Discovering the 66th Dimension
by Drew Knowles
My first encounter with Route 66 took me completely by surprise. Never before had I physically crossed, let alone driven, that strip of legend which divides the country in two. Most of my days had been spent on the southeast side of America's Main Street, and on each of the few occasions I'd ventured to the other side, I'd gone by air. In my ignorance, I had no idea what I'd been missing, nor did I suspect what habit-forming powers the highway might have.
It was January of 1992, and I had just accepted a job offer which required that I relocate from Greeley, Colorado, to Fort Worth, Texas. Rather than fly down, my wife Lauren and I decided that since the movers wouldn't be delivering our furniture at our new home for a couple of days anyway, we should use the opportunity for a "road trip" by driving one of our vehicles down to Texas ourselves.
Our plan was to take I-25 south into New Mexico. There, we'd pick up I-40 and head west into Texas. At Amarillo, U.S. 287 veers southeast and heads straight to Fort Worth. Very simple. Tentatively we decided to take it slow and easy and spend the afternoon of the first day in and around Santa Fe and probably stay the night in that area.
The morning of our departure, we loaded the 1978 Chevy Malibu sedan (a.k.a. "the family wagon") with ourselves, our containerized cat, and sundry supplies. The weather that morning was absolutely gorgeous. We lazily cruised southward on the interstate and admired the Colorado scenery we'd come to love, promising ourselves we'd someday return.
Crossing into the state of New Mexico some hours later, I was struck by the steep climb. Having spent the last year in northeastern Colorado, we thought we knew what high-altitude living was, but the ascent toward Santa Fe seemed to go on forever. Here was a kingdom in the clouds.
After a casual survey of the adobe-walled Santa Fe environs, we eschewed I-25 (which deviates from its previously due-south bearing) and took U.S. 285, a sort of shortcut to I-40. Almost immediately upon reaching I-40, though, something was different. It was as if the very atmosphere in the area vibrated at a different frequency. There was a distinct impression of high energy all around us. Evening was by then approaching, and as we hurtled eastward in the family wagon, billboards began to extol the virtues of the famous highway:
Visit the Club Cafe — On Historic Route 66 — Santa Rosa, New Mexico — Tucumcari Tonite!!
I had never known just where Route 66 was until that very moment. And suddenly, we were travelers on the fabled road! Caught up in the excitement, we instinctively decided to partake of a Route 66 tradition—an overnighter in Tucumcari. Onward we sped.
Along the way, we passed a town called Cuervo, which some maps do not even see fit to include. It seemed to be a modern-day version of the "old west" ghost town—every door and window was yawning toothlessly as we shot past. The sun was sinking rapidly behind us, and so we did not stop to explore it, but in my heart I knew that one day I would return and have a closer look at Cuervo, a ghost town if ever there was one.
And just then, time slowed down. It seemed to take an eternity to cover those last several miles into Tucumcari, and when we finally arrived, we were witness to the fact that time does indeed move more slowly along Route 66. We entered the town like visitors from another planet—pulses throbbing, pupils dilated, and our throats dry as dust. All around were signs that we had entered another dimension, or perhaps had slipped into a dream state.
Tucumcari's main drag—old U.S. 66—showed itself to be a cacaphony of neon lights, pre-1960s architecture, and other trappings of mid-twentieth-century kitsch. Tucumcari, like Route 66 itself, had been created in a more exuberant, optimistic age, long before the spirit of individualism had been captured and tamed by the forces of modern-day standardization.
Our movements instinctively slowed; our voices became slightly hushed. We rolled on by a Mexican restaurant in the shape of a huge sombrero. We passed countless one-of-a-kind motels; no chains in sight. Omigosh—look over there—there's a souvenir shop shaped like a teepee across the street!
At that moment we felt like world explorers who'd discovered a new continent; or, perhaps more accurately, it was as though we were re-discovering something long lost—something no less significant than the continent of Atlantis. True, we were not the first to make this discovery; and, too, there were folks—like those living in Tucumcari— who had never even lost it. But for each of us who makes the pilgrimage to Route 66, planned or not, there is that very personal moment, after which we may never be quite the same.
Lauren and I made a couple of quick decisions. First, we picked out one of the many mom-and-pop style motels in which to stay the night. And second, we decided that we just had to have dinner in that sombrero-shaped place, which turned out to be called La Cita. In both cases we were fascinated with the uniqueness and other-world-liness of it all.
Everywhere in Tucumcari there was that same feeling of heightened emotion. Even as I lay in bed and contemplated the day's events, I felt as though experiencing the place, and the aura surrounding it, had somehow changed me. As I tried to sleep, I could not even be sure if the sounds I was hearing were real or imagined. Whoosh. An automobile passes by, heading east. Did I really hear that? Or was I imagining a 1950s station wagon carrying mom, dad, and a brood of kids back to Missouri after a stint in Disneyland? Whoosh. Now I'm sure I heard that. For certain, it sounded like a delivery truck making its evening rounds. Ooooorr, just maybe it was a carload of teenagers in a souped-up Deuce coupe out for a night of hijinks. Whoosh. Now this time I'm positive that . . .
Morning. It comes on Route 66 at more or less the same time it does everywhere. The difference, though, is that the dream continues. Leaving the motel that next morning, I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz stepping out of her tornado-relocated house into an unknown world. No, Lauren, last night wasn't a trick of the imagination. We're definitely not in Kansas. If anything, Route 66 is even more highly-charged when seen by the light of day.
Needing to get to Fort Worth in a reasonable time-frame, we departed Tucumcari—still not sure where to draw the line between the real and the semi-real—and rejoined interstate 40. Again we hurtled through space on the superslab, making excellent time, and having plenty of opportunity for random thoughts: Does anyone else know what we now know? How long has this been going on? How many other towns are there like Tucumcari? Do those other towns have that same electricity in the air? How soon can we make another trip out here? And, are we really just supposed to act "normal" when we get back to The Real World?
Lauren and I did manage to reach our new home in Fort Worth more or less as scheduled. In the ensuing months, however, faced with the distractions of day-to-day living, we found it all too convenient to relegate our Route 66 experience to a back-burner status with the rest of what our brains file under "Miscellaneous." Still, though, I knew that what I'd seen and felt was too important to be ignored for long. I needed to return. As if to remind me, I found myself in a bookstore later that year wherein I ran across a volume which immediately seized my attention: Route 66: The Mother Road, 66th Anniversary Edition, by Michael Wallis. Hallelujah, we are not alone!
This article first appeared in the National Historic Route 66 Federation News, Winter 1997.