The Mother Road to Tucumcari

India’s most holy river is called “Mother Ganga.” America’s most holy highway is called “The Mother Road.” Route 66 is the highway equivalent of Old Glory and the American equivalent of the Silk Road. Between 1926 and 1985, it linked Chicago and Santa Monica for vacationers and every kind of itinerant during a period of westward migration. It’s been a symbol of American freedom and hope in some of our best literature, like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  

Since leaving Berkeley, I’ve been traveling Route 66 at times — now mostly along Interstate 40. Yesterday, I left Albuquerque on the path of Route 66 toward Louisiana, and stopped for a sleepover in the little town of Tucumcari.

I wanted to visit Tucumcari after reading that it’s Ground Zero for Route 66 aficionados. Tucumcari (population 4,919) has a Route 66 museum, historic “motor hotels,” dozens of murals, and a lot of old-fashioned neon. (Historians believe “Tucumcari” might be a derivative of the Comanche word “tukamukaru,” which means a lookout point.) It’s not really a tourist destination but it is an important site of quirky American history.

I was lucky enough to get a room at the Blue Swallow Motel, perhaps the most iconic of Route 66 lodgings and written up by the Smithsonian as “the best, and friendliest of the old-time motels.” Staying there was like stepping back in time to 1950. Although parts of the property have been updated, the motel still has the original bathroom fixtures, refrigerators, and neon signs. Each room has its own garage and a table outside with a big glass ashtray, just like the ones my parents had. The owners are enthusiasts and eager to share the history of the motel.

After my tour of the Blue Swallow, I drove around town to see Tucumcari’s attractions–mostly murals because the museums were closed — and grabbed a take-out lunch at Loretta’s Burrito Hut. I avoided one of the most photographed and most visited places in town — the Tee Pee Curios store — because it’s a part of Americana that, I think, goes too far and I don’t want to raise any eyebrows or start a dialog about cultural appropriation. But you can easily find a photo of it if you are curios. (Sorry)

MENU - Picture of Loretta's Burrito Hut, Tucumcari - Tripadvisor

Stock photo

Back at the motel, I had a good night’s sleep under a chenille bedspread and woke up just as a snow storm was building a head of steam along the road to Amarillo. Like so many travelers before me, I grabbed a paper cup of (updated) coffee in the motel office and got back on the road.

 
“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”  — Jack Kerouac, On the Road

5 comments

  1. In 1958, my family drove from Indianapolis to Los Angeles following route 66 most of the way. Can’t say I remember this motel as I was five. The trip was quite an adventure though. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Initially upon reading this all ll I could think about was https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oidIMILnjH8, Jimmy Rodgers’ valiant attempt to sing the #1 worst song in American folklore.

    I have a faint memory of stopping over in Tucumcari on my trip “out west” when migrating to California in ’67 for the Summer of Love. Very faint. I think we slept in the car.

    The Blue Swallow Motel looks like something out of a ’50’s movie. If fact, the whole town does.

    You did a nice job in portraying the town. You showed the town definitely merits a better song.

    🙂

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