie is an Amarillo artist and some of her work happened to be on display next door, at The 806 Café & Lounge. Using photographs and found objects, she puts together some rather amazing artwork. Some of it sells at local galleries like Process Art House, others she wears, like her necklace made with human bone (“You can buy it on the internet,” she explained).
I wouldn’t call the Amarillo art scene booming but I would call it real. I don’t think it a coincidence that my first Amarillo encounter was an artist who I bumped into while rummaging through vintage wardrobes on Sixth Avenue (déjà vu), nor could I pass up the chance to leave my own mark at Cadillac Ranch. Not far from the very spot where I was stopped in the snow so long ago, the art installation features ten old-time Cadillacs diving nose down into the dark frozen prairie soil. The cold metal cars have since been spray-painted into psychedelic oblivion as newcomers add new messages and their own bits of art.
Shivering in the bitter March wind, I approached this colorful car cemetery surrounded with patches of white ice and the early green sprouts of winter wheat. I had come to see art and this art had drawn me from the warmth of my car and into the middle of the Panhandle prairie, bare and severe. Leaning one hand on a graffitied car, I listened to the echoing song of semi-trucks on Route 66 and looked back at the strip of road that I drove down some fifteen years ago.
History repeats itself.
The piles of snow reminded me of my first Texas blizzard and some of trucks had not moved since last week’s storm. The only difference this time is that the road is open. I’m not stuck in Amarillo, like before. This time I flew here by choice, and today I will leave to begin my epic tour of Texas.