Posted by: nickgerlich | October 28, 2007

Got Our Kicks

Sometimes the government is not kind. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. I’m talking about when the government decides to move a highway. It may have a perfectly good location, but for one reason or another, the powers-that-be decide that a location “over there” might be better.

Of course, it’s not always quite that simplistic. But the result is often the same: Businesses and even cities along the old route fall into decay, and unless drastic measures are taken, they’ll wither and blow away.

Case in point: When the federal government decided to declassify Route 66 as a highway, and instead replace it with stitched-together segments of Interstates 55, 44, 40, and 15 from Chicago to Los Angeles, little did they know that vast portions of that corridor would die a slow, painful death.

Today, in light of my growing nostalgic fascination with Route 66, I loaded up my friend and our mountain bikes, and we headed out to Glenrio, the near-ghost town that straddles the Texas-New Mexico border. Our goal was to ride the original Route 66 alignment to San Jon NM and back. (Click here to view the slideshow.)

Route 66Glenrio is actually a tale of two cities, one in each state. The Texas version had no liquor stores, because it is in a dry county, but the New Mexico side had no gas stations because of high fuel taxes. You can imagine how the towns were laid out.

Today there are only two homes occupied in Glenrio, but in its heyday, it was a happening place, with roadhouses, gangsters, and all manner of Grapes of Wrath travellers headed toward the Promised Land.

It is a little over 18 miles to San Jon along the original road (a more recent section of 66 lies beyond a green gate, angling to the northwest of Glenrio). I am not sure if it was ever all paved, because only a short section in the middle between two rickety wooden bridges has asphalt, as well as the last 3.5 miles into San Jon. The majority was either washboarded or soft and sandy, demanding our constant attention.

And not that San Jon is any thriving metropolis. With roughly 300 people and a couple of gas stations, it has all but expired. In fact, many of the buildings along the old road are boarded up, testimony to better times that, unfortunately, are in the rearview mirror.

There’s also evidence of businesses in Bard and Endee between the two towns that have also gone by the wayside, all in a race to see which can fall to earth the fastest. The dark clay bricks slowly but surely dissolve over time as they are exposed to the elements, the external stucco chipping off one chunk at a time and allowing rain, wind, and sun to work their charm.

But for every Glenrio, Bard, Endee, and San Jon along the route, there are places like Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, Albuquerque, Grants, and Gallup (and that’s only the New Mexico towns) who have turned their lemons into lemonade. They have all capitalized nicely on their Route 66 heritage, as well as the many thousands of Americans and Europeans who do nostalgia road trips each year.

And then there’s the lucky towns, like Winslow Arizona…lucky enough to have been written about in a song by Jackson Browne, and made famous by the Eagles in 1972 (Take It Easy, for those of you too young to remember this classic). I have stood on that corner many times and taken many a photograph of the inspiration for that song.

While today’s ride was like rolling down an archaeological highway, I am reminded to salute those businesses and cities who embraced the change around them, and figured out how to hit home runs when everyone was pitching curve balls. Why, even right here in Amarillo the folks at The Big Texan will be all to happy to tell you how they relocated to the then-new I-40 after Route 66 became known simply as Amarillo Boulevard (and much of the transcontinental traffic was re-routed). It was all a matter of survival, and Darwin had hit an economic nail on the head while studying those tortoises.

Too bad the folks in Glenrio hit their finger instead.

Dr “Running Down The Road” Gerlich

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