Route 66 Natl Scenic Byway

The legendary Route 66 Scenic Byway enters New Mexico from Texas across a vast, sunlit prairie and crisscrosses I-40 in a ribbon of time, dropping in and out among warp-speed semis and SUVs into a two-lane highway that meanders through rocky outcrops, quiet streams and adobe villages.  Parts of the byway disappear beneath cow pastures or the interstate, and the effect is startling – an instantaneous shift from the manic present to a not-so-distant time at once hip and innocent.  Along the way, the high desert landscape is both austere and sublime, its red-hued cliffs dropping off into immense llanos or pine-wooded hills and valleys.

The old Route 66 was always synonymous with road adventures, and the many events planned for the 80th anniversary in 2006 will make retracing the route even more fun.

Tucumcari Mountain is the first harbinger of high country to come as it pokes up off the plains southwest of its namesake town, gathering clouds from across the prairie around its blunt-shaped peak.  Motels and 1950s diners with restored neon signs line Route 66 through the center of town.  Santa Rosa to the east straddles the Pecos River in an oasis of artesian lakes, its Blue Hole plunging 240 feet beneath the stark desert floor and luring scuba divers from across water-challenged New Mexico.  Santa Rosa’s airport tarmac covers a portion of the earliest Route 66, and old billboards painted on boulders south of town still peddle their wares to passing travelers.  A railroad bridge featured in John Ford’s 1940s film The Grapes of Wrath now transports trains across the Pecos River.

Route 66 dead-ends just east of town and travelers are thrust back on I-40 to U.S. 84 north, which re-emerges as old Route 66 at Dilia and meets I-25 to the north at Romeroville.  Here the byway winds westward through the wooded foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains among Hispanic villages, where the communities center their spiritual and physical heart around adobe churches that predate Route 66 by roughly a century.  Near the village of Pecos, Pecos National Historical Park houses a huge complex of ancient Pueblo ruins and two Franciscan missions dating from the 17th and 185th centuries (505-757-6414).  Among Santa Fe’s adobe and stucco buildings are several unique structures that housed a series of businesses since the 1930s – mere newbies by Santa Fe’s millennial origins.

The original Route 66 descended La Bajada’s 6-percent grade in a series of hairpin, hair-raising switchbacks in a 500-foot, 1.4-mile descent toward Bernalillo.  Were the road totally passable today, enterprising folks surely would produce bumper stickers and t-shirts proclaiming, “I survived La Bajada.”  As it is, today’s travelers can be grateful for the streamlined descent on I-25, from which they can pick up the byway for a leisurely drive through pastoral Algodones and into bustling Bernalillo.  Here, Route 66 follows the original Camino Real, which linked the Spanish colonies 400 years ago.

Old Town in Albuquerque shelters the 1706-vintage church San Felipe de Neri and preserves the Spanish colonial ambience in its narrow caminos, which curve gracefully among shops and courtyards.

Albuquerque is a four-way crossroads of Route 66 in New Mexico, where a turn in any direction leads up the old highway and its quirky scattered remnants.  Heading east on Central Avenue offers some of the best-preserved motel courts, diners and theaters before the road cuts through Tijeras Canyon between the Sandia and Manzano mountains into Moriarty and Edgewood.  Recently painted stencils along old Route 66 in Moriarty are prototypes for painting the entire route across New Mexico – an effort to identify the byway despite vintage nostalgia collectors’ propensity for lifting old Route  66 signs.  Heading south from Albuquerque to Los Lunas, the byway sidesteps Isleta Pueblo before it veers west to Correo and the Parker Pony Truss Bridge near I-40.

Travelers may opt to stay on a rough section of the byway or briefly jump on I-40 to Mesita, where the byway slices through some spectacular red-rock cliffs past Dead Man’s Curve and Turtle Rock.  Laguna Pueblo perches on a hilltop where travelers may glimpse the whitewashed San Jose de la Laguna Mission Church of 1699 nestled among the still-older village casitas.  The Sky City of Acoma Pueblo has been inhabited since 1150 atop a 357-foot-high mesa, its spectacular views overlooking a green valley circled by cliffs and mesas.  A new 4,000-square-foot museum and visitor center shelters an extensive collection of art and artifacts, as well as educational programs on one of the oldest still-intact civilizations of North America.

The uranium boomtown of Grants sits astride Route 66 and its classic assortment of neon signs, motor courts, cafes and theaters along the main street.  Continuing westward, old trading posts and gas stations dot the byway as it passes crimson sandstone cliffs into Gallup, “Gateway to Indian Country” and host of the Inter-Tribal Ceremonial (505-863-3896).  Part powwow, part rodeo, beauty pageant and parade, the Inter-Tribal celebrates Native American cultures across the Southwest and beyond.

Travelers who opt for the “Mother Road” of Route 66 in New Mexico are advised to arm themselves with maps and road guides before setting out.  The many twists, turns and dead-ends of Route 66 among modern highways can leave even the most well-oriented travelers slightly dazzled by more than heat and high elevation.  In this case, the journey is indeed the destination, for Route 66 across New Mexico reminds us at once how far we have come and how much we have lost along the way.