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2004Travelogue # 20 Tucumcari and Santa Rosa, New Mexico
Santa Rosa Campground
Santa Rosa, New Mexico
Places of Interest:
Texas: Cadillac Ranch
New Mexico: Tucumcari, Blue Swallow Motel, Tepee Curios, La Cita Restaurant, Conchas Lake State Park, Santa Rosa, The Blue Hole, Puerto de Luna.
7/9 We were off to "The Land of Enchantment" this morning. About 16 miles west of Amarillo, we spotted an oddity, "the world's only Cadillac Ranch". Here were 10 Cadillacs lined up alongside I-40, with their noses buried in a field, at the same angle as the Cheops Pyramid (per travel literature). There was a designated parking area for a close, walk-up view of the cars but from our perspective on the Interstate, it looked like every inch of those Cadillacs was covered in graffiti, so we decided not to stop. The scene was really sort of weird!
Next stop was Vega, Texas. Now, who has ever heard of Vega, Texas? I would venture to say, only a few, but now we're among those select few. Vega is the halfway mark on Route 66 between Chicago and Santa Monica. It's also where I had our mail delivered, figuring the Post Office was small enough not to lose our General Delivery mail package. As luck would have it, we showed up at 12:15, lunchtime. We parked the motorhome on the town square and awaited the Post Mistress's return from lunch, at 12:30. She was on time and soon we were again, on our way to New Mexico; the borders being just a few miles down the road.
For us, there is something special about New Mexico, its beautiful and vibrant landscape. Its setting is much like a Navajo rug, a tapestry of woven colors, red sandstone buttes and bluffs with a mixture of white gypsum dropping into the desert below. Throw in a brilliant blue sky for contrast, and the good Lord wove us a beautiful day.
Our destination for the next couple of days was Tucumcari, New Mexico, one of the more classic towns along Route 66. Years ago, there were billboards along the Highway, advertising souvenir shops, which peddled silver and turquoise trinkets and signs for "Tucumcari Tonight! 2000 Motel Rooms ". Today, I-40 swings south of the city; it no longer gets the traffic it once had and certainly doesn't need 2000 motel rooms.
We spent the next couple of nights at Mountain Road RV Park, at Exit 333 between the Interstate and old Route 66. The Park has FHU, 50 amps, and 60 pull thru sites, allowing for easy access at $23 a night.
After setting up our site, we unhooked the toad and drove through town to see the vintage 66 structures with a couple really catching our eye. The first was a big neon sign with a blue bird, called the Blue Swallow Motel. The Smithsonian magazine said the "Blue Swallow may be the last, best, and the friendliest of the old-time motels." Across the Highway from the motel was Tepee Curios, another classic gift and souvenir shop shaped like an Indian tepee. Painted on the front of this white tepee were red Indian dancers and a large black Route 66 Shield.
Returning to the coach, we had just settled in for the evening, when a van pulling a pop-top camper parked next to us. An elderly gentleman slid out the driver's side, followed by two small children. Glancing out the window a little later, I noticed he was having trouble raising the top of his camper, so I offered to help. This became a 2-hour project because he was physically too weak to set it up. His name was Don and his wife was Rita. They were traveling from Arizona with their grandchildren, abandoned by their son and daughter-in-law and bringing them to their daughter's home in Minnesota. This was just an overnight rest-stop on a hard journey. Rita, who was still sitting in the hot van, had fallen recently and broken her arm and looked exhausted, hot and sad. I invited her to come inside our coach, where it was cool, and Peggy would fix her a glass of iced tea. She accepted and I continued working with Don to raise the top of the camper.
Don was 71 years old, in failing health and the process of setting up camp on such a hot evening was very difficult for him. After we finished, I told him it was "toddy time" and asked, if he would be interested in a little Jack Daniels with a splash? "Oh my", he said, "I haven't had one of those in years and that would be wonderful." Out came the lawn chairs, a little "Jack" and as we talked, we watched a thunderstorm, to the north pass through, on the horizon. Later, he told me, "I haven't been this relaxed in a long time."
They left the next morning and afterward, while visiting with the RV Park owner, she said, "The gentleman camping next to you was in the office this morning and made the comment, 'God put an angel next to us last night.'"
