The giant blue neon bird perched atop the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, N.M., has stood as a beacon along historic Route 66 for more than 60 years, beckoning to road-weary travelers motoring between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Modern travelers hungry for a taste of the past roam the Mother Road in search of small-town America that lives on in special places like Tucumcari (pop. 5,989), a Quay County town that many consider a candidate for the best-preserved Route 66 town.
"The bulk of our business is people doing the route because they traveled it when they were young," says Hilda Bakke, who owns the Blue Swallow Motel with her husband, Dan. "Whether they’re old-timers or discovering the road for the first time, everybody is curious."
The Bakkes, who bought the landmark in 1989, restored it themselves, adding period details such as Western Electric rotary telephones from 1939, the year the motel opened. "My husband is an electrician, so the first thing he set out to do was restore that neon sign," Hilda says. "We’ve also replaced carpeting, stripped floors, and put in new beds. We hope to work on the landscaping this year."
Tucumcari, founded in 1901, remains the biggest stopover between Amarillo, Texas, and Albuquerque, N.M., even though Interstate 40 bypassed the town in 1985. Each summer, the area celebrates its heritage with a Route 66 Festival, scheduled July 8-10, which includes a car show, historic exhibits and a parade. Visitors can see that many of the curio shops, gas stations, motels and restaurants that thrived in Tucumcari during the 1940s and 1950s along Route 66—so named because a businessman instrumental in making the road a reality liked the sound better than Route 62 or 64—continue on. Often, the second generation of entrepreneurs stubbornly guards a legacy of vintage roadside architecture and dispenses kindness and assistance to everyone who passes their way.
Mike Callens owns the irresistible 1944 TeePee Curio Shop, which sells a wild assortment of plastic alien skulls, mugs, caps and T-shirts. "We’re all connected along the route. We’re like a great big family," says Callens, who inherited the business from his aunt and uncle in 1985. In 2003, the shop was one of three Tucumcari businesses that received government grants to restore their neon signs to their original glowing form. Callens pitched in, stripping the sign outside his shop and painting it himself. The sign even graced the cover of New Mexico Magazine in March 2004.
To capitalize on the resurgence of interest in Route 66 during 2001’s 75th anniversary, Tucumcari changed the name of its two-mile main street from Tucumcari Boulevard back to Route 66.
The change brought back fond memories for people such as Lynn Moncus, a retired English professor and author of the book Quay County, New Mexico 1903-2003: A Pictorial History. Moncus remembers growing up along Old 66 during its heyday as a mythological highway to the Promised Land during the Great Depression, as thousands left the Dust Bowl behind. The road was known as the path for adventure in later years.
"The tourist business picked up after World War II, when new motels were built and the neon appeared," Moncus says.
She also remembers Dust Bowl days when her father, Sheriff Claude Moncus, would go out in cold weather and bring home stranded families so they wouldn’t freeze. "He’d let these Route 66 travelers from the Grapes of Wrath era spend the night in the city jail before they continued west.
"We still have plenty of people coming through looking for the past and the nostalgia of the Mother Road, and they’re finding some of it. So many are seeking what we had—a taste of a slower, more gracious time. In those days, we had time to look at the scenery," she says.
And as long as Americans get in their cars and motor west, they can count on Tucumcari’s neon signs to light the way.