Tag Archives: Tucumcari

Headed for the light

Ron and I found a welcome light illuminating the darkness this evening on Route 66 here in Tucumcari.

For several weeks, we’d been seeing signs of life at the long-shuttered Apache Motel. Ron talked to the new owner today, and this evening, she sent him a photo showing the lightbulbs around the perimeter of the motel’s iconic neon sign burning brightly.

We immediately grabbed our cameras and headed out.

Apache Motel sign with lights on around edge
The Apache’s new owner got some of the sign to light again.

The Apache was open when we took our first Route 66 trip in 2001. Some of the paint was peeling from the sign, but the neon was still burning, and chasing lights raced dramatically around the edge, calling attention to the motel for at least half a mile in either direction. At the time, I hadn’t yet learned to leave the shutter open long enough to catch all the lights as they flashed on and off, but you can see how vibrant the neon was:

Apache Motel sign in 2001 with neon lit
The Apache sign on Aug. 4, 2001.

Not long after that, the sign went dark, and the motel sat empty until 2006, when new owners bought it and restored it to its mid-century glory. I stayed there during a November 2006 road trip, which I blogged about at the time.

The motel closed almost as quickly as it reopened, and it’s been quietly decaying ever since — a heartbreaking sight, given the work that went into restoring it.

The timing of the coronavirus pandemic — arriving in the United States just on the cusp of tourist season — couldn’t be worse for my beloved Route 66. But looking up at the Apache sign this evening, I was reminded of one of the things I love most about this old road: Its seemingly endless capacity for renewal.

Just ask the Over the Hill Gang in Arcadia, Oklahoma; the Illinois Route 66 Association’s Historic Preservation Committee; the owners of the “Murder Bordello” in Galena, Kansas; Dawn Welch, whose Rock Cafe literally rose from the ashes after a 2008 fire that gutted its interior and collapsed its roof; or Ned Leuchtner, who reconstructed Cool Springs Camp from a pair of stone pillars.

The Mother Road and her children may see some casualties in the coming years. But as Ma Joad said: “We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever … ’cause we’re the people.”

Emily

Grand total: 190

We completed our breezeblock inventory this afternoon. By my count, Tucumcari (pop. 4,915) has 190 properties that feature either breezeblocks, shadow blocks, or some combination of the two — and at least 100 of them are within a mile of my house.

I knew we had a lot, but by “a lot,” I was thinking maybe 50. We have nearly four times that number — and I probably missed a few that weren’t visible from the street. Incredible.

Here are some samples from today’s explorations:

We saw this fan-style block atop an unfinished wall in a newer subdivision. The owner appeared to be test-driving samples.
Square-in-square style breezeblock
This double square-in-square was perched atop the same unfinished wall as the fan-style block.
We saw this angular riff on the Starlight pattern at the same property.
I don’t know the name of this pattern, but it seems to be the 21st-century answer to hidden circles.
I like this sort of inside-out approach to installing hidden circles, spotted in an alley while we were walking the dogs this afternoon.

The top image is from a house down the street. The breezeblocks appear to be a later addition, as they don’t really match the architecture of the house, but I imagine they’d come in handy if you were fumbling with your keys on a stormy day.

The research for this project has been fascinating. I knew Tucumcari pretty well before I started, but systematically driving every street in town in search of one specific architectural detail has forced me to pay much closer attention to my surroundings. It’s also given me an appreciation for the ingenuity of the people around me, who are sculptors, muralists, architects, landscape designers, homesteaders, and creative problem solvers of the highest order.

No wonder I love this town so much. It’s full of kindred spirits.

Emily

Ridin’ Around in the Breeze

Well, it’s all right, ridin’ around in the breeze.
Yeah, it’s all right, if you live the life you please.
— George Harrison

For the third day in a row, Ron and I worked on my breezeblock inventory. This time, we were in our own neighborhood. In an hour and a half, we covered all the east-west streets in an area six blocks wide and maybe a mile long. We found 52 properties with breezeblocks and one with shadow blocks. That brings our total to 139, with about 75 percent of the inventory complete.

