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Route 66 Through Albuquerque: A Postcard History
It's impossible to understand the long-lived mystique of Ye Olde Route 66 without chomping down on a good bit of historical Americana. These days, when you want to get somewhere fast, you wheel your Corolla on to an Interstate or, faster yet, buy yourself a plane ticket. Back in 1926, options were far more limited.
That's the year Congress gave the designation “66” to a paved highway cutting diagonally across the country from Chicago to Los Angeles, sticking mainly to flat prairie, connecting large urban areas with tiny rural communities that previously had little access to the outside world.
When the Great Depression hit the country like a brick in the face in the ’30s, Dustbowl Okies made for the highway, heading for California and an escape from extreme deprivation. In his 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck christened Route 66 the Mother Road. Throughout those tough times, Route 66 led many to what they hoped would be salvation.
World War II came and went, and in the years that followed, a previously unknown prosperity spread far and wide among the American middle class. Ordinary citizens acquired cars and hit the road for pleasure alone. In 1946, Nat King Cole told his listeners to get their kicks on Route 66: “Won't you get hip to this timely tip: when you make that California trip, get your kicks on Route sixty-six.” Thousands took this advice to heart.
Travelers need lodging, of course. They need food, too. Entrepreneurs along the route responded to these demands, building the Route 66 commercial infrastructure that was largely responsible for making Albuquerque what it is today. Even now, in the 21st century, when the Interstate freeway system has long since made it a quaint memory, the vestiges of the Mother Road remain in the form of Central Avenue neon and distinctive ’50s-era architecture.
This past June marked Route 66’s 80th birthday. With this in mind, an exhibit organized by the New Mexico Postcard Club (who knew such a thing existed?) is currently showing at the Special Collections Library just east of Downtown. The entire show is small enough to fit into a briefcase, but in this case good things definitely come in tiny packages.
The highlight is a display of vintage Albuquerque postcards mounted beside captions explaining their historical significance. There's a 1938 postcard for the El Vado, the still extant West Central roadside motel recently threatened with demolition. There's a whole slew of cards for Central Avenue businesses that no longer exist. My favorite card comes from the Pig Stand Café, an eatery formerly located across from UNM at 2106 Central SE. Judging from the image on the card, my guess is that this is the old Lobo Laundry building, on the same block as Newsland. I think it's now a pita joint or something. When I first moved to Albuquerque, I used to do my laundry there all the time. Coincidentally, there used to be a big tiled mosaic of Route 66 on the east wall, right above the dryers. I used to shift my gaze back and forth between my spinning underwear and the map of the route that had (sort of) carried me from Chicago to this weird little city in the desert. Good times.
The exhibit also includes a small display of Route 66 books, as well as a few glass cases detailing the highway as it meandered east and west of Albuquerque, accompanied, of course, by plenty more postcards.
This is a humble but pleasing little show. It's not going to knock your socks off, but it does provide an interesting way to explore a very popular aspect of the recent history of our city.
Gas up and get ready to roll. It’s time to hit the Mother Road.
Route 66 Through Albuquerque: A Postcard History , an exhibit of maps and postcards, runs through Aug. 26 at the Special Collections Library (423 Central NE). 848-1376.
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