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Story and photos by Karen Boehler

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A New Mexico co-op leader is working to make Highway 60 a national historic highway. Click here to learn more here.

Route 66 is renowned in story and song as the nation's premier historical highway -- a road that helped Americans follow their dreams across the country.

But Route 66 only ran from Chicago to Los Angeles, 2,400 miles. The truly intercontinental highway is another road -- U.S. Highway 60, the Coast-to-Coast Highway.

Almost 100 years after it was built, the Coast-to-Coast Highway still runs from Virginia Beach, Virginia to Santa Monica, California, most of its length following two-lane, blue highways through small and smaller communities.

It traverses New Mexico from east to west, across 398 miles of plains, valleys and mountain passes, through communities like Clovis and Socorro and towns that could fit in a football field.

"If I were traveling across the country it's one of the routes I would choose because it's such a beautiful road," says Jerry Armstrong, the owner of J&Y Auto Services in Quemado. "Lots of little towns with people who are interested in seeing somebody drive up. We have time for people. They don't have time in the cities."

Melrose SignAnd cities -- big ones, anyway -- are in short supply along U.S. 60.

Clovis, with around 33,000 residents, is the highway's largest city in New Mexico. Socorro, along the Rio Grande, has 8,700 residents. The remaining towns range in size from just over 1,200 to ghost towns with populations of two or three.

But those small sizes mean the towns along U.S. 60 offer choices hard to find in bigger cities. Instead of fast-food restaurants and chain motels, visitors can eat at mom and pop restaurants and bed down in home-town hotels and motels.

If I were traveling across the country it's one of the routes I would choose because it's such a beautiful road. Lots of little towns with people who are interested in seeing somebody drive up. We have time for people. They don't have time in the cities.

-Jerry Armstrong, Quemado

That, Armstrong says, is a plus.

"A lot of the restaurants have a nice ambiance and they're inexpensive and pretty good food. Most of the time you can just sit down and have a good visit with people you don't have any idea who they are."

That ambiance is nothing new for the towns along Route 60, which, until Route 66 and Interstate 40 cut into its business, was the road to take across New Mexico and much of the United States.

A 1918 map shows U.S. 60 -- labeled the 'Ocean to Ocean Highway' -- following almost the exact same route it does today, while Route 66 jogged north at Santa Rosa, almost reaching Las Vegas before turning south towards Santa Fe and Albuquerque to resume its westward course.

That meant Route 60 was the most direct road across the state, and the towns along the road flourished, providing tourists with places to eat, stay and repair their vehicles.

"If you go through Willard, Mountainair, Magdalena, Datil, Pie Town, they look like they did 50 years ago, except the service stations are closed up," says Don Sweet, one of the owners of the Billy the Kid Museum in Fort Sumner. "They just closed them up and left. When (Route) 66 became I-40 and was four-laned, that killed this highway here. It really did."

Life Begins Where the Interstate Ends

But while many businesses did close their doors, most of the small towns along the route survived. Today, they offer the chance to get off the beaten path and to explore little-known history.

"There are a lot of interesting things along 60 that you don't see when you take the Interstate," says Janice Hamilton, the Southern Region Coordinator for New Mexico's Department of Tourism.

Highway"It's kind of been off-the-beaten-path, one of the less-traveled highways that people select either to take a shortcut to their destination or because they're looking for something, particularly since the Interstate went in, that's a little more laid back and quiet and just a way to get across on a less-traveled highway," says Dorothy Cole of Mountainair, the town's unofficial historian.

From border to border, U.S. 60 offers not only a chance to glimpse history, but to check out the lifestyles of rural New Mexico, unusual geology, high-tech scientific advances and scenic beauty.

Highway 60 enters New Mexico on the east where Farwell, Texas, and Texico, New Mexico, form the states' borders. Although four lane, it's an inauspicious start for a road that will offer so much more.

After passing a Texas tobacco store and New Mexico businesses and residences, you have to look closely for a sign that shows U.S. 60 turning right, through downtown Texico.

Two miles further, the Texico Visitor Information Center (one of only two New Mexico centers not on an Interstate), offers travelers a place to stop for New Mexico information or find out more about the road they'll be traveling.

From Texico to Clovis, Highway 60 divides fertile farm fields filled with alfalfa, wheat, grain sorghum and corn. Dairy and beef cattle can be seen along the highway, as cows top the list of income makers for the area.

