ALBUQUERQUE CAR DEALER CARLOS GARCIA grew up a block away from Route 66 after his mother moved to town in 1955 to attend the University of New Mexico. She instilled a love of Route 66 and classic neon signs in her son, who has spent the past 15 years tracking down and restoring neon signs with his brother, Ed. They’ve now amassed hundreds of signs for a collection housed in the historic Glorieta Station, in Albuquerque. Garcia serves as the curator for the neon sign graveyard at the new West Central Route 66 Visitor Center.
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Albuquerque had the best stretch of neon in all of Route 66. My mom was just mesmerized by it when she got here. So many people were brought here because of Route 66. You hear story after story: “We were planning to move to Arizona or California, and we got to Albuquerque and fell in love and never left.”
The real reason that the neon exists was for people to promote their businesses. Our love of Albuquerque and Route 66 comes from growing up here. The architecture, the signs, the legendary figures that owned businesses along Route 66, and the people who lived here—it all kind of ties together.
The signs are a springboard to what’s around the sign. Or why it was there.
The signs evoke memories. In every great neon sign, there’s a great story. One of my favorites is the Española Arrow Motel sign. The Atencio family matriarch started selling tamales to all the workers driving up to Los Alamos to build the labs. Shortly after, in 1958, they opened the Arrow Motel and liquor store. The grandkids’ job every summer was to repaint the sign. When we got it, we had to take about 20 layers of paint off to find the original colors.
We have a big driving culture in New Mexico. You need a car if you live here. Given how big the state is, geographically, there’s just no two ways about it. With our climate being so dry, cars last a whole lot longer here. We have way more classic cars on the road because they don’t rust.
People express themselves through their cars. And it’s not always about who has the most money—it’s who has the most creativity or who found the coolest car in a barn. You just never know what you’re gonna see.
You park a car under a neon sign on Route 66. To me, there’s just nothing better. It means so much to the country, but it really means a lot to New Mexico, because so much of our identity is wrapped up in Route 66.
Carlos Garcia maps out a few of his favorite neon signs.
Mac’s La Sierra Coffee Shop. One of Albuquerque’s most beloved neon signs is topped with a sculpture of a cow. “I never get tired of looking at it,” Garcia says. “It’s just a spectacular sign.” 6217 Central Ave. NW
The El Don Motel. The Albuquerque sign features a neon cowboy riding a horse, lassoing the words “El Don.” “I love the colors, the shape, and the script on the sign,” he says. 2222 Central Ave. SW
Rio Pecos Ranch Truck Terminal. The Santa Rosa sign depicts an 18-wheeler with a smiling driver wearing a cowboy hat. “How often do you see a giant sign in the shape of a semi-truck?” Garcia says. 2464 Historic Route 66