Riding Route 66 from Texas to Albuquerque
You can visit Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where Francis Scott Key penned The Star Spangled Banner. You can visit the Alamo and the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Except for tourists clambering around them, all are deathly still, remnants of a time long past.
I thought my road trip along New Mexico’s Route 66, what John Steinbeck called The Mother Road, would feel the same. I was wrong. Unlike these other sites — and many other American landmarks — the history of Route 66 is still being written.
My trip starts in Glenrio. Like Anthony, it straddles the New Mexico—Texas state line. In Texas, the dilapidated buildings are festooned with “No Trespassing” and “Beware of Dog” signs. That’s either the nature of Texans or of people tired of strangers snooping around the remains of the First in Texas—Last in Texas motel.
A hundred yards farther west, safely in New Mexico, I find other abandoned, wind-weary buildings. No signs. No dogs. No people. Just memories. One building was a gas station. Another apparently a convenience store. One obviously was a four-room motor court. Only the buildings remain.
The road from here to San Jon is now a graded gravel bed. It was once paved. Route 66 in its earliest years was gravel throughout New Mexico. It wasn’t until the government put men, unemployed because of the Depression, onto construction crews the highway was paved. The final stretch wasn’t completed until 1938.
After Interstate 40 replaced Route 66 as the main thoroughfare, New Mexico removed the pavement of this stretch I’m now on. I suppose it’s easier to regrade a gravel bed than patch potholes.
The road today gives me a sense of what it was like more than 85 years ago, a brown ribbon laying upon the grassland of the northern Llano Estacado. The original bridges remain, and the road follows the now abandoned roadbed of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific railroad.
During the Depression, a quarter million people migrated from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and the plains to California, seeking a new start in life. Route 66 carried them west. Later, when prosperity began to return, people drove Route 66 to experience the wonders of the West.
The idea of the highway was to connect the main streets of America’s rural communities. It did a good job and was a necessity, considering how frequently tires blew out and engines overheated. The range of cars in those years was not like we have today. People didn’t travel very fast or very far and needed the cafes and motor courts in these small towns.
From San Jon to Cuervo, 20 miles east of Santa Rosa, the road is paved and well used, although not at all like the Interstate. Most of the way, I am riding only a few hundred yards from I-40. The Interstate is nearly arrow straight and as level as practical. Eighteen-wheelers and cars roar along at 80 miles per hour. I’m on a two-lane that follows the contours of the land — up and down, right and left. I actually have to drive my car. I think most of the Interstate motorists are just aiming between the stripes.
I cross concrete bridges built by Works Progress Administration teams. Some of the bridges have bronze plates indicating they were built in 1936. Some of the plates have fallen off or have been stolen.
In Tucumcari, I drive along Tucumcari Boulevard. It’s where people found lodging after a day on the road. There are motels called the Pony Soldier, Palomino, Apache Inn, and Safari. I find my destination — the Blue Swallow Motel, now owned by Nancy and Kevin Mueller. (I tell you their story on page two.) The Muellers have restored this classic motor court and tell me several of the other old motels are being re-opened.
The Route 66 Preservation Association exists to help people interested in restoring and preserving landmarks along the highway. There’s a lot of interest in The Mother Road, especially among visitors from Europe and Asia. They want to experience what America was like in its Golden Age, that period from the last years of the 19th Century to Black Tuesday in October, 1929. It would be a shame if they came all the way from China or Germany, only to find a
Holiday Inn Express or McDonald’s. It’s good to know there are people still interested in Route 66’s history and have found ways to make a living along the road.
West of Tucumcari is the village of Montoya. It’s where Richardson’s store once supplied dry goods, food, and gasoline. A chain-link fence surrounds the old building, whose roof is sighing its way to the ground. I don’t know why Richardson’s failed. It’s less than a mile from the Interstate. I expect people’s attitudes changed with the highway — straight and fast. There was less interest in buying a Coke at the store and dallying awhile, learning some fascinating story about the Land of Enchantment. People today seem to think the destination is more important than the journey. They miss a lot.
In Santa Rosa, there is a destination of interest — the Route 66 Auto Museum. You have to like classic cars to appreciate this small gem. There’s a 1935 LaSalle (remember All In The Family ’s theme song Archie and Edith sang… “Our old LaSalle ran great…”). There’s a 1931 Auburn and a 1953 Mercury Montclair so festooned with chrome I think of it as heavy metal. My favorite is the Santa Rosa Kid, a 1934 Ford three-window coupe, glistening
black with orange flames streaming from its louvered grill across hood and doors.
Like famous singers recording or covering songs introduced by lesser-known artists, I-40 covers Route 66 from Santa Rosa to Moriarty. It’s Moriarty’s Main Street. I look for a boarded-up house made of oil cans. It was there in 1991 when Jill Schneider’s book, Route 66: Across New Mexico, A Wanderer’s Guide, was published. During the ‘30s, a man named Love and his brother-in-law collected empty oil cans along the highway and used them as bricks to build exterior walls of a house. The Loves lived there 40 years. Nearly a quarter century later, the house is gone, but the story remains, although I don’t know for how long.
I drive Route 66 from Moriarty to Albuquerque. Where the Interstate plows through Tijeras Canyon, The Mother Road follows contours gently guiding me near the bottom of the canyon. Route 66 along this stretch gives people access to Tijeras, Camuel, and Echo Canyon.
Once through the Sandia Mountains, I am on Central Avenue. Schneider writes, in pre-World War II years, “The street didn’t even have a curb or gutter. You could see sheep pens and windmills and empty, empty mesas.” Once Albuquerque’s main street, she adds, “Central Avenue is four, sometimes six lanes, wide, decorated with landscaped dividers and four- eyed traffic lights. Only a few traces remain of the two-lane asphalt strip that carried travelers in and out of the Duke City.”
While a bustling metropolis, Albuquerque doesn’t much interest me regarding my tour of The Mother Road. It’s all congested, commercial land along the road — even the Nob Hill Business Center, designed by Louis Hesselden, considered Albuquerque’s most prolific architect. His business center with rounded side corners, in its Streamline Moderne style, was the first automobile shopping center in the world, so claims the Architect’s Guide to Taos and Northern New Mexico I found on the Internet.
Well, I’m only half way across the state, and there’s a lot more of Route 66 to explore, but space in a newspaper is limited. So until next month, as Paul Harvey used to say, you’ll have to wait for The Rest of the Story.