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.