Surviving I-40 with Buried Cars, a Blue Hole, and a Big Hunk

There are no two ways around it: I-40 through the Texas panhandle is a beast. That’s primarily because there are no two ways around it.

You can take Route 66, but that parallels the interstate so closely that, unless you’re on a mission to follow the original alignment, you’re better off taking advantage of the highway’s faster speeds and jumping off when you want to see some of the highlights.

We’d previously driven the Mother Road so this time we opted for speed. It was going to be our third night in a row without planned accommodations, and while the previous two nights had gone smoothly, we were getting pretty tired.

Since we were on Route 66 (essentially) we had to stop at Cadillac Ranch. This quirky art installation is definitely one of the highlights, even by quirky Route 66 standards. Ten Cadillacs buried nose down in the middle of a Texas field, covered a thousand times over by layers and layers of spray paint – how could you not pull over?

Cadillac Ranch
Cadillac Ranch
Layers of paint on a tire at Cadillac Ranch
Layers of paint on a tire at Cadillac Ranch

Planted by a couple of architects and an artist and funded by a local millionaire, this installation has been public art – in the literal sense – since 1974.

Entrance is through a turnstile, also covered in graffiti, and a wide dirt path leads you to the vehicles, some of which are now 70 years old. Cans of spray paint litter the ground around cars held together by acrylic and hope.

Due to the encroachment of nearby Amarillo the installation was moved two miles west of its original location in the late 90s. At this point, I’m not sure how much longer it’ll be around. We noticed a visible deterioration from our visit nearly six years prior.

Child running towards Cadillac Ranch
Woman painting a car at Cadillac Ranch
Woman painting a car at Cadillac Ranch

It’s odd. It’s quirky. It also wasn’t the last time we’d see cars buried as art (but I’ll tell you about that when the time comes).

On our first visit to Cadillac Ranch we were bystanders. This time? We were artists. We painted a red heart with our initials in white on a tire (I know, I know), and a door got the “Two Lane Gems Tour” treatment in black.

Find a place to stay near Cadillac Ranch

Marks made, we got back on 40. Our next exit was Adrian, Texas. About forty miles down the road from Cadillac Ranch, it’s the official halfway point between Santa Monica and Chicago.

We missed it our first time through this stretch, so we took a quick detour for the photo op and continued heading west, doing a little dance when we crossed into New Mexico.

Route 66 Halfway Point
Route 66 Halfway Point

By the time we arrived at Santa Rosa State Park that evening we were exhausted. We were so tired the mere idea of picking a campsite wore us out. It had gotten progressively chillier and grayer and we had made yet another tourist stop, this time at the Blue Hole of Santa Rosa. Stuck in the middle of the desert, it’s one of the most popular spots for – of all things – SCUBA dive training.

The Blue Hole is an artesian well that used to be a fish hatchery and the water is as blue as the skies above Palo Duro Canyon. The surface is an unassuming sixty feet in diameter.

Honestly, it doesn’t look like much. But underneath, the bottom is eighty feet down and the walls bell out to more than double the surface.

Because it was February and cold and we don’t dive and a myriad of other reasons, we simply looked at the buoys, climbed to the overlook and back down, and headed back to the car. It reminded me of the time I took my son, then eight, to see the Chicago River dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day. His response was “Yep. It’s green. Let’s go.”

Yep. The Blue Hole of Santa Rosa is blue.

Blue Hole of Santa Rosa
Blue Hole of Santa Rosa
Blue Hole of Santa Rosa

I know it’s amazing for divers, but for two days in a row we had set up and taken down our living arrangements and were going to have to do it again and I think at that point, Day 6 and 1500-some miles in, we were d-o-n-e.

We found the grocery store in town, picked up ingredients for steak tacos, and headed towards the park, hoping for another easy night.

Entering Santa Rosa Lake
Entering Santa Rosa Lake

The drive into Santa Rosa State Park was more subtle than the entrances to the previous two parks we visited. We even wondered if we were in the right place until we saw the overlook tower, crossed the dam, and saw signs for the visitor center.

We came to a campground on a hill and as was true every day since we’d left, it was a completely different environment than the one we’d experienced the day before. Instead of cottonwoods and hackberry trees there were piñon pines and cholla cacti. We were definitely in the southwest.

