Now that I have shared with you my impressions on the local vehicle landscape and bit of history about the Old Route 66, it’s time to get straight into it and explore a few roadside highlights. We will be covering the Oklahoma section of Route 66 including Texola, then Shamrock TX, Amarillo TX, Tucumcari NM, Albuquerque NM, ending at Gallup NM. The full details on these stops and 40 pictures are below.
This section of Route 66 from Oklahoma City to the Texan border is for the most part unmarked, partly because many of the brown-and-white Historic Route 66 signs have been stolen, but also because the road now goes by a variety of other names. Luckily, the friendly staff at the Clinton Oklahoma Route 66 Museum provided us with a very detailed booklet with which it was virtually impossible to miss out on any worthwhile roadside highlights. We are plunged into the legend of Route 66 at the modern Lucille’s Roadhouse, granted not a remnant from the times when the Route was fully exploited, but complete with a very useful panorama of the Route’s highlights by state all the way to Los Angeles, countless memorabilia and great dinner and breakfast.
The Clinton Route 66 Museum gets us up to speed on all aspects of the history of Route 66 as well as its impact on the wider automotive world, a section I have covered in detail in Part 1 of this dedicated Route 66 Report. Thirty miles further down the Route, the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City is a lot more commercial and a lot less appealing.
Passing through sleepy Sayre and Erick is the opportunity to take in a different rhythm and true American countryside. For the first time in this Coast to Coast trip, I discover the existence of drive-thru laundry and drive-thru ATMs, establishments long gone in Australia where I live, let alone in France where I grew up. The existence of such commodities, though entertaining to me, is also a fascinating insight into communities truly centred around the use of the car as, by far, the main (only?) way to get by.
The last town on the Oklahoman part of Route 66 is Texola, less than a mile off the Texas state line, and a dust devil away from being a ghost town. Eerie abandoned or semi-abandoned buildings coexist with sleepy country houses while road trains break the deafening silence as they shift gears, preparing for the only stop sign in town.
2. U-Drop Inn and Tower Station in Shamrock TX
The first striking roadside landmark in Texas is 16 miles into the state: the U-Drop Inn and Tower Station in Shamrock. When it opened on April 1, 1936, the U-Drop Inn was the only café within 100 miles of Shamrock, and the local newspaper considered it as “the swankiest of the swank eating places”. The building shape is inspired by the image of a nail stuck in soil and it features two flared towers with geometric detailing, curvilinear massing, glazed ceramic tile walls, and neon light accents. The U-Drop Inn inaugurates a very pleasing habit we will see all along Route 66: parking vintage cars or truck next to the roadside highlights add a certain flair to all these stops.
The building has traditionally held two separate businesses: “Tower Station”, a gas station on the western side that used to sell Conoco-branded fuel (hence the “Conoco” signage on the highest tower), and the “U-Drop Inn”, a café on the eastern side. Despite the work of time and various owners, these two sides have consistently housed the same types of businesses they were originally designed for. That is while it was open for business up until the late 1990s. After being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, the building was purchased by the First National Bank of Shamrock, which then gave it to the city, which in turn restored it thanks to a US$1.7 million federal grant. It now operates as a museum, visitors’ center, gift shop, and the city’s chamber of commerce. Unfortunately it was closed for the day by the time we hit it.
A group of bikers were getting ready to get back on their Route 66 trip towards Oklahoma City as Albert parked near the U-Drop Inn and that made for a very friendly banter, exchanging notes, itineraries and highlights so far. A last bit of trivia on this building: the 2006 Pixar computer-animated film Cars, set in the cartoon village of Radiator Springs but inspired by real Route 66 landmarks, has its own version of Tower Station: U-Drop Inn’s unique design and architecture is portrayed as an automotive body shop owned by the character Ramone, a Chevrolet Impala lowrider.
3. Magnolia gas station in Shamrock TX
The other landmark in Shamrock TX, set away from the actual Route 66, is the Magnolia gas station. This is a perfect example of a faithful restoration that isn’t overdone. If the U-Drop Inn, although splendid, can arguably appear ‘too new’ in its restoration, the Magnolia gas station in Shamrock is astounding in that it looks beautiful but rusty enough to appear like it is still open for business.
Our experience here was heightened by the fact that the building appeared to be left unattended as we were snapping hundreds of pics of Albert posing next to it. It literally was as if we could take over the business and get it all started again, ready for customers and vacationers eager for a fresh drink, an ice-cream or some gas. The interior of the building, a simple room complete with an epoch cash resister and a list of tire prices along with hundreds of details left untouched since the golden time of Route 66, is a little gem as well. Unmissable if you get to this part of the country.
4. Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo TX
At the opposite end of the Magnolia gas station (taste-wise?), another interesting Route 66 landmark in Texas is Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo. I say ‘interesting’ because although a Top 5 landmark on all Route 66 guides, this is actually no more than an art installation located on private land a fair bit away from any road yet accessible to the public. As a result, it is virtually impossible to find once night falls as there are no signs pointing to it nor is it lit at night… Interesting, indeed.