There are lots of needs out there, but we are not called to take care of all of them. Last night, there was a need, and the call came. We were pleased we could help.
7/10 I was up and out with my morning cup of coffee, walking and gazing into the distance, when what to my wandering eyes should appear but a woman walking with two leashes, one attached to a Labrador Retriever and the other to a Pot-Bellied Pig. What a way to start the day!
In Spanish "mesa" is translated as "table or tableland". In Tucumcari and the surrounding area, these unique landscape features, of high flat plateaus or tablelands, are seen in the distance. Close by and very visible is Tucumcari Mountain; a high point in the valley. The Tucumcari area was in Comanche territory and from this high point, the Indians sent smoke signals across the plains. The Comanche word for a lookout spot is "tukamukari" and the mountain was an excellent vantage point for the raiding Comanche war parties.
After a slow start, we drove around town to see what was there and what used to be there. Upon entering the city and following the path of old US 66, we found a classic area. However, just north of 66, the downtown section was nearly a ghost town with empty and abandoned buildings. One such unique structure was the old, Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Train Station. This Art Deco, adobe, with red-tile roof and Spanish arches was a beautiful structure and abandoned. Where was the civic pride to preserve such a magnificent facility? It could possibly be used as a restaurant, Visitors Center, art gallery or something. It's amazing to us how some communities rally around something special or unique in their city, enhancing it, while others are totally asleep at the wheel. It was sad to see the waste.
Continuing our drive, we migrated back toward old Historic 66 and happened upon a side street, where a fantastic mural of US 66 was in the making. This was being painted on the wall of Lowe's Grocery Store. We parked and walked up to the mural, where the two artists, Doug Quarles and Sharon Watson, were hard at work. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Doug and Sharon, transplants from Natchitoches, Louisiana, moved to Tucumcari to start an artist colony. They thought the old town had much to offer and wanted to instill a feeling of community pride. They hoped this mural would demonstrate their good faith and ignite a spirit of civic involvement.
They had been working on the mural titled, "The Legendary Road", for the past two months and Doug said it was the largest mural ever painted about Historic US 66, 14 feet high and 114 feet long. They mixed old scenes, buildings, animals and people, with the new, on that very long wall. In one segment of the mural, was the before mentioned Santa Fe Railway Station. We told Sharon that such a beautiful building needed to be used and she said they were working to reclaim the station for the beginning of an art colony and have lined up other artists to present their artworks. Just maybe, Tucumcari is starting its comeback!
Before we left, we asked Doug and Sharon to recommend a place for lunch. They said we definitely needed to try the La Cita Restaurant, across the street on US 66, for good Mexican food. Plus, it dubs as a gallery for displaying and selling their artwork.
The La Cita Restaurant is classic 66, with its big outdoor neon sombrero sign. Inside, artwork covers the walls, mainly Doug's and Sharon's, potted cactus plants are stuck everywhere and the tables are covered in oilcloth the color of mustard. The Mexican food was very good and the meal was topped off with wonderful puffy sopapillas and honey.
After lunch, we took SH-104 north, to Conchas Lake State Park, soaking in the beauty of the mesas of Quay County. Looking across this vast area, known as the Llano Estacado, meaning, "staked plains" in Spanish, it's easy to see how it received its name. Yuccas are everywhere and there spear-like leaves look like stakes thrust into the air, like they were standing guard.
The mesas were given names by the locals such as, Liberty Mesa, which overlooked a roaring Cowtown in the 1870's, but now there is no town, just a vacant space on Pajarito Creek. Mesa Rica, "rich mesa" received its name from a legend that Indians attacked a burro-train loaded with gold and during the fight; the gold was hidden on the mesa, never to be found.
Conchas Lake State Park is a large park with the lake as the main focal point, which is now in dire need of water. High on a bluff, overlooking the lake stands the Park's main Lodge, at least 40-years-old but still open for occupancy. There were only a few guests, since it was off-season and so very hot. We stopped, walked around, bought a Coke, and visited with a lady who was there on a nostalgia trip. She had fond memories, when, as a teenager, it was a booming place the Lake was filled to the brim and the Lodge was new with a beautiful swimming pool, definitely her main attraction. It was sad for her to see the Lake so low, the Lodge in need of a severe facelift and her favorite swimming pool filled in.
