OK, so Alaska is actually the largest state in the Union, but don't tell Texans. They've got the big hats, big crosses and big food to take a supersized bite out of your Route 66 itinerary.
The 2008 Road King Classic has been my escort through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. Now begins a new chapter of the story. With only four states to go, Texas is the beginning of the Great West.
At only 178 miles, Route 66 traverses the Texas Panhandle in a beeline, like it's in a hurry to get somewhere else. And the panhandle topography seems happy to oblige, as the landscape is devoid of trees, hills and curved roads. It's a straight shot across sun-drenched plains and a widened sky that seems to say, "There is nothing here. Keep going until you find something, anything, just get the hell out of here."
Don't Mess With Texas
This slogan is actually a federally registered trademark that was used in media advertisements to help reduce littering on Texas roadways. The campaign has helped to keep the highways much cleaner since 1986.
I like free stuff; who doesn't? I like a challenge, too, and when winning the challenge means free stuff, hell, I'm in...even under threat of major abdominal discomfort. Maybe you've heard of the Texas joint that gives you a free 4.5-pound steak if you can eat all of it within an hour? Like two thirds of my cultural awareness, I learned about this hall of gluttony on an episode of The Simpsons. Homer made a bet with a trucker and lost. The truck driver finished the gargantuan steak in the allotted time but consequently died of beef poisoning just a few seconds later. Sounding more challenging than the fried pickles I ate in Kansas or the mystery meat I consumed in Missouri, this was a food challenge that I had to take.
I started training for my steak Everest way before the Texas border by not eating anything but the bugs that flew into my mouth. Full of bugs, I pinned the throttle and missed the first half of the panhandle. By sunset, I was so hungry that I was actually riding with my mouth wide open, hoping for a large and juicy insect to help satisfy my hunger till dinner. You know what the last thing is to go through a bug's brain when it hits your teeth? Its butthole. Such were my thoughts when suddenly, like a magical ray of light, I saw him.
A giant man all gussied up in manly cowboy attire stood basking in the luminous glow of a Lone Star sunset. From top to bottom he wore a large white cowboy hat, a blue bandanna laid loosely on top of his rugged red shirt, and he had on the most magnificent pair of chaps that covered most of his jeans and cowboy boots. He stared and smiled at me, daring me to come into the Big Texan Steak Ranch (BigTexan.com) to see if I was man enough to belly up to nearly 5 pounds of tasty dead cow. I laughed at the 20-foot-tall man as my digestive juices made short work of the last flying insect in my gut. I walked into the Steak Ranch ready for battle.
Stepping into the Big Texan Steak Ranch took me back nearly 200 years. My eyes lured me to the old-fashioned bar. "Hey barkeep! Give me a bottle of warm rotgut with a human hair in it, and make it snappy." My plan was to eat a free 72-ounce (4.5-pound) steak-that is, if you can eat it all in one hour, plus a massive baked potato, bread roll, ranch beans, side salad and shrimp cocktail. Expect to pay $72 if you can't shovel it all in within an hour. All of it, with no bathroom breaks.
In the center of the dining hall sat a raised platform. On the platform was a table, a chair and a mysterious bucket. Upon that chair was me. Upon the table was a health liability waiver. The waitress explained the rules and told me that all contestants must pay up front. Waivers? And even worse, pay? Do you know that feeling you get when a car pulls out of a driveway without looking and almost turns your bike into scrap metal and you into street pizza? Well, this is how I felt. The sweat dripped from my brow onto the liability waiver. Trembling, I looked up to see 450 diners looking back at me with cameras in hand. There were so many camera flashes going off, the place looked like a disco. A scary cowboy disco, that is. The sweat was pouring down my face now, and my hands went clammy. I thought about losing $72. I thought about looking like a loser in front of all these hale and hearty Texans. I thought about losing my cookies...and that is exactly what I did.
I got so nervous that I puked-thin, acrid, fear-fueled vomit. I am pretty sure that the bucket under the table was reserved for partially digested cow, not sissy water with a few fully digested fly parts floating in it. Embarrassment is part of life's adventures. I ran from this "adventure" and went directly to bed without supper at the Big Texan Motel (conveniently located next door).
That night, I dreamt of new places. I dreamt of New Mexico.