In Praise of Old Hotels — Part 7: Route 66

PART 7: ROUTE 66 — THE MOTHER ROAD

There is nothing quite like it — an east-west highway running 2,400 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles…or actually Santa Monica.  America’s own Silk Road connects the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean and laces together a bazillion points along the way. The iconic highway existed in a variety of different local configurations for over fifty years until it was finally replaced by the interstate highway system.

If you want to find it today, look for the “Historic Route 66” signs and the relics of once thriving roadside businesses, like Lucille’s gas station and tourist court near Hydro, Oklahoma. Lucille’s is one of the many places that have been at least partially preserved along the old highway. Some places are tourist icons while others are living on in a second or third life long after the highway surrendered to the interstate. Some are crumbling ruins.

THE BLUE SWALLOW MOTEL, TUCUMCARI, NEW MEXICO

You can’t stay at Lucille’s anymore but in Tucumcari, NM you can stay at the Blue Swallow Motel, one of many Mother Road era motels that still exist in this town at the junction of old Route 66 and US Highway 54. I understand that it may be under new management since I was there but I’m sure the old owners were very careful in selecting a buyer when they finally decided to sell. They practically tucked you in at night so I’m sure they were picky about new owners. It looks like room reservations can now be made online at their website, which is a change from the former owners

 The Blue Swallow Court opened in 1941 on Route 66 as it passed through Tucumcari. It has been modernized …a little, but mostly it is much the way it was back in the 1940s and 1950s. Rooms are small but big enough. Décor is 1950s including the vintage television. The telephone is a 1940s era Bakelite rotary phone.

 

Each room has a garage where you could park your Hudson or Studebaker back in the day. Today, there are murals painted on the interior walls of the garages and the doors are often kept open to show them off. Mine was a scene from the movie “Easy Rider” but there were others including some from “Cars”.  Outside you can sit and relax in the lawn chairs on your porch or maybe even the glider.  When I stayed I spent about an hour chatting with the owner out on the porch chairs. The two guys in the room next door came out and talked for a while. They were from Denmark and were on a cross-country trip on rented Harleys. They said there is a regular travel business catering to Europeans for one-way Harley trips along old Route 66.  They picked them up in Chicago and would turn them in in Los Angeles and fly back home from there. If I had a dollar for every lost Brit or European I’ve met on Route 66 I’d probably have enough to buy a good supper at the Pow-Wow.

Under the former owners,  an added perk was a free breakfast if you checked out and were on your way at 7 AM. The free breakfast wasn’t at the motel…no, it was down the road a little at the Pow Wow Restaurant and Lounge. The 7 AM exit was to allow the owners to get the rooms ready for the next guests…this is really a “mom and pop” operation.

Tucumcari is a struggling place but probably the biggest town between Amarillo and Albuquerque. It has quite a collection of Mother Road era motels and tourist shops.

 THE SAFARI INN

If you can’t get in at the Blue Swallow (and it is difficult at times), try The Safari Inn across the street. The Safari is  a retro Route 66 motel that dates back only to the 1950s. The Safari does a pretty good job of recreating the 1950-1960 era but with some nice upgrades where it counts.  The rooms are nice and feature some of the nostalgic stuff from the 1960s.   They have a nice patio lounge area with retro furniture where the weary traveler can sit out in the evening and unwind. There are a few vintage cars parked around that make it feel  very 1960-ish.

THE POW-WOW

If you don’t want to unwrap your food or eat off of a tray, most motel owners will recommend places including the Pow-Wow Restaurant down at the western end of the Route 66 strip. I’ve eaten there several times and it is an okay place and a good spot to get your first (or last) New Mexico food, depending on your highway direction. The Pow Wow has a shuttle van so you can call them to come get you so you don’t have to climb back in the car. The last time I was there I had two loaded chicken tostados and a cold beer. They will sell you a six-pack to take back to your patio or the lawn chairs at the motel. When I went back to the motel in the shuttle I met a couple from Bristol, England. They were driving old Route 66 and then heading up to the motorcycle festival at Sturgis in South Dakota.  We sat out in the motel’s patio area and relaxed and talked for a while before heading off to bed.

I’m sure there were many places like the Blue Swallow or the Safari Inn tucked away in small towns all along Route 66. Now, in the age of the interstate you have to look for them.

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