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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Celebrating a century of Route 66

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SANTA ROSA — If you’re not aware of it yet, you will be soon enough. Route 66 is turning 100 years old in 2026.

Earlier this month, a recently formed New Mexico committee called the Route 66 Centennial Coordination Group held a public meeting in Santa Rosa — one of more than a dozen communities across New Mexico that either grew up or grew more prosperous with the highway that was officially designated as a national highway in 1926. Plenty of locals as well as state officials gathered to brainstorm ideas for celebrating the centennial anniversary with attractions and festivities worthy of “the kicks” people used to get on Route 66.

The committee, chaired by Bill Lee of Gallup, is seeking input and enthusiasm before moving into specific plans to exploit the anniversary with as much pomp and ceremony as the market will bear. After all, this isn’t just nostalgia we’re conjuring up here, it’s money.

The committee held its first such meeting in Tucumcari last February. The next meeting is scheduled for June 25 in Albuquerque, followed by meetings in Santa Fe and Gallup in the latter half of this year. Then we’ll start seeing the festivities coming into fruition and Route 66 will be touted from where it enters our state at Glenrio just west of the Texas border to Gallup a few miles east of the Arizona state line.

Santa Rosa is a good example of what Route 66 did for the communities it traveled through. This city first grew up with the railroad; the steam engines of the 1800s would stop to take advantage of the artesian waters here. But when Route 66 came through, a more modern, profitable Santa Rosa grew up.

Old timers here often remember the heyday of Route 66, when dozens of gas stations, motels, cafés and restaurants came to live to serve the flow of traffic through town. Now, Interstate 40 serves essentially the same purpose — with truck stops and truck repair operations, along with hotels and motels, and restaurants catering to hungry travelers — but the old timers will tell you it’s just not the same.

It is interesting the paths that have helped to define us. After the West was taken from the Natives, and before Mexico ceded this region to the U.S., the Sante Fe Trail brought Anglos, Jews and many other migrants into the area. Then came the railroads and the Wild West was tamed.

Then came Route 66, a roadway that ran from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California — a 2,448-mile trek across a growing nation. “Get your kicks on Route 66” became a popular saying in those days, but that wasn’t the half of it. Many who traveled this highway were looking for a better future, with their sights set on the “promised land” of California while passing through the wildlands of New Mexico.

That’s one of the reasons why California is the most populated state in our nation. But I’m certain that some of those Route 66 western migrants never made it, instead settling down somewhere along with way. My own grandparents went West in the 1920s, looking for something better than their poor and dusty home state of Arkansas in those times. They settled for a time in Arizona and were doing well, but after they gave birth to my mother and lost their young son to a sudden illness, they drove back home to Arkansas — a testament more to the strength of family ties than to the opportunities out West during those times.

I hope that as New Mexico prepares to celebrate “the Mother Road” as it’s traversed across the state, we’ll remember to record as much of its historic significance, on communities and families, as we can. Route 66 covered more than 500 miles across New Mexico, and I’ll bet there are plenty of New Mexico families with a story to tell about how they got here.

That’s the “kick” I’ll be looking for.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom McDonald owns and operates the New Mexico Community News Exchange and the Guadalupe County Communicator in Santa Rosa. Contact him at tmcdonald.srnm@gmail.com.)

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