When I say "Route 66 in New Mexico," what do you think of? Do you see the glow of neon signs shimmering on Central Avenue after a monsoon? Do you imagine the curved corners of stuccoed 1950s motels, now worn and cracked under the weight of time? Do you hear the revving of an old engine as an ancient Chrysler makes its way through the lights downtown? We think of Route 66 as Central Avenue, but there is another Route 66 in New Mexico.
In the heart of downtown Albuquerque, 4th Street intersects with Central to create the crossroads of the Mother Road. 4th Street marks the older alignment of 66, one that stretches to the north. It was in existence before 1937. You may have noticed the signs that mark the route. Think about this a moment. Route 66 once went north into the mountains. How many modern cars have you seen stuck and steaming on the side of I-25 when you hit La Bajada hill? Now imagine what life was like before 1937 when you are driving a Model T, that nice smooth roadway of I-25 is decades away from existence and you have to get up (or down) the hill.
The tiny town of La Bajada still exists, pretty much hidden away from the modern road. The tattered remnants of switchbacks and shattered road bed still marks where Route 66 once crawled like a bull snake up the side of the hill. I have heard stories about how the residents of La Bajada would take advantage of travelers that required repairs or overnight motel rooms or whose cars slid off the road. The road in many places is propped up by what look like haphazard piles of rocks. I can imagine this stretch was every bit as intimidating as the chunk of 66 that weaves into Oatman, Ariz.
A small stream bubbles up near the bottom of the hill. The ground is green and spongy here, but soon gives way to the dust and rocks that dominate the landscape. We hiked a little way up the road where huge gouges grind into the earth. It would take a strong 4-wheel drive vehicle to travel on what remains of 66 here. We saw a lizard missing its tail. Later, on our way back to Albuquerque, we came across a tarantula crossing the roadway.
While Route 66 is a legacy of neon and chrome accented cars, it is also a history filled with switchbacks and drop-offs and cars with wood wheels. Go ahead, look up La Bajada on Google Maps. You can still see how that nearly 90-year-old road has left its brand on the land. Once, it hosted thousands of cars with straining engines and worried drivers. Now it is a serpentine scar clinging to its place in history, a fascinating reminder of New Mexico's claim to the reality and mythology of Route 66.
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