"Tucumcari Tonight". It was on billboards along Route 66 in the heyday, days drive both East and West of this town that straddles the Mother Road some 40 miles west of the Texas border. They enticed travelers to the row of fine motels along the road where they could rest from the drive before continuing their journey. So I'm writing this from Room 4 of the Blue Swallow Motel on Route 66. This fine establishment was built in 1939, and has been restored to it's neon glory, complete with a 1940s rotary phone that works. THIS is what Route 66 was in its heyday.
I hadn't planned on ending up here at all. My original plan was to leave Gallup, meander on the old road to Albuquerque, and then turn North towards Santa Fe and Colorado and decide which route to go home from there. But as I was riding this morning, enjoying the quiet of the old road -- the sunshine on my bare arms, and the ghosts that still haunt the road, I got to thinking -- why not keep going? I'm enjoying this -- I'm seeing things that won't exist in a few years, and it gives me a reason to be out on the road. Tony had sent me a text when I was in Tucson saying: "You can go anywhere you want -- you can stay put if you want, you can go home if you want." He was right.
When I got to Albuquerque and settled into lunch, I called Tony -- more for validation I guess than for permission. He encouraged me to go for it. (See his comment on the previous post). I have always thought that if I could travel back in time to any era it would be the immediate pre-war or post-war years of the 1940s. That's when trains were still the way to travel, road trips really were an adventure, and the westward migration down Route 66 was just getting going. It's when the Blue Swallow was built. I think I would have fit right in back then and loved it. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't trade out my cell phone, I-pad and laptop for anything. But I'd love to go back in time and spend a month in that era and just tour the country. Since there are no time machines -- I'll have to go now and enjoy what is left.
But leaving Gallup this morning was another tough one -- given both the time change to Mountain time and my mood at the time. I didn't really hit the road until almost 11. It took me almost 3 hours to go the 130 miles to Albuquerque, and most of it was on what's left of the old road. Gallup itself is a quiet little town, with more Indian trading posts and jewelry stands than I've ever seen. And shortly after leaving town, the old road was paralleling I-40 and was lined with billboard after billboard advertising a trading post that sat atop the Continental Divide. The billboards were old -- the paint peeling off, and advertising "Kodak Film" (you all remember film don't you?) and Indian jewelry and moccasins and ice-cold pop etc.
I couldn't resist, so I stopped in. I was the only person inside a shop full of tacky nick-naks and some moderately nice jewelry, postcards, and Indian art. The ceiling was hung with a number of native American dream-catchers too, and it struck me that all those billboards were like dream catchers themselves for this lonely trading post sitting atop the Continental Divide -- each one trying to entice a wayward traveler to stop and spend a few dollars. The nice native girl at the counter showed me some silver pieces and I couldn't resist a Zuni bear for a necklace. So maybe the dream catcher billboards still have their effect. At least on me today.
It was slow going as the road wound east -- travel was slower back in those days. As they say in the movie Cars -- the road "moved with the land" and didn't cut across it. I didn't mind -- I was enjoying the sun and the quiet. In it's prime though I can imagine a car load of kids, playing count the license plates and board games, and pestering Dad to stop at every curio stand. No cars with DVD players in the headrests and cell phone for texting. If you weren't careful you might actually learn a few things -- like other states and geography. The road clearly wouldn't have been able to handle the volume of traffic that today's Interstate does either.
Further down the road I ran across the relic of a Whiting Bros. gas station/motel. It's the second or third one of these ruins I've seen on this trip along Route. I remember Whiting Bros. They were still in existence when I was a kid -- I'd see them in Wyoming or in Southern Utah, looking out the window of the cab-over camper we traveled in and that instilled in me the wanderlust that I still have to this day. I'm glad the "litter police" haven't been by to knock down the old signs.
Old Route 66 descends into Albuquerque via a long eastward drop that lets you see the city for miles. Central Ave. is lined with the remnants of many an old motel, gas station, and restaurant. In some cases they've been "re-done" and in others, left to rot. It's a long slow drive these days with lots of lights and traffic. I stopped at a recreated diner for lunch and that's when I made the decision that I've not regretted -- to keep going on the road as far as I can before I have to turn back to Seattle. I was inspired by a billboard in Albuquerque on I-40 that said "Tucumcari Tonight". They are still using the slogan after all these years. And it worked.
East of Albuquerque it got warm and as always happens in the West, the afternoon desert heat causes thunderheads to form. East of the city the old road is often one of the Interstate segments, as when they were grading for I-40 they used the original two lanes of US-66 as a segment and only had to build half a road. However, about half the time they left the old road -- either as a frontage road, or because it moved with the land so much it couldn't sustain the volume and speed of traffic on an Interstate. Of the 130 miles to Tucumcari, about half were on I-40. And I really didn't mind for the most part those segments that weren't-- except for the wind. We had a gusty south wind that was hitting me at about 40 mph, causing me to "lean" to the right to keep the bike from going to the left. This was fine and dandy except when the wind suddenly stopped or was blocked by a truck or overpass. In those moments, I'd start to quickly drift to the right, until the wind returned suddenly and blew me back over. Moving trucks caused an interesting vortex as well -- some sort of whirlwind that had me feeling like the shirt was about to be torn from my back, or that a twister was about to descend ala Wizard of Oz. No I was not screaming "Auntie Em! Auntie Em!'. But it made for quite a work out I will admit.
However it was great to see the thunderstorms off in the distance and smell the rain on the wind. I never did get wet, but I did ride some wet roads. Half way between Albuquerque and Santa Rosa I started seeing billboards for a Stucky's. Hell, I didn't think they existed anymore -- another roadside haunt from my past -- one Dad would never stop at, even though we passed one in Southern Wyoming east of Evanston all the time when we'd go fishing in the Uintahs. Dad never was one for stopping -- but I am, and I counted down the miles to it. There it was -- a genuine Stucky's -- the same architecture I remembered from a kid in Wyoming. This one didn't have the peanut brittle that they always advertised -- and had lots of cheap Indian blankets and stuff. I enjoyed an ice-cream sandwich and watched the storm clouds on the horizon.
The sun started to go down, and the sunset colors in New Mexico are spectacular. The last 20 miles into Tucumcari are on the old road and the ruins of what once was still haunt this stretch, from abandoned truck stops to churches, restaurants, and gas stations and garages by the dozens. All bearing testimony to the slower pace of travel and the number of people on the Mother Road traveling to a new and better life, or stopping along the way to take advantage of the human tide.
The old road meandered into Tucumcari at dusk and I found myself motoring up to the Blue Swallow as the moon rose over the neon sign. The owner met me out front -- I'd called him earlier in the day, and he took me to my unit -- #4. I have my own little garage, and a set of Adirondack chairs out front. The bike is parked inside -- almost as cozy as it's own "Cozy Cone" from Cars. The entire building is outlined in neon with blue neon swallows between rooms. Next door in #3 is a couple from England -- the husband looks like Ringo Starr, who are touring 66 on rented Harley's going west while I'm going east. We compared notes about the road and what it meant to us -- I guess my love of Scotland is similar to their love of the American West. It's nice to see.
The room is small -- with a working 1940s' telephone, and a queen sized bed and small desk -- that's about it. It's only $50, and I know I'd rather be here than in the new Holiday Inn Express down the road off the freeway. Back in the 40s I'm sure no one thought this would be a destination landmark -- I have to wonder if 50 years from now we'll be taking some sort of transportation past an abandoned Holiday Inn Express and wondering "how cool was that?" I doubt it -- but then I doubt the builders of the Blue Swallow and it's countless cousins along the Mother Road thought the same thing.