Blue Swallow Motel, Tucumcari.

It Hertz. No Mustang, but time to hit Route 66

Car: Dodge Charger

Drive: Denver to Denver via Albuquerque (3200km)


Show me the way to Amarillo and I’ll show you the way to Tucumcari. 

Both destinations are sign-posted directly in front of me – right to Amarillo, Texas; left to Tucumcari, New Mexico.

And while it would be nice to help Tony Christie out with directions, the beat we’re driving to is Tucumcari Tonite.  

In retrospect, it’s the right we should have taken. Just down the road (unbeknown at the time) is the Cadillac Ranch, 10 Caddies buried up to the windscreen, nose-first, in a line and grossly graffiti-ed, a bizarre tribute to the most extroverted tailfin in automotive history. 

As it is, we’re a little behind schedule – by more than a day. Our plans unfortunately went into pause after arriving overnight in Denver, Colorado. 

It would appear the difference in altitude between our home town of Brisbane (28.4m above sea level) and Colorado’s ‘Mile-High City’ was too much for my wife, who woke during the night with a debilitating migraine.

Despite spending the following day and night in bed, some 36-hours later she’s still barely able to travel.

Our motel at Tucumcari can’t come quick enough.

Not just any motel, mind. With its signature Neon sign aglow out front, the Blue Swallow is a veritable Route 66 landmark, dispensing an old-style welcome to weary travellers continuously since 1940. 

The façade, its pink stucco walls decorated with a stepped parapet and funky shell designs, reflects modest use of the Southwest Vernacular style of architecture, so I’ve read.

It’s big on character and atmosphere, small on tariff. Our overnight stay costs a mere $70.

Route 66 and its studding of iconic landmarks like The Blue Swallow are central to our road trip itinerary: start and finish in Denver, driving down the eastern side of the Rockies into New Mexico, taking in the stretch of Mother Road from Vega to Albuquerque (time there with family).

Then heading north briefly along US Highway 550 from Bernalillo, overnighting at Santa Fe, Taos, Durango, Telluride and Edwards before catching up with more of the clan in Denver.

As well as Route 66, we intend to motor more of the (US550) San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway, specifically the fabled Million Dollar Highway, between Silverton and Ouray.

Route 66 original at Moriarty 3
Another Route 66 original at Moriarty.


Unfortunately, we don’t quite have a hunk of appropriate American iron as our wheels, a first-preference Mustang or Camaro convertible having failed to materialise (thank you, Hertz). 

Instead, we’ve been assigned a Dodge Charger. The Charger model line-up of the time ranged from 2.7-litre SE to the high-performance 425hp (317kW) SRT-8, with a 3.5-litre V6 and 5.7-litre V8 in between.

Before anyone gets too excited, our mount is not the SRT-8. Unfortunately.

After a solid night’s sleep, the wife awakes still with the migraine, albeit the dull ache kind rather than seismic throb.

We tuck into a typically American big breakfast at Denny’s, and then set off west along 66 towards Albuquerque following directions conveyed over the phone by relatives and following road signs and a simple map. 

Passing through tiny Moriarty, JR’s Tire Store – once Greene Evans garage, circa 1940 – makes a great backdrop for a pic, as indeed does much of Albuquerque.

No visit to New Mexico’s largest city is complete without an ascent by aerial tramway to one of America’s most stunning urban peaks, reaching the 3163m crest of the Sandia Mountains where awaits a panoramic view across nearly three million hectares.

The optimum time to do it is coming on sunset, where you can wine and dine watching the shadows at play as the city scape begins to twinkle below. 

Time to hit the road, Jack, a mix of Tex-Mex and West Coast classic rock on KIOT-FM (Coyote 102.5) providing a befitting soundtrack for our drive through Bernalillo and along the quiet back roads to Jemez Springs and lunch at the Los Ojos Bar.

This real-deal saloon has been in operation since the 19th century. Bullet holes decorate the pressed-metal ceiling and antique firearms and other western paraphernalia adorn the adobe walls.

