When entering New Mexico from the east on I 40, the first town to seize your attention is Tucumcari. It’s located on what is now called “Historical Route 66” and is said to boast the largest collection of original motel signs from the glory days of the famous highway. The town, despite its multitude of splitting seams, is still a wonderful place to gas up, eat, and locate a cheap motel.
On our August trip we drove into Tucumcari three separate times (not an easy thing to do considering it’s really in the middle of nowhere).
The town is divided into two parts – the historic downtown (which looks desperately in need of a friend), and the strip of Route 66 with its ragtag collection of cafes and motels. Honestly, it’s difficult to say what’s original out on the strip. Everything blends into a nicely textured, slightly-disintigrating mosaic. There are old Chevys anchored down in front of even older motels and none of it has the look of corporate tourism. We stayed at one, in an effort to avoid patronizing the “big name” chains in town.
Selecting our motel took a bit of effort. First we surveyed the lineup because there are least a dozen separate Mom and Pop operations. Each have historic signs (complete with missing bulbs) and buildings in similar states of disrepair. The motel owners are in hot competition with each other (with many advertising rooms for under $25). Such astonishingly low prices gave us a bit of hesitation, but we were determined to snub the big chains. The place we settled on was run by a charming couple from Hyderabad (fellow vegetarians) who gave us some useful tips for cooking Idli. We thoroughly enjoyed our conversation with the owners along with our stay in their old motel.
There’s something about this town that made me feel like the country’s going to be okay.
Tucumacari has a fascinating modern history. It goes something like this:
1700’s – Apaches and Comanches take turns with the region bringing in their thriving nomadic economies. This included raiding, hunting and collecting local herbs – a system far superior to the current model.
1901 – A tent-city springs up during railroad construction. The village (now in its infancy) is known as Ragtown and later as Six Shooter Siding
1908 – Trains are everywhere. Tucumcari is finally named “Tucumcari” (a Comanche term for the nearby flat-topped mesa).
1926 – Route 66 is famously paved into town replacing wagon yards and blacksmith shops with motels and gas stations. You can still see chunks of original pavement both east and west of town.
1960’s – Interstate 40 is built, an event which effectively served Route 66 with marching papers. The country begins to look the same everywhere.
Today there is renewed interest in the Route 66 phase of the town’s history. This is a healthy sign of revolt. The photograph above is a good example of local architecture. The building was done in a style unique to Tucumcari – one which effortlessly combines original with retro (easy enough to do since everything looks like its falling apart). No one seems concerned with what determines originality here and it doesn’t much matter because the town is full of character.
By the way, “La Cita” in Spanish means “The Date”… a curious name for a building that appears to house both a florist and a Mexican restaurant. We didn’t get a chance to eat there (or order flowers). Maybe next time.