Tucumcari was notorious for being a rowdy western town with wild saloons and outlaws that earned it the nickname “Six Shooter Siding.” Memorialized in the television show Rawhide, the town was also the setting for one of the first scenes in the Sergio Leone “Spaghetti Western” classic For a Few Dollars More.
During Route 66’s heyday, Tucumcari posted billboards inviting travelers to TUCUMCARI TONITE!, with claims of 2,000 motel rooms (this was later changed to 1,200). Today, only a fraction of these places remain open; however, the streets are lined with the classic neon signs of the Blue Swallow, Cactus Motor Lodge, and Route 66 murals and landmarks such as Teepee Curios and La Cita Restaurant with its huge rooftop sombrero.
From the I-40 South Frontage Road, turn right (north) on Bus-40; the road will cross I-40, curve, and head west for 3.5 miles along Tucumcari Boulevard. On the west side of town, turn left onto State Route 54 and then join I-40 West at Exit 329.
Sights in Tucumcari, New Mexico
The streets are lined with the classic neon signs of the Blue Swallow, Cactus Motor Lodge, and Route 66 murals and landmarks.Artists Sharon and Doug Quarles painted most of the 40 murals throughout Tucumcari over a 10-year period. The Blue Swallow’s James Dean mural portrays the Porsche Spyder that cost him his life, while “The Legendary Road” mural outlines the conflicting story of America’s western migration—one of the largest Route 66 murals on the Mother Road, with two beautiful bovine skulls with an image of the wide-open road. Pick up a mural map at the Chamber of Commerce (404 Rte. 66, 575/461-1694, 8:30am-5pm Mon.-Fri., free).
Route 66 Photo Museum
The Route 66 Photo Museum (1500 W. Rte. 66, 575/461-1641, 9am-1pm Mon.-Thurs., 9am-4pm Fri.-Sun., free) captures key moments along the Mother Road. Photographer Michael Campanelli’s 166 framed photographs are on exhibit along with vintage cars, old gas pumps, historical Tucumcari Route 66 artifacts, and more. The museum is in the back of the Tucumcari Convention Visitors Center parking lot.
In front is artist Tom Coffin’s 1997 sculpture dedicated to the Mother Road; it looks like a massive hood ornament with the number 66 in chrome with Cadillac tail fins sitting on a stylized sandstone pyramid-shaped base.
Built in 1937, the classic art deco Odeon Theatre (123 S. 2nd St., 575/461-0100, call for movie times, $6) may be the oldest continuously used theater in New Mexico. The original owner liked that the word Odeon—a Greek term meaning a building with musical performances—only had five letters, which made the sign more affordable. Locals just called it the “New Theater.”
New owners Christy Dominguez and Robert Lopez put in a lot of money and sweat equity to restore the theater, which reopened in 2014. They sanded every seat; some of the seats that were too old were replaced with longer and wider converted bus seats sprayed with a coat of Emron automobile paint and then upholstered in denim. The original art deco features have also been restored, and updated modern equipment now screens feature flicks.
To get there from Route 66, turn right (north) on Highway 104, then turn left (west) on West Center Street. The theater is one block down on the right.
Mesalands Community College Dinosaur Museum
The Mesalands Community College Dinosaur Museum (222 E. Laughlin St., 575/461-3466, 10am-6pm Tues.-Sat. Mar. 1-Sept.; noon-5pm Tues.-Sat. Sept.-Feb., $6.50) claims to house the world’s largest collection of life-sized bronze skeletons. The size, scope, and power of these fossil replicas comes through in 10,000 square feet of exhibition space. An on-site museum shop sells rocks and minerals, fossils, games, clothing, teaching aids, and scientific and educational books.
The museum is located two blocks north of Route 66. Heading west on Route 66, turn right (north) on 1st Street (Hwy. 209). Drive two blocks, then turn right (east) on Laughlin Avenue.
Tucumcari Historical Museum
Learn about the rise and fall of Tucumcari and the early railroad years at the Tucumcari Historical Museum (416 S. Adams St., 575/461-4201, 9am-3pm Tues.-Sat., $5). A wide range of artifacts are spread across three floors of a 1903 schoolhouse with five indoor and outdoor exhibits, including newspapers, family scrapbooks, and bootleg liquor stills. There’s also an original chuck wagon and old Firehouse with a 1926 Chevrolet fire truck that still works.
The Historical Museum is three blocks north of Route 66. Heading west on Route 66, turn right (north) on Adams Street. The museum will be on the right.
The Tucumcari Trading Post (1900 Tucumcari Blvd., 575/461-3889, 8am-5pm Mon.-Sat.) sells more than 4,000 square feet of all kinds of collectibles—western relics, gas station antiques, clothing, art, books, knives, old license plates, and porcelain signage. Stop by and pick up a souvenir.
The Trade Station (1201 Tucumcari Blvd., 575/708-0551, call to schedule a visit) pays homage to a Texaco gas station with Fire Chief and Sky Chief fuel pumps and great murals by Doug Quarles. Inside, you can browse unique antiques, postcards, pottery, and collectibles. They are always looking to buy and trade gold, silver, diamonds, vintage guns, watches, toys, motorcycles, cars, and scooters.
In the 1940s, when Route 66 was a wide two-lane road through Tucumcari, Tee Pee Curios (924 Tucumcari Blvd., 575/461-3773, 8am-5pm Mon.-Sat., 1pm-5pm Sun.) was a gas and grocery store. When the road widened, the shop lost its gas pumps, but today they still sell coonskin caps, rubber tomahawks, jewelry, pottery, and Route 66 souvenirs under a big concrete tepee.
Back on Route 66
The road west of Tucumcari makes its way along a shallow valley with sandstone mesas in the distance near Montoya and Newkirk. Leaving Tucumcari, join I-40 West at Exit 329 and drive 17 miles. Take Exit 311 and turn left to cross I-40, then follow the South Frontage Road for 6 miles. Cross I-40 again (no exit) to follow the North Frontage Road for 14 miles through Newkirk, a small ranching community that today is little more than a ghost town.
The next town, Cuervo, lies 8.5 miles from Newkirk. The road between Newkirk and Cuervo can be kind of rough, so take it slow. There are many places where the road dips; if there is deep or running water, do not cross it. Turn around and take I-40 instead.
Cuervo was a railroad town and ranching district. Trains stopped here in the early 1900s, and once Route 66 came through, a few gas stations and grocery stores opened. Today there are remnants of an abandoned stone church, but avoid going inside as the interior is unsafe. In Cuervo, join I-40 West at Exit 291 and drive to Exit 277 at Santa Rosa.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Route 66 Road Trip.