“Amarillo started as a cow town,” Michael Grauer tells me, surrounded by artifacts from my hometown’s ranching past. “It will always be a cow town, no matter how many bankers or lawyers or doctors you bring in. That’s what we are and that’s how the rest of the world sees us.”
He’s right. My travels as a writer have taken me to Central America, South America, and Europe. When I tell locals I’m from Amarillo, Texas, their eyes light up. They ask if I have horses or a cowboy hat. I answer in the negative, though I do own a pair of boots I never wear. Worldwide, I’m a pretty disappointing ambassador for Amarillo.
Like most kids who grew up in 1970s Amarillo, my childhood was entrenched in cowboy culture, attending local rodeos and the famed outdoor drama “Texas” every summer in Palo Duro Canyon. Early photos show my brother and me wearing chaps and spurs—without irony—and firing imitation Colt Revolver cap guns as we raced stick horses around the yard. My favorite birthday present each year was a new set of boots from my grandparents. But, growing up without land or horses, I developed shallow Western roots, leaving my cowboy phase behind as quickly as I grew out of those size-three ropers.
My hometown hasn’t shed that Western authenticity quite so easily. Yes, Amarillo has developed into a modern city. With upwards of 230,000 residents in its metro area, Amarillo is the shopping, medical, and cultural hub of the Texas Panhandle. Interstate 40 may be lined with hotels and steakhouse chains, and suburban sprawl may be encroaching on the surrounding ranchland, but despite that growth, good people who work the land, wear boots, and pull horse trailers still populate the area. Amarillo is still a Western town. Those roots run deep.
Wondering about those roots brought me to Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, 15 miles south in the city of Canyon, Texas. Michael Grauer, PPHM’s curator of art and Western heritage, explains Amarillo’s iconic place in the American west. “Cowboys never lose their allure,” he says. Over nearly three decades here at the largest history museum in Texas, he’s guided countless tour groups through its enormous collection. “We’ll have tourists from Japan or Germany who’ll get off the bus in their ten-gallon hats. You can see them beaming. They are here at the nexus of the Western universe.”
Located at West Texas A&M University, Panhandle Plains is a haven of Old West stories and relics, from Quanah Parker’s Comanche headdress to some of the finest southwestern art in the nation. The museum’s immersive Pioneer Town offers a hands-on look at life as an early settler. Additional displays introduce visitors to windmills, chuck wagons, cattle drives, and the railroad.
Those train tracks put Amarillo on the map. Once cattlemen brought their herds to the open plains, the railroad followed. The Amarillo town site sprang up in 1887 as the Fort Worth and Denver City Railroad crossed the Panhandle. Within a decade, it was one of the world’s largest cattle-shipping stations.
Grauer says visitors to the museum view the pioneer days through a romantic lens. He scuffs it up. “It wasn’t glamorous,” he says. If the Native Americans, maddening winds, or droughts didn’t send the early settlers packing, the forbidding terrain did. “The biggest enemy was the vastness and aloneness,” he explains. “These farms and ranches were far, far apart. Today we can get in a car and drive to Amarillo in 15 minutes. That used to be a two-day trip.”
Determined to reconnect with that heritage, I take advantage of modern travel and embark on my own cowboy tour, heading east on Highway 217. Not anywhere close to two days later—it takes 15 minutes—I approach Palo Duro Canyon State Park. This is where the bottom drops out of the High Plains, resulting in the most beautiful and unexpected feature of these vast flatlands: the second-largest canyon in America.
The 800-foot deep, 120-mile long PDC is filled with campsites, hiking and horseback riding trails, lizards, snakes, and breathtaking scenery. Formed as the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River dug through red and orange sandstone, the canyon boasts impossible cliffs, mesas, caves, and hoodoos.
I’m no stranger to PDC, but what I often forget is that the state park has only been around since 1934. Before that, it was home to Comanche and Kiowa tribes before the military displaced them. A mile ahead of the entrance, a giant leaning arrow south of the road marks a trail Quanah Parker followed leading his people—just one of many such roadside arrows in the Panhandle that recall this iconic Native American, son of a Comanche warrior and his white captive, Cynthia Ann Parker.
Another historical marker greets me inside the park entrance. It notes the establishment of the old JA Ranch by legendary Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight and Englishman John Adair, who grazed more than 100,000 head of cattle across a million acres centered around the canyon. The sign says it was “one of the greatest cattle operations in the world.”
A replica of Charles Goodnight’s original dugout, located roadside a few miles into the park, shows just how unglamorous the pioneer life was. Lean carelessly against its cottonwood walls and you’ll end up with an armful of splinters.
