Sunday, June 14, 2009

Tucumcari, NM...You Need To Go There

Tucumcari straddles historic Highway 66, the road upon with the eponymous movie was based (Route 66 came about at a time of transition and movement of both people and ideologies; it was filmed when the interstate highway system was rapidly supplanting the two-lane road that had served as a primary migration route between the heartland of the U.S. and its upstart younger brother, the west, California in particular. To travel Hwy 66 at that time was to travel through time, forward if going west and backwards if going east.).

The town is redolent with aching knees, cataracts, big waistlines, and hair the color of Midwestern snow that has laid on the streets and sidewalks for months. I-40 bypasses it, leaving it to wither like a river cutoff…but not entirely, for the signs on the four lane speedway beckon you to divert from your fixed path and plans.

I pulled off and first encountered the usual grouping of new lay-over establishments, all of which lay apart from the town proper, like a young man who has returned home from college and who avoids his buck-toothed relatives at the family gathering. I drove on, passing by an abandoned go-kart track whose buffer tires marked the paved curves that had surrendered to encroaching dirt and grass.

The heart of Tucumcari still beats, though much less strongly than before. As I slipped back to the days of rolled-down windows, stick shifts, and unleaded gas, I imagined the crowds at the faded art-deco stores and motels, passing the wooden Indian standing nobly and stoically at the door to the general store. Gas station attendants didn’t ask to check your oil, they just did it…and threw in a windshield cleaning to boot. Kids sweated in the back of station wagons, fathers’ hair oozed brylcreme, while women’s red scarves kept bangs out of sunglassed eyes.

As is my usual wont, I rode the back streets, looking behind the redone fa├žade of main street. It was as expected: loose dogs, doves preening and cooing, cats sauntering, and kids doing what kids do…in this case, riding four wheelers around and around in a yard that had been converted into a mini race course. The father stood on the porch with a hose, spraying them as they rode by. Glees rang out over multiple exhausts.

Elsewhere, trailers (none of which were younger than thirty or forty years) were mixed in will more permanent dwellings. All housing structures were small. (How do the accumulated memories of their inhabitants fit within such tight confines?)

But, of course, the residents aren't without their sense of humor, considering the picture below.

The wind—wondrous steady companion of my childhood days in South Texas—recalled to mind feet sticking and burning on hot tarry streets, dogs mating in the local sandlot, bike tires that constantly were flat from the unavoidable goat head thorns that also broke off in the soles of our feet, only to fester and finally come forth with a geyser of puss.

Taking advantage of the wind and standing by a state-of-the-art school (if you judge by the physical facilities), a lone windmill spins its three arms. It, perhaps, is the town’s defining landmark, a sign that Tucumcari has a future. Or, perhaps it’s the other way around…the town of stucco at the foot of the aluminum monolith reminds us that the future was born in the past.

Mike Sledge

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