DAY 5 ON ROUTE 66: SANTA FE TO TUNCUMCARI
When I left Santa Fe I followed the old 66 route for a while east then rejoined I-40 (which swallowed most of the old road) to Santa Rosa. But stretches of the old road do remain though and the real enthusiasts come on and off I-40 to experience them: here’s one section just outside Santa Rosa.
By now the red rocks and mesas of western New Mexico have vanished and are replaced with wide open flat scribland: I guess this is in preparation for Texas, which is the next state.
The I-40 freeway bisected the town of Santa Rosa and cut its old Route 66 frontage in two, but for over 65 years people crossing New Mexico along Route 66 made a point of stopping here for a meal at Club Cafe. Thanks to signs lining the road for miles in both directions with the smiling face of the “Fat Man,” the Club Cafe became famous for its food. It closed in 1992 and all that remains is (as usual) the old sign:
I stopped to eat at Josephs' - yet another unusual 66 cafe with good food.
Among the decorations in Joseph's is a Schwinn bike. The fortunes of this classic American brand, as well as his own life history involving being stationed at Greenham Common in the 1950s, being transported back from Paris drunk, spending 20 years as an alcoholic and then recovering and become an AA advocate, were related to me by Jim, who is pictured below as well.
As so often in these Route 66 towns, there are plenty of examples of old motel signs and here are a couple in Santa Rosa:
The Route 66 Auto Museum looked to be worth a visit, offering exhibit on “anything to do with wheels,” but it was closed. The cars outside were worth a photo though.
East of Santa Rosa, along the south side of I-40, you can trace one of the older stretches of Route 66, only partly paved. These stretches convey a sense of what travel was like in the very early days, when less than half the route’s 2,400-odd miles were paved. I met Joe and Jane Walsh from Athens, Georgia, who were traveling Route 66 both ways along every single stretch of the remaining road. Their guide book had mile by mile turning instructions to ensure that the real enthusiast (like the Walshes) travel every remaining mile of the old road. They told me they needed 8 weeks for the trip as their dedication to experiencing every single inch of the old road meant that they could only clock up about 150 miles each day.
My next port of call was Tucumcari, “the town that’s two blocks wide and two miles long” (though the main drag which follows old Route 66 through town stretches for closer to seven miles between Interstate exits), My plan had been to drive on through to Amarillo, Texas, but I stopped to take a look at the famous Blue Swallow Motel. Built in the early 1940s, Lillian Redman took over in 1958 and turned it into “the last, best, and friendliest of the old-time motels.”.
The new owners, Kevin and Nancy Mueller, gave me some of the history. Motels used to have individual garages but over time owners turned these into rooms in order to maximize revenue. The Blue Swallow has kept its individual garages and this makes it almost unique. The Muellers have tried to keep the old spirit while catching up on restoration work. The Blue Swallow is renowned for its mid-twentieth century authenticity: each room comes with its own decorated garage and the rooms are period pieces in their own right with original fittings and furniture, black bakelite telephones and even a 1948 edition of National Geographic.
The restored period room at the Bluw Swallow Motel
The neon sign alone is worth waiting until dark. Which is exactly what I did and after a little persuading by Karen, I stayed the night and cancelled my Amarillo hotel.
Nancy was positive about the future in Tucumcari. One reason is a plan which has just been adopted to restore and turn on again all the abandoned motel neon signs, of which there are many in the town like these below:
Across Route 66 from the Blue Swallow stands another survivor, the landmark tepee fronting the historic Tee Pee Trading Post.
DAY 6 ON ROUTE 66: TUCUMCARI TO MCLEAN
Known as the Panhandle because of the way it juts north from the rest of Texas, this part of the route is a nearly 200-mile stretch of flat plains. Almost devoid of trees or other features, the western half, stretching into New Mexico, is also known as the Llano Estacado or “Staked Plains,” possibly because early travelers marked their route by driving stakes into the earth. The Texas Panhandle was the southern extent of the buffalo-rich grasslands of the Great Plains, populated by Kiowa and Comanche Indians as recently as 100 years ago. Now oil and gas production, as well as trucking and Route 66 tourism, have joined ranching as the region’s economic basis.
Even more so than in New Mexico or Oklahoma, old Route 66 has been replaced by I-40 most of the way across Texas, though in many of the ghostly towns like McLean, Shamrock, or Vega, and the sole city, Amarillo, old US-66 survives as the main business strip, lined by the remains of roadside businesses.
First stop on the way was the Mid-Point Cafe at Adrian, so called because it is exactly half way between Chicago and LA (1139 miles in each direction on Route 66). The town’s water tower is painted with the “Midpoint” logo.
It’s another funky 66 roadside cafe (with the obligatory gift shop), but my visit was enliven by meeting Fran, who ran the cafe for 20 years before selling it recently and opening a shop next door. She told me about life in Texas and how it is changing: the ranches are now so big, mostly owned by trusts and corporations, and they use helicopters to herd the cattle. Fewer and fewer people lIve in Adrian now.
Fran was college educated and came from Massachusetts and I wondered how long it had taken her to get used to life in Texas. But she obviously loved it.
I somehow missed the famour cadillac graveyard west of Amarillo, but I did see a VW graveyard just east of the city.
I also called at the famous Big Texan restaurant and motel, where they will serve you a 72 oz. steak - which is free if you can eat it within an hour. This place has to be see to be believed - completely over the top yet truly fascinating. Real Texas.
