The United States embarked on a plan to connect rapidly urbanizing cities with rural communities across more than half the country. It was 1926, and the post-World War I economy began to rely on motor vehicles to transport crops, goods, and people from the furthest corners of every state into the cities for travel and trade. The project to use roads to link these areas was ambitious — the government endeavored to use as much existing road as possible. Thus, Route 66 was born of a connected system of dirt and gravel roads made passable for car traffic: An adventurous traveler could now start in Chicago and drive all the way to Santa Monica.
The topography of the state of New Mexico challenged the road-building efforts: Unlike the prairie land that brings the road from its inception in Chicago through the Texas panhandle, New Mexico’s variable elevations and preponderance of hard-rock landforms made creating a road work-intensive, as most pre-Great Depression road construction was completed by human and animal muscle. The first version of Route 66 in New Mexico crossed the eastern border at Texas, cut through Tucumcari and Santa Rosa, and then swooped northward to specifically connect Santa Fe to the national highway. The road then dropped the 2,000 feet of elevation from Santa Fe to Albuquerque through a series of ominous switchbacks, where the road traveled through the Duke City and southward to Las Lunas before it U-turned back north to connect back with the clean east-west connection at Laguna Pueblo. Route 66 crossed New Mexico’s western border into Arizona just past Gallup.
This S-shaped version of the route was born in 1926, but the U.S. government implemented an intensive national-infrastructure-spending plan in the early 1930s to put Americans to work during the Great Depression. This included ambitious road-paving projects, of which New Mexico was a recipient: By the time New Mexico was made a state in 1912, there were only 28 miles of paved road. To increase efficiencies, the Santa Fe-to-Las Lunas loop was straightened to the linear east-west corridor, cutting off 107 extra miles from New Mexico’s stretch. The original road lasted until 1937 — by 1938, the U.S. government boasted that the Route 66 was universally paved. (This unique circumstance gives Albuquerque an interesting distinction: an intersection where Route 66 — the original route and the new, straightened version — crosses over itself.)
By World War II, New Mexico officially played home for a 465-mile stretch of what — in his seminal 1939 book, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ — John Steinbeck named “The Mother Road.” The name stuck, and Americans had for the first time a well-maintained, reliable road by which the populace could travel and relocate.
Portions of the north-south cutoff up to Santa Fe and back are still drivable, though some of the sections through La Bajada north of Albuquerque are no longer passable. As for the original straight-line thoroughfare? Federal highway-building efforts in the 1950s eventually led to U.S. Interstate 40, which makes use of much of Route 66’s original path. Currently, there are 265 miles of the old route still travelable, which gives the motorist a look at some of the original boomtowns made by the traffic from Route 66: Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, Albuquerque, Grants, and Gallup, among others. The traveler can count on the essential hallmarks of Route 66: motels, diners, souvenir stands, and an abundance of neon.