Route 66 :: June '97 -- October '97

Subject: The Grace of the Blue Swallow
Date: Fri, 19 Sep 1997 09:03:16 -0700

21:52 Mt. Road RV Park; Tucumcari, New Mexico :: 18 SEP 97

It was John's idea to stop in at the Blue Swallow Motel.

Back in Texas, in McLean's "Devil's Rope and Route 66 Museum", we'd seen a short video documenting the highway's history. Like most historical documentaries of 20th century events it combined archival footage with contemporary scenes, a narrator voiced commentary and all this was interspersed with and driven by interviews with people who'd lived through the events. One of these people was Lillian Redman, owner of the Blue Swallow Motel since it was given to her as an engagement gift in 1958. Even on the museum's diminutive, tin-speakered television she seemed a warm, pleasant person. John also noticed the Blue Swallow's location: Tucumcari, New Mexico. "We'ew be there in a cupl'a days. We should give her a visit. I bet she'ew be fuw of stories."

And now we're in Tucumcari, so we stopped in. Pulled the truck up in front, and walked through the office door. Bold, eh?

It's not my way, my usual approach. I prefer to sidle up to someone sideways before getting to the point. I have dinner at their cafe, or drop into their museum, start a conversation in a queue or a crowd or waiting for an elevator. Targeting someone for a chat, someone who doesn't know me from Adam, someone I've never met: I'm a little shy that way. But in we go.

Lillian Redmond is watching television, an evening news magazine. A story about bicycle seats causing male impotence will shortly be introduced and run right through our visit. But Lillian has already made her way to the reservation desk where John explains to her we're not looking for a room, rather we're Route 66 travelers who'd heard about the Blue Swallow and its owner and thought we'd like something more personal in our memories than a drive by the motel and perhaps a picture. This seems to please her; she smiles sweetly, signs her name to a couple Blue Swallow postcards and slides them to us across the reception desk. Meanwhile, John asks her about how long she's been here. "I got The Blue Swallow as an engagement gift in 1958." But John was after how long she's been in Tucumcari, which he tries to explain.

I'm scanning the room for its feel. I'm not making mental notes, so just a few hours from now when I collect the visit in words, I won't be able to describe much of anything about the room. But the lobby is warm, and lived in. It serves half as Lillian's living room, half as a lobby/reception. There's a fireplace where plastic logs burn electrically and, in my few-hours-old mental recollection, I won't be able to recall if it's an arm chair half-blocking the hearth or some other piece of furniture like a side table. The television I'll remember clearly only for its speaker which periodically inserts phrases like "penile artery" into the conversation I'm hearing with half an ear.

When I write down this experience, I won't be able to conjure an image of any paintings or wall coverings I'm seeing now, and only a few of the Route 66 memorabilia displayed on the souvenier shelf behind the reception desk, like the tumblers, shot glasses and mugs, will be available to memory.

"Oh," Lillian says when she catches John's meaning. She tells us she "came to New Mexico in a covered wagon, in 1916." I wonder aloud which trail that would have been, "the Santa Fe?" but she doesn't recall. "I suppose that's what you'd call it," she says. While Lillian's rummaging under the reception desk for her registry so we can sign it, I realize it's a stupid question. She just told John she came from a Texas town the name of which I'll shortly forget. I will always remember that this town she came from is well off the Santa Fe trail, as is Tucumcari. But somehow I'll get confused because the name "Clayton" will keep coming to mind and I won't be sure if that's the town she came from in Texas-which I won't be able to find on the AAA map-or the New Mexico town she wagoned into, which is on the AAA map and not far off the Cimmarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail.

I really should be taking mental notes of this. I'll start with the reception desk while I'm signing the registry which turns out to be a dishevelled unlined notepad, the binding broken and many leaves piled on top in a loose jumble. People have scribbled their names and addresses on these pages and as she rifles through them looking for a couple pages with space enough for an additional name, John reads off some of the countries: Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany. I see mostly US. She finds one sheet for each of us but there's only one pen, so while John's busy adding his identification...

I'll be taking stock of the desk like I promised myself. The desk is narrow and long and just high enough to lean an elbow on when you're standing. (Lillian looks through a few of the loose registry entries.) It has a thick plate of glass covering it. (She says, "When I retire, that'll be my project, to collect all these memories in a book.") Beneath the glass is a black cloth with lots of printing in silver. ("When are you going to retire?" I ask.) The spread registry pages cover the desk, and I can't make out what the printing says. ("As soon as I sell the Motel." Lillian's reply diverts my attention from the desk.)

I'm thinking to myself that losing the beautiful edifices we've built and cared for is sad. To see them laying in a foresaken pile of seems such a waste, such a terrible cruelty for beauty to endure. But the greater loss is the people that built them or cared for them, the kindnesses they offer, the smiling greeting for a road-weary traveler, the stories they lived once and bring alive again with every retelling. When these folks go, they take the building's personality with them. It takes years to redevelop that personality. I'll probably go off on a lengthy tangent when I write this down later.

