Of all the lodging on Route 66, the most photographed is the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Now considered the crown jewel of motels along this legendary road, Blue Swallow is also ranked #5 on TripAdvisor’s top bargain hotels in America. And if you know me, you know I can’t pass up a good bargain!
After sleeping on the floor of a laundry room last night, I’m not going the way of fresh-out-of-college Max and Tyler tonight. I’ve done real time in the real world, lest we forget why this whole journey started. Savings are made to spend on times like these.
Outside a truck stop on the way from Adrian, Texas to Tucumcari I take a break to call the Blue Swallow Motel while I have cell service. Rooms are available, but it is going to cost me more than I’d like. I explain that, hey, I’m on a bike and a budget, is there anything you can do to help a tired guy making his way across America?
A woman offers me the $65 TripAdvisor special and it’s confirmed — I’ll be sleeping in an historic motel with vintage Western Electric rotary phones. The boys are crashing on cold soil at a campground on the edge of town for $31. I win.
Neon motel signs were designed to lure and comfort weary motorists. I never thought about this until pedaling into Tucumcari along one of the best-preserved commercial strips of Route 66. In the enveloping darkness shine signs of life. Motel signs.
In the home stretch I breakdown — emotionally.
When was the last time I cried? Because I am now and think the motel lights are triggering it. Stay and rest here, a sign calls to me. No, stay HERE, flashes another. I am that tired traveler, but am even more weary because I’m not behind a wheel, I’m on a bicycle. I’ve gone 60 miles and it’s taken me all day. ALL DAY. All damn day, folks. I haven’t had hot food since a burger in Vega, Texas 30 hours ago.
It’s dinner time and I’ve got nothing left in the tank. I don’t even have a tank because I’m not a car and if I were a car I could have covered 60 miles in less than an hour while eating a bag of junk food and jamming to whatever is on the radio with one hand on the wheel. So easy. So comfortable.
Instead, I’ve got both hands on the handlebars and am listening to a radio app. “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten comes on. I’ve never heard it, but it’s instant ecstasy for my ears. Never has pop garbage soothed my soul like the vocals of this 34-year-old artist. At the moment I need to fight the hardest, on comes a saccharine melody that energizes the final mile of my longest ride.
The distance I’ve gone today. The distance I’ve gone in three months. Three months exactly today. On a bike. On a Citi Bike. In New Mexico. In the dark. The absurdity of it all melts my composure.
I start crying, but without the tears. I’m out of moisture to make them.
Ahead, the glowing neon sign for the Blue Swallow Motel is a beautiful sight for sore legs. The swallow itself is symbolic. For sailors, this winged blessing is the first sign that land is near.
Now I understand how wave-worn seamen felt when spotting a bird or lighthouse. Land ho, home cooking, and a warm bed are within reach. I’m in the same boat, except that I’m taking myself out for fajitas and margaritas as soon as I shower.
I arrive a tailfeather after 6 PM, but it may as well be midnight. I step off the bike and stare at the neon light, ready to bow in gratitude. Nancy, who was on the receiving end of my call earlier, welcomes me inside the office with hot tea.
She and her husband Kevin bought the motel in 2011. They had been living in Michigan and both lost their jobs in the recession. Unemployment led to soul-searching. Kevin wanted to make a living doing something he enjoyed, and he thought about owning a business. Three years after taking over the motel, their two adult children quit their jobs and relocated to help out mom and dad.
I can’t imagine moving my family to a town with only 5,000 people. There seem to be more motel rooms on the strip than residents. Do travelers really stop to sleep in Tucumcari?
At this motel they do and I got lucky, says Kevin. They’re booked solid from March through October, turning away as many as a dozen roadies a night. November is slower, and since no one booked the only suite it’s mine for the same price as a regular room.
Ummm did I just get upgraded at a motel? This journey suddenly seems worth it. To be sure, this is no ordinary motel. When it opened circa 1940 it might have been, but its 12 rooms have been lovingly restored to their pastel-era charm. Each room comes with an attached private garage. A tight squeeze for a modern car, the garage is like a suite for my bike.
The Redman Suite is delightful. It’s named after Lillian who owned the Blue Swallow with her husband for almost four decades until 1997. A sitting room includes a couch and a fake fireplace that turns out real heat. Cold, the companion to darkness, is chilling me since I stopped riding.
The bedroom has a tiled alcove with a clawfoot tub stocked with bath salt, rubber ducky, and privacy screen. A hot soak is tempting, but impatience moves me into the shower for instant gratification. Pressure is weak, but the warm water washes the day’s pain down the drain. I finish off a bag of M&M’s in the shower, giving me enough strength to not pass out before dinner at the Pow Wow Restaurant & Lizard Lounge.
Morning brings a change of mood for the sky. The clouds are gone and the blue is back. I step outside and get lashed with an invisible whip of wind. Not good. After yesterday’s 63-mile ride, my legs aren’t quite sore, but they stiffen in protest as I walk to the office to check out.
Kevin wishes me a good morning and says it’s going to be a windy one. I collapse into a padded armchair and watch tree branches sway, wondering what to do. Get up and go, or go curl up in the suite? The room is available for another night at the same bargain rate. I feel Lillian herself urging me to stay, so I do.
Tyler texts me. He and Max are packing up their campsite, ready to push on and against the wind. I’m on their way out of town, so they stop to check out my suite digs. There’s plenty of room for them to sleep on the couch and floor by the fake fireplace, but I can’t sway them. They’re off to Conchas Lake 30 miles northwest, away from Route 66. Our paths diverge here and now in Tucumcari, but I don’t want to let go and return to the road alone.
While we finish chatting, I snap photos of their Route 66 bike maps that will be my most important tool moving west. Google Maps bike directions go haywire in New Mexico and can’t be trusted.
The boys depart. I spend the day adding stickers to the bike and riding it around town. Double wide streets see little traffic, making biking a breeze, but the emptiness is haunting. I haven’t seen a place so under utilized since downtown Tulsa where lifeless streets and vacant parking lots suggest more of a city than is actually there.
Tucumcari is blessed with terrific murals yet blighted by decaying motels. Signs for the Apache, Buckaroo, Paradise, Pony Soldier, and Motel Safari are high plains hospitality artifacts from an era when cowboys, Indians, and camels conjured up nostalgia or exoticism. These properties are now faced with plywood or have been bulldozed into oblivion with only the elevated sign marking a once profitable past.
During Route 66’s heyday, Tucumcari must have thrilled motorists with its drive-thru restaurants and themed motels. Once vibrant colors and concepts have faded or failed. Tucumcari is a textbook example of the interstate’s power to bleed Main Street dry to make America move faster, now through an any-state selection of convenience stores and calorie-stuffed chain food.
I retreat to the Redman Suite, turn on the heat, and dive under the covers. The thought of leaving this sanctuary in the morning makes me clench my hands like the clawed feet on the bathtub. I drift to sleep dreaming what it’d be like to reopen one of these derelict motels in the model of the Blue Swallow and finish my journey in Tucumcari tonight.