Here’s a wall of tightly stacked snowflake blocks, protected by a ferocious guard dog:

Snowflake-pattern breezeblocks, magic light, dramatic shadows, and a Chihuahua in the window — what’s not to love?

I was really excited about these Pompeian (sic) blocks. (I was less excited about the manufacturer’s spelling.)

Pompeian breezeblocks in a wall
Pompeian blocks cast interesting shadows on the wall behind them.
Breezeblocks casting a shadow on a concrete wall
Two styles for the price of one: Pompeian shadow next to hidden circles.

We also spotted some double-Ys:

Double-Y breezeblocks in a concrete wall
This is one of the more creative uses I’ve seen for the double-Y pattern.

Some newer walls featured styles I haven’t encountered in any of my research. This one looks like what you’d get if you crossed the arcs in a hidden-circle block and then flattened it out:

Breezeblocks in a concrete wall
I don’t know what this style is called, but it seems to be a latter-day design. I like this installation.
Breezeblocks in a concrete wall
Notice how the same pattern can look very different depending on the installation.

The pattern in the top image is another latter-day design. It looks like arch or cathedral, except it’s missing the diagonal reinforcements.

We got a late start today because of work commitments, but we’re hoping to go out earlier tomorrow and finish our inventory. Once that’s done, I can start designing my map. I’m really excited about this project. If it looks half as good on paper as it does in my mind, it’s going to be one of the coolest projects I’ve ever done.

Emily

More breezeblocks

Ron and I went hunting breezeblocks again this afternoon. My list now stands at 86 properties with either breezeblocks, shadow blocks, or a combination of the two. I have found 51 examples of hidden circles; seven examples of Empress; six of square-in-square; five of double-Y; two of double-X; one each of arch/cathedral and snowflake; assorted squares and rectangles; and a handful of mystery styles, including a couple of Empress variants I haven’t been able to identify. I also spotted at least nine examples of shadow blocks in varying patterns — and we still haven’t inventoried the mid-century subdivisions in the southwest quadrant.

The featured photo at the top of this post is one I shot in December of the front of my church — a gorgeous A-frame with a snowflake-pattern breezeblock wall out front. Here are a couple more views, showing that stunning backlit cross:

A-frame church with backlit neon cross and breezeblock wall
I love this architecture.
Backlit neon cross against a breezeblock wall
This is the most mid-century church I’ve seen since Benjamin interrupted Elaine’s wedding in “The Graduate.”

First Presbyterian doesn’t have the market cornered on ecclesiastical breezeblocks, though. Immanuel Baptist Church makes nice use of hidden circles here:

Church with hidden-circle breezeblock screen on one end
This screen really dresses up the building.

We also found quite a few commercial installations:

Square-in-square breezeblocks on a Plains Commercial building
I can’t decide whether retrofitting an early-20th-century Plains Commercial building with mid-century breezeblocks is awesome or awful, but either way, it’s eye-catching.
Closeup of star-patterned breezeblocks
At first glance, I thought this was the large diamond/Bali/Rotary pattern, but it’s much too angular for that.
Large square-in-square breezeblocks with vertical rectangles in between
Square-in-square blocks at the Elks Lodge. Note the darker vertical rectangles in between.

Motel designers were especially fond of breezeblocks:

Square breezeblock wall
I like the alternating large and small squares in this wall at the old Town House Motel.
Closeup of square breezeblocks in two sizes
Closeup.
Shadow blocks on wall
Shadow blocks at Motel Safari.
Small square breezeblocks in wall with Elvis and a classic car painted on it
Carport wall at Motel Safari.
Decorative breezeblock wall with googie boomerangs painted on one end
Patio at Motel Safari. Dig those boomerangs.
Decorative hidden-circle breezeblock wall
A hidden-circle wall at Roadrunner Lodge.

And last but not least, here’s a pretty residential application:

Square-in-square breezeblock wall
I need a wall like this in my backyard to keep Ramona out of the garden.

It was at this point in the trip that I turned to Ron and said, “If he’d build it out of breezeblocks, I might have to rethink my position on Trump’s ‘big, beautiful wall.'” And then I had an idea for the greatest political compromise in the history of ever … but that’s another post for another day.

Emily

Shooting the Breeze

One of the delightful surprises about moving out here in 2017 was the discovery that Tucumcari has a plethora of breezeblock walls.

