Tucumcari, New Mexico: The Heart of Route 66 History

Tucumcari is something of a time capsule; the fading memory of Route 66 survives here.

Time seems to stand still in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and in more ways than one. On a mundane level, this is the same kind of sleepiness found in small towns across America: people drive and walk slowly, meandering through town with no apparent deadline or urgency. On another level, though, Tucumcari (pronounced TOO-come-carry) is something of a time capsule. The fading memory of Route 66 survives here. In many ways, the town thrives on it. Route 66 murals, signs, and artifacts dot the landscape.

This mural is one of many that celebrate Tucumcari’s Route 66 heritage.

In the days before the interstate highway system, Route 66 was the main road across the west, starting in Chicago, Illinois and running through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and finally terminating in California. Although the official start of Route 66 came in 1926, parts of the road date back to the dawn of automotive travel. 

The heyday of the road came between the 1920s and 1960s, when towns like Tucumcari catered to cross-country travelers with motels, hotels, cafes, diners, roadside attractions, and tourist traps. Bright neon lights fought for customers’ business, boasting of clean rooms, warm meals, and “100% Refrigerated Air.” While in many respects Tucumcari was not exceptional compared to other Route 66 stops, in other ways, it was one of the Mother Road’s crowning jewels; it was the largest settlement between Amarillo, Texas and Albuquerque, New Mexico (in fact, it still is). Tucumcari reeled thousands of travelers in with its aggressive “Tucumcari Tonite!” billboard campaigns and abundance of motels. Drive through town, especially at night, and it must have looked like a miniature Las Vegas.

The Blue Swallow Motel still boasts “100% Refrigerated Air.”

When President Eisenhower championed the new Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, however, Route 66’s days were numbered. The mainly two-lane Route 66, which ran straight through the main streets of small towns across the nation, would soon be replaced by four-plus-lane freeways that didn’t connect directly to any city, but instead utilized formal entry- and exit-ramps for access. Over the coming decades, Route 66 would be replaced by interstates, bypassed by them, or be recommissioned into business loops. By the 1980s, Route 66 (at least in the sense that it had existed in the 1920s-60s) was no more.

Many Route 66 towns died out when the interstates bypassed them, but Tucumcari was not one of them. It managed to get I-40 to pass through the fringes of its city limits, with original stretches of Route 66 (now rebranded as “Historic Route 66”) remaining fully drivable.

Today, many of Tucumcari’s businesses are clustered around the freeway exits. There are the usual hotel chains and fast food restaurants, which are largely neon-free, except for maybe an OPEN sign. You have to drive for a bit to know that Tucumcari is something special. A cruise down authentic Route 66 is a one-of-a-kind experience.

Some of the older parts of Tucumcari are almost unchanged from their Route 66 days.

This Route 66 mainstay has survived where others have long since vanished, but the town is not hanging on by much. Several of the famous motels and establishments have since been abandoned. Many buildings have collapsed or have been vandalized. Sometimes it was hard to tell (especially during the day) which motels were abandoned shells and which ones were still operating. Many of the residences (or ex-residences) are the same way, because the population here has fallen dramatically since the heyday of Route 66. According to the Census Bureau, Tucumcari reached a peak of 8,400 residents in the 1950s.

This business is abandoned, but the sign has survived.

The city has experienced population decline in each decade since, with the exception of the 1990 census, which reported a 1% increase (the population in 1990 was about 6,800). Today, Tucumcari is home to fewer than 5,000 residents thanks to an especially sharp slide in the 2000s and 2010s.

One of Tucumcari’s many abandoned structures.

Tucumcari is a real-life version of Radiator Springs from Cars. It’s not a ghost town, but it’s clearly seen better days. Cars even took countless ques from Tucumcari. From the “R” butte overlooking the town (Tucumcari Mountain has a large “T”) to the Cozy Cone Motel’s “100% Refrigerated Air” slogan, there are countless tributes to this place.

Sunrise in Tucumcari — Tucumcari Mountain is visible in the background.

It’s no wonder Cars based so much of its fictional Route 66 town on Tucumcari: this half-abandoned city in the New Mexican high plains is a last refuge of Route 66 history. Remnants and artifacts from the Mother Road can be found all over the southwest, but for some of the best-preserved, most famous, and most easily-accessible ones, there is no contest: Tucumcari, like in the 1950s, is the place to be.