Stuck in Tucumcari

• Where on earth is Tucumcari?
• How I got stuck.
• Unstuck.
• Dinner at Dels restaurant.
• Valuable learning.

Leaning cars next to I40 between Amarillo and Tucumcari. Click to enlarge. Courtesy Nancy Staley. For an archive of Nancy’s photos, click HERE.

WHERE ON EARTH IS TUCUMCARI? It’s in New Mexico between Amarillo and Albuquerque on the main highway I40 which runs east-west across the United States. The highway was originally Route 66, made famous in John Steinbeck’s book called The Grapes of Wrath. The 1940 movie starred Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, an ex-convict on parole who with his family escaped the bank foreclosures during the Great Depression by fleeing to California. It was where the term “Okie” came from.

In 1972, I came to the USA and worked in Los Alamos. In 1973, I Moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to teach at Oral Roberts University. In subsequent years, I traveled back and forth along I40 many times — consulting at Los Alamos or vacationing elsewhere in the magnificent Southwest USA.

In the early years, the highway between Albuquerque and Tulsa went right through the center of Tucumcari. There had to be a hundred motels along the strip, which was over a mile long. On clear days and cool nights in the middle of the desert, the town had an atmosphere which I loved.

Then everything fell apart. They diverted the highway around the edge of Tucumcari. You no longer drove through the strip. And the strip slowly died. The town council didn’t help any, as they rejected the military’s desire to build an airforce base there. And they turned down Walmart’s approach twice.

The Blue Swallow, an iconic Route 66 motel along the strip. Click to enlarge or to source.

Now there are only a handful of active hotels along the strip, and very few restaurants. Lots of abandoned buildings and you can see relics, some restored, of old cars and trucks from the Route 66 days. A few small museums in local storefronts. And one large museum, with a terrific dinosaur display. Mesalands Community College is there, and it offers courses in wind-farming, one of the best sources of new and well-paying jobs in the USA – windmill engineers.

Twelve months ago I stayed in a fine-looking motel on the strip at a very reasonable price. The room was decorated like it was in the 1950s, which was pretty neat. Within walking distance were a marvelous breakfast diner called Kix-on-66 (great huevos rancheros) and a popular dinner place called Dels (terrific soup and salad bar). I have stayed in the motel three separate times.

So last week I drove from Kansas toward ABQ and decided to stop in Tucumcari (an 8-hour drive plus rest stops). I called the hotel and left a message. An hour later I left another message. Altogether I called five times but no-one called back. I persisted because I’d not stayed in another hotel there, and I was getting tired. In Tucumcari, I filled up the tank with gas and decided to drive to the hotel. A hotel is always open, I argued to myself, and there must be someone there.

Nope! A sign on the door said, “We are sold out for the night.” I knew then that the owners were away for some reason. I was despondent. I wasn’t motivated to try to find another motel, and I was too tired to drive another two hours to ABQ, knowing how dangerous this can be.

Desert Inn, Tucumcari. Click to enlarge or to source.

While feeling sorry for myself, and lacking all motivation, I recalled a credo I carried around in my billfold for twenty years:

If you want to grow and become vibrant, successful and alive, live all your life on tiptoe stretching and reaching for new things.

It was penned by a man with a heavy beard, Roko Paskov, which sounds Russian although I have no idea who he was.

I realized I was standing flat-footed and immobile – the opposite of the quote above. I decided to drive around and look at some other hotels. After eyeballing a few I wasn’t excited about, I came across the Desert Inn, and the outside looked very nice – a flowered landscape, even a statue. I walked into the lobby and met Twyla – a redhead with confidence. She was a good marketer, and I asked to see a room. The room was small but tidy and clean and functional. The mattress was wonderful. The price was right, and I signed in.

Dels restaurant in Tucumcari. Click on image to enlarge or to source.

I drove to the restaurant, which was almost full. The waitress, dressed as a cowgirl, was ultra- friendly, like many country folks are. On the menu, liver and onions caught my eye, so I asked her about this. She said many folks told her it was the best they’d ever had. I hadn’t had liver and onions for over 10 years. My mother used to make it once every couple of weeks. I remembered the quote by Roco Paskov, so I took a chance. The result: best liver and onions I’ve ever tasted, and I’m telling the truth.

I was flat-footed, immobile, and disconsolate in Tucumcari. But I came unstuck when I stood on tiptoe stretching and reaching for new things. Now I will try to remember to do this for the rest of my life…

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The Gray Nomad ….. Lean in and learn
I ain’t never gonna be scared no more. I was, though. For a while it looked as though we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we didn’t have nobody in the whole wide world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared too, like we was lost and nobody cared…. Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out, but we keep a-coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cos we’re the people. [Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, 1940].

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5 years ago

Hi Ian, I hope you are doing well. I have been craving liver and onions lately and now need to take a trip!

5 years ago

Now I have to make Tucumcari a new bucket list destination along Route 66.

5 years ago

Thanks for bringing back fond memories of Tucumcari, NM. I spent some time there, off and on, during the fifties and sixties. This was before I-40 and the town was just as you described it back then. I also drove thru a few times in the seventies. Liver and onions… also fond memories of my mother’s recipe. Makes me want to visit Tucumcari again. The credo you quoted is worth keeping in mind, and thanks for that. Great pictures, thanks for these also. And the quote from Grapes of Wrath brought back memories of the book. Really enjoyable, reflective and beneficial blog.

5 years ago

When I drove through Tucumcari to my hotel this summer, it did look sadly run down, like a ghost town. If I go through again, I’ll be sure to look up Dels. Liver and onions is a favorite of mine. Your message is awesome! My feet are getting out of practice on the stretching. PS, thanks for the link to my photos. I appreciate your friendship. Take care, and happy travels.

Brian Morrison
5 years ago

Great story! I’m one of the guilty who drive right by Tucumcari. It is refreshing to read a personal account and insight for the town. Liver and onions aside, I may drop in someday.

Zissis Moschovidis
Zissis Moschovidis
5 years ago

Ian, you are such a good story teller. For me the name Tucumcari has stuck in my mind from when I first drove through. It was exotic and inviting. Greetings from Volos, my point of reference in life.

Karen A Larre
Karen A Larre
5 years ago

Thank you, Ian for sharing your story. It is truly inspiring… with a message to keep moving forward in faith even when things are discouraging!

5 years ago

Love good liver and onions. When we eat in Tuc, it is always at Del’s.

5 years ago

Ian – I feared your vehicle had sickness. Glad you are doing well. Liver and onions grossed me out!

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