I picked a table in a quiet corner of the Courtyard Amarillo Downtown’s restaurant so I could spread out my maps and guides, planning the loose schedule for the next day. It was my nightly routine. After completing the day’s leg of Route 66, I would rest a little, get some work done and then spend time at dinner pouring over my Route 66 plans. There’s a lot to see and do along the way, and not only did I want to make sure we were staying on the true Route 66 and not some imitation, I also wanted to ensure we were experiencing the many quirky features that make the drive so special in the first place. I was especially excited for the next few days as we entered a state that was new to me, New Mexico. There are only a handful of U.S. states I haven’t visited, and finally experiencing the Land of Enchantment was near the top of my to-do list. Planning a couple of extra days in Santa Fe to explore the region, I knew our journey through New Mexico would be something I’d never forget. It wasn’t all puppies and unicorns though, so today I want to share those many experiences I loved in New Mexico, as well as a couple of disappointments that, while are bound to happen, were a little surprising to me.
En Route to Santa Fe
The sixth day of Route 66 was an important one. It was the day we visited some iconic Route 66 sites, as well as officially cross the halfway point at the aptly named MidPoint Café. I had purchased a number of guidebooks before the trip, but only two were ones I actually used every day of the trip itself, and on the cover of one was a photo of the café. Finally standing in front of it was a surreal moment, as was realizing that the adventure was already half over. The days had flown by and even at that point I knew it was a trip I didn’t want to see end. It was also a fun day of driving thanks entirely to a quiet little town in New Mexico that still plays an important role on Route 66 today, Tucumcari.
Route 66 has been important in the history of New Mexico, thanks to a number of realignments the old route was New Mexico’s first completely paved highway. It’s an important legacy and one that is still alive and well in quirky Tucumcari. Originally a true wild west town where shootouts were commonplace, during the heyday of Route 66 it became known as an oasis where motorists could spend the night in one of the literally thousands of motel rooms available. Today only a fraction of those rooms are still around, but the main street through town is a testament to their will to survive. Old neon signs light up the road highlighting such famous establishments as Teepee Curios and the Blue Swallow Motel. Opened in 1940, it remains one of the best examples of an old tourist court on the Route. Each room is decorated with period furniture and has an attached garage, most of those painted with scenes from the movie “Cars”. It’s a great example of the passion I witnessed from hundreds of small business owners along the way, each one fiercely committed to preserving their own slice of Americana. The greatest discovery though in Tucumcari came at lunchtime when, lured in by a road sign, we stopped at a ranch supply store for some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had. Tucked away in a corner of the store, which appeared to sell everything under the sun, is Watson’s BBQ. This is one of those treasured BBQ joints I love to find, where the food is made by an expert hand with a lot of experience and a ton of love. There are no wrong choices here, so be sure to arrive hungry. They also make their own desserts and believe me, they’re worth saving room for.
Back on the road the drive was a little quieter than most other days. Driving Route 66 is about making a lot of different decisions every day, mostly concerning which alignment of the route you want to drive. There are no wrong choices, just different ones but I already knew that we would be following an early version of the Route so that we could tackle the famous Santa Fe Loop and spend some time exploring the artsy side of New Mexico.
Santa Fe and Taos
Spending extra time in the idyllic community of Santa Fe was one of the best decisions I made long Route 66, and my time there was just as incredible as I had hoped. Staying at the incomparable La Posada de Santa Fe, the luxury hotel’s service and location in the city made exploration easy and fun. With a history that goes back more than 400 years, Santa Fe is totally unlike any other city I’ve visited. Every building seems to be made out of adobe and there’s a certain international flair that shines just out of sight. It’s a famously artistic and liberal enclave in the state, most of which is rural and somewhat disconnected. Santa Fe though felt more like an expat community in Mexico or elsewhere, its Spanish heritage also embraced and on full display. Walking through the center of town, the weather was perfect and the crowds of people out and about reflected that. A small stage was set up in the town square, and scores of people were camped out with picnic baskets enjoying the afternoon. This ease of living is what I remember most about Santa Fe, and I immediately saw it as a place where I could spend a lot more time and even live. It’s just that special. It’s not the only highlight though of the Santa Fe Loop, and on my second day in the region I left Route 66 in order to visit another famous community, Taos.
Long known as the capital of counter-culture cool, Taos is simultaneously one of the most physically beautiful places I’ve been, but also the strangest. Since time was short, the organized small-group tour I joined wasn’t just nice, it was essential to make the most of our limited time. Meeting our guide in downtown Taos, we climbed into her truck and set out to see the best of the region. Stunning landscapes, adobe churches and quirky homes were all included, but without a doubt the highlight was spending time in the UNESCO-recognized Taos Pueblo. One of the country’s most photographed buildings, this 1,000 year-old dwelling is also the oldest continuously inhabited dwelling in the USA. Standing there in the community, chatting with the fine people who call it home and looking up at this impressive monument to a way of life and culture, it was all nearly overwhelming. I didn’t expect that on this trip, to be so completely impressed and wowed by places like this, but then again, that’s why I decided to tackle Route 66. To see – to really see – my country and to allow those amazing moments to happen, whenever and wherever that may be.
Albuquerque and some disappointment
I didn’t want to leave Santa Fe, but our schedule was tight and didn’t allow for a lot of change, so we pointed the Nissan Rogue in the direction of Albuquerque for another day of exploration. Luckily Santa Fe and Albuquerque aren’t far apart, so after checking into the Albuquerque Marriott, I went out to explore the city for the first time. As in many states, the largest city exists in its own little bubble, and that’s certainly true in New Mexico. Used to smaller towns and cities, it was a little bit of culture shock to be back in a large community, and I wasn’t so sure I liked the feeling. We spent some time driving along the old Route 66 through the heart of the city, and while many of the old signs and businesses are still there, those classic shots of a 1960s neon jungle simply don’t exist anymore the way they used to. New buildings have popped up blocking the views, and I was a little disappointed by what I found. Albuquerque is sprawling, which makes getting to know it a real challenge. I tried though, not only by retracing Route 66, but also seeking out the oldest part of the city and its Spanish antecedents. What impressed me the most though wasn’t actually in the city, it was a scenic viewpoint not far outside of the city limits, the Sandia Peak Tramway. I always love getting panoramic views of new places I visit, and there’s nothing better in the area than Sandia. It stretches from the northeast edge of the city to the crestline of the Sandia Mountains and has the world’s third longest single span, finally taking visitors to 10,000 feet.
I left Albuquerque feeling disappointed. I didn’t love the city and I don’t think I even discovered what makes it a fun place to visit. Maybe there isn’t much, not every city has a lot to offer. Perhaps Albuquerque is just one of those communities that’s fine to live in, but not really to visit. I’m not sure, but I think I need to return one of these days to find out. What didn’t disappoint me though was New Mexico. I expected to love it before visiting and I was right. I enjoyed almost everything I experienced throughout the state, from Tucumcari to other small communities like Taos or Las Vegas (No, not THAT one) but it’s the people who made the strongest impression. Everyone, everywhere was just nice. At Watson’s BBQ they took a vested interest in us and had us taste test their latest dessert to see if it was any good – it was. In Taos Pueblo I spent a lot of time talking with one of the local residents, learning about his artwork and what inspires him. At every point there was someone who wanted to share with me little snippets of their lives and that, more than any roadside stop, is what I think Route 66 is all about and from experience, New Mexico is one of the best states along the way to discover that incredible spirit and attitude.
This post was created in partnership with Marriott International, but all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.