Cars at Cadillac Ranch

Grand Tour 9: Of Tacky Artwork and Enchanting Overpasses

This entry is part 9 of 22 in the series Grand Tour

Sunday, May 7, 2018, Amarillo to Las Vegas, New Mexico

Today’s theme ranges from the tackiness of a deliberate art installation to the truly enchanting highway overpasses of New Mexico. In New Mexico, it seems, it matters what things look like. In Texas, not so much.

Map of the route from Amarillo to Las Vegas NM

We make an early start from Amarillo and arrive at the Cadillac Ranch at sunrise – perfect for photography.

Cars at Cadillac Ranch

The multiple layers of graffiti on the half-buried Cadillacs provide a vivid abstract art, perfectly highlighted by the low angle of the sun. It is an interesting case of the overlapping of many pieces of graffiti making something more interesting even more beautiful than the individual contributions — an uncoordinated community art project that is constantly evolving.

This is an interesting variation on the theme of a broad and uncoordinated public/private partnership making something remarkable out of something random and half buried. In this sense, Cadillac Ranch is a metaphor for Route 66 itself.

Cadillac Ranch car

Despite the car theme, though, we did notice one small monument to pedestrianism — particularly eccentric for Texas.

Cadillac Ranch painted shoe

The tragedy is that this monument to tackiness attracts tacky behavior, namely the abandonment of hundreds of rattle cans that are scattered all over the area around the cars. It takes all sorts to make a world, but we could use less of this sort, even if they do contribute to this strange communal art project.

Cadillac Ranch showing Rattle Cans littering the ground

Past Amarillo one is passing through a vast yellow prairie with dark green bushes and the occasional group of black cows. The impression here is definitely yellow rather than brown. Whether that is a real color difference or just the impression left by the landscape in the early morning light is more than I can say. It gives less of an impression of something naturally green that has turned yellow for lack of water and more an impression that it is always and naturally yellow that, if it ever turned green, that would be an aberration, not its normal state.

Texas landscape yellow

We arrive at the Midpoint Café just as it opens. We realize we should have skipped breakfast at the hotel and eaten here, except then we would have been too early for the light at Cadillac Ranch and we would have reached the Café before it opened. Anna buys coffee and a muffin anyway, and a souvenir for her brother. The owners are cheerful and helpful as everyone has been on this trip. We have not met anything other than genuine smiles and welcomes everywhere we have been.

The Midpoint line painted on the road

The café is in an odd spot. It is outside of the town of Adrian and awkward to get to from the Interstate. I doubt anyone would normally stop by a café in this rather desolate spot, but this is the Midpoint Café, and on such small distinctions are fortunes made.

Our Garmin Navigator seems fixated on the interstate and I wonder if I neglected to set the shaping points for Route 66. Anna takes over and navigates from the EZ Guide. Anna usually hates to navigate, but all goes smoothly and we follow the old road west through ghost towns and semi ghost towns.

Once we pass into New Mexico the landscape seems identical at first, but then mesas appear on the horizon and soon we are among them. This is just dry land in new shapes, but those shapes turn what was a dreary prairie into a land of enchantment – the welcome sign has it right, it is a land of enchantment. Even the welcome sign itself is pretty.

New Mexico welcome sign

We are also climbing. It is gradual, but our ears pop a couple of times.

Tucumcari is trying very hard to be a major Route 66 attraction with many old motels renovated and in business along with some restaurants and a museum. The problem is that, like so many of these towns, it is so ridiculously spread out that it hardly seems like a town at all. Each building seems to require the personal space of a desert hermit, and the spacing is made worse by the many closed cafes, stores, and filling station that dot the streets of even the livelier towns like Tucumcari, though lively is hardly the word. Slightly less dead would be more accurate. It is bizarre to be the only vehicle moving along a four lane highway through the middle of town in the middle of a Monday morning. Off the interstate, I think I could count the cars we met in half a day on my fingers and toes.

Looking to answer nature’s call, we head for the Mesa Dinosaur Museum, which turns out to be closed on Mondays. Outside we encounter two very young Mormons in black pants and snow white shirts with badges that, absurdly, identify them as “elders”. Compared to who? They drive off in a huge loud white pickup truck that seems entirely incongruous with their demeanor and attire. It is a tattoo and baseball cap kind of truck, not a crew cuts and dress shirts vehicle.

