PHOTOS BY NICK GERLICH

The hit 2006 animated movie Cars inspired Americans to fall in love with Route 66 again. While the plot focused on the challenges that fictional Radiator Springs faced when the freeway bypassed it, it served as a metaphor for every small town’s struggles.

Tucumcari, New Mexico, was one of the Route 66 towns that inspired the Pixar team when they were doing their homework before production began. While no one town can lay claim to being the lone exemplar for the movie (Radiator Springs truly is an amalgam), Tucumcari can proudly say that one of its classic motels was represented well. The movie’s Cozy Cone Motel is part Blue Swallow Motel from Tucumcari, and part Wigwam Motel found in Arizona and California.

Only 90 minutes away from Amarillo, this Mother Road relic is accessible for a day trip, or, better yet, an overnight stay to get the full experience. 

Founded in 1901, Tucumcari was first a tent town known as Ragland, and subsequently Six-Shooter Siding, where the Chicago Rock Island and Southern Pacific Railroads converged. The gun-slinging name was evidence of the bullets-and-booze ethos of the day. Shots had been fired.

But when the railroad made the settlement a division point in 1908, the name was changed to one with much greater marketing legs. Tucumcari is the name of the mountain (actually, a mesa) south of town. 

And that’s where the story gets interesting, because every town needs a legend. Never mind that it is most likely that “Tucumcari” is just the Comanche word for “lookout point.” That doesn’t have much allure, though. It needed some romance.

So a local minister concocted a yarn in 1907 about the dying Apache Chief Wautonomah and his daughter, Kari. Worried about who his successor would be, the Chief summoned his two ace warriors, Tocom and Tonopah, to a duel for his daughter’s hand. But Kari secretly loved Tocom, setting the stage for much drama to come.

Tonopah deftly killed Tocom with his long knife, but Kari had hidden in the brush. She emerged with her own knife and killed Tonopah, before turning the blade on herself. If you’re keeping score, three are now dead. 

But wait, there’s more.

The Chief then came upon the bloody scene, and seeing his lifeless daughter, took her knife and plunged it into his abdomen, crying in agony his last words: “Tocom-Kari.” A mesa, then a town—and much later, a motel—all bore this name in various spellings. A better legend has not yet been written.

The Ozark Trail network of highways had sent a leg westward from Texas around 1913. In 1926, that portion was renamed US Highway 66, ushering in the era of the automobile. Life and business changed along Tucumcari’s Gaynell Avenue, which took on the 66 moniker. Motels, cafes and service stations lined the road.

Not lacking in alliterative skill and taglines, the city posted billboards either side of town for many miles, inviting motorists to stay in “Tucumcari Tonite,” where at one time 2,000 rooms awaited. Depending on the decade, there was once one room for every three or four residents, making Tucumcari a true destination.

Time was not friendly to Radiator Springs, and it also has presented difficulties for Tucumcari. A lot of the city’s newer businesses are now down by the freeway, much like Radiator Springs. Life goes on at a slow pace. But guests can cool their engines while stepping into a time capsule, at least those who purposefully take the off-ramp.

During the summer, Tucumcari is packed with nostalgic tourists. The well-kept classic motels stay full. The shoulder season (November through February) is best if you like to avoid crowds, but a summer visit means you will be sharing evening campfires with folks from all over the world. That can be priceless.

Bring your camera and shoot it up—maybe not quite like when it was Six-Shooter Siding, but as a lover of period-piece architecture and business. Tucumcari is among the best in that regard. You can travel Old 66 much of the way from Amarillo (use the north Frontage Road to Exit 18/Gruhlkey, hop on I-40 to NM Exit 369, then resume the north Frontage to San Jon, dogleg south a half mile, then right on South Frontage). 

Or—perish the thought—take I-40 the whole way. Just remember to leave the interstate, because that’s where the good stuff starts.  

Nick’s Picks

Neon! Tucumcari is an outdoor museum of vintage signage, a portion of which still illuminates the nighttime sky. Be sure to photograph and marvel at these voices from the past.

Spend the night. Tucumcari has many period motels amid the usual chain offerings near the freeway. Motel Safari, Roadrunner Lodge Motel, Blue Swallow Motel (each on 66) and Desert Inn Tucumcari are all maintained at modern standards, yet offer guests a glimpse of what lodging was like decades ago. Can anyone say “retro-tel?”

Murals appear throughout town, the work of Doug Quarles. His canvas ranges from the brick walls of business structures to entire defunct gas stations. He has changed the appearance of Tucumcari one brush stroke at a time, capturing the essence of this small Route 66 city. His murals have become a point of pride.

Be sure to check out the historic Odeon Theatre on Second Street. While screenings are limited, you might just be able to take in a film in a tastefully appointed and restored cinema.

Tucumcari has plenty of good eats. There’s no need to cave to the call of fast food when there are mom-and-pop gems like Del’s Restaurant, Kix On 66, Watson’s BBQ, La Cita, Loretta’s Burrito Hut, and Las Chaparritas Mexican Restaurant.

Step into the past and visit TeePee Curios, a legit trading post that sells the same quirk and kitsch that was once sold on the Mother Road in the west. Moccasins, anyone? Tchotchkes?

And then there’s shopping! Desert Rose Center is hugely popular among quilters, while The Market Gallery, Main Street Boutique, and Blanco Creek Boutique offer a variety of needs and wants that are surprisingly top shelf for a town this size.

Is history your thing? The New Mexico Route 66 Museum, Tucumcari Historical Museum, Tucumcari Railroad Museum, and Mesalands Dinosaur Museum and Natural Sciences Laboratory all preserve the past for us to enjoy today.

Fuel up before you travel at a convenient Pak-a-Sak store location in Amarillo or Canyon.

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Author

  • Nick Gerlich

    Nick is Hickman Professor of Marketing at West Texas A&M University, where he has taught since 1989. He led the College of Business in their transition into online teaching in 1997, and has taught more than 125 online courses since then. In his spare time, he travels around the country, including his beloved Route 66, in search of vintage signage and other outdoor advertising. He can be found on Instagram @nickgerlich.