John and I stopped in an Oklahoma cafe, one of those places mentioned in all the guides as a "Route 66 original"-born with the highway, it would eventually outlive it. But its personality died soon after the interstate by-passed 66-the longtime owners sold it to someone else. When we visited it, the people inside were pleasant and fun-the cook was an extraordinary character. And although he told stories, like when the gas ran out during a blizzard years ago and they used the fireplace to cook meals, they were second-hand accounts of a past life. The best stories we can tell are the ones we live through; the best story-tellers rely on their own experiences.

The Will Rogers Museum, also in Oklahoma, displayed a photo-essay of Route 66 compiled from the work of a University photography class. The collection included numerous striking images but one really hit home for both John and I. An old motel office shot from straight on in the bright sunshine. Beneath the neon sign to the right of the office door, a thin old woman in a lawn chair. The image seems rather ordinary until you read the accompanying blurb, which I paraphrase:

When her husband died many years ago she closed the motel to business but continues to hold vigil over it.
Drama. Closed to business, there is life in that building yet. There is someone's care and attention, and someone to tell its stories.

When John and I passed that motel the next day we looked for the old woman, sitting outside in the sun. She wasn't there. I would've stopped in, just to see if she was still there and to hear her tell us something about her motel (about herself), but in her place by the office door was not a lawn chair but a for sale sign. Fearing the worst and not wanting it confirmed, we drove on.

John's pointing to some of the writing on that black cloth under the reception desk glass. He's pointign to the name of a steak-house, apparently in Tucumcari. Earlier, after a couple passes down the main drag of Tucumcari vainly hoping for a restaurant to leap out with an invitation to "eat here", we postponed dinner to have this chat with her. "Is this a good place to eat?" John asks, still pointing at the top of the reception desk. She doesn't understand right away. Lillian's sharp as a tack, but her hearing is a little off. So John explains that we're looking for a good place to eat, and she understands. "Oh, no that's closed a couple years now." So he asks if there is a good place to eat that's still open and without any hesitation she recommends La Cita. I recognize the name, "Is that the place with the concrete sombrero on the roof?" And she tells me it is.

Of course, getting involved in the conversation brings me out of the mental reverie but also causes me to forget about mental notetaking and by the time I remember my attention's moved from the reception desk through a couple other things I'll quickly forget about and won't be able to describe later. But now John's asking about the 1998 Calendar on the chair. "These aren't for sale," Lillian says. She picks up a large-format hard cover book from the same chair, placing it on the reception desk. "People of the Prairie," the cover says. It looks like a picture book. Lillian's been fiddling to open it and with one of those magical flips the thing lays out turned to her page, the one with the picture of her in this very lobby. We all laugh in surprise, our eyes looking from one to the other finding the same appreciation for the remarkable perfection of the flip.

There's one full page of Lillian in her lobby, very wide angle shot in black and white. On the other leaf is a long bio built around some quotes from an interview. I'm scanning through this and finding mostly material repeated in other sources, like the postcard she's just given us. About the wagon to New Mexico; the 1958 engagement. At least, that's what I'll remember later.

Lillian points out the Blue Swallow t-shirt and, being a sucker for t-shirts, I add it to my collection. On the front is a photograph of the beautiful Blue Swallow neon sign. On the back? "Get your kicks on Route 66" What else?

We were there a bit longer, and found a few more things to say, but what's written here now is about all I'll remember from the encounter, except I'll add climbing back into the truck with that warm-fuzzy feeling of connection. I'll be glad for Lillian when she retires. But the road will miss her, and it will be a good many years before the new owner will be able to call the Blue Swallow their own.

Oh, I remember one more thing now, just as I'm typing this paragraph. Before we go Lillian reaches under the desk again, bringing out a couple of cards which she dates and signs. I'll use the text on the card for this entry's quote, just below. Unless the new owners live up to the greeting Lillian Redman offers to her guests and folks who just stop in out of the blue, the Blue Swallow Motel's next life will be a lesser incarnation.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~

Sept. 18 - 1997

Greetings traveler:

In ancient times, there was a prayer for "The Stranger Within our Gates." Because this motel is a human institution to serve people, and not solely a money-making organization, we hope that God will grant you peace and rest while you are under our roof.

May this room and motel be your "second" home. May those you love be near you in thoughts and dreams. Even though we may not get to know you, we hope that you will be as comfortable and happy as if you were in your own house.

May the business that brought you this way prosper. May every call you make and every message you receive add to your joy. When you leave, may your journey be safe.

We are all travelers. From "birth till death" we travel between the eternities. May these days be pleasant for you, profitable for society, helpful for those you meet, and a joy to those you know and love best.

Sincerely yours,

Lillian Redman
Blue Swallow Motel
Tucumcari, New Mexico