Tucumcari (April 15, 2021)

As I mentioned in my Eastern New Mexico post, the trek from Amarillo to Tucumcari wasn’t particularly lengthy, and theoretically I would have liked to have gained a little more ground on that leg. However, my Road Trip USA guide book specifically said that no one regrets spending a night in Tucumcari, and I couldn’t deny being intrigued by the interestingly-named town.

I learned that the name comes from the prominent mountain peak that looms over the region, and my guide book was right: far from regretting it, Tucumcari wound up being one of my favorite stops on the trip.

It earns that accolade because it gave me one of the most thorough and intimate windows into the Route 66 experience. I booked a room at the Roadrunner Lodge (one of the few pet-friendly motels in town), and initially did a short photo-walk around that stretch of Route 66. It was definitely peppered with abandoned establishments, but there were signs of life. The kitsch and burned-out neon I’d come for: some actual relics and some new things made to look old, an anachronistic village unsure of its era.

But a few hours later, after I’d showered and decided to walk the mile to my dinner locale of choice, the Pow Wow Restaurant & Lizard Lounge, I’ll admit to having a less amused reaction to the decay around me. I got a little in my feels about the price of progress, our culture of wasteful opportunism… the lip-service we pay to community building when in reality so many communities are deemed dispensable.

“I left here in 1975, but came back 10 years ago when my parents got sick,” said the host/delivery driver/bus boy at the Pow Wow Restaurant (they had recently loosened COVID restrictions and all restaurant staff were on double and triple duty). “Now I’ve got three houses I can’t sell.”

My motel operator shared that Tucumcari was one of the last major towns along Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40; residents fought tooth and nail against it, but it was completed in 1981 nonetheless. “It was like one day, traffic was so bad out here you couldn’t hardly cross the street. And the next day it was basically a ghost town.”

Tucumcari was a favorite stop for another reason: at the Pow Wow Restaurant, I made the acquaintance of a two-time Vietnam vet from Arkansas in a cowboy hat. He shared some stories from his colorful life and ultimately offered me a destination (or in any case, a turn-around point) for my trip.

Despite not knowing I’d only planned as far as Flagstaff (nor that I’d been scrutinizing my two-years-uninsured teeth in the bathroom mirror, longing for a dentist, just before heading to dinner), he started rattling off directions from Flagstaff to Yuma, seven miles from which I’d find a border crossing to a little Mexican town called Los Algodones. Said it was a haven for medical tourists from the U.S., and when I asked him if there were dentists there too he said, in all seriousness, “Oh yeah. About 3000 of them. They call it Molar City.”

As I like to say, I was reading very deeply into it.

He assured me I’d be able to get across the border in both directions with just my driver’s license, and warned me the border currently closes at 2 pm for COVID reasons. (He himself had gotten stuck on the Mexican side on his first visit, back when it shut at 10 pm, and he had to sleep on a bench that night. I was thinking it was from the days of his wild youth, but he said it was just five years ago.)

I had a feeling the prospect of my going to Mexico without a passport to see a dentist (on the advice of some old cowboy at the Lizard Lounge in Tucumcari) might raise a few eyebrows, but it seemed crazy enough that it just might work. In any case, I figured I had til Flagstaff to mull over whether I’d go through with it.

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