A few weeks ago, I decided it would be cool to spend part of my summer taking an inventory of Tucumcari’s breezeblocks and creating a Bob Waldmire-style map detailing the style and location of each. I figured it might help promote Tucumcari to mid-century modern junkies like me, and it seemed like the sort of thing Route 66 travelers would appreciate, given our fondness for all things retro.

With most of New Mexico shut down until further notice, Ron and I decided to take advantage of a free afternoon to start the inventory. After lunch, I got online, researched breezeblock styles, and made myself a little chart identifying all the patterns I could find. Then Ron spent about three hours systematically driving down every street on the north side of town while I rode shotgun with my iPhone and a notebook in hand. By the time we called it a day, we had a list of 40 properties, featuring 15 different styles of breezeblocks.

Here are a few highlights:

"Hidden circle"-style breezeblock wall
This example of “hidden circle”-style breezeblocks is about the only structurally sound remnant of our vet’s old building, which burned several years ago.

Hidden circles were extremely popular. I counted 25 examples today.

Concrete wall with empress and arch-style breezeblock details
Empress-style blocks dominate the foreground, but if you look closely at the wall on the left, you can see arch — a.k.a. cathedral — blocks as well.

The Empress pattern looks similar to hidden circles, but you can tell them apart by looking at the diamonds between the circles: Hidden circles have a horizontal line bisecting the diamonds.

Concrete-block wall with double-X breezeblock accents
This mostly solid wall features occasional double-X — a.k.a. “Dos Equis” — accents.

I found a couple of examples of the double-X style, which some sources identify by its Spanish name, Dos Equis.

Square-in-square, or "Vista Vue," breezeblock in a concrete wall
I found three examples of the square-in-square style.

The square-in-square style was identified by a couple of sources as “Vista Vue.”

Breezeblock wall using what appears to be a variant of the Empress pattern
These blocks appear to be a variation on Empress.

I haven’t been able to track down the name or manufacturer of the breezeblocks screening the stairwells at Roadrunner Lodge (above). I’m also at a loss to identify the rectangular pattern on the blocks at the Pow Wow Inn (top image).

Tomorrow, we’ll explore the south side of town, including a mid-century subdivision that’s positively teeming with breezeblocks.

Emily

New job, new house, New Mexico

I’ve been threatening since 2001 to run away to New Mexico for vacation and never come back. Last month, I made good on that threat.

I’d intended to post an update earlier, but things happened so quickly, tonight is really the first chance I’ve had to catch my breath.

In late September, I interviewed for a job teaching English at House High School in House, New Mexico. I was offered the job Oct. 2, with an Oct. 9 start date. In between, we’d already scheduled our vacation, with plans to leave Cape the morning of Oct. 5 and arrive in Tucumcari the evening of Oct. 6.

This is the view from my front porch.
We rolled into town in time for dinner Oct. 6, put an offer on a mid-century house with a view of Tucumcari Mountain from the living room on Oct. 7, and I started my new teaching gig the morning of Oct. 9. House is up on the Caprock Escarpment, about 47 miles from Tucumcari; my 50-minute commute across the Llano Estacado and up the Caprock takes me past Tucumcari Mountain, Bulldog Mesa, and Mesa Redondo every morning and evening, usually just in time to watch the sun rise and set. That picture you see at the top of this post was the view as I came down off the Caprock one afternoon during my first week of school.

This is my new kitchen. I need to do a whole post about the glorious mid-century time capsule that is my new house.
We’re on a four-day school week, which basically means I get to use every Friday as a planning period, and I have a grand total of 14 students, which means I rarely, if ever, have to bring home papers to grade. My kids are hilarious, and I’m having a lot of fun with them. Living in a small town with limited amenities makes some of the prep work a little challenging (I can’t just run to Michael’s or a teacher-supply store when I need something), but ultimately, it forces me to plan better and be more creative, which isn’t a bad thing. I’ll have some stories about that — along with tips and tricks for other teachers — in future posts.