Santa Rosa Dam and Lake in Santa Rosa, New Mexico
Santa Rosa Dam and Lake

We entered the nearly empty Rocky Point campground. One of the benefits of camping in the offseason is we basically had our pick of the litter. Not ones to crowd, we selected a campsite that was set apart from the two other occupied sites. Jim started to set up the tent. As he started to hammer the stakes, I heard Tink. Tink.

“Um, Theresa?”

“Yes, hon?”

“This campsite is rock. The stakes won’t go in.”

Crap.

Surprisingly we had internet, so we searched online for another campground but there was nothing nearby. We really, really didn’t want to get a hotel. We’d already had one unexpected motel expense. Two within the first week would be a considerable issue on a trip of this length.

After grousing a bit, we tested another campsite and breathed a sigh of relief when the stakes went right into the soil.

The guy in the camper across from us, however, huffed and puffed and wanted to blow our tent down. He, like the turkeys in Palo Duro Canyon, flat-out glared at us.

If you camp, you know that glaring is not allowed. It’s a universal requirement that you smile, wave (or at least offer a slight nod of your head), and say “how’s it going?” or something of the sort.

Then again, it’s also known that if there are thirty sites open you do not set up camp next door to the only other camper in sight.

If only we’d had a chance to explain, but Grumpy McGrumperson stomped into his camper and slammed the door. Harumph.

I woke up the next morning when it was still pitch black and passed Mr. McGrumperson on the way to the bathrooms. That would have put a bit of a taint on my day if it weren’t for a) the other, normal, not crabby camper who met me with a nod and a “hello, bit chilly for you?” and b) the glorious sunrise greeting me on the way back.

It was different from any sunrise I’d ever seen. Soft and diffused, it bathed the hill with a Glamour-shots filtered warmth. I say “hill,” but at this point we were at an elevation of 4,800 feet. We’d been climbing steadily higher and were 4,000 feet above where we’d started. Hard to believe the next week we’d be below sea level.

Sunrise at Santa Rosa Lake State Park
Sunrise at Santa Rosa Lake State Park
Sunrise at Santa Rosa Lake State Park
Cholla cactus at Santa Rosa State Park
Santa Rosa Lake State Park

That sunrise was the third morning in a row that I’d seen a new world awaken. Same sun, same sky, yet a whole new world.

This world was ready and raring to go. It was a Red Flag Warning day and the winds were banshee-screaming-in-your-face strong (I blame McGrumperson).

We skipped breakfast and started packing up and Jim was folding up the tent and I had visions of them both flying away, picked up by a gust like a hot air balloon. Later he laughed about it, saying the wind just blew the dirt off the tarps and helped him fold them. (I love that man.)

On the way out of the park we stopped at the Visitor Center. Write this down: ALWAYS STOP AT THE VISITOR CENTER. The people who work at any visitor center do so because they love the place you’re visiting and they want to tell you about it.

Mr. Sanchez from the Army Corp of Engineers, who operates the facilities, came from behind the desk and told us about the park and suggested a hiking trail. We skipped the hike because of the intense wind, but we were able to visit the overlook (and not get blown into the lake) before heading on our way.

We splurged on breakfast at the iconic Sun and Sand Motel. A diner in a shuttered motel might not seem like much of a splurge, but not only were we cutting costs where we could, if we ate biscuits and gravy and omelets with American cheese slices melted on top every day we’d have to buy new clothes by day 15.  

The food was decent, but they could have been serving actual sand for breakfast and Jim would have been OK, because as soon as we walked in he noticed they had Big Hunk for sale.

Big Hunk is a “chewy, honey-sweetened nougat bar with whole roasted peanuts” and it’s something we can’t get in Illinois or anywhere near home. Ask him about it and you’d swear he’s a nine-year-old kid talking about his Red Ryder BB gun. Forget the rocky campsite and Mr. McGrumperson and the fact that we still had 24 more days to go – he had a Big Hunk.

And so did I.

(Yes. I went there.)

Sun & Sand Motel in Santa Rosa, New Mexico
Sun & Sand Motel in Santa Rosa, New Mexico

We left Sun and Sand and got back on I-40, buffeted by intense winds and passing through a landscape that was washed out like an old billboard. After three days of fending for ourselves, we were ready for structure and social interaction. We were ready for Albuquerque.

Surviving I-40 through the Texas Panhandle with stops at Cadillac Ranch, Route 66 halfway point, and the Blue Hole of Santa Rosa. #RoadTrip #USARoadTrip #CadillacRanch