Current Location: Kirtland AFB FamCamp Albuquerque, NM clear full moon tonight and 32 degrees F before tomorrow’s high of 70F
As we drove the last miles through Texas, ever watchful of the stormy skies, it was with a bit of relief that we felt the landscape begin the gentle rise into New Mexico. The predicted winds were pushing us from behind, not unmanageable or difficult and when we reached the New Mexico visitor center at the state line, the skies were deep blue.
While Mo walked Abby in the dusty brown grass, I gathered an armload of maps and brochures about visiting New Mexico. I had picked Tucumcari as a spot on the map that happened to be in the right location with a Passport America park, with no clue of its cultural attractions. What a surprise to read all the glossy brochures and find out that we had a lot to see and do in Tucumcari. I was especially excited to realize that we were on a well preserved stretch of Highway 66, known by some as the “Mother Road.”
We read about the Route 66 Photo Museum, the famous murals of Tucumcari, the old time diners and motel fronts, lit up with neon after dark. Exiting the interstate east of town, we followed the empty dusty route of the old highway. I reminisced about my own connections to Highway 66 as a kid in the San Gabriel Valley. Huntington Drive was just a mile or so from where I lived, Route 66, and as a ten year old I would look down that highway and daydream about how far I could travel on that road.
Route 66 was established in 1926,and for the next 50 years became part of the American dream of automobile travel. The lore of the Mother Road is buried deep in the psyche of every motorcyclist that I know, along with Highway 49 and Highway 1 in California and the road to Sturgis in South Dakota. If you are a biker, I’ll bet you know about Tucumcari.
The reality of the town was a bit of a shock after the glossy descriptions in the brochures. Somehow I was imagining a Disneyesque version of the old diners, with black and white checkered floors and red plastic chairs. I especially looked forward to a real milkshake. Instead, every single diner was closed. Not one place in town was open for a meal, much less a real milkshake. The streets were very nearly empty. The old motels were mostly empty.
Our campground was a bit dicey, at least at first it seemed so. Our biker dude manager showed us to the dusty site, and made sure that we had the phone number to call security if we needed it. The small office was so thick with cigarette smoke that I could barely stand to be in there for the few minutes it took to verify our reservation. Cash only, and no receipt. For a flat $20 we were extremely happy to have a place to settle in for the evening, and we even had working television!
Once settled, with the winds and dust rising dramatically, we followed the Mural Map to find some of the most amazing and artistic murals I have ever seen. Most of them were painted by Doug and Sharon Quarles, two artists who were once part of the city and who left in 2009. The murals were fantastic, but the town was incredibly sad.
As we drove around finding the murals, I kept feeling as though I had fallen into a Doomsday movie where the world has ended and no one is left. Tumbleweeds in the old movie theater entrance and boarded up windows everywhere we turned were haunting. We drove street after street, with row after row of dilapidated houses, not a sign of a well kept neighborhood anywhere.
It was the emptiness of the streets that was so haunting. The old depot building had been remodeled, and was listed as a joint project of the city of Tucumcari and the Youth Conservation Corps, but we couldn’t find out anything about its history.
Nothing, and I mean not a thing was open. The Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center was closed, the History Museum was closed, the Depot was closed, and as I said, the few small diners and all three of the ice cream shops were closed. Remember, this was on a sunny Saturday afternoon!
Once back home, with the winds howling at over 45 miles per hour and the wild dust of the high prairies swirling around and making visibility very low, we decided that driving back down Main Street after dark to see the neon wasn’t in the cards. Maybe Tucumcari on a hot summer night when riding a motorcycle is a whole different experience. I probably won’t ever find out.
In spite of the winds, we slept well, and woke to gorgeous sunny skies and temperatures in the low 30’s, no frost. We took our time leaving, and wound our way out of town on the old Route 66 road that parallels the interstate for most of the way. The road was a bit rough, and at one point it passed under the freeway through a narrow passage so filled with tumbleweeds that we had to get out and rake them out of the way.
A few miles west of Tucumcari we drove through the old ghost towns of Montoya, Newkirk, and Cuervo. As I walked the old streets of these towns I kept wondering if I was seeing a vision of what our civilization was going to look like someday. Would all our towns and cities turn to this? These small communities once had thriving businesses, motels and as stations and restaurants, all supported by the travelers on the highway.
Highway 66 for decades served thousands of people migrating west during the Dust Bowl days of the 30’s, and later families traveling by car on long vacations interspersed with motel stays and picnics. Interstate 40 changed everything. Travelers went farther and faster, and the new highway bypassed many of the small towns along the way. What is left are Love’s and Pilot’s and Flying J’s and generic restaurants with cardboard food. A way of life is gone.
After wandering the old ghost towns a bit, we entered the modern world once again on I-40 west. The road was smooth, the truck traffic heavy, the pace at 70mph plus. Climbing inexorably toward the Rockies the elevation rose and suddenly we were blinded by something white and fluffy along the road.
Have we been in the South that long? Mo at first thought there had been some kind of debris blown around and couldn’t figure it out. Oh. snow. It was snow. I had seen the snow on the radar last night and as we were buffeted about by the winds, I had been happy to be far away from the snow. I guess were weren’t as far away as I thought. This afternoon the temperature was 39 degrees in the brilliant sunshine.
Once down the hill into the broad valley of Albuquerque, the temperatures rose to the mid-60’s again, and the snow was a light dusting on the distant mountains. We settled into Kirtland AFB Family Camp without any difficulty, even though the camp office is closed until Monday morning. Instructions on the office door were clear and found a great site in the newer part of the camp with full hookups.
We will stay here for a couple of days, doing some exploring north of town, and visiting with friends before continuing west. Sunny skies, warm days and cold nights, no rain and no snow are on the radar for the time being, so we are in luck.