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Mid-20th-century American motorists came to know their country firsthand via Route 66. Today, frequent flyers yearn for the romance of the open road. Long before the prosperous age of the two-car family, the 2,400 mi of Route 66 opened in 1926 to link eight states, from Chicago to Los Angeles. It came to be known by the nickname John Steinbeck gave it—"the Mother Road." The nation's outlet for movement and change has become enveloped in nostalgia. Today in New Mexico, from Texas to the Arizona border, it's still possible to experience vestiges of the old Route 66.
Built in part to aid rural communities and the transportation of agricultural goods, Route 66 evolved into a farmer's escape from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and then a tryst for the love affair between Americans and their automobiles. The route's other nickname, "America's Main Street," was given because it incorporated towns' main streets, and so these communities thrived. Along the highway that ran as vividly through the imagination as through the landscape, many discovered an ability to move beyond the confines of their own hometown. They found places along the road that appeared to offer opportunity to prosper and a way to reinvent themselves.
The 1940s and '50s were the heyday of the highway, as Nat King Cole crooned the lyrics to Bobby Troup's song of the road. The road's adventure was overplayed in the '60s television series Route 66, and by 1970 nearly all of the two-laner was trumped by four-lane interstate highways. Along Route 66, the possibility of connection with America's people and places lived beyond every bend in the road. By contrast, the interstate would dampen travel with franchised monotony. Most of the bypassed Route 66 communities dried up and blew away like tumbleweeds. In many of these ghost towns, only a few crumbling buildings and fading signs remain as markers to a vanished age.
By hopping on and off Interstate 40, it's possible to find the quieter, slower two-laner that's held on to its name. The sense of adventure still flickers in Tucumcari at twilight, when the neon signs of the Buckaroo Motel, the Westerner Drive-In, and the Blue Swallow light up the cobalt sky. In Santa Rosa, at Joseph's Cafe, the Fat Man continues to beckon. In Albuquerque, you can drive down Central Avenue, stopping at the 66 Diner or the Route 66 Malt Shop and heading past the vintage El Vado Motor Court just before you cross the Rio Grande. In Gallup, dine at Earl's Restaurant or the Eagle Cafe, and book a room where the stars of yesteryear stayed, El Rancho Hotel. Between Albuquerque and Gallup, this ribbon of road takes you through dusty towns with names like poetry: Budville, Cubero, McCartys, Thoreau. These places once offered the traveler the filling stations, motor courts, curio shops, and cafés that gave comfort on a long drive, and every road tripper today hopes to happen upon such an undiscovered (but really just forgotten) place.
Look for the City of Albuquerque's excellent "Historic Route 66 Map & Guide" brochure at the many visitor kiosks around town (505/924-3860 www.cabq.gov) or contact the NM Route 66 Association for recent updates (505/924-3860 www.rt66nm.org).
The NM Tourism Department's free "New Mexico Scenic Byways" brochure, which includes Route 66, is another good resource. 505/827-7400 or 800/733-6396. www.newmexico.org.
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