Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tucumcari Tonite

Our drive across the Sooner State took forever. Oklahoma, once the few hills of a fading Ozarks are passed, sure is flat and boring. Tolls amassed, big-box dullness, dry brown. A shift in mores, not seen in men's rooms by me since Las Vegas NM and its smeared local ads over the stalls. At the appropriately named Phillips 66 (which when I was a kid was in California but now seems to have retreated to its home state) on the Cherokee Turnpike in weather, it was just over freezing. So cold there was ice on the brush to scrape off the gook from the windows. The bathroom in the vast store blaring C+W and featuring rows of work gloves: dirty. In Weatherford, the same chain's bathroom was dirtier, in a boomtown (name of a café, tellingly) which we tried after filling up to escape and could not, caught at day's end in an endless traffic jam, interstate construction, detours, and a car crash tying up an intersection without, being a boomtown, any red light. We should have stopped at Pilot truck stops; they were uniformly immaculate, with cherry-scented hard soap foam for grease and oil that others frequenting the men's room surely needed to scrub away. At least sunsets westward were pink, as this photo across from our own hotel shows along that long 66 way home.

On the way west, battered billboards scatter, reminding travellers this was once Route 66. Big Texas Steakhouse near Adrian (halfway between Chicago and L.A., therefore the equivalent of California's Harris Ranch between L.A. and S.F.) promised a free steak of 72 oz. I suppose there is a catch. It reminded me of one of the few episodes of The Simpsons I have seen, when a patron eats such a slab and then keels over dead. Then, nagging roadside signs, some blown apart by the wind, for Cherokee Trading Post urged us to stop for trinkets. I think there were two such posts, as billboards repeated, refusing to end. Whatever once-marquee acts from C+W or R+R beckoned for the Choctaw Casino had been left behind as their peers had playing in Deadwood casinos, but ahead, once you find yourself in New Mexico wondering if respite from the horizon is near, Clines Corner will pummel your eyes with yellow signs on each side of the highway, even after you pass, cajoling you back to it.

Between Amarillo and Western New Mexico, the only place still around to sleep if not eat must be Shamrock. We resisted the dubious lure of the other roadside attractions, and the spray-painted detritus in a muddy cow pasture that was Cadillac Ranch looked unlikely to appeal to anyone but Japanese post-teens such as we saw in McDonalds in Amarillo, on a day just above freezing after a storm that brought polar chills. Brittan was a tilting water tower and a giant concrete cross. Many off-ramps once thriving now were empty, at least of any reason to pull off. After nightfall, we found Big Vern's Roadhouse. A big game was on, the locals sat, a girl in gym shorts in the 34-degree weather at dusk. I liked the frosted goblet-full of Pecan Ale. While my proclivities kept me away from seared cattle, I watched in peripheral vision a white-mustached man in black cowboy hat lingering over his. It must have tasted delicious, for he never moved from his chair. He had been there when we arrived and when we left. Fish in such an establishment is like a burger at a taqueria, but I try to stay faithful. (Even if at Crystal Bridges, my soup had ham traces; my soup here had beef bits. Sometimes there is, as we found over all the livestock-producing states, no alternative on a menu.)

The lights of the $1.2 million spent with a government grant to restore the Art Deco postwar glory of Shamrock's U-Drop-Inn across the street from Big Vern's showed what the ride west was once like in such small towns. Shamrock hosts a March 17th parade, and the Lone Star State's tallest water tower.

We could see it from the Best Western motel window. Not much to note, except it too was under repairs. My breakfast there had Raisin Bran, as well as a place to drop yogurt "Lid's for Life's." (sic)

Next stop, after a pit stop at the stateline tourist info center where the voluble staff member had to ask each person making a pit stop their zip code for her records, was a Route 66 mecca for enthusiasts. It has a six-mile stretch of the old road, a rarity, but it was the saddest place we'd seen for 5000 miles. An old man drowsed outside an adobe house in the sun; we saw other oldsters totter along a sidewalk. The Rock Island depot has part of the city's name falling off of it, Main Street is abandoned, and the Route 66 part valiantly tries at night with neon to keep the few who venture off the interstate comforted by nostalgia. We stayed at one such lodging, Hotel Safari, a camel perched sign-high to memorialize the expedition of such beasts through there as a frontier Army Corps. But the logo font was replaced with stark generic lettering, diminishing the small print's exotic effect. Layne splurged for the double room named after early rockabilly star Wanda Jackson. Her signed CDs and that of an Elvis impersonator of perhaps Southeast Asian or Filipino origin (and his autographed two-tone shoes) were in cases. But we could not get the room, uncarpeted if nicely designed in faux-Fifties style and accessories, to warm up much. Outside was just above freezing at night. We ate at a modest roadhouse a few blocks away, where the locals did, and turned in soon after, weary from travelling.

Tucumcari Historical Museum commemorates, in the manner more of Holly Springs than of the Ozarks, another local endeavor to amass whatever the past preserved from neglect or obscurity. Herman Moncus grew up there, in what from photos proved a thriving small town within my lifetime, and his Elk Drug Store had a display of artifacts from his collection, which sure grew big. A 1903 schoolhouse now holds it, 100,000 items. (That museum in Holly Springs MS we had seen a few days earlier claimed only 40,000, but its dustier rival had lots of fossils and rocks, which took up far less room than dresses and hatboxes from the heyday of haberdashery and gracious Southern living.)

