New Mexico, Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Today was a relatively short day of driving, just from Tucumcari to Albuquerque, a trip I could have made before lunch via the interstate. Even on Route 66, there wasn't much to slow me down. Even so, the day was a necessary opportunity to sleep in, enjoy an extra cup of coffee, and take a little side trip.

I awoke a bit bummed that I'd slept so soundly. The previous night I grabbed one of the metal chairs in front of the Blue Swallow and watched the cars roll down the main drag. A cool breeze set wind chimes tinkling and I searched for constellations in the stars overhead. The neon sign had been turned off; the Blue Swallow's owners either filled all the rooms or were not expecting much more business at this point. I was the only person outside, just digging on the quiet. I enjoyed the respite so much that I committed to return in the early morning, just after I rest my eyes… Opening them again, the sun shone through the closed curtains. I snapped a few pics of the motel, which for all its fame as a Mother Road icon remains a humble place, and an expensive one. When it was recently for sale, Jenny and I thought semi-seriously about cashing out some equity from our house and buying the motel outright. The price seemed right. But the regular maintenance on the sign alone must be punishing, thanks to the effects of wind gusts upon neon. And the "deferred" maintenance on a place built in 1939 must surely be worrisome. Thankfully, Bill Kinder and Terri Johnson are doing a fine job with their new property, even painting the exterior to more closely match the pale blue the motel wore in the '50s. The Blue Swallow is a national treasure, and it remains a must-stop for anyone taking the "highway that's the best."

Breakfast was at Kix on 66, an "eatery" that, despite its boring sign and would-be hip name is really just an old-school diner notable for decent food and attentive service. Thereafter I returned to the highway, mixing stretches of early roadbed with occasional burns on the interstate. Recognizing that my miles this day would be marked largely by dry and desolate stretches of scrub, I decided to take a detour south to check out the town of Vaughn. I knew nothing about the place, but I figured I might spot some cool signage there. Sure enough I came across the Yucca Motel and the Ranch House Cafe. But at this point the wind was really howling, and I could hear the signs creaking. Bands of clouds marched overhead, but no rain would fall. I waited for some sunshine and then walked back toward the car. Before I left, I dropped by a convenience store on the main road through town, a small place spiffily painted and brimming with daily-need stuff for locals. The guy running the place has clearly put a lot of work into his business and I was happy to buy some stuff I didn't need in a strange sort of thanks for his efforts. Returning west through Encino, which is rapidly drifting into ghost town status, I rejoined my itinerary and headed toward Moriarty. My goal was to visit the Whiting Brothers station, the last one of that chain continuing to run (though managed entirely by a local operator). It was closed, but not permanently by all appearances.

Arriving in Albuquerque, I took the more than 20-mile strip of Central Avenue through town, spotting potential stops for the evening's neon odyssey. While I could have made many more miles this day, I couldn't bypass the chance to enjoy one of the best collections of neon in the southwest. It took plenty of time to make my way through town, the street presents a phalanx of red lights. Only later would I discover what the locals already know, taking parallel side streets can cut driving time sharply. By the time I reached my destination, Monterey No Smokers Motel, I tired of the stop-and-go traffic. Normally I'd stay at the nearby El Vado, but that motel is boarded up and its new owner is fighting the city over his plans to demolish the pueblo revival masterpiece. I'd heard good things about the Monterey, so I pulled in here instead. The owners of this place take obvious pride in their property, and the guy at the desk looked suspiciously at my shaggy road-beard as he emphasized how they tolerate no smoking around here. But I got my room soon enough and came to agree with Jerry McClanahan, who swears by this place, Monterey is a gem: clean, well apportioned, and quiet.

After a brief rest I headed for the 66 Diner, nouveau-streamlined version of the smaller greasy spoons up and down the road, and waited for sunset. Soon enough evening came and I began my trip east and then west again, using a video camera to grab footage of the animated signs. My favorite, of course, is the Dog House Drive In, which features a neon dachshund wolfing down wieners one at a time, though I also dig the El Don Motel. Traffic was lighter than earlier and I made my way down the strip fairly easily. At one point, photographing a Route 66 sign in a neon shop, a fellow walked by and we shared some conversation. I mentioned that I'm here to shoot the signs and he laughed with a warning about the area's notorious crime, "Better change your terminology. Don't say 'shoot' around here." Later on I left town and headed back for the town of Monterey, aiming to "photograph" the wondrous rotosphere at El Comedor restaurant. About a half-hour later I pulled into town and saw the glowing neon, but no turning sign. I walked in, just as they were closing, and inquired about the rotosphere. Folks explained that while a recent grant paid for the sign's refurbishment, there was no money for upkeep. It might get fixed, but there are no immediate plans. Outside, I stood there and remembered the image from my last visit, hearing the motors turning and gazing agape at the marvelous Sputnik-era sign. I hope they fix the rotosphere soon; it's too nice a piece of roadside art to abandon.

Returning to the Duke City I drove past and crossed into town on the other side of Central Avenue. Cresting the peak of Nine Mile Hill, I stared at the awesome vista of thousands of lights spread like a shallow sea across the valley, a broad and friendly town with a room waiting for me. [Continue...]

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All text and photos copyright Andrew Wood