DRIVING WEST, I take the first exit to New Mexico, but it’s hard to say why from surveying the horizon: desert scrub, sun-baked and hunkered close to the ground, casts afternoon shadows across an unwelcoming landscape. The road is a ribbon of asphalt dividing the land into two infinite halves, so hot that it sucks rubber off of tires and wavers in the distance. Cars don’t pass through Glenrio so much as bolt past the town’s crumbling bones, but I ease off the gas and coast my ‘94 Sentra onto the gravel shoulder. My friend Pfeifer and I had been forced onto the interstate for a stretch west of Adrian, Texas, where the four-lane has been built atop The Great Diagonal Way, better known as Route 66. It had been one of the first points we’d reached where the old highway was completely gone, and we were eager to return to our subject.
The motivation for my three-week drive down Route 66 is inglorious in hindsight. My travel writing class at the University of Nebraska required a physical journey for the subject of my final project. But I had visions of a buddy road-trip literary comedy and sought to conquer something both historic in legacy and primed for rediscovery—ingredients key to the travel memoir I was hell-bent on writing. Route 66 fit the bill. In my research leading up to the trip, I was drawn to the places that had changed the most drastically over the years, the forgotten outposts surviving only as the crumbled cornerstones of what they once were. Ghost towns have always been a fascination of mine, more visceral than a museum and still part of a landscape. Route 66 was littered with these towns, particularly as the road entered the southwestern United States, and Glenrio, which straddles the Texas-New Mexico line, was the first one we would visit.
Glenrio was founded in 1903 as a short siding for the Rock Island Railroad line. The rail’s nourishing power was later dwarfed by Route 66, which was commissioned in 1926; the highway was designed to snake its way west across existing stretches of road with government funding filling the gaps. Its original alignment through Glenrio followed a gravel path—still unpaved—that paralleled the railroad on its way west, and it was during the prosperous life of that alignment that Glenrio served as a filming location for The Grapes of Wrath. In 1952, the road moved north onto a paved route that now frontages Interstate 40. Each advancement was considered progress, and in conventional ways it was. But each step forward wore away at the town’s relevance, pulling traffic farther from the town and at ever-increasing speeds. Once a timely stop for fuel, food, and a good night’s rest, Glenrio’s current value is as forensic evidence, largely untouched, documenting the end of a small frontier town.
I was squeezing the trip in before the start of fall classes. Pfeifer and I spent only one night in a rented room, alternating otherwise between cars, tents, staying with friends and, more often, complete strangers, but the trip would still drain my bank account by the time we returned home. At the time, this seemed like an investment: I was 21, swollen with arrogance and eager to gamble on myself. Money spent on the trip would be recovered and then multiplied as I spun words into dollars and realized my potential as a published and purchased author. After a summer full of writing, Route 66 was meant to be a capstone, and, with great delusion, the focal point of my literary masterpiece.
There are several primary factors that motivate an individual to travel; becoming a travel writer is not one of them. I saw traveling as a way to facilitate my writing career, and vice versa. Each indulgence could be used to justify the other. It makes perfect sense in the context of who I was at the time. Externally, I sought adventure at any expense. Internally, I was so afraid of failure—of being average—that I had to believe success was imminent. My world, that summer, had been infiltrated with visions of people who were resigning themselves to more modest pursuits after their dreams had drifted out of reach. I thought the only way to avoid a similar fate was to make a mad dash for the things I wanted to do with my life. But I was desperate not to do it alone—I can now admit I wouldn’t have left home without a companion—and so I bribed Pfeifer, an eternal wanderlust and the cheapest person you’ll ever meet, to accompany me by offering to pay for all the gas. Pfeifer is the type who orders nothing at dinner with plans to clean up everyone’s scraps at the end. Offered a free ride across 7,000 miles, he quickly said yes. Financially reckless as it was, I believed I’d make it back.
This was 2007. Earlier that year, Glenrio had been added to the National Register of Historic Places. As to the point of our visit, no obvious preservation had occurred and I was glad for it. Our anticipation on this trip hadn’t been for memorial signs or homage to boom-time prosperity. We were hunting ghosts, the rotted corpses of the road, the places that had wilted when the river was diverted. I wanted to stand on the foundations of places that once held promise, to encounter these relics and make something out of them, something new. To save them. The town’s remains echoed with failure. Living in constant fear of that sensation, I was fascinated by how it might feel. In Glenrio the buildings are intact enough that you can place yourself where workers once stood, with little strain you can envision how the rooms once looked when Glenrio was a town on the rise and its people expected to spend their lives cultivating this desert garden. Such preserved abandonment isn’t as prevalent out east. But the western half of Route 66 is lonely for occupants and easily forgotten.
Rolling into Glenrio, five days into our trip, it feels as though the heart of our travels, the dusting off of an abandoned America, is just beginning. The Road is better preserved, more relevant in Illinois—there the oldest segments parallel newer, trafficked iterations linking towns dotting a line between Chicago and St. Louis—but by New Mexico it has morphed into the rugged, trail-blazing road of America’s memory. It’s been 40 years since Interstate 40 opened on New Mexico’s eastern edge, bypassing Glenrio and other fledgling communities on Route 66. Since then, tourists and looters, and some who were both, have done surprisingly little to the outsides of the buildings. I bring the car just beyond Texas and stop in front of the post office, one of the last establishments to operate in Glenrio. Since its closure more than two decades ago, the local mail is now handled by a single community mail box. The building’s front door is locked, but a rock thrown through its glass paneling has made a fist-sized hole and cracked the lower half into large shards; I carefully remove them and lean the pieces against the building. Then we duck and go inside.
David Byrne suggests in Bicycle Diaries that the architecture of rural western buildings like Glenrio’s post office—unremarkable rectangular boxes of concrete brick, absent of any aesthetic value—is the product of “frontier Puritan fundamentalism” and “economic pragmatism.” I buy the latter more than the former, but the belly of the post office suggests a more credible influence. Despite a full sun and August heat, the building’s interior is comfortable, almost cool. Slender horizontal windows are shaded by wood plank overhangs, indirect light casting an eerie yellow glow on the entryway. I follow a streak of white up the far wall to a bird’s nest tucked into a high corner. In every direction, bird waste has trickled and dried like runny plaster below every accommodating stoop, including from the edge of a sheet of plywood propped over the attendant window.
I remain wary of the ground as we move over debris and into the back room, expecting startled wildlife. I pull out my camera and turn about the room: scattered papers yellowed by age and wrinkled by water, the ceiling coming down in coin-sized bits. Despite this decay, the mail room looks as if its workers left for lunch and never returned. Yesterday’s work lays open on tables, postponed to tomorrow; deposit records booklets fill a metal tray, warped and writhing like snakes in a pit. Corrugated packaging torn open and forgotten, like shed skin. Face-up on the floor is a dirt-covