Subject of one of the most successful advertising campaigns in Route 66’s long history of roadside hype, Tucumcari (pop. 5,363) looks and sounds like a much bigger place than it is. Also known as “the town that’s two blocks wide and two miles long” (though Tucumcari Boulevard, which follows the route blazed by old Route 66 through town, stretches for closer to seven miles between Interstate exits), Tucumcari does have a little of everything, including a great range of neon signs, but it can be hard to explain the attraction of the town that hundreds of signs along the highways once trumpeted as Tucumcari Tonite—2,000 Motel Rooms. (A new ad campaign plays on this legacy, but signs now say Tucumcari Tonite—1,200 Motel Rooms.)
Hype or no hype, Tucumcari is a handy place to break a journey, and even if you think you can make it to the next town, you will never regret stopping here for a night. Especially if you stop at the famous Blue Swallow Motel (815 E. Route 66, 575/461-9849, $70 and up), which no less an authority than Smithsonian magazine called “the last, best, and friendliest of the old-time motels.” Thanks to the warm hospitality of longtime owner Lillian Redman, few who stayed there during her long reign would disagree, and more recent owners have kept up the old spirit while improving the plumbing and replacing the mattresses. Each room comes with its own garage, and the neon sign alone is worth staying awake for. If the Blue Swallow is full, as it often is, try one of Tucumcari’s other old-fashioned motels: the Motel Safari (722 E. Route 66, 575/461-1048, $55 and up), a block away, has Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs, while the Historic Route 66 Motel (1620 E. Route 66, 575/461-1212, $40 and up) is clean and stylish, with a Rat Pack-era Palm Springs vibe and Tucumcari’s best espresso bar. (Admittedly, it is Tucumcari’s only espresso bar, but it is nonetheless appreciated.)
Across Route 66 from the Blue Swallow stands another survivor, the landmark tepee fronting the historic Tee Pee Curios (924 E. Route 66, 575/461-3773), where friendly owners Mike and Betty Callens will tempt you to add to your collection of Southwest or Route 66 souvenirs (or “Damn Fine Stuff,” as their business cards have it). The Tee Pee has one of the coolest neon signs anywhere, so time your visit to see it in its full glory.
To enjoy the Mexican food as well as a photo opportunity, head to La Cita (575/461-7866), under the turquoise, yellow, and brown sombrero on the corner of 1st Street and old Route 66. A few blocks east is the popular Del’s Restaurant (1202 E. Route 66, 575/461-1740). Three blocks north of Route 66, next to Tucumcari Ranch and Farm Supply is Watson’s Bar-B-Que (502 S. Lake St., 575/461-9620), a trailer-and-picnic-tables place. It’s worth the 60-second detour for the smoky but juicy beef brisket, pinto beans, and green chile stew.
Three newer additions fill out Tucumcari’s roster of attractions: one is a chromed steel Route 66 sculpture, welcoming travelers at the west edge of town; another is the vivid Route 66 mural painted on the corner of 2nd Street. The third is the unique Mesalands Dinosaur Museum (222 E. Laughlin St., 575/461-3466, closed Sun. and Mon., $6.50), two blocks north of Route 66. Housed inside Mesa Community College, the museum boasts “the largest collection of life-sized bronze prehistoric skeletons in the world,” plus real fossils, unusual minerals, and a full-size skeleton of the rare Torvosaurus, a cousin of legendary Tyrannosaurus rex.