Day 5 – The landscape changed very quickly out of Amarillo, to a drier, more scrubby, if equally flat and mostly empty environment. We stopped just west of Amarillo to see the Cadillac Ranch, which is in the middle of nowhere, with nothing in the immediate vicinity around it. It was cold and clear, in the mid- 40s, and we walked out and around it; I didn’t find it impressive, especially after having seen two other tributes in other states.
It felt like seeing a bunch of places that call themselves “the Paris of the West Coast,” or “the Paris of the Midwest,” and then getting to the real Paris and finding it nothing special. Which, because it’s Paris, you don’t.
Our next stop was a sentimental favorite: the Mid-Point Café, which sits on a road so empty that you can park your Cadillac straddling the white line indicating that we’d gone 1139 miles from Chicago, and had 1139 miles to go to get to LA. Then you can get out of it, walk across the street and take a picture of it, all while not being the least concerned that somebody will hit either the car or you.
The café was very cute, and offered more passport stamps and souvenirs. I picked up some Route 66 poker chips to give to my poker buddies when we get together on the first Friday night when I’m back home. We’d already had a quick continental breakfast at the hotel in Amarillo, but the waitress was so nice and accommodating that we decided to have breakfast sandwiches.
I was expecting something the size of what you get at McDonalds, but I’d forgotten that we were in Texas, where everything is bigger. Including my belly, because those sandwiches were on actual, full-sized pieces of bread, and thick enough to choke a horse, I reckon. (We’ve been running through an old 3 Stooges routine where Curly says “I reckon” about four times in every sentence, because he’s in the old West, for some reason.)
Shortly afterwards, we crossed into New Mexico. (Spoiler alert: way better than Old Mexico. No offense to any Mexican-Americans in the audience.) Our first stop was Tucumcari, which was simultaneously very cool, and depressing. For a very small place, it had a pretty high per capita number of old motels and neon signs. We stopped at what I think is the best preserved of them, The Blue Swallow.
It was an old-fashioned motor court, which was a small hotel that featured a little garage alongside each hotel room. The insides of the garages were all painted with Route 66-related themes, and old cars from the 50s and earlier. There were some great neon signs – which again, because we were there in mid-day, we didn’t get to see lit up. In front of the office sat an old, light-blue Hornet from the late 40s or early 50s.
We talked with the owner, who walked us around and showed off the place. He was originally from Chicago, and he and his wife just recently bought the Blue Swallow, as an adventure to start the next phase of their lives. Which, God bless them, because their motor court is cool, but this town is dead. On the bright side, he said that they’d been filling it up nearly every night lately, so I’m hoping for his success.
He showed us the murals on the exterior walls, including one of James Dean in an iconic pose, his hands near his waist. He told us that a recent female guest traveling alone had gotten startled as she came around the corner to her room, seeing a life-size James Dean in the half-shadows. To make things worse, some cacti and other succulents are growing partway up the wall, almost to James Dean’s belt line.
So the vision that met her looked like a guy with one hand tucked into the top of his pants. After she told the owner the next day, he has taken her description to heart, and named the painting “Creepy James Dean.”
After our tour, we went into the nice little gift shop, old Hornet out front. The owner stamped by cousins’ passports and they bought a couple of pins and bottles of Route 66 cola. He loved the caddy and the idea that we were driving the entire route with it, but when he asked about the gas mileage, we just changed the subject.
He has a black lab that is either elderly or used to conserving energy. I rubbed his head and ears, and then played the most lethargic game of fetch you’ve ever seen, with an old tennis ball. I’d roll it to the wall, he’d amble over and pick it up, amble back, and drop it on the floor in front of me. I did that three times, and by the end, I swore I could hear a calendar page fall off the wall, the way old movies used to symbolize the passage of time.
Our next stop was the Blue Hole, a clear spring amidst a rock formation not too far off the road. The hole is 85 feet deep, and the water is 62 degrees, which was about 20 degrees too cold for me, being a Florida wimp after living in the south for 35 years. But Darryll is daunted by neither cold water nor body shaming, and he jumped off of the rocks into the water.
And then swam very quickly for the ledge around the water!
The landscape in New Mexico was more desert and rocky outcroppings, and gorgeous. Especially for a Midwestern boy transplanted to the south, I see why the state motto is “land of enchantment.”
At some point as we traveled through that beautiful scenery, we crossed the Pecos River, not much more than a big creek at that point. And because we are all basically juveniles, we started to debating which one of us was now “the baddest hombre west of the Pecos,” which I guess we’d heard in half a dozen cartoons when we were kids.
I reckon I won that argument, I reckon.
We stopped at the Pecos National Park, which encompasses both a large, early Indian settlement, and a Spanish church that was originally built in the early 1600s, then burned after some unpleasantness with the locals – who at the time must have been the baddest hombres west of the Pecos, I reckon. Then the church was rebuilt in 1717. A pretty impressive portion of it is still standing, testament to the sobering fact that hombres with repeating rifles and Gatling guns are generally going to outlast ones with bows and arrows.
From there we decided to take a side trip to Santa Fe, which was more than worth it. I guess most everyone is familiar with Santa Fe: lots of adobe and old-growth wooden beams and pillars, an active arts district surrounded by starkly beautiful desert landscape. We arrived in time for supper, opted for Mexican food (duh!), and then realized for the first time that it was Cinco de Mayo. So the wait was not short. But the margarita and chalupa were worth it.
As the sun was getting low in the sky, we made a few leisurely loops around the old part of town with the top down, the slanting sunlight giving a warm glow to old churches, quaint shops and restaurants, and a few small parks.
If you ever get the chance to cruise around Santa Fe near sunset in a convertible, I highly recommend it.
By the way, I got a chance to put my high school Spanish class knowledge (“Silencio por favor, Martino!”) to good use. I explained to my cousins that “Cinco de Mayo” means “fifth of May.” Also, that “el rancho” means “the ranch.” And “Eldorado” means “the dorado.”
They didn’t look like it, but I reckon they were grateful, I reckon.
We decided to go on to Albuquerque for the night, but by the time we reached the end of town night had fallen, and Bob was fading fast. So we took a more direct route to Albuquerque, missing the stretch of 66 with the road grooves that make the tones of “America the Beautiful” as you drive over them, which I’m sorry to have missed.
Next up: from Albuquerque to Flagstaff