We retraced our path back to Tucumcari, having a different perspective but the same vibrant colors.
Happy Birthday Mom, 91 years Wow!
7/11 Our journey down Historic US 66 is not only about old buildings and things, but also, about the people we meet, such as Doug and Sharon, the Tucumcari artists trying to make a difference. We never know what's around the next curve in the road.
Today we rolled west, heading for Santa Rosa, 60 miles down I-40 and our next stop on Route 66. Along this stretch of highway, the Interstate climbs the bluffs of the Llano Estacado and enters Pecos River Country. The view from the bluffs is panoramic with a big blue sky.
During World War II, General Eisenhower saw the German Autobahn and when he became President, he was instrumental in setting up our Interstate system, as we know it today. In many places, the Interstate passed small towns and they withered away, but some would not be KO'd.
Most travelers, along this route, drive straight from Amarillo to Albuquerque or vice-versa, never stopping or even seeing the little town of Santa Rosa. This is where the Great Plains rise up to meet the Rockies. It is like a little oasis, nestled in the valley of the Pecos River amid the red mesas. Due to some geological shifting, there are a number of fresh water springs in the area.
Our resting place for the next couple of days was the Santa Rosa Campground, at 2136 Historic US 66 (www.santarosacamp.com ) with FHU, 50 amps, cable, and gravel interior roads and sites. The Park just changed hands this week and the new owners were still a little green on the whole operation.
After set up, we explored the town that became a traveler's stopover in 1930 on Americas "New Main Street". It was here, on the Santa Rosa stretch of US 66, John Steinbeck's book became an epic movie. "The Grapes of Wrath" was filmed with John Ford directing. He used Santa Rosa for the train scene when Tom Joad (played by actor Henry Fonda) watched a freight train steam cross the railroad bridge over the Pecos River and then, steam west out of town.
I guess the reason this old Highway draws me is because, for my generation and that of my parents, it was the route west. Families used it, with hopes of finding a better life, where previous generations used the Santa Fe Trail or the Oregon Trail for their search west. Route 66 left traces of another era mine.
There is a famous geological phenomenon in town, called the Blue Hole and we had to see it. This natural, bell-shaped pool, carved from rock is 80 feet deep, with crystal clear water holding a constant temperature of 64 degrees. Finding a place in the crowded parking lot, we walked to the pool, which barely had standing room around the edge. It looked like the most favorite thing for children of all ages was to climb a high rocky ledge and jump into the deep blue, cooling water hole.
We noticed one little girl in particular, who was next in line, poised on the rocky ledge, about to make her very first jump into this deep hole. She summoned all her courage to make the "leap of faith", as her big sister stood by her side with encouragement and her parents waited in the pool below, reassuring her that she'd be all right. Reflecting upon this little girl, I think of the many times I have been on the cliff's edge, trying to draw up the courage to make that "leap". This lifestyle is one example of such a "leap". That's when faith took over; I just knew a Greater Power would be there to bring me up and place me safely on the other side such is life. (After 10 minutes, the little girl jumped and when she surfaced everyone greeted her with overwhelming applause. From that moment, she couldn't do enough jumps.)
7/12 South of Santa Rosa, on SH-91, is the adobe village of Puerto de Luna. Legend has it, when Coronado's conquistadors passed through there; they built a bridge across the Pecos and watched the moon come up over the rock outcroppings. Hence the name, translated from Spanish, is "Village of the Moon" and it appeared abruptly as we came out of the canyon. It was nestled in a beautiful, fertile, little valley with adequate water supply for the early settlers to plant and irrigate crops.
As 1901 drew to a close, the railroad bypassed Puerto de Luna and came through Santa Rosa instead, marking the end of this little village. However, its agricultural significance is still felt, through its famous "PDL Chili "pepper. This pepper, a unique strain of chili, has been grown in Puerto de Luna for over 100 years.
We continued following SH-91 from the village, passing several large working
ranches. Soon and with no notice, the pavement ended and we were on a gravel
road, which stopped at a cattle guard and entrance to someone's ranch. We were
truly, at the end of the line. It was time to turn around and retrace our steps
Bob & Peggy Woodall