Once U.S. 60 passes through downtown Clovis and past Cannon Air Force base, it becomes a two-lane road travelling through the wide open llano estacado for the 60 miles to Fort Sumner. Melrose Taiban, St. Vrain and Tolar break up the long stretches that feature cattle, windmills, power lines and the occasional ranch house.

Train Along Highway 60Riding the Rails, Billy the Kid and the Infamous Long Walk

Along that stretch, and indeed, all along the eastern half of U.S. 60, railroad tracks parallel the road, offering another tourist attraction.

It's off-the-beaten-path, one of the less-traveled highways that people select to take a shortcut or because they're looking for something, particularly since the Interstate went in, that's a little more laid back and quiet.

-- Dorothy Cole, Mountainair

"This is a really heavily-traveled area for trains," says Bruce Reed, a tourist counselor at Texico's visitor center. "It's one of the busiest [railroad] areas in the United States, I believe. And it's something to see as you're riding along."

"We have a lot of people who come to follow the trains," adds Bette Gentry, Reed's counterpart. "'Riding the rails,' you might say."

Billy the Kid TombstoneFort Sumner has one of the best-known attractions along the road: Billy the Kid's grave. But Fort Sumner is also home to Fort Sumner State Monument and the soon-to-open Bosque Redondo Memorial, which Hamilton calls "kind of a lost story on this route, and it's very, very interesting."

The monument features history exhibits and a living history program centered around the frontier soldiers, while the memorial focuses on the Long Walk, in which Navajos were force-marched from Gallup to the fort, as well as the forced relocation of Mescalero Apaches. In town, the Billy the Kid Museum combines artifacts from the Kid's life, with antique cars from Highway 60's heyday.

Although now off the llano estacado, the 55 miles between Fort Sumner and Vaughn bisects more open rangeland as the narrow, shoulderless two-lane stretches rifle-straight toward the horizon.

Vaughn Railroad StatinoExcept for a short stint on I-25, the stretch of U.S. 60 between Vaughn and Encino is the busiest, upgraded to four lane with 18-wheelers buzzing along the highway.

But west of Encino, the road reverts to two-lane as it heads to Willard -- once the largest community in the area -- and the salt lakes.

The Only Elevator in Torrance County
and a Monument to the People of the Salt Lakes

After cresting a rise in the road, several salt lakes appear in the distance, quite a surprise to the casual tourist not expecting the unique geological features. A historical marker at the first of the lakes outlines their history.

Salt LakesMountainair, the next town, is restoring many of the facilities that existed during Highway 60's heyday. The Shaffer Hotel, built in 1923 and a registered cultural property, is being remodeled and is scheduled to open for business later this year. The two-story building features the only elevator in all of Torrance County.

"[We're] one of the few small towns that I know of in this state that has an actually defined downtown with all the buildings connected together," Cole says. "They sort of reflect the pueblo deco architecture. ... It's small, but there are two blocks where all the stores are connected together. You come out of the drug store and into the bank, and out of the bank into another one."

The stores feature original hardwood floors and stamped tin ceilings. Cole recommends visiting at least the drug store, which has a full soda fountain, and the hardware store, which is "also more of less a museum. There's a lot of collectibles in there for people to look at. And it's been a functioning hardware since it opened in the early 1900's."

Mountainair is also the headquarters of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. Named for the Native American merchant villagers who traded at the nearby salt lakes, the Salinas Monument has three distinct pueblo areas -- Quarai, Abo, and Gran Quivira -- noted for their 17th century Franciscan mission churches.

One of the finest stretches along the road travels through Abo Pass, twisting gently through the southern boundary of the Manzano Mountains before joining Interstate 25 at Bernardo. And although U.S. 60 then follows the Interstate for 25 miles, the route has its charms as it parallels the Rio Grande past several small communities and Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge.

At the first Socorro exit, U.S. 60 becomes the town's main street before turning west to climb through the Chupadero and Magdalena Mountains toward the Arizona border. The towns and villages it passes through while headed for the Arizona border are gateways to national forests and recreation areas.

Evetts in MountainairCattle Drives and Radiotelescopes

Magdalena bills itself as "jumping off point to the most remote region in the Land of Enchantment." Besides offering access to the Cibola National Forest, the high-country town is a gateway to ghost towns, the Alamo Indian reservation and a growing arts community with artists, crafts people, writers and musicians. Magdalena even boasts a community theater.