We find a bath room at the New Mexico Route 66 museum, which is a little hidden off the main drag. A recent wind storm blew their sign down, the chatty man behind the desk says, and they have put the poles back up but not the sign. He is very chatty, showing us all the pictures in the place. I love the enthusiasm and the hospitality, but it would be nice to be allowed to actually tour the museum on one’s own. Not that there is a lot to see here. Variation on a theme of Route 66 museum. Every town has one. They all tell the same story.

There is no old road west of Tucumcari, so we are stuck with a long stretch on the freeway as far as Santa Rosa. The freeway is incredibly smooth and traffic is light, so it is not so bad. The landscape continues to change, becoming more New Mexico and less Texas. We have crossed a time zone after an early start so we are wanting lunch by about 10 am.

There is nothing much after Santa Rosa so we kill some time at the car museum, which seems to be another private collection, like in Bloomington MO, but not nearly as large or as well done. Apart from a vintage Mercedes convertible and a strange elongated Chevy truck-like thing, there is nothing of real interest and some of the signs on the windows are handwritten on lined paper and stuck under the windshield wipers. It is a case of thinking of the least amount of work you could do to open a car museum and then doing less. (But it may be that I am just jaded at this point, after so many car museums along the route.)

Mercedes convertible in car museum

The Edsel converted to a backhoe that sits in the parking lot is interesting in a what-were-they-thinking kind of way. You want to know if it ever worked or was used to move any actual dirt, or if it is a pure piece of whimsey. Eccentric, certainly. Ordinary is another question.

Edsel backhoe

On down the street to the Route 66 Café. This is just a few doors down, but because the doors are so far part, it is a five minute drive. The café is old but well kept – authentic without irony, and the food – Mexican themed – is delicious. Half the restaurant is closed off and a young man is mopping the floor very thoroughly, moving all the tables and chairs to get at everything. It is reassuring that, amid so much decay and neglect outside, the businesses that are open are very well maintained and scrupulously clean. The town, half boarded up, suggest a creeping despair, but the people convey no such emotion. They are cheerful and industrious. When he finishes mopping the floor, the young man dries it by waving a tray at any damp spots. It is so dry here that nothing stays wet long.

We get back on Interstate 40 as far as the turn off for the US 84 which follows the original Route 66 alignment through New Mexico, towards Las Vegas and Santa Fe. I had expected we would climb the whole way but we drop slowly for a while before getting off the plain and into the Mesa country when we start to twist and climb. Alas our photography was inconsistent on this trip and we have no pictures. Then again, you can browse the whole route on Google Street View if you want to.

The difference crossing the prairie on US 84 compared to I 40 is striking. One is seeing the same prairie stretch to the horizon, but it starts so much closer to you that you now seem to be moving through it rather than over it. Here you can see individual plants and blades of grass by the roadside and the mind extends these across the prairie, giving it a dimension it did have when viewed from a distance on the Interstate. It is interesting how this extra foreground detail fleshes out what the eye perceives in the distance. Being close to the scenery matters, not just how much you see, but how it affects all that you see.

Another notable feature is how New Mexico decorates its overpasses. Indeed, it seems to be not just decoration as afterthought, but part of an overall design for beauty. Bridges in Texas are slabs on stilts. Here they are works of real civil engineering and real architecture. Again, we neglected to take pictures. Google maps treasure hunt anyone? Here is one to start with.

The civil engineering of New Mexico is also painted and, more than any other place, it seems to have a pallet, as if the bridges and the license plates were all designed to be part of a homogenous whole. St. Johns, Newfoundland and San Francisco with their painted houses, have some element of this but in New Mexico it seems more pervasive, more thorough, more into the details, and conducted on a far grander scale.

Our hotel for the night is the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico, a classic building on the National Registry of Historic Places. It dates from the days when hotels were built on a grander scale – high ceilings, wide corridors – in general places to feel good in – places when the public areas were not intended just for getting to your room.

Plaza Hotel, Las Vegas, New Mexico

Such places were also invariably quieter (in fact, it is hard to find a building noisier than a Comfort Inn class of hotel other than, say, a trombone factory or a pile driver testing facility). As I sat in our room writing my diary, on which this series of posts is based, it is genuinely quiet. No ventilation system or heat pump drones or rattles, no highway sounds penetrate from outside. I can hear Anna breathing as she sits beside me reading The Grapes of Wrath. How often in the modern world is it quite enough to hear the person next to you breathing?

Hotels like to brag about their famous guests, often putting pictures of them on the walls. The Plaza has them all beat.

