Route 66: New Mexico

Across the state line into New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment!

The first major city Route 66 reaches heading east is Gallup, immortalized in Bobby Troup’s obligatory Route 66 road song. The city sits close to the Hogback, a “ridge of upwardly tilted sedimentary rock” (The Place Names of New Mexico, by Robert Hixson Julya), and allegedly because of this geological constriction Gallup was a potential bomb target during the Cold War, as a single strike might have taken out railroad, pipeline, wired communications, and Route 66 all at once.

El Rancho Hotel signlobby of El Rancho HotelIn times of peace, however, the famous El Rancho hotel served the needs of the film industry, busily producing countless westerns in the scenic locale, and today the hotel boasts rooms named after the various stars who stayed there. It’s a neat place, decorated thoroughly in both Hollywood and local history themes, and you can find a virtual tour here. If you go, try the fajitas; they were the nightly special and they were delicious.

neon sign for West Theater in Grants, NMGallup is a delightfully colorful town, full of authentic Native American art as well as modern pop 66-related art. As Route 66 heads east out of the city, it briefly offers the opportunity to play a tune: drivers adhering exactly to the posted speed limit of 45 mph will hear “America the Beautiful” as their tires cross precisely tuned rumble strips over metal plates. The singing road could use more advance notice as you approach, but it’s pretty cool.

jaunty sign for Sands Motel in daylightWe ran on to Grants, a town once supported by farming carrots (not what you first think of when driving through the desert) and then by uranium mining. Grants still has some cool neon, though the effect of the West movie theater was somewhat lost by the Hot Tub 2 on its marquee. We stayed in the Sands Motel, patronized by Elvis himself, we’re told.

In the morning we obeyed the “Go Underground!” signs and visited the New Mexico Mining Museum, which proved fascinating. Our volunteer guide Jack Farley had been a miner at all levels, from entry level to safety superintendent, for decades, and he told us great stories. Uranium was big here, and though it paid less than ten dollars a pound they pulled enough to make it a primary industry. Jack showed us the dinosaur bones he brought up himself and talked us through the safety procedures from an era with a different understanding of radiation (no respirators, no hearing protection, no eye protection, just steel-toed boots and a hard hat, drinking uranium-laced water from the mine so they didn’t have to carry their own). Despite the many risks, Jack won his first safety award for overseeing more than a quarter-million man-hours without losing any time to injury.

About now maybe I should mention that I’d been kicking around some Route 66-themed fiction in my head, and I was tentatively scouting locations and themes. The uranium mines of New Mexico might well make it. We’ll see.

mining machinery full of rotating grindersOutside the museum is a piece of mining equipment which they call a drill, I think, but which I call a Big Maker.

Route 66 runs eastward through tribal land. We did not run south to visit Acoma Pueblo (“Sky City”), which is a cliff dwelling dating back to A.D. 1100 and still used as a permanent residence today by a few dozen people (and a lot of weekenders or visitors), making it one of the oldest inhabited cities (some say the oldest) on the continent. The San Esteban del Rey Mission is supposed to be fantastic as well.

small white building with "Budville Trading Co" and windmill

All of Budville.

But we rolled on through massive lava flows to Budville, where H. N. “Bud” Rice offered trading post, wrecker, and Justice of the Peace services to the locals. It pays to diversify.

We did see a mission church, San Jose Church, in Laguna. This was built in 1699 and is simply beautiful. (Note: I saw a note which suggests permits are required for photos on tribal land. I am not certain if this applied even to the town of Laguna and the church or only to specific tribal sites. If anyone can tell me these photos should not have been taken, I’ll remove them, but in the meantime, I will share with others to appreciate the lovely church.)

giant fake old-style gas pumps support Route 66 casino signWe took a spin around Laguna to hit all of old and older Route 66 and then headed for Dead Man’s Curve, where the road hooks back 180 degrees around a lengthy bend. Then we went on past the Route 66 Casino, a tourist mecca of faux-66 and gambling.

Prior to 1937, Route 66 ran northward through Santa Fe; later it kept a more direct route across the center of the state. We had a decision to make.

In New Mexico, Jon and I decided to head straight on east instead of taking the northern loop through Santa Fe. I realized that if we regretted our decision, we’d know we should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque.