Layne and I looked at a large doctor's ledger from the 1940s, in elegant fountain pen longhand without any errors or blots. It listed if patients had been treated or if a few had "expired." One had, from "chest and head wounds." Dead or alive they all had affirmed a religion, too, and among the Christians all of some sort, we finally found a Jewish surname, albeit passing through from or to Los Angeles. Goldenberg's store was early featured in Tucumcari, and as in many frontier towns such as Deadwood, commerce appeared in its history so patiently documented here to have supported other Jewish families. I wondered if Herman too was M.O.T., although no clues existed as to his affiliation.

Failing to enter the city's much-advertised Route 66 Museum, I found it closed without explanation or hours posted at the convention center on the western edge. No sign on the door, even though it was supposed to be open. I was not sure if it had even debuted last June as planned, or if it had lasted out the hot high season. But I had overheard the woman at the state tourist stop tell visitors it and another at Santa Rosa were places to see on the way to Albuquerque. Maybe she and I relied on the same ads. Murals strive to enliven the sun-bleached walls of the city, whose slogan "Tucumcari Tonite" enticed riders on Santa Fe Trailways, which I imagine has gone the way of Greyhound depots in such places.

If you stop for gas at Newkirk, be advised it's a house, a garage, and a station, by the rail tracks, the Rock Island Line whose demise helped weaken Tucumcari as its livelihood. The men's bathroom had no toilet paper, and its condom machine was padlocked. Layne reported the woman's bathroom had toilet paper, and that was padlocked. It was very windy. We took one of the few surviving bits of the frontage road, which we drove slowly, and Layne wondered about her mother making a journey from back East to Los Angeles in 1930. My family must have at one time at least passed this way too. I lived in Claremont just off Route 66, and we live now near enough to 66 now to walk to it in five minutes. Traces of it remain on historical markers, but nearly all has been obliterated by interstates.

As to Cuervo, nothing remains but sand and ruins, a desert(ed) Ozymandias. There are still off-ramps but as with Montoya, this segment leaves nothing for the traveler but buttes and dirt. Somehow, the elevation sustains even if it feels one goes downhill more than uphill. Santa Rosa has three giant billboards, one for the Blue Lake formation fabled in its center, and we found there a few dramatic hills, but no trace of its competing Route 66 Museum. The town had evidence of businesses, but Saturday there might as well have been a Puritan Sunday. We saw nobody. A white metal garage had a placard for "Angry Wife Brewery", but it was deserted. No museum sign. Google Maps took us to the closed City Hall; at least Guadalupe County Courthouse stands dignified in sandstone splendor.

So, into Albuquerque we roamed. The wind was too much for Sandia Peak Tramway, so we had to turn back at the gate after passing miles, overlooking the valleys, of beige or muddy subdivisions. I despised these, as they proliferated maddeningly. In sleek form-fitting black gear, helmeted trim bicyclists sped along paths, past identical houses, if clustered in New Mexican-style compounds. The city slops as if up a vast stony bowl. We were perched where a side slants up east, under steep mountains. Reminding me of Palm Springs tram, a similarly baked if less storied setting. We saw there the next day Hank's house. Rachel kindly returned to show us Breaking Bad filming locations.

The night before, we ate at a crowded brewpub in the Nob Hill section across from the UNM campus. BYB brands are made onsite and we loved their Cherry Stout, the berry, apple, and pear ciders, a spry Monk's Ale (made by real Benedictines who thrive without any angry wives in Georgia O'Keefe Ghost Ranch terrain but no longer give brewery tours; their Dubbel and Triple were ok, but nothing special), and smooth BYB porter. We got there as the crowd surged. For a while, people peeked in as we ate, but as I finished, I looked up again. Everyone had been seated. The veggie burger and fries were tasty, but what I really liked despite the crowd were arguably the best beers of my whole trip.

Our last motel, named after the peak, showed it from an upstairs balcony, if barely. Snow tipped it the first dawn after a cold snap swept in. The weather was again at or just above freezing early on. It was also on the remnant of Route 66, Central Avenue, bisecting the city, and still preserving some of the neon, from motor courts and along Nob Hill, restored to retro glory (if selling out to lots of "edgy" retail and brewski hipster chains, which should be an oxymoron even in a college neighborhood). Overall, the North Valley, perhaps due to its proximity to Intel, looked to be bursting; this pattern I'd seen in Salt Lake City's basin, Boise, the Dakota cities, and the Front Range. But, the South Valley looked more humble, although vulnerable for the brewpubs, lofts, and hirsute denizens to descend on their bikes, which you saw all around upscale streets. We had by the way fine beer at Marble, even if we tallied easily twice or near-thrice the age of nearly everyone else in its crowded brewery room.

The Indian owner of the motel hovered about Layne; the morning news as I ate my yogurt and Raisin Bran had now had shifted from Kim to Bill Cosby's "no comment" to rape allegations.The room was modest but nicely furnished, with tin frames in Spanish style and attractive colors. Across the street, we lucked out, for El Charrito was a typical giant portion example of local cuisine. For the first time I ate chile rellenos, and the plate was filling to say the least on a night near freezing. The next day, we headed off to return our black Prius with 5200 miles on her or him. The Sunport is a nice airport to wander, small enough to get a few laps in and still be aware of your flight. Even if the Breaking Bad magnets I saw on arrival had by my departure all sold out (the clerk said this happens all the time), I found a suitably old-style NM one in postcard design, and now, it sits on my magnet wall of honor at work. Next to it in my cubicle, Fort Mandan, Tucumcari, Badlands, Big Ole, and the Ozark cabin remind me of the places I have seen and the adventures Layne and I had, for nearly the past month.

Photo credit: You can see the Hotel Safari silhouetted to the left of Blue Swallow Motel, Tucumcari

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