From Wild West to the splitting of the atom. Just an hour’s drive north-east lies Los Alamos, the once top-secret company town where scientists and the US military conceived and built the nuclear bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Los Alamos is not the most direct route to our overnighter at Santa Fe, but we drive through as a matter of record, albeit without stopping. 

That night, we encounter the largest crowds of our trip so far, having to wait for a table at the Coyote Café (worth it, though) and joining the throng dancing to a salsa band in the park. 

But then, that’s really the story of Santa Fe – too many visitors spoiling the very intrinsic charm that brought them there in the first place.

Taos, just 150km away, is what I’d imagine Santa Fe once was. Much smaller in size and population (in 2009, 7000 compared with 77,000), Taos has been attracting the artistically-talented and free-thinking since early last century; luminaries such as Aldous Huxley and D H Lawrence.

In the 1960s and ’70s, hippies and other alternative life-stylers added to the lively cultural scene, maverick actor/artist Dennis Hopper among them.

A couple of months before we arrived, on the 40th anniversary of Easy Rider, Hopper was made Honorary Mayor for his contribution to the Taos community.         

Just getting to Taos is an event if you take the High Road to Taos Scenic Byway, a 90km, mostly mountainous drive through tiny adobe pueblos, artist communities and frontier outposts dating to Spanish colonial times; Nambé, Chimayo, Cordova, Truchas and Las Trampas, culminating at the San Francisco de Asis Church at Ranchos de Taos. 

And then there’s Taos Pueblo. To stroll among its well-preserved 1000-1450 AD buildings is to walk in the footsteps of the first Spanish explorers, who believed the Pueblo to be one of the fabled golden cities of Cibola. 

Leaving Taos on the way to Durango, via Chama and Pagosa Springs, we cross the Rio Grande on the second-highest suspension bridge in the US highway system – appropriately-named the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.

Built in 1965, it was called the “bridge to nowhere” while being built, because funding did not exist to continue the road on the other side. 

Durango pays homage to its Wild West past in the everyday – wooden boardwalk upon which spurs would have once jangled, and saloons where a moustachioed bartender no doubt kept a scatter gun within reach under the counter. 

It seems entirely appropriate, then, to patronise a bar where the hard stuff is flowing and blue-grass band playing a medley of The Band’s hits.

The owner overhears our Aussie accents, and welcomes us with a round on the house. “What’ll it be?” he asks, to which my wife replies, “A glass of chardonnay, please.”

Mine host looks more than a little shocked and splutters, “Ah ma’am, ah do apologise – this is a beer and shot bar.” I’m half-expecting him to add, “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.”

Back on the road, and what a road – the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. Within the byway, the section from Silverton to Ouray is frequently called the Million Dollar Highway, which stretches for about 40km. 

But the Big Kahuna is the 19km passage through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass. Defined by steep cliffs, narrow roadway, hairpin turns and a lack of guardrail; it’s as challenging as it is ruggedly beautiful. Oh, for that SRT-8 now.

We push further north through Montrose, Cimarron, Crawford and on to Edwards before  winding up our 3200km road trip at Denver, just 176km along Highway 70.

Like Albuquerque, we get to enjoy the hospitality and friendship of family above and beyond all that this fine city of more than 580,000 has to offer. 

We socialise extensively (as you do), and take a guided tour through Coors brewery in Golden, the largest single-site brewery in the world.

Not a bad way to bring down the chequered flag on a sizeable drive through some of the most scenic yet less crowded countryside the US of A has to offer.

And the Charger? For a no-frills rental, from mountain high to desert floor it held its own pretty much everywhere. Even looked the part. Check out the gallery of images. 


2009 Dodge Charger V6

Price: $US23,895

Engine: 2.7-litre DOHC 24v V6

Power: 133kW @ 5500 rpm

Torque: 258Nm @ 4000 rpm

Transmission: 4-spd auto

Weight: 1716kg

Drive: Rear-wheel

0-100km/h: 9.6 secs


CHECKOUT: High five — five hours to drive five supercars

CHECKOUT: Lakeside Park: Laps Beside the Lake


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *