The Blue Swallow Motel is known for its neon sign and vintage car. 

IN ITS HEYDAY IN THE 1950s AND '60s, Tucumcari glowed with so much neon that it was dubbed “Little Las Vegas.” Period photos hanging in the New Mexico Route 66 Museum testify to the illumination of this eastern New Mexico burg, with signs advertising everything a motorist might need—gas, lodging, dinner, and an ice cream cone.

The Tucumcari I encounter today, however, bears only a passing resemblance to the one from the era when newfangled “motor lodges” drew travelers alerted to their presence by a series of billboards that promised TUCUMCARI TONITE! As I take a sunset cruise along the town’s five preserved miles of Route 66 (aka Tucumcari Boulevard), signs flicker on for the Blue Swallow Motel, Tepee Curios, and a handful of other town staples. Two signs—for the Cactus Motel and RV Park and the Paradise Motel (which included a neon bathing beauty diving into a pool’s splash)—are notably absent. They’ve been whisked away by collectors in Albuquerque and the Midwest.

The neon glow in this otherwise agricultural community is far from what it once was. The residents know it. And they’re doing something about it.

From left: The Motel Americana's neon allure welcomes guests for overnight stays. At the Motel Safari, guests enjoy rooms like this one, dedicated to rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson.

I share their fondness for Tucumcari’s glory days. I grew up listening to tales of my mother’s childhood here. She described memories of cruising Route 66 in its halcyon era so vividly that I often feel as though I, too, stopped for a Coke at one of the since-shuttered soda fountains or ate a hamburger, its juices dripping down my fingers, in a vinyl booth at a fast-food joint.  I feel her sense of freedom of being unleashed along America’s Main Street.

It’s the same sense of independence travelers felt as they followed the 2,448-mile trek from Chicago to Santa Monica, California, before what was often called the Mother Road was decommissioned in 1985.

The pull of Route 66 is so strong that it can produce a nostalgic buzz for a time and place we never experienced ourselves. It’s a sentiment many of my fellow millennials chase today as they increasingly travel stretches of Route 66, panning for authenticity away from the interstate’s pyrite mines of big-box stores and chain hotels.

The same quest beckons me to my lodgings: Motel Safari, one of four restored vintage hotels in town. (There are soon to be five, as renovations are underway at the Apache Motel.) That’s more than nearly any other town on the Mother Road.

From left: Larry Smith, owner of Motel Safari, shows off Route 66 kitsch inside this historic roadside motel.

Larry Smith, a Knoxville, Tennessee, transplant who followed his Route 66 passion to Tucumcari, purchased Motel Safari in 2016. Smith has bolstered the motel’s 1959 doo-wop style with details like painted teal, orange, and brown protruding bricks. An Elvis mural on a perforated brick wall that greets customers completes the period feel. The motel’s original sign has been adapted over the years but still bears the original’s hallmarks: a marching camel and its rider. 

“We’ve lost several historic neon signs since I’ve lived here,” Smith says. “It’s like watching history drive out of town on a truck bed. I want these neon signs to stay here, in their natural environment. They’re made to be enjoyed against a rich blue sky and glowing at night.”

This year, the 95th anniversary of Route 66’s founding, some new lights have flickered on in Tucumcari. With neon reclamation and restoration projects underway, the town is finding a balance between celebrating what once was and evolving into what could be.

From left: The Route 66 Motel and Tepee Curious celebrate Americana through signage.

ONE HUNDRED MILLION YEARS BEFORE THE town took on an electric glow, Tucumcari was a beachside landscape along the western edge of a great sea. It has that shoreline to thank for its abundance of marine fossils—including an oyster that, for a brief time in the mid-1850s, was named for the now-landlocked town. The town’s Mesalands Dinosaur Museum celebrates that paleo past, often with traces of ancient life gathered by Mesalands Community College students and faculty. Other students cast them into bronze at the school’s renowned art foundry.

In its more recent past, the town blossomed in 1901 when the Rock Island Railroad pushed westward. The growth of a rowdy camp—Six-Shooter Siding—cemented this place as a railroad town until Route 66’s arrival. Tucumcari Railroad Museum chronicles that history in the town’s historic depot.

In 1902 the founders renamed the townsite Tucumcari, after the nearby flat-topped mountain where the town’s “T” now stakes its claim. The mountain, which offers views into the Texas panhandle, some 50 miles away, might have earned its name from an adaptation of a Comanche word meaning “lookout point” or “signal peak.”

However, a town legend (invented in 1907 by a Methodist minister) recasts its name more romantically. In the fable, an Apache warrior, Tocom, fought to the death for Chief Wautonomah’s daughter, Kari. As Tocom lay dying, a grief-stricken Kari rushed forward, killing the warrior’s rival with her blade before taking her own life. As the two lay dying, the chief repeated the ill-fated lovers’ names: “Tocom … Kari …”

Director Ken Christian embraces the motoring past at the New Mexico Route 66 Museum.

THE TOWN BOOMED WHEN ROUTE 66 CRUISED through, bringing tourism with it.

Ken Christian, director and curator of the New Mexico Route 66 Museum, remembers that time well, because he lived it. “Being a teenager, I didn’t appreciate it,” he says. “It wasn’t until I got to see it through other people’s eyes that I knew what we had.”

The museum’s collection of antique cars, gas pumps, and a jukebox is purposefully homegrown. Take the 1970 Plymouth Road Runner that Dwight Haller lent to the museum’s long-term collection. Haller drove the classic car through Tucumcari when he originally had it in high school. Then he sold it. Years later, he tracked it through its VIN, rescued it from languishing in a pasture, and restored it—only to park it in the museum for others to appreciate.

The museum buzzes with the sound of three glowing neon signs gathered from Tucumcari businesses—the Tucumcari Motel, Tucumcari Western Auto, and one of two from the Cactus Motel and RV Park. Increasingly, local buyers are priced out of purchasing the town’s signs as businesses close and sell off their assets. That’s a trend Tucumcari MainStreet is fighting. “Neon is a huge part of the history and heritage of the town,” says Executive Director Connie Loveland.

The organization has led efforts to keep neon in town, including purchasing two ice cream signs—one for Borden’s and another in the shape of a cone. In the past year, it also crowdfunded a campaign to bring back to town a motel sign that hung outside the Trav-O-Tel Motel when a Maryland collector posted it on eBay for $3,000.

Travelers are welcomed into the fundraising fold. The self-guided, donations-welcome Tucumcari Talking Tour leads visitors to 16 landmarks, from Del’s Restaurant to the Quay County Courthouse, where WPA-era reliefs bedeck the exterior and a mural presides over the second story. Audio narration on the history and significance of each destination arrives via a 1640 am radio signal.

The tour was the brainchild of Tracy Johnson, another town transplant. “I saw a post on a Tucumcari Facebook group that said, ‘I’ve lived on Route 66 all my life. What’s the big deal?’ ” Johnson recalls. “My jaw dropped. People come from all over the world to experience Route 66. I wanted to shout its importance from the rooftops! This is my version of that.”

Tour donations are funneled into grants for businesses to restore their neon signs. The town has recovered three others that are awaiting restoration and eventual inclusion in a planned neon park, like the one taking shape along Route 66 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or the more famous Neon Museum, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

With the 100th anniversary of Route 66’s 1926 commissioning on the horizon, there’s a shared urgency to powering up the lights. “Tucumcari will never be what it was, but it can always be better than it is,” Smith says. “I really want to see the town shine.” 

License plates from pretty much everywhere turn into decor at Watson's BBQ.

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Modern Treasures

Eat. Del’s Restaurant is a Route 66 staple and a must-stop for its New Mexican classics and down-home fare. You can shop for topsoil and grab lunch at Tucumcari Ranch Supply, which is also the home of Watson’s BBQ, where smoked brisket, pulled pork, and spareribs are served by the plate or the pound. Kix on 66, housed in a renovated Denny’s, serves the best breakfast in town.

Explore. Download the interactive Tucumcari Mural Map to hunt for more than 30 outdoor murals created by local artists and schoolkids. Take yourself on the self-guided Tucumcari Talking Tour. It leads to the town’s four museums, including the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum, where you can spot paleontology students and the curator preserving specimens through a viewing window. At the Tucumcari Historical Museum, wander three floors of a 1903 redbrick schoolhouse to see the collection. Don’t miss the decorations near the ceiling; they pay homage to local cattle brands. The small but significant collection at the Tucumcari Railroad Museum doubles as a chance to explore the restored 1926 depot. The New Mexico Route 66 Museum houses the world’s largest Route 66 photo exhibit, a collection of 167 photos by Michael A. Campanelli.

Watch. The restored 1936 Odeon Theatre plans to begin screening first-run movies soon. Its Second Street location also places it at the center of a just-completed Great Blocks project by Tucumcari MainStreet, aimed at making downtown more pedestrian-friendly.

Stay. Motel Safari oozes midcentury-modern charm, from the painted boomerangs on its exterior to the original Zia-like room dividers in its guest rooms. The Blue Swallow Motel catches motorists’ eyes with its restored neon and classic cars, but travelers should book a stay to better appreciate the period details of this 1939 classic motor court.

Don’t miss. The town’s last Fired Up Friday of the year is slated for September 17, from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m., at the historic railroad depot. Happening every third Friday throughout the summer, these events feature local food trucks and entertainment from throughout the state.