Next stop was McLean. This town was founded by an English rancher, Alfred Rowe, who later lost his life on the Titanic in 1912, I thought that McLean (with a population of 830) was perhaps one of the more evocative town along the Texas stretch of Route 66. I took some photographs of the Texaco gas station which has been restored - a neat conjuring up of what motoring the Route 66 must have been like in the 1930s and ‘40s.
I met a couple from Mexico and we were discussing how the towns along 66 are so often deadly quiet with plenty of evidence of failed motels, restaurants and garages. Bypassed only in the early 1980s, the old main drag in McLean is virtually silent, with a few businesses—a barber shop, a boot shop, and some motels, including one with a fine Texas-shaped neon sign—holding on despite the drop in passing trade. The building of I-40 hit these towns badly. In McLean, there are two wide roads surrounding the town andf they have a one-way system. But there are virtually no cars.
I made the quick 20 mile trip to Shamrock to see the famous Tower Conoco and take some photographs of its neon after dark.
This unusual building was one of many similar commercial structures built during the early 1930s along the new US Route 66. When it became clear that the newly established Route 66 would cut through the north end of Shamrock, the owners of the prime corner lot agreed to sell the land and in return have a custom designed building constructed on the site for their own use. The Tower Conoco was designed by Pamper architect J.C. Berry and built by local entrepreneur J.M. Tindall in 1936. It is one of the best examples of a 1930s gas station/diner and shows many art deco influences particularly in the geometric detailing, glazed ceramic wall tiles, curves and neon lighting.
The original building combined the Tower Conoco gas Station, the U-Drop Inn Cafe and a retail store, never used as such but soon used as a ballroom and overflow dining room. The building fell into decline and reached its nadir in the 70s when it wa s painted red-white-and-blue and converted to a FINA station, finally closing completely in the mid 1990s. The Shamrock Chamber of Commerce has now restored the building and the cafe is to be reopened.
DAY 7 ON ROUTE 66: MCLEAN TO OKLAHOMA CITY
Unfortunately like a few other old Route 66 settlements, the first town over the Texas border, Texola, has all but dried up since it was bypassed by the interstate highway I-40. The completion of this huge highway in 1966 was a severe blow for a lot of towns on the old 66 route, although many have bounced back, particularly as 66 enthusiasts visit the old road in increasing numbers. A few remnants still stand in Texola but mostly you’re struck by the number of broken down houses and old gas stations.
East from this borderline ghost town, a mile south of the I-40 freeway, a nice stretch of late-model Route 66 continues as a four-lane divided highway, passing through the great little town of Erick six miles east of Texola.
There are a number of “official” Route 66 museums along the way. I came across two just on this day. In the Old Town Museum in Elk City has the “official” National Route 66 Museum, which has an old pickup truck decorated to look like the one from Grapes of Wrath along with the usual Route 66 memorabilia. Much better, though, is the offering in Clinton. Clinton started life as a trading post for local Cheyenne Arapahoe people and is now in the home of the official Oklahoma Route 66 Museum.
This is a proper showcase, and not just another souvenir stand, which reopened in 1995 after undergoing a massive, expansion. Collectors from all over the country have donated signs, artifacts and memorabilia which have been organized into a comprehensive exhibition of Mother Road history and culture.
This museum offers illustrated tableaux and interactive information screens tracing the history of the road from its commissioning to the present day. It’s interesting to see how Route 66 played such an important part over the decades, changing its functions as the needs of the day dictated: originally conceived as a means of opening up the west to further development, its soon developed truck traffic to compete with the railways, spawned many different types of business and entertainment offerings, was a key deployment route during the war years, became the playground of the post-war rock and roll generation and a symbol to the hippy generation in the ‘70s. Today, it is seen as a key part of American culture and this helps explain the growth of enthusiasm for the old road.
There’s no greater contrast between the charms of the old 66 road and the blandness of the I-40 than at Hydro, a tiny town between Clinton and Oklahoma City. A really picturesque stretch of old Route 66 runs along the north side of I-40 right past the ancient service station and souvenir stand operated by Lucille Hammons from 1941 until her death in August 2000. Visiting Lucille’s place to buy a drink or gas was apparently an old Route 66 ritual.
West of Lucille’s, a surviving six-mile stretch of old Route 66 pavement follows the undulating lay of the land up and down and offering a better sense of the landscape than the interstate, which is far enough away from the old road at this point to make you think it doesn’t exist.
Now tragically synonymous with the terrorist bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh in 1995, Oklahoma City (pop. 506,132) has long been one of the primary stops along the Mother Road and where I finished my trip.
The city was the biggest boomtown of the 1889 land rush when Oklahoma was opened for white settlement after being set aside “for eternity” as Indian Territory. Between noon and sundown on April 22, over 10,000 people flocked here to claim the new lands. A second boom took place during the Depression years, when oil was struck; there are still producing wells in the center of the city, including some on the grounds of the state capitol and at the airport. The collapse of the oil industry in the 1980s hit hard, but the shock of the 1995 bombing helped revitalize the City and it has a new baseball stadium, a concert arena and canal-side cafés in the “Bricktown” warehouse district south of downtown.
The impact of the terrorist bombing on April 19, 1995 the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, where 168 men, women, and children were killed, comes across wonderfully from the Memorial Museum. Between the capitol and Bricktown, the site of the bombing has been preserved as a museum and memorial park, beautifully landscaped with a shallow pool around which rows of sculpted chairs. Each chair represents a person killed in the blast, and the chairs range from very small to full-sized, marking the varying ages of the dead (who included 19 kids from the building’s daycare center.) The museum tells the story of the bombing, its perpetrators, and its victims and is simply outstanding.