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Tucumcari tonight

Route 66 through Tucumcari is like Route 66 through a lot of places — a step back into the past that leaves you wondering if the old road and the motels that line it have much of a future.

Bypassed decades ago by Interstate 40, they fought to survive — and many have managed to do so nicely — but the economic downturn has made that a far fiercer fight.

Some, like the Blue Swallow (above) seem to be hanging on, thriving even. For others, the neon has burned out, the windows have been boarded up and weeds rise waist-high in the parking lot.

The Relax Inn, for example, is a ghost motel — and I’ve seen at least a dozen of them in my travels on Route 66 in New Mexico and Arizona: Its outdated sign remains, but glows no more.

Route 66 was established in 1926, originally running from Chicago through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and ending in southern California – 2,448 miles in all.

It served as pathway for migrants moving west during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Mom and pop businesses began popping up along it around then – restaurants, gas stations, motor courts, curio shops and more. Most of those businesses managed to survive the Depression, even prosper from it, catering to those moving west in search of a better life. World War II led to more westward migration, further bolstering businesses along Route 66. By the 1950s, the road served as the main highway for vacationers headed to California, or to see the sights of the West, and Route 66 thrived.

It would become a cultural icon in the decade that followed – featured in songs, TV shows and movies. It was distinctly American – and even today, some of the motels tout, in addition to their color cable TV and Internet connections, their American-ness.

The Tucumcari Inn, for example boasts that it is “American-owned”, but right next door, the sign at The Historic Route 66 Motel — as if casting aspersions on whether its neighbor is true-blue American — reads “Genuine American.” (Apparently, genuine American-ness, is worth an extra $2 a night)

The beginning of what many thought might be the end for Route 66 came in 1956 when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act. Interstate 40 offered a speedier alternative, one in which motorists wouldn’t need to go through or slow down for towns like Tucumcari.

Instead they could avoid places of character and, eventually, fulfill their needs at lookalike, chain motels and restaurants conveniently located at the exits.

Despite the opposition of business and civic leaders in many of the bypassed towns, I-40 stretched on absorbing some parts of Route 66, sidestepping others.

In 1963, the New Mexico Legislature enacted legislation that banned the construction of interstate bypasses around cities by local request – but that didn’t fly. The federal government threatened to withhold federal highway funds. Instead some towns, Tucumcari included, worked out agreements with the federal government, in hopes that the new Interstate would at least come close to their businesses.

By the late 1960s, most of the rural sections of US 66 had been replaced by I-40 across New Mexico, and in 1981 the section bypassing Tucumcari was completed.

Route 66 would be “decommisioned” in 1985 when the federal government decided it was no longer “relevant” – given the presence of the Interstate Highway System.

Since then, there have been many efforts to preserve Route 66, and the businesses along it. In 1999 the National Route 66 Preservation Bill was signed by President Clinton, which provided $10 million in grants for preserving and restoring its historic features.

But the economic downturn has made the struggle to survive along Route 66 even more intense. Two years ago, the World Monuments Funded placed Route 66 on its list of 100 Most Endangered Sites.

Today, Tucumcari, whose billboards attempt to lure travelers off the Interstate and into town — “Tucumcari Tonight,” they urge — has fewer motels, fewer restaurants. It’s down to one bar, and the signs of struggle are apparent in boarded up buildings, bargain rates and beckoning neon.

Some of it, like hope, flickers at times, but it still shines bright. Long may it do so.

(Photos by John Woestendiek)

(To read all of “Dog’s Country,” from the beginning, click here.)


