Above Photo: Vintage Postcard of Tucumcari

Day 5 Miles: None

Tucumcari, New Mexico

Tucumcari was so quiet and relaxing, I thought I’d stay an additional night. That’s when my bubble began to burst. Romanticizing the idea of owning a vintage motel or perhaps a vintage trailer park a la The Shady Dell in Bisbee, Arizona, I began looking at real estate listings and speaking to locals.

One shop owner really gave me an earfull about Tucumcari. “The local hospital just diagnoses and sends you somewhere else,” she said. “And forget about getting fresh produce. We have one grocery store in town, and it is terrible. I drive once a month to Albuquerque to do my shopping.” She had a few choice words about the Chamber of Commerce too, and the locals who would rather drive to Albuquerque to buy something than buy it from her.

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Having noticed the “American Owned” signs on the motels around town, I was curious about a handwritten sign taped to the wall at the front desk of the RV Park: “This is a business. No personal questions.” The proprietors are of East Indian descent.

During my Sunday of sleuthing I discovered that many motels in Tucumcari are owned by East Indians, many of them related to one another. “Their motel signs may say “American Owned” but they’re not Americans. Well, they may have their papers, but they’re not Americans.” (That comment was so mean and hateful I am not going to attribute it to any particular individual.) I was beginning to understand the “No Personal Questions” sign.

And then there was the matter of the neon. My first night in town I watched the Disney movie, “Cars.” Paul Newman voiced one of the characters, which gives you an idea of how old the movie is now. For the uninitiated, the movie is about the fictitious town of Radiator Springs, somewhere along Route 66. The town was left behind when the interstate was built. The residents no longer bothered to turn on their neon signs at night anymore, that is, until a little racecar voiced by Owen Wilson got lost and came to town.

On my first night in Tucumcari, I was too bushed to go out and see all the fabulous neon at night. By staying an additional day, I would get that opportunity. What a disappointment.

Except for Tepee Curios and the Blue Swallow Motel, most of the signs are not even lit. The Cactus RV park sign, restored with grant money in 2008, only lights up in part, on both sides. The owners of Tepee Curios, Iowa transplants who fell in love with Route 66 and were even married on the route before relocating to Tucumcari, noted that many owners do not light their neon at night. I got the distinct impression that Tucumcari is a town full of great ideas and no capital; who has the money for neon repairs, or the electricity to light them with no appreciative audience?

Dreams sufficiently dashed, I decided I would detour to Santa Fe instead of going straight to Albuquerque the following day. Santa Fe would be my Route 66 palate cleanser. I needed a little break from The Mother Road.