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Greetings from Small-Town America: Tucumcari, New Mexico

Two road-trippers pay a visit to one of the classic small towns along the Mother Road, Route 66.

Tucumcari's Bloe Swallow Motel, photo by Eric Swanson

“Let’s take a trip down Route 66,” my husband said. Michael loves unique family vacations. First stop? Tucumcari, New Mexico; population: 5,363.

Said to be named for a mesa lookout (tukumukaru is Comanche for “to lie in wait for something”), Tucumcari was founded in 1901 and became a major railroad center. The restored 1926 depot now houses the Tucumcari Railroad Museum.

The arrival of Route 66 in 1926 brought travelers to Tucumcari by the carload. The neon signs for motels, diners and shops make this stretch of America’s main street look like a postcard from days gone by.

The pink-stucco Blue Swallow Motel beckoned us. Rob and Dawn Federico purchased the motel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, last summer, when the pandemic led the formerly Chicago-based couple to reassess their lives.

“I traveled so much for work,” says Rob. “The lockdown made us realize how much we missed being together.” They saw the Blue Swallow while driving to Arizona to visit family. “It looked like such a happy place,” Dawn says. “A couple months later, it was for sale.”

Rooms are furnished with 1940s and ’50s decor, like rotary phones and chenille bedspreads with blue swallows. The Federicos love life as motel owners. “The world comes to our front door every day,” Rob says.

Hungry? Del’s Restaurant, with its signature Hereford bull atop the neon sign, has served Mexican and American comfort food since 1956. The founder sold the eatery to his secretary, Jessica Braziel, in 1978. Her daughters, Yvonne and Yvette, run Del’s now. “We feed about 500 people a day,” Yvonne says. “Food is important to our family. It’s how we love others.

Downtown we came across First Presbyterian Church—a 1966 A-frame whose two-story cross glows turquoise neon at dusk. Tourists are welcome. “We are so small, you can’t come to our church without us noticing,” Rev. Amy Pospichal says. “We love visitors!”

Though First Presbyterian was founded in 1901, its Holy Spirit Window—a 25-foot stained-glass window of a mid-century modern dove, designed by Frank L. Stanton—came much later. The little church has a big heart for helping the hungry and domestic violence survivors.

On Tucumcari Boulevard, a huge mural, The Legendary Road, caught our eye. Locals modeled for the 11-by- 111-foot work, which features a life-size guitarist, motorcyclists, a roadrunner, wild mustangs and Airstream trailers. It’s one of 50-plus murals by Doug and Sharon Quarles, who fell for the town two decades ago. Doug says, “When I die and God asks, ‘What have you done with the talent I gave you?’ I would love to tell him, ‘I used it all up!’”

Tucumcari proved to be an unforgettable destination. My family can’t wait to go back.

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