Historically, it's also the terminus for the Magdalena Stock Driveway, an historic cattle trail that ranks in importance with the Chisum and Goodnight-Loving trails. Even as U.S. 60 was going from gravel to pavement, and seeing cars compete with horses, area ranchers still drove their cattle along the route.

But one of the biggest surprises along U.S. 60 comes just west of Magdalena. As the road crests the Magdalena Mountains amid the pinon and juniper forest, the Plains of San Augustine and the Very Large Array come into view. An astounding scientific wonder, the VLA is a collection of 29 large dish antennas in a Y-shaped configuration.

For the unaware traveler, the dishes might seem like something transplanted from outer space onto the barren landscape, but is most assuredly a human endeavor.

Featured in the film "Contact," the facility is operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to gather the world's most detailed radiophotographs of the cosmos.

Continental DIvide on Hwy 60Datil is the next town along U.S. 60, a former watering hole along the Magdalena Stock Driveway that today features a fine BLM-operated campground. U.S. 60 then climbs to its highest point just east of Pie Town, where it crosses the Continental Divide at 7,796 feet.

Pie Town lives up to its name, offering one or more restaurants that feature homemade pies, and a yearly pie festival.

Just 33 miles from the Arizona border, Quemado is a four-way intersection into some of the most remote outdoor regions of the state.

Counting Down to Arizona

"A lot of this country's still pretty open," Armstrong said. "You can get on a road and go tooling around and nobody's going to run you off, get upset or anything. They'll let you travel around."

And traveling is all that's left to do on the remaining miles of U.S. 60 in New Mexico.

The road twists and sweeps while the mile markers count down to zero, with Red Hill, another wide spot in the road, the only remaining vestige of civilization.

"The most lonesome road in New Mexico, but the most interesting," is what Carl Turner, NMRECA's founding executive director, calls the historic highway. If he has his way, more people will get to appreciate this historic highway.

Mile Marker Zero

U.S. Highway 60:
A National Historic Highway?

The historic significance of U.S. 60 has supporters across the country working to gain national recognition for the Ocean to Ocean Highway.

The latest push started in New Mexico with Carl Turner, founding executive director of the New Mexico Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

"This has been bugging me for 54 years," Turner says of the highway's lack of support. "Highway 60 in New Mexico has always intrigued me."

Turner's family history goes back to Virginia, where Route 60 begins its westward journey. In his younger days, the now-84-year-old worked at the Ocean to Ocean Garage in Socorro and he served as a legislator for Socorro and Catron counties, which are crossed by U.S. Highway 60.

So, three years ago, he asked Rep. Don Tripp, who now fills the seat Turner held so many years ago, for help.

In 2003, Tripp introduced House Joint Memorial 7, which asked the state Office of Cultural Affairs to nominate U.S. Highway 60 to the state register of cultural properties and national register of historic places.

"The most lonesome road in New Mexico, but the most interesting," is what Carl Turner, NMRECA's founding executive director, calls the historic highway. If he has his way, more people will get to appreciate this historic highway.

In 2004, Tripp cosponsored a second memorial with Representatives Rhonda King and Jose Campos, asking for national legislation to designate U.S. Highway 60 as a national historic highway.

After passing both memorials with no dissent, highway supporters are lobbying Senators Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici and Representatives Heather Wilson, Tom Udall and Steve Pearce to support the proposal.

But while they lobby the legislators, they're taking other actions as well.

In New Mexico, Tripp and Turner have asked communities large and small to pass resolutions supporting historical designation, and they've gotten support across the board.

Which isn't surprising, as residents along the route seem uniformly enthusiastic.

"Let's make this a scenic byway, like they did to Route 66 and help some small towns that have gone down the drain because of the Interstate," says Tim Sweet, of Fort Sumner, co-owner of the Billy the Kid Museum on U.S. Highway 60.

"We'd be interested in having any sort of progress along roads that might help for scenic byway designation," agrees Scott Smith, monument manager of Fort Sumner State Monument.

But Turner isn't stopping with New Mexico.

He's contacting every chamber of commerce he can locate along the route, from California to Virginia, asking for their support.

"The idea is to get them to request from their legislatures, in their states, the same thing we've done," Tripp said. "So, if we can get that done, then we're in position to have it declared a national highway."

And who knows, maybe someday people will be singing about Willard, Datil and Route 60 the same way they sing about Gallup, Winona and Route 66. U.S. Highway 60:

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