Never mind, a morning visit showed a very colourful, striking and oh so American-symbolic display of 10 Cadillacs half-buried nose-first in the ground, representing a number of evolutions of the car line from 1949 to 1963, most notably the birth and death of the defining feature of mid twentieth century Cadillacs: the tail fins. The angle at which they are buried supposedly is the same as the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt (what the…?). The main feature of this installation is the fact that writing graffiti on or spray painting the vehicles is encouraged, and boy is there some serious spray painting action going on, with various layers of paint on each cars sometimes as thick as 5 inches, and hundreds of spray paint can carelessly left behind on site.
Let’s finish on some trivia of course: the installation was quietly moved in 1997 by a local contractor to a location two miles to the west, to a cow pasture along Interstate 40, in order to place it farther from the limits of the growing city, both sites belonging to the local millionaire Stanley Marsh 3, the patron of the project. The cars are periodically repainted various colours: once white for the filming of a television commercial, another time pink in honor of Stanley’s wife Wendy’s birthday, another time all 10 cars were painted flat black to mark the passing of Ant Farm artist Doug Michels, in 2012 they were painted rainbow colors to commemorate gay pride day. New paint jobs traditionally last less than 24 hours without fresh graffiti…
5. Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari NM
We now cross into New Mexico to reach Tucumcari. The most iconic roadside hotel in town (on Route 66?) is the Blue Swallow Motel. Built in 1939 and opened in 1941, it was originally called the Blue Swallow Court, but quickly renamed to Blue Swallow Motel when the property was updated with neon signage proclaiming “TV” and “100% Refrigerated Air”. In the Pixar animated film Cars, neon lighting at the Cozy Cone Motel displays Blue Swallow’s “100% Refrigerated Air” slogan. Named by Smithsonian Magazine as “the last, best and friendliest of the old-time motels”, the Blue Swallow Motel remains in profitable operation today, with each room including vintage lighting and period furniture and complete with a 1950s Pontiac Eight parked in front. Unfortunately I didn’t get to stay in as it only has 18 rooms which were fully booked.
6. Main street in Tucumcari NM
With Old Route 66 running through the heart of Tucumcari, the rest of town is the most picture perfect collection of epoch gas stations and motels I have found along the road, with many old-timers parked on the sidewalks for all to admire. Studebacker Champion, Plymouth Special Deluxe… you name it, it is probably on display here. Indeed, a large number of the vintage motels and restaurants built in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s are still in business today despite intense competition from newer chain motels and restaurants in the vicinity of Interstate 40, which passes through the city’s outskirts on the south.The obligatory bit of trivia about Tucumcari has to mention the billboards reading “TUCUMCARI TONITE!” placed along I-40 for many miles to the east and west of the town, inviting motorists to stay the night in one of Tucumcari’s “2000” (later changed to “1200”) motel rooms.
7. Albuquerque NM
Following Route 66 naturally leads us through Albuquerque where Central Avenue, the main artery, is Route 66. It passes through Old Town, Downtown, the university and Nob Hill. Full description of the Albuquerque car landscape will be covered in my next Report, and for now we will stop right across the university for a well deserved lunch at the Frontier restaurant. Outstanding Mexican food, picturesque people-watching and dirt cheap prices. What more do we want? Nothing.
8. Gallup NM
Our last stop on Route 66 before we return to it in Los Angeles is Gallup New Mexico, a bustling little town where almost every second shop sells Native American jewellery. Logical: the town is located in the heart of Indian Country and the site of the world-famous Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial held each August for more than 90 years. It also serves as the Navajo and Zuni peoples’ major trading centre. No actual jewels for us, just the lodging jewel in town: the El Rancho Hotel. The “Charm of yesterday… Convenience of tomorrow” slogan displayed on the facade couldn’t be more appropriate.
Awesome ambiance, a splendid Southwestern lobby, posh but relaxed-enough restaurant and bar and friendly staff allowing me to work on my laptop before, during and long after breakfast: no wonder all great Hollywood actors from the 1940s and the 1950s stayed here. Plus the period-looking dinner and breakfast menu is a souvenir take-away. Perfect.
In fact, the El Rancho Hotel was built by the brother of a movie magnate, D.W. Griffith, opened in December 1937 and was straight away a gathering place for the famous, the perfect stayover location due to its proximity to Monument Valley where an infinite amount of Hollywood movies were shot. Ronald Reagan, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Kirk Douglas were among the many stars listed in the guest register. Up to today: the movie “Bottom of the World” was being shot in town as we stayed in Gallup.
This concludes our coverage of Old Route 66, next we will look into the New Mexican car landscape and sales in detail, so stay tuned!
Many thanks to David Curry for the photos in this report.
Matt Gasnier is based in Sydney, Australia and runs a car sales statistics website and consultancy: BestSellingCars which just celebrated its 4th anniversary.