/rim shot/

sign honoring Route 66With this Facebook post, we plunged into Albuquerque, another city which has embraced its Route 66 heritage is a plethora of new signs and references. Albuquerque is a fun drive, and the tiny detour to the north to circle the historic old plaza Villa de Albuquerque is worth it. There’s another beautiful old church among all the shops and tourist traps, San Felipe de Neri, holding services continually since 1706.

Albuquerque is full of vintage signs and old architecture, but one standout is the KiMo Theatre, a 1927 “Pueblo Deco” mashup and Art Deco and traditional Southwestern design.

It is (of course) alleged to be haunted by the ghost of Robert “Bobby” Darnall, Jr, a six-year-old boy killed when a water heater exploded into the lobby in 1951. While the tale of leaving doughnuts to appease the little ghost who otherwise disrupts productions is a really good one, it lacks even a shred of paranormal evidence to support it. Which is sad, as supposedly offerings to the ghost have changed from doughnuts to toys and other inedible gifts “for health reasons,” and I really wish some investigator could explain to me what health risks the ghost of a six-year-old might incur by a backstage offering of doughnuts.

Library Bar & Grill, appearing to be a series of book spinesPractically across the street is a decidedly non-vintage but decidedly fun piece of architecture in the form of the Library Bar & Grill. The titles of the books whose spines form this building are Gone With the Gin, Tequila Mockingbird, A Midsummer Night’s Drink, The Wrath of Grapes, Lord of the Onion Rings, and Partying 101. Oddly, “tequila” is spelled wrong on the wall. I guess that’s alcohol….

transpot center recreation of Hotel AlvaradoThe classic Hotel Alvarado, a 1902 Harvey House also designed like La Posada by Mary Colter, was bulldozed over much protest in 1970 by its own Santa Fe Railway, who replaced it with a gravel parking lot. Today it’s been recreated as a transportation center. The original must have been glorious.

sign on building, Route 66 ElementaryWe headed further east, through towns with fun names like Moriarty and Zuzax. The last Whiting Bros Station to close of the chain which began in 1917 is near Moriarty. The sign and station remain. Somewhere between Sedillo and Edgewood lies the Route 66 Elementary.

Clear deep blue water with diving markersThe town of Santa Rosa hides a surprise — scuba diving in New Mexico! A sinkhole known as the Blue Hole is just 60 feet across but 80 feet deep, with an incredible outflow of 3,000 gallons per minute from whatever underground source is filling it, so permitted divers regularly enter the cool water.

the Cuervo Cutoff, two dirt tracks running off into tall grass

Old Route 66, the Dirt Edition.

Before the 1950s, Route 66 followed the “Cuervo Cut-Off” to save a few miles. The road is not recommended for 66 cruisers because of its condition, but I found it by comparing maps and we took to it in our all-wheel drive. (It really wasn’t too bad for a vehicle with high clearance and a savvy driver, though I could see with the right weather it might be something else entirely.) It was slow, but a fun drive, and not at all a detour in the technical and historic sense. More Remote 66 for our log!

enormous ruts and holes in Cuervo Cut-off

iconic Blue Swallow Motel sign, with blue bird in neon, and a classic car beneath

the iconic Blue Swallow Motel

Tucumcari is one of the classic Route 66 towns, with a lot of pride in the old road and a lot of vintage motels and shops and restaurants still open for business. The Blue Swallow Motel (1939) still books full far in advance (we couldn’t get a room, sad to say), but the newly-opened Roadrunner Lodge, a new motel in an old motel’s shell, made a satisfying substitute. (Really, I do recommend the Roadrunner, which had absurdly comfortable bedding and a super-fast internet connection. They even stock the rooms with Moon Pies!)

We had dinner at Del’s Restaurant and then walked the strip, which lights up like a mini-Vegas at night.

a falling cabin and the two-seater privy of Modern RestroomsOnce more we opted for the older alignment of Route 66, and we headed east in the morning on a dirt and gravel road through the ruins of Endee, now nothing but the decaying shells of a few tourist cabins and a two-seater toilet shed painted with “Modern Restrooms.” (Allegedly they did flush, once upon a time, but without privacy.)

This brought us to Glenrio, a “town” which straddles the Texas/New Mexico state line. The divided highway proves that once traffic here was bustling and constant; now it’s a ghost town, private property guarded by warning signs and guard dogs.

And as we rolled through the ghostly Glenrio, we entered Texas! But that’s another post.

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