One organization celebrating the less glamorous and more practical side of the West is the Working Ranch Cowboys Association. Based in Amarillo, this worldwide member organization exists to support real cowboys working on real ranches. I stop by the WRCA headquarters in downtown Amarillo, where I meet Randy Whipple, one of the organization’s founders.
Within the small office suite, he introduces me to WRCA manager Mandy Morton and assistant manager Kaycee Hooper. Both grew up on working ranches in New Mexico and are busy planning this year’s 20th anniversary of the annual World Championship Ranch Rodeo, Nov. 12–15.
“We did it to bring attention to the working cowboy,” says Whipple of the WRCA’s genesis in 1995. “We’re supporting the cowboy that you can’t really see when you’re driving down the highway. He’s horseback out there working cattle to put steak on your plate.” Unlike professional rodeos, the WRCA was designed to feature the actual daily skills working cowboys use on their ranches. As many as 160 ranch teams across the United States compete at sanctioned, smaller rodeos to make it to Amarillo.
This championship is easily the largest event Amarillo hosts every year. Along with the teams and their families, it attracts dozens of leading Western-related vendors to the weekend. “It’s a true destination event,” Whipple says. “People come to shop. They have their family reunions and company meetings here. They do business with AQHA. They save up to order saddles, horse trailers, and everything else.”
They also come for the food.
I leave WRCA and drive to Grand Street, heading for Coyote Bluff Café, a tiny restaurant that opened in the mid-90s but looks like something straight out of 1947. It occupies a strange place in the Amarillo food scene, a hidden gem known more outside the city than inside. In 2008, Adam Richman of “Man vs. Food” tackled the menu’s spicy Burger from Hell, but Coyote Bluff still manages to be one of Amarillo’s well-kept secrets. Except in the case of the WRCA. This place will be hopping over rodeo weekend.
I count 12 tables packed between the wood-paneled walls. All but two are filled with patrons—businessmen in dress clothes, laborers in work boots, a family of five with an infant, and a group of women wearing upscale jewelry.
My wife and I choose an empty table next to a porcelain bathtub crammed with beer bottles and ice. The green-checked tablecloths, walls crowded with Route 66 paraphernalia, and paper-towel rolls instead of napkins give it the atmosphere of a classic burger dive—which it is. My bacon cheeseburger arrives after only a few minutes, so thick I can barely bite into it, but worth the struggle.
Some advice: Coyote Bluff is cash-only, a single order of fries is enough for two, and don’t pull up with your horse trailer. As hard as it is to find an empty table, it’s even harder to find a parking spot in the small lot.
Whipple had mentioned AQHA, so my wife and I part ways as I pay a visit to the American Quarter Horse Association. Amarillo is, of course, home to the largest single-breed animal registry in the world, and the AQHA Hall of Fame and Museum is one of the most striking buildings along I-40.
Inside, I meet Melissa Loftin, AQHA’s community outreach liaison. She knows AQHA is a first stop for the ranchers and working cowboys who come for the rodeo. In the museum’s Grand Hall, we step across a section of floor engraved with a bloodlines chart of American Quarter Horses.
“Most of the owners who come will look at these names,” she says, pointing out the names descending from the first American-bred racehorse, Sir Archy; the foundation horse, Steel Dust; and the “mystery” stallion, Traveler, whose breeding is unknown. “They’re trying to understand the lineage of their horse. What was so significant about [the quarter horse] Go Man Go? What did Baby Doll Combs do that was so great?” She says the museum exists to educate those visitors.
AQHA recently renovated its entire second floor to put those Hall of Fame horses into national historical context. As for the local context, Loftin says Amarillo is an ideal match for AQHA. “Amarillo is the cowboy capital of the world,” she says. “Tourists expect to see a cowboy or two when they visit our fair city.”
There’s one, I think, watching an elderly man move slowly from one display case to the next. He’s reading about the ranchers, the working horses, and the breeders in the AQHA Hall of Fame, with his crisp white shirt and cowboy hat reflected in the glass. I imagine his personal history is reflected there, too.
Touring the entire museum takes about an hour. As I exit the parking lot, I slow down to give the next visitor space as he pulls in. It’s a weathered truck driven by a man in a cowboy hat. He’s pulling a horse trailer.
There are more than one million cattle in the feedlots surrounding Amarillo. Annually, hundreds of thousands of them pass through the Amarillo Livestock Auction, located off 3rd Avenue between sets of railroad tracks. The complex was built in the 1930s and has managed—along with the surrounding neighborhood—to miss the modernization the rest of the city has benefitted from. And yet, it’s also home to one of Amarillo’s most legendary restaurants, the Stockyard Café.