At the moment, the only real drawback is the fact Ron, Walter, and the dogs aren’t here yet because Ron is still trying to tie up loose ends in Cape Girardeau. (Speaking of which, somebody buy our house. It’s cute, energy-efficient, and totally move-in ready, thanks to all that work I did to whip it into shape over the past two years. Tell your friends.)

I’ll have more detailed posts about my adventures — with plenty of photos, of course — at some point in the future. In the meantime, keep chasing your dreams. They really do come true, and sometimes in finer style than you imagined possible.

Emily

Make-It Monday: Bob Waldmire mural

I was so busy battling headaches when I got home from vacation this summer, I completely forgot to post my pictures from the trip — including the ones I took of the mural I traveled to Tucumcari to paint in one of the garages at the Blue Swallow Motel.

I’ll remedy that with some photos of the mural in progress on this Make-It Monday.

I think this was a couple of hours in. I'm not sure why I did the headlights first, but they kind of set the bar for the rest of the project.
I think this was a couple of hours in. I’m not sure why I did the headlights first, but they kind of set the bar for the rest of the project.
The license-plate frame made me want to cry, for reasons I can't explain.
The license-plate frame made me want to cry, for reasons I can’t explain.
It's hard to keep everything in proportion and lined up properly while working in close proximity to a large image. I don't always succeed.
It’s hard to keep everything in proportion and lined up properly while working in close proximity to a large image. I don’t always succeed.
After realizing the area around the headlights was completely wonky, I painted over it and tried again.
After realizing the area around the headlights was completely wonky, I painted over it and tried again.
It took several tries to get his face right, but I think I finally got it.
It took several tries to get his face right, but I think I finally got it.

This was the most challenging mural I’ve painted up to this point. Portraits are always tricky, but in this case, I was painting a portrait of two old friends, one of whom was an artist whose work influenced my style.

The first old friend is the late Bob Waldmire, the artist behind the wheel of the VW Westfalia. The second old friend is the Westfalia herself. She had almost as much personality as Bob did, and I adored her for it.

My fondness for Bob and my respect for him and his work made it imperative that I get a good likeness, and it took either four or five tries (I eventually lost count) before I was finally satisfied with it.

Getting the Westfalia right was a matter of proportion and symmetry, which are difficult to render at that scale. Compounding the challenge was the fact I’d tried to set things up relative to the ground, which — as you can see — is gravel and not really level itself.

I wound up repainting several parts of the Westfalia, and they still didn’t end up perfectly symmetrical, although both Ron and Kevin, the Blue Swallow’s owner, were quick to note that old Volkswagens are rarely 100 percent symmetrical, either.

It has its flaws, but I think it looks like Bob, and I really like the way the headlights and reflectors on the Westfalia turned out.

Emily

Another recent project

Following up on yesterday’s post, here’s another little project I did recently. The Blue Swallow Motel on Route 66 in Tucumcari, New Mexico — which we have long since established is my favorite place in the known universe — has a set of black cardboard information boards under the glass on the front counter. The boards have been in existence for as long as anybody can remember and provide information about other local businesses and services that might be of use to guests.

I’m not sure what was used to make the white letters on the boards, but it doesn’t respond well to spills, and despite the glass over them, moisture occasionally reaches the signs and smears the lettering. I’ll be in New Mexico soon to lead a motorcoach tour, do a few projects at the Swallow and spend a couple of days signing books at a festival.

The owner asked whether I could include restoration or replacement of the information boards among my projects. Based on the historic nature of the originals, we decided the best course of action would be to leave them as-is, remove them from harm’s way, and replace them with a set of updated boards featuring current businesses. Using paintmarkers and black poster board, I created these modern versions, designed to approximate the style and dimensions of the originals. The originals will preserved in some manner that maintains their historic integrity and protects them from further damage. I had the new ones laminated. Hopefully they’ll last as long as their predecessors.

