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A wide-open sea of prairie, the high plains of northern Texas might well be the nation's crossroads: The small-town charm of the Great Plains, the spice of the Southwest, and the polite twang of the South are all present in equal measures. Beyond this cultural intersection, highways have crisscrossed the region since the 1930s, fostering a brood of cheap motels and kitschy roadside Americana.

Inhabited by nomadic tribes for much of the past 12,000 years, the Panhandle Plains are distinguished by a high mesa -- 3,000 feet above sea level -- that tapers downhill to the south and east, bordered by spectacular canyons and unique geological formations. In 1541, when Vásquez de Coronado ventured north in his quest for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, he pounded stakes into the ground to claim the land for Spain -- as well as mark his route for a return trip through the mostly featureless flatlands. Thus, the "Llano Estacado," Spanish for "staked plains," was born. Today, Lubbock inhabits the center of the mesa that Coronado staked out; Amarillo sits on its northern edge.

The late 19th century brought significant change to the area: Ranchers began to graze cattle here, railroads crisscrossed the mesa in all directions, and agriculture took hold as the predominant industry. Million-acre ranches became the norm. During the fall and winter of 1874 and 1875, the indigenous tribes battled the U.S. Army in the Red River War, culminating with the dispersal of Comanches, Kiowas, and Southern Cheyennes to reservations in Oklahoma.

The landscape was irrevocably altered again by the discovery of oil in the 1920s, when ranchers found themselves sitting on "black gold" mines. The Dust Bowl days of the 1930s dampened development, but the area recovered and saw tremendous growth following World War II.

At first glance, the Panhandle Plains might appear monotonous, but the region is actually worth a closer look than you'll get from behind the wheel. The magnificent palette of Palo Duro Canyon, the lively nightlife in Lubbock, and Amarillo's ranching heritage -- from cattle to Cadillacs -- are unexpected diversions that make this area a worthy stopover on a cross-country trip.