Painting of God the Father in Plaza Hotel, NM

There is another famous hotel in town, an old Harvey House by the railway, that is being reworked and will be reopened. Anna proposes we walk over and look at it. A 20 minute walk each way sounds reasonable, but the heat and the dryness (they were close to record highs in this area) soon does us in. Because of the dryness, the heat does not seen as oppressive as 28 degrees Celsius would in Kitchener-Waterloo, but it saps us nonetheless, and the dryness means we are constantly needing to drink water. Plus, of course, we are at over 6000 feet of altitude and our lungs are not acclimatized to that. Add in hilly terrain and we soon realize that discretion is the better part of valor and decide to explore in circles around the hotel so as never to be too far from our room when we get droopy.

Across the road from the hotel we discover a bookstore with the coolest bookstore name ever:

Tome on the Range bookstore, Las Vegas NM

And this very ordinary little bridge over a small creek. Anywhere else, they might have painted it one color. Here someone took the time to use three colors. Of such small touches is a land of enchantment made.

Painted Bridge in Las Vegas NM

Along the way we stumble upon the Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Centre. In this part of the world, Route 66 is a Jonny-Come-Lately. Indeed, the interpretive center is the first such place on this trip where we have seen no Route 66 stuff at all, – though it is slightly off the old route. But the Santa Fe trail is a far older name for this part of the route and the history of Las Vegas is intimately tied up with it. Once again the volunteer at the desk is so full of information, both about the town and the trail, its history and related sights, that it is hard to get to look at the actual exhibits, though they turn out to be mostly photographs and maps. The coolest artifacts in the place are actually modern – some superb examples of the tinsmith’s art. There is also a book on the history of tinsmithing in New Mexico. It is a place worth popping into briefly.

We got a bottle of water in a pharmacy/soda shop on the corner of the plaza. The room is vast and high ceilinged and a handful of tables are distributed across the room with a ton of space between them. (No, this is not pandemic social distancing. This was two years before Covid.) It is an airy place that makes generous use of space to make you feel at ease. Only small towns, I suppose, can afford to be so generous with space.

Soda shop Las Vegas NM

But unlike Tucumcari or Santa Rosa, Las Vegas is not spread out all over the map or separated by ridiculously wide highways. It is a town of an earlier period, a place made for feet and horses rather than cars, so the building are close set, but generously airy inside, perhaps an artifact of being built before air conditioning.

The Route 66 towns, by contrast, are quintessential car towns, created by the highway to serve the cars it brought, they seem never to have entertained that idea that anyone would go anywhere on foot. And as the towns were born of the road, so they died by the road, when Interstate 40 killed Route 66. Las Vegas is much more a permanent place, the gateway to the pass to Santa Fe. You can’t route around a town in a place like this. The corridor is too narrow and the traversal of the corridor, whether by foot, horse, or car, demands a town here.

We have supper in the hotel restaurant, quaintly still called the “dining room” from the days when you naturally dined where you slept. It is a tall room with high ceilings and curious red curving chandeliers of a design that looks from a different past era, and seem out of place, and yet, curiously, in place in the eclectic nature of an old hotel which has aged gracefully rather than having been restored. No photos because I did not want to give other diners the impression that I might be photographing them.

Restored places may be more authentic to the period to which they are restored, but they lose their patina and their history. They become new places in the old style rather than true old places with their histories written on their faces. When it comes to historic places, the ones whose history comes all the way into the present, and which show the marks of aging without losing their origins, are in many ways far more historic, and far more satisfying, than those that operate as a kind of time machine. Aged places participate in the ordinary eccentricity of a working building and show the impact of the ordinary eccentrics who have owned and used them over the years. They stretch through time, rejecting neither past nor present. They are part of a continuity of life that exceeds the lifespan of an individual but is an essential part of the lifespan of a community.

Enchiladas and English brown ale for supper. Excellent. Fusion or ordinary eccentricity?

After supper we walk around the plaza again and discover the door to the Absaroka Wyoming Sherriff’s Department from the Longmire TV series, which was shot mostly in New Mexico. We will be in Buffalo, Wyoming in three weeks, the town on which Longmire’s Durant is based. The contrasts will be interesting to observe.

Absaroka Sheriff's shield on set used for TV series.

Any thoughts that there might be any kind of uniformity to the desert southwest have been dispelled today. We are not in Texas anymore. We are in the land of enchantment.

Series Navigation << Grand Tour 8: A Church Should Look Like a ChurchGrand Tour 10: The Stunning Similarities of Ancient Sites >>
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