If Gallup exemplifies the struggling Route 66 town, Tucumcari exemplifies the kind that has simply laid down. We pulled in off the 40 to check out an expresso bar with an airplane permanently parked next to it that my dad told us about, but between there and the freeway exit we passed many more dilapidated, abandoned, or collapsed buildings than structurally or economically sound ones. The plane has stayed in place and the espresso bar still stands, built into the end of one of Tucumcari’s just-hanging-on motels (though lord knows what kind of white-trash crimes were occurring in them even as we passed), but it had closed for the day, as every day, at 11:00 a.m. “That must be check-out time,” Jae said — and why bother holding out hope for customers after that?
Besides the occasional motel, the still-operational establishments on Tucumcari’s stretch of Route 66 include a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall and — by far the busiest spot in town — Rockin’ Y’s Roadhouse, where we bought restroom privileges by stopping in for a couple of fried hard-shell tacos and scoops of ice cream. We ate quickly, since I couldn’t wait to get back out on the street and take some pictures. Though I like a good dead mall as as anyone (mostly out of hope that anything other than a mall will replace them), I don’t really count myself as a ruin-porn enthusiast. Still, who could resist the haunting specter of this modern-day ghost town?
Wide patches of barren land surround most of Tucumcari’s empty buildings, so you can just drive right up to most of them and snap away. Actually, I should qualify that statement, since some of the ones we drove right up to we found not quite empty, glimpsing through open doors and broken windows the telltale random stockpiles of a squat. But we saw neither hide nor hair of the squatters themselves, and so felt like the only humans alive for miles. With Route 66’s glory days sixty years behind it, barely even saw any other moving cars.
Having geared up in recent years to leave the United States, I’ve more and more frequently explained my departure by comparing aspects of this country (especially its infrastructure) to the third world — unfavorably. The crumbling desolation of Tucumcari might at first seem like yet another glaring signal of the de-developed America in which we find ourselves, but I haven’t even seen anyplace like it in the third world itself. In Latin America or southeast Asia, a town like this would be full of people — poor, for sure, probably even poorer than the people of Tucumcari, but in sufficient numbers and possessed of enough of an improvisational spirit to keep the place looking alive.
If this trip has taught me anything important about America so far, it’s taught me, viscerally, about the country’s sheer size. A Korean friend of mine perpetually entertains a fantasy about driving through North Dakota — always North Dakota — with nothing on either side of her for miles and miles (or rather, kilometers and kilometers), I would guess for no reason other than that she’d have a hard time doing the same in Korea. Indeed, I’ve found that in America, you might easily spend two or three hours just trying to get through the blank expanse between one hamlet and another. And given how much space lies between them, some of those hamlets just get forgotten.