Travel Log: Ghost Towns to Ghost Cars

(Liberty Hill, Texas; May 23, 2021) – I love real-life dead ghost towns.  I also love real-life dead ghost cars.

I mean, come on!  Ghost towns and ghost cars are just the liveliest, intriguing-est, and simply most fabulous places to go!

The term ‘ghost town’ often brings to mind tattered, forgotten Old West-era wooden buildings slowly crumbling under the relentless assault of centuries out in the middle of largely forgotten swaths of land.  However, ghost towns weren’t just created as boomtowns in the Old West died off; they can be created within our collective lifetimes by the shifting vicissitudes of commerce and transportation.

Glenrio, sitting smack astride the New Mexico/Texas state line, was created and destroyed by such shifting vicissitudes of transportation.  Founded by the state-of-the-art railroads of the early 20th century, it was later killed off by the state-of-the-art Interstate system of the latter 20th century.

Talk about getting run over by the future!

A derelict diner standing in Glenrio. New Mexico and Texas. (Nathanael Miller, 19 May 2021)

Glenrio was founded in 1903 as a siding along the old Rock Island Railroad.  Glenrio prospered steadily, if not spectacularly, until that new-fangled contraption called the automobile (formerly the horseless carriage) became an affordable staple of transportation for the average American family.  The automobile allowed the freedom to travel, necessitating better roads. The most famous highway crossing the continent was 1926’s Route 66, originating in Chicago and terminating in Los Angeles (or originating in Los Angeles and terminating in Chicago, depending on your point of view!).

Route 66’s length meant that towns along the new corridor became even more important as places to fuel the cars and people, provide temporary shelter (the advent of the ‘motel’), and create roadside attractions so these towns could become destinations in their own right.  As the telegraph followed the railroad beds across the country, so too did the early roads (including Route 66) follow the trails blazed by the good ole’ iron horse.

Birthed by the railroad, Glenrio positively thrived under the auspices of the automobiles traveling Route 66.  During the Great Depression, these way stops mostly grew because of the massive migrations of migrants across the country as they sought new lands and opportunities after the economic displacement caused by the economic disaster.  Glenrio itself gained enough statue to be featured as a backdrop for part of the 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath.

The same automobile that brought Glenrio its fame killed the hapless town in the 1970s.  The construction of Interstate 40 bypassed Glenrio in 1975, sucking the traffic, tourists, and commerce away to the newer, faster, and more efficient highway.  Like many towns along old Route 66, Glenrio suffered a quick death and is today a ghostly shell of its former self.  A small strip of Route 66 pavement is maintained through the town’s remains, but even this is a very rough bit of asphalt.  The old Post Office is but a set of walls, its roof caving in and the words “Post Office” barely visible in faded paint on one side.  Two motels, a couple of dinners, and a few crumbled graves of buildings are all that’s left.  Some of these structures are still privately owned and bear “No Trespassing” signs, so respect those.  The rest are truly derelict and abandoned, forgotten relics of a bygone era.

Items we take for granted, like window latches, become silently moving testaments to the lives that once graced ghost towns like Glenrio. New Mexico and Texas. (Nathanael Miller, 19 May 2021)

Safety note:  exploring abandoned buildings can be dangerous, so you must be careful.  I developed the Miller Catechism for Exploring Abandoned Buildings to keep myself safe, and I wrote a column on it that you can find here:

Williams, Arizona, and Glenrio, New Mexico/Texas, represent the extremes of Route 66 towns.  Williams found a way to continue thriving and is a top-notch place today.  Glenrio is dead.  Sitting smack in the middle of that spectrum is a town such as Adrian, Texas.

Adrian was founded in 1900 as a stop along the same Rock Island Railroad that led to Glenrio’s birth in 1903.  Adrian also experienced a steeply painful decline when I-40 bypassed it and Route 66 was largely decommissioned.  However, Adrian managed to survive as a tiny farming community of less than 200 people.  Adrian also found some economic support from a small, nostalgia-based tourist industry centering on the fact that Adrian sits on the exact geographic midpoint for old Route 66.  In fact, the still-functioning Midpoint Café is built astride that magical point (1,139 miles to Los Angeles; 1,139 miles to Chicago).

Originally built in 1928, the Midpoint Café has (sometimes barely) survived the loss of traffic when I-40 bypassed Adrian and shut down Route 66. Adrian, Texas. (Nathanael Miller, 19 May 2021)

Three towns all founded as way stops for various transportation needs (mining for Williams; railroad for Glenrio and Adrian).  Three towns all brought to prominence by Route 66.  Three towns which experienced three very different fates brought about by the completion of Interstate 40.  From tourist mecca (Williams) to tiny agriculture village (Adrian) to ghost town (Glenrio), the story of Route 66’s rise and fall is seen in these three places.

Finally, there is one place along I-40 one can find more than mere townage; one can find a graveyard of colorful cars sticking out of the ground: Cadillac Ranch just outside Amarillo, Texas.

Moved two miles to its present location in 1997, Cadillac Ranch was created in 1974 as a uniquely kitschy piece of public art.  Ten Cadillacs, all from model years 1949 – 1963, are stuck nose-first in the ground, allowing the evolution of their tail fins to be a prominent part of this wonderfully ridiculous sculpture consisting of half-buried cars!

Bring a spray paint can with you; graffiti is encouraged here as a way for visitors to interact with the piece (just please, please, pack out your trash and don’t leave your spray can on the ground like so many irresponsible people do!).

Cadillac Ranch is a quintessentially American roadside attraction, even on a rainy, muddy day! Amarillo, Texas. (Nathanael Miller, 19 May 2021)

Cadillac Ranch is the kind of silly, preposterous, utterly absurd modern art concept that makes you shake your head at the lunacy of actually doing such a thing…until you see it and realize it’s the very absurd silliness of it that’s the point!  You can’t help but smile and laugh while you’re there (especially if you visit on a rainy day as I did and watch fellow visitors slipping in the mud!).  Cadillac Ranch’s whole purpose is to make you smile for the simple sake of smiling.  Admission is free; you just park on the I-40 frontage road and walk out to it.

Cadillac Ranch is a modern rendition of the old roadside attractions that made early cross country automotive travel so much fun and so uniquely American.  And, at the price of free admission, it’s most certainly worth a ten-minute stop to stretch your legs!

Ghost towns and ghost cars!  Only in America!

Also, if you have a minute, check out my video on Ghost Towns to Ghost Cars:

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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