Comment from RT
Time July 21, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Actually Route 66, at least in Tucumcari, is back on the mend and thriving!!! You can’t just pick and choose on Route 66 or even generalize, when there’s a good reason for just about everything successful or dying! The difference in the price of those 2 motels you mentioned, is 100% the quality difference between, and probably should be a difference of at least $10.00? That’s also why many others like the Relax Inn are gone, just like anywhere else, quality is as quality does. Maintain and operate a quality business, and people will, most especially today. The 3 top hotels in Tucumcari, are ALL without exception, older motels, none of them are the much more expensive chain hotels. That should tell a story in itself! So the people over time, not willing to spend money on a quality product and maintain a positive operation, are consequentially gone, and more will follow suit. However, there’s still enough that do, thus not even the chain motels touch their ratings. Tucumcari also had 5 new businesses open this year, right on Route 66, all of which seem to be flourishing. As for tourism on Route 66, you’re crazy, it’s booming, most especially because of the economy right now! Likely over 50% of the tourists on Route 66, come from overseas, primarily from Europe and Australia. In Europe, the U.K. is KING of the number of tourists that come to see Route 66, as it’s their within their top 3 tourist destinations. Followed by Norway and France. The reason – simple – THEY get it! Most Americans, unfortunately, don’t! Route 66, still this very day, is a picture of America gone by, from the days when the pace of life was slower and BETTER! The days when America actually built and produced, instead of outsourced and managed. The days when we had personality, style and strived to be the very best at everything we did. Just look at hotel today! It’s a plain and simple rectangular box, that can be painted any different color scheme to fit any different chain name. No style, no individuality, just the same old stuff everywhere you look. Now back in the day, they were all different, inside and out, and people cared just as much about the uniqueness of their product, as the service they gave to their customers. Seen any full-service gast stations lately? Most people probably think they’re gone because it cost extra money per gallon, really, back then it didn’t cost one extra penny and was considered standard expected service! We’ve just grown too greedy, too lazy, too techno-dependent. So next time, sloowww down on your trip across Route 66, forget about the interstate all together and enjoy all the really great things the old Mother Road has to offer. You’ll be absolutely amazed a how much BETTER life really used to be, how much we take it for granted, and how bad we’ve really messed things up in today’s so called Modern World!!!

Comment from jwoestendiek
Time July 21, 2010 at 6:08 pm

RT, I’ve slowed way down. You should slow down and maybe read some more of Dog’s Country, and you’d see we’re pretty much tooting the same horn. I appreciate your note, and couldn’t agree more — except with the characterization of Route 66 as “thriving.” There’s not much anything thriving these days it seems, and in my time along the old road this summer, I haven’t spotted any business that I could describe, or whose owner describes them, as booming. I think we’re a nation that’s losing its appreciation for character and quality, and a nation in a hurry, a nation too wrapped up in Facebook and text messaging, a nation too wrapped up in scheduling tomorrow to stop and enjoy today, too busy to smell the roses or pet the dog. If you are business owner in Tucumcari, and you’re thriving, I say keep up the good work, and keep up the dedication to quality. I’m departed from an industry that — generally speaking — has lost that (newspapers). Being unemployed I have time to slow down through towns like Holbrook, and Tucumcari, and the dozens of others we’ve visited on our road trip, and I’m thankful I did. I think the world would be a better place if we could get people off the Interstates, off the IPods and allow them to feel the fabric of the country in which they live. Maybe that makes me an old coot. Maybe you’re one, too. In any event, thanks very much for sending your thoughts.

Comment from Shannon
Time July 22, 2010 at 10:31 am

Tucumcari is truly is one of the most unique towns along 66. The town has been lucky to still have a lot of it’s iconic motels, signs and businesses still left even if a portion of them are closed. Where as many Route 66 towns may have one or two vintage sites from back in the day, Tucumcari is an exception.

I live near Tucumcari and have made frequent trips there over the past few years. There was more neon working when I started photographing in 2004. I’ve seen some businesses close and then reopen sometime later. So far most of them are hanging in there. Sadly earlier this year the boarded up Lasso Motel and Pony Soldier Motel were torn down and all that remains are the signs.

Most of the owners of the businesses I’ve spoke with do it for the love of it knowing they aren’t going to make a fortune and usually just break even. I don’t know what needs to be done to perserve what Tucumcari has but they really should protect their stretch of 66. Seligman, AZ comes to mind as they have kept their little town alive and thriving.

Comment from jwoestendiek
Time July 22, 2010 at 10:59 am

The comment above is from Shannon Richardson, whose book of black and white photographs “Route 66: American Icon” is coming out this fall.