The originals advertised a package-liquor store and a restaurant, both of which have since closed.
The originals advertised a package-liquor store and a restaurant, both of which have since closed.
A funeral home seems an odd thing to promote to travelers, but at the time the originals were created, there was no 911, and the local funeral home also ran the ambulance service, so it was good for guests to have ready access to the phone number in case of a medical emergency.
A funeral home seems an odd thing to promote to travelers, but at the time the originals were created, there was no 911, and the local funeral home also ran the ambulance service, so it was good for guests to have ready access to the phone number in case of a medical emergency.
The original version of the top featured a local car dealership, with stylized logos for the brands they sold. The bottom was just like this, except it had the original owners' names.
The original version of the top featured a local car dealership, with stylized logos for the brands they sold. The bottom was just like this, except it had the original owners’ names.
The original featured the Odeon and a long-closed drive-in movie theater.
The original featured the Odeon and a long-closed drive-in movie theater.

I’m looking forward to getting to Tucumcari and starting work on the mural I’ve got planned, which will be something of a tribute to Bob Waldmire. I haven’t had a good dose of New Mexico since October, and I really need one. While I’m out there, I’ll be signing copies of Greetings from Coldwater and the new print edition of Route 66 for Kids, which has been updated for 2016. (There’s also a Kindle version of the guidebook, but it’s the 2015 edition. I haven’t had time to figure out how to update it and link it to the print version yet. The information is mostly the same, but a few places have raised their prices or changed their hours in the past year.)

Emily

Why I’m not buying a Powerball ticket

This ever-increasing Powerball jackpot has prompted a lot of conversations revolving around what people would do if they won.

I appreciate that people enjoy dreaming, and they’re willing to spend a couple of bucks on lottery tickets to fuel those dreams, but I’m not buying a ticket, because I don’t have ten-figure dreams. I don’t even have seven-figure dreams. Everything I want is either free or within reach using resources I already have.

I want another marathon. I can’t buy that. I have to earn it, and the only way to do that is to get up off my arse and train.

I want my hair to grow out and finish turning gray. I can’t buy that, either; I just have to let time do its work.

I want to get up every morning and watch the sun rise over Tucumcari Mountain. It will take money to move, but I don’t need a billion dollars; I just need to pay off my mortgage so I can afford to work for a smaller paper. A lottery jackpot would do that overnight, but I’d lose something precious in the process.

Y’all know I’m a road-trip junkie. I never fly anywhere I can drive, because I enjoy the trip itself almost as much as I enjoy the destination. In many ways, this quest to move to New Mexico is the ultimate road trip. It’s slow. It’s tiring. But it’s teaching me lessons I’d never learn otherwise, showing me things I’d never see otherwise, and introducing me to people I’d never meet otherwise.

If I had a plane ticket — or a winning Powerball ticket, as the case may be — I’d end up flying right over all the sights and lessons and experiences this journey has to offer.

A bed at the Blue Swallow is never more comfortable than when I’ve driven 14 hours to get to it. This is the magic of the road, and I trust it will hold true for my current journey: That first sunrise over Tucumcari Mountain will be that much more dazzling, that first bite of green chile stew at Watson’s that much spicier, and that first sopapilla at the Pow Wow that much sweeter for having been hard-won.

I wouldn’t trade the spoils of that journey for a billion dollars.

Emily

More artwork

It’s been an artsy sort of weekend. I made a double batch of hot-process soap yesterday and had enough time left to paint the prototype for my next mural, which is going on the side of Tee Pee Curios on Route 66 in Tucumcari the first week in October:

kokopelli

I’m looking forward to that project, although I’m a little antsy about having to work so high up off the ground. This mural is going on the side of a building that’s quite a bit taller than the garage walls I painted last spring. We’ll see if the magic of New Mexico is powerful enough to override my acrophobia.

I’ve also been using every spare minute to add more book illustrations. I’m looking at about 28 images by the time I finish. Here are the most recent ones:

officeweb

journalweb

letterweb

laundryweb

pickweb

smokeweb

scoutsweb

milagroweb

dianaweb

snakeweb

cellsweb

monolithweb

Each image precedes a chapter and represents something significant from that chapter. You’ll have to read the novel to find out what a neon sign, a journal, a letter on motel stationery, a clothesline, a guitar pick, a burning cigarette, a snow cone, a milagro, a toy camera, a gopher snake, a seventh-grader’s biology assignment and a replica of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey have to do with the story.

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I’m about four illustrations away from being able to submit this thing for publication, although I’m sure I’ll spend at least another week fussing over it before I work up the nerve to send it out into the world.

Emily