Tucumcari (Tonite!), New Mexico


There are few towns along the Mother Road that are as closely tied to Route 66, as is Tucumcari.  For decades, travelers have known that Tucumcari is a place to spend the night, thanks to the wildly successful “Tucumcari Tonite” campaign.  Signs along Route 66 urged drivers to push on a little farther, and make their overnight stop in eastern New Mexico.  When those travelers arrived, they were greeted with block after block of glistening bulbs and glowing neon.

Those billboards used to promise 2,000 motel rooms, now they can only guarantee 1,200.  Some of those motels still look good, a few may be a bit funky, and of course, some have been left to slowly crumble.

I wish I had spent the night in Tucumcari, but it didn’t work out that way.  I would have loved to see the signs at night, but I had to settle for a middle-of-the-day drive down Tucumcari Boulevard.

The Blue Swallow Motel is arguably one of Route 66’s most famous motels, and certainly the place preferred by travelers of the Route who end up in Tucumcari at night.  Neon is everywhere at the Blue Swallow…

… from the sign that arches over the driveway, in front of the motel office…

… to individual swallows, scattered all along the building.  The Blue Swallow is also famous for its design–each room has its own garage, so you can park your car inside.

The Blue Swallow was built in 1939.  For nearly 40 years, it was owned by Lillian Redman, who kept it open despite the arrival of the interstate.  You can read all about the motel’s history, on the Blue Swallow Myspace page.

I’ve read that the Blue Swallow neon isn’t left on for the entire night, so if you don’t arrive at the right time, you might miss it.  I’ve also heard that it’s a bit more expensive than other historic motels in Tucumcari.  But, I’ve never heard of anyone complaining about the quality or cleanliness, and it appears to be owned by a couple that loves their historic property.

The Buckaroo Motel is near the west end of town, and still appears to be in good condition.

The Palomino Motel still displays a great sign with lots of light bulbs, and a little bit of neon.

Sadly, the Lasso Motel has roped its last customer (for now, at least).

The Blue Swallow may have the most famous neon in town, but the great sign in front of Tee Pee Curios is definitely the runner-up.  The souvenir shop used government matching funds to help pay for a nearly-$10,000 restoration.

Tee Pee Curios turned out to be a great gift shop.  Of course, it’s loaded with Route 66 stuff.  But it also stocks souvenirs that are unique to Tucumcari, and even the Tee Pee store itself.

You might recognize the Trails West Lounge sign from a design used on upholstery.  The booths at a local steak restaurant near my home feature the sign.

La Cita Mexican Foods also has a great sign…

… and a uniquely designed building, featuring a pointy sombrero.

Even the local Laundromat is topped with a neon sign!

Not all of Tucumcari has fared well in recent years.  On the west side of town I noticed several businesses that have been long-since abandoned, including this drive-in restaurant…

… and the nearby Ranch House Cafe.

On the way out of town, headed west, there’s one more landmark to see.  This Route 66 sculpture stands in front of the Tucumcari Convention Center.

Tucumcari is named for nearby Tucumcari Mountain, but it’s not completely clear how Tucumcari Mountain received its name.  “Tucumcari” might derive from the Comanche Indian term for “lookout point”, but it’s also possible that the name dates back even further, making it one of the oldest landmark names in New Mexico.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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