The southwestern United States became home to more Hispanic settlers than other parts of the country. In New Mexico this hispanic heritage entertwines with indigenous Native American cultures providing a drastically different backdrop than in states further east and north. Early Highway 66 California-bound travellers were treated to the most exotic landscape on the route yet.
The Land of Enchantment still holds some original Route 66 treasures, both old and new. There's no shortage of road to drive, places to stay, things to eat and sights to see along Main Street America, New Mexico.
The Long and Winding Road
Of the eight states Route 66 passes through, the path through New Mexico is the most changed from it's original route. In 1926 Route 66 came from Glenrio on the Texas/New Mexico state line west through San Jon, Tucumcari (TOO-kum-kair-ee) and Santa Rosa before turning north to the capital of Santa Fe by way of Dilia and Romeroville, giving Las Vegas a miss1. From Santa Fe the road turned back to the south passing through Bernalillo on it's way to Albuquerque (AL-buh-kir-kee), then further south to Los Lunas, then northwest to Grants and on to Gallup before heading for the Arizona state line. This made for a very indirect path through the state while keeping politicians happy by making their city a major stop on the route.
The story is told that when the sitting governor of New Mexico lost re-election in 1937 he blamed politicians in Santa Fe for the defeat. To exact revenge before his term expired he scrambled to re-route highway 66 to bypass Santa Fe altogether. With only a very short time to accomplish this, he didn't even spare the time to legally procure privately owned lands the new route would pass through, yet they were taken over anyway. At the end of his term the new road wasn't quite finished, but due to inclement weather word couldn't be sent to road crews to stop construction, and by the time word got through the road had been completed2. The new route went due east from Santa Rosa through Moriarty and on to Albuquerque, then bypassed Los Lunas and went on to Grants. The bypass shaved more than 100 miles off the trip and saved travellers at least 4 hours, it also strategically cut off Santa Fe businesses (and politicians) from the primary east-west artery in the state.
Another quirky result of the bypass is that in Albuquerque you can stand on the corner of Route 66 and Route 66. The old and new alignments intersect at Fourth Street (old alignment) and Central Avenue (new alignment).
Approximately 260 miles of drivable Route 66 survive today on both alignments.
History of the Road
The eastern stretch of the road crosses the Llano Estacado, or staked plains, possibly named after early paths that followed stakes from water hole to water hole across the featureless landscape. In the late 1850s a wagon path was surveyed, and the railroad later followed roughly the same route. Highway 66 followed the railroad more or less, and the cities along the way all began as railroading towns.
The New Mexico Route 66 Association has coordinated a state-wide neon restoration project. The project has restored and preserved several original Mother Road neons, and New Mexico has an enviable collection of nostalgic lights along the route.
Classic neon can be seen all across the state at places like TePee Curios in Tucumcari, the Sun 'n' Sand Motel in Santa Rosa, the Westward Ho Motel in Albuquerque, the Grants Cafe in Grants and the Lexington Hotel in Gallup among others. In Moriarty a truly unique, awesomely restored neon rotosphere spins atop the El Comedor restaurant sign.
Whether cruising through New Mexico at breakfast, lunch or dinner-time, you shouldn't go hungry for long. In Tucumcari the La Cita restaurant is instantly recognisable by the giant sombrero on the roof and has been a Route 66 staple since 1961. Santa Rosa offers a variety of 1950s diners including the Silver Moon Cafe, Sun 'n' Sand Restaurant (alongside the motel of the same name), the Comet Drive-In and Joseph's Bar and Grill, reportedly home of the best margarita on old 66.
Travellers are treated to an authentic blue plate special at the 66 Diner in Albuquerque. The diner looks vintage yet only opened in the late 1980s, owing its authenticity to its location: the building was a 1940s Phillips 66 service station. The Uranium Cafe in Grants is also experiencing new life, still serving 'home cooked' dishes, only now more Mexican and less American.
Rest Your Head
New Mexico 66 boasts an impressive roster of surviving motels for the road-weary traveller. From the immaculately maintained to those showing their age less gracefully, some real Mother Road gems can be found amidst the more modern, branded, less adventurous options.
'Tucumcari Tonight!' classic billboards announced at the edge of the first major stop in the state for westbound travellers. The city that once boasted more than 2,000 motel rooms still has plenty to offer, including one of the road's most enduring landmarks, the Blue Swallow Motel3. If the Blue Swallow should happen to be booked, try the Redwood Lodge or the Motel Americana.
Travellers through Santa Rosa can stop at the La Mesa Motel. Since state capital Santa Fe wasn't on the route after 1937, most of its 66 heritage is lost, but Santa Fe-bound travellers can still spend a luxurious night at the La Fonda Hotel on the old alignment. Operating since 1922, the La Fonda was at one time a Harvey House, the first of several remaining that west-bound travellers will encounter.
The Aztec Motel in Albuquerque is more residential these days, but still worth a look for the efforts of the resident artist that has redecorated her own and several other units. The historic El Vado Motel is a landmark in Albuquerque, and though it still stands (for the moment) it has been sold and its future was in limbo as of November, 2006, while the demolition request was tied up in court. Up the road in Gallup travellers can choose between the Roadrunner Motel or the more historic, more famous El Rancho Hotel. The El Rancho, opened in 1937, was a retreat for movie stars filming on location in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, including John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and Katherine Hepburn. The El Rancho also served as headquarters for a few films shot in the area, such as The Bad Man (1940), Rocky Mountain (1950) and The Hallelujah Trail (1964).
More to See and Do
All of New Mexico's Mother Road has been designated part of the Route 66 Historic Trail, covering more than 600 miles from Texas to Arizona. Along the way you can shop for trinkets at Tucumcari's TePee Curios or the Richardson's Trading Post in Gallup. Pick up some history at the Route 66 Auto Museum and Malt Shop in Santa Rosa. Catch a film at the El Morro Theater in Gallup or the Rio West Twin in Grants. Check out an annual Route 66 event like the Fire and Ice Bike Rally in Grants or the Tucumcari Mother Road Rally. Or just take pictures of road relics old and new, such as the stretch of old road that is now a municipal airstrip in Santa Rosa, or stretches of older road that have reverted to their component parts of gravel and sand. Old 66 buildings that have been spared demolition by new businesses, or those that just haven't fallen down yet. Or the remains of the various businesses that have found success at one time or another at the Continental Divide between Grants and Gallup.
Progress, Good and Bad
For some the arrival of Interstate 40 was a relief, bypassing dangerous segments of road that weren't well maintained. This was especially true of the old highway from Texas to Tucumcari, one of the deadliest parts of 66 that saw countless accidents and many deaths. For others, the interstate ploughed through well-known landmarks like the Covered Wagon Trading Post in Albuquerque which for decades was the first landmark visible as the old road headed for town. Other businesses, while not physically demolished, were just as quickly forgotten as cross-country travellers zipped by at 75 miles per hour.
Five hundred six miles of US 66 originally crossed the Land of Enchantment, many segments of the road that remains can be seen, some in use and some forgotten, from the interstate that bypassed them.