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Amarillo Supersize It

By Lavender September 11, 2008

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The man beside me is eating a 72-ounce steak. It’s $72. Or it’s free if he can finish. It’s Texas. Everything is bigger in our second-biggest state (after Alaska), and here, at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, the beef is no exception. My miniscule 16-ounce portion was mighty tasty, too. So were the bulls’ balls—er, calf fries—that preceded it.

Amarillo’s Palo Duro Canyon comes supersized as well. At 100 miles long and 800 feet deep, here in its 26,000-acres state park, we’re hiking on what was once the ocean floor. These days, it’s dotted with mesquite, cottonwoods, and purple-blooming cactus, and striated with hiking and equestrian trails where Comanches once hunted buffaloes.

(top to bottom) River Breaks Ranch;”Cadillac Canyon” featuring a Texas bumper crop; World Championship Chuck Wagon Roundup; Marvelous Palo Duro Canyon. Photos by Carla Waldemar

Its soul-warming pink and coral stone walls glow with the morning sun, and the view is, in a Texas understatement, awesome.

Charlie Goodnight, the area’s first Anglo cowboy/explorer, set up ranching here.

He knew a good thing when he saw it.

So did Bill Cornett, a present-day cowboy who owns River Breaks Ranch, boasting a canyon of its own. Its 2,000 acres are breeding grounds for cattle, horses, wheat, cotton, oil—and tourists. Cornett offers wagon-bed rides, during which cattle stampede past our busy cameras. Back at the ranch, he serves us a typical range breakfast of eggs, sausage, beans, and cloud-light biscuits to drench with cream gravy, while he spins tales of the early days, when Spanish explorer Coronado ambled by, looking for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold.

No luck. But black gold—oil (or “awl,” as we learn to say it here)—made those supersized Amarillo fortunes. Walk into the Panhandle Plains Museum that oil money built, and you confront a derrick. Follow the “tunnel of love,” as Curator Michael Grauer terms the oil-drilling story it contains, to the oils by Georgia O’Keeffe, who taught art students in Amarillo for two years. Called—another superlative—the Smithsonian of Texas, the museum also houses a re-created Pioneer Village and a stunning cache of Native American artifacts. It also has an exhibit of firearms manufactured by Samuel Colt, whom Grauer dubs “the Bill Gates of his time.”

The American Quarter Horse Museum is dedicated to the uniquely American breed developed for speed and stamina by our Colonists for quick quarter-mile races. Climb onto a saddle, peer into a chuck wagon, and learn more than you ever will want to know about doctoring a quarter horse. Or stick around after breakfast at River Breaks to watch its quarter horse races, placing bets of funny money, and yelling for your nag. I bet $100 on Lavender, who trotted in a gentlemanly second.

The cattle auction every Tuesday adds another layer of history and understanding to the vibe of Amarillo—and as our guide, Daphne, shared, “The view isn’t too bad, either, what with all those cowboys coming in.”

We continued the chase at Cowboy Roundup USA, held the first weekend in June, to watch the boys in action, blasting balloons with pistol shots, as they galloped along a track of hairpin turns. But (no surprise) I was here for the food.

In another hot competition, chuck wagon cooks—16 wagons this year—compete for top honors preparing their particular versions of traditional chuck wagon fare: chicken-fried beef, beans, mashed potatoes, biscuits and gravy, and peach cobbler. A $10 dollar ticket buys you freedom to line up in the heat of the mesquite fires, and sample as many as belt and wisdom allow.

Whatever you do, don’t miss Paul Geeghin, aka The Gentleman from Odessa, who cooks for ranches and game hunts. His secret? “My meat’s best, because it’s soaked overnight in buttermilk.” Rivals Jean and Sue claim braggin’ rights “because we grew up cooking this way: Daddy has a ranch.” Meanwhile, a nearby contestant was sweating it, stirring his black kettle mightily “to see if my gravy’s gonna git.” Not to worry: It thickened nicely.

Bigger, better, or weirder: Amarillo has it all. Making claims to the latter, a visit to Cadillac Ranch is a must. On an unmarked stretch on I-40 stand 10 Cadillacs, vintage 1941-63, buried nose-down by eccentric millionaire Stanley Marsh III—“a Texas bumper crop,” as wags declare. Or the Stonehenge of autos. Encouraging creativity, he welcomes the graffiti that visitors contribute with spray paint on a daily basis.

More conventional (wait!—wrong word for Amarillo) expressions of creativity find home in the town’s new Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts. And state of the art it is. But it’s also down-home. As its Board President explained, “It’s done in the colors of Palo Duro Canyon. It’s wood and fabric, not glass-and-brass-and marble” like some big-city showoff halls she could name. Oh, no: Instead, it resonates with Amarillo’s roots. The roof, in fact, is formed of metal cattle-truck panels. Twice, they hung up on the architect, thinking it was a prank when he called to place his order. The center is home to the city’s symphony, opera, and ballet companies, as well as jazz and bluegrass combos. When it comes to theater, look for productions like Urinetown rather than Hello, Dolly.

Let’s not forget the Amarillo Museum of Art, a mini-Walker with shows like a retrospective of sassy Grace Hartigan paintings, Georges Roualt’s controversial war prints, and a photo gallery highlighting Cowboys at Work. Free jazz concerts every third Thursday, too.

First Fridays, get set for an open house of artists occupying a former shopping center reborn as Sunset Center.

What other city, I ask you, has an official VP of Quality of Life on its payroll? Really.

Yep, cowboys and culture coexist here. Same goes for the food.

Looking beyond The Big Texan, consider Macaroni Joe’s contemporary take on Texas classics like fried green tomatoes with mango jalapeño aioli and ancho ginger dressing; beef topped with basil-cilantro-roasted corn salsa; or green-chili pasta.

Meanwhile, over at BL Bistro, enjoy quail stuffed with spinach, almonds, and prosciutto; pesto-laced shrimp atop corn cakes; or Dijon-frosted filet with blue-cheese risotto and Chardonnay sauce.

At OHMS, the hits of the menu include elk tenderloin with wild mushroom risotto and Cabernet beurre rouge, and ancho chile-rubbed wild salmon in tequila-lime sabayon.

Don’t get all uppity on me: A popular snack at an Amarillo Dillas baseball game is a frito pie. Just tear open a bag of chips, lob in a scoop of chili, and eat it right from the sack.

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