My wife and I arrive here for breakfast on a cloudy Thursday after a long night of rain. The main weekly auction is on Mondays, which means the parking lot and surrounding cattle pens are empty. The café occupies the northwest corner of the auction house, behind a metal door built into a wood-paneled wall. A nearby chalkboard touts the day’s specials.
Open for breakfast and lunch, the Stockyard Café has had several owners in the 50 years it’s been open. Its legend blossomed a few years back when Amarillo native and New York City-trained chef Tim Youngblood took it over, earning national publicity on The Food Network and Travel Channel. But Youngblood moved out in 2013, and the café is now run by Missy Treadway, whose family owned it before Youngblood.
If you’re looking for a rustic, small-town diner in this city of 200,000 people, the Stockyard Café is it. The walls are decorated with all types of Western paraphernalia, with a painted Texas flag covering the entire back wall. Next to us, a group of old-timers—regulars, clearly—are listening to a man in a checkered shirt and straw hat drawl a story about a tractor. His companion wears denim overalls and a seed company cap.
“What’ll ya have, hon?” our server asks.
I order a “Cowboy-Sized Breakfast Burrito” because, well, why not? Breakfast burritos are immensely popular in Amarillo, though I expect they weren’t really on any actual chuck wagon menus during Goodnight’s cattle drive days. The tortilla comes packed with eggs scrambled with hash browns and chorizo sausage, accompanied by chunky, fresh salsa. It’s fantastic, though it’s the size and shape of every other breakfast burrito I’ve ever had. Maybe all of Amarillo’s burritos are cowboy-sized?
As we leave, our server explains that the café is usually a lot busier than on this cool, cloudy morning. “Maybe everyone slept in,” she muses. She admits the auction itself has slowed down. Online sales and private exchanges have diminished its significance, but the place still feels pretty authentic. She tells us there’s a horse auction this weekend. Will it be busy? “Depends on if you want a horse, I guess.”
I make one last stop on my hometown cowboy tour. Located next to the locally famous Beef Burger Barrel on Plains Boulevard, Oliver Saddle Shop has quietly built a reputation as one of the nation’s top walk-in saddle shops. It’s the oldest family-owned saddlemaker operation in Texas, run by Richard Oliver and his sons, Bryan and Zeb.
The boys and I went to high school together. Back then, I knew them as talented wrestlers rather than cowboy craftsmen. Their great-grandfather, C.W. Oliver, started making saddles for the working American cowboy in 1917, in Vernon, Texas. The family moved to Amarillo in 1960 and has been hand-tooling saddles ever since. While most orders come from ranches in the Southwest, the Olivers have shipped their products as far as Europe and Japan.
“We build somewhere between 60 and 70 saddles a year,” says Bryan. Beside him, Zeb cuts a sheet of full-grain leather while Richard adds finishing details to a belt. The workshop smells wonderful, a mix of rich leather and strong coffee. Oliver Saddle Shop maintains a considerable presence at the WRCA’s World Championship—a 20th Anniversary commemorative Henry .45-70 lever action rifle being raffled at this year’s rodeo comes in one of the shop’s custom scabbards—and dozens of the competitors will ride in saddles built in this workshop.
Richard says seeing competitive horsemen in saddles stamped with the triangle-shaped Oliver logo brings him immense satisfaction. “It’s very gratifying when we go to the WCRR and see our saddles in the arena,” he says. “They trust in us.”
While the Olivers have a stellar reputation, they know the current business climate isn’t always friendly to traditional, meticulous craftsmen. “We’ll always have to fight the idea of the factory-made saddles,” Zeb says. “They tend to be quite a bit less expensive and you get what you pay for. Most horsemen know quality gear, and they’ll end up knowing it pretty quickly.”
While they sell saddles online, Bryan says most orders still come through handshake deals. Their primary advertising is word-of-mouth, from one ranch hand to another. “We’re still doing things the old way here,” Bryan says. “We serve those ranches that are still doing things the old way too. It’s tradition.”
Unlike me, the Olivers never grew out of their cowboy phase. The Western life isn’t a thing they aspire to. It’s who they are. And at the core, it’s who Amarillo is, too.
I think back to Panhandle Plains Museum and something Grauer said about Amarillo. He wants to see the entire city embrace its Western heritage—not just at AQHA, or at the rodeo, or at historical markers in Palo Duro Canyon. “You turn your back on your past and your history, then there’s nothing that proves you more of a rube than that,” he told me. “We are what we are.”
I grew out of my stick horse a long time ago. But nearly 130 years after its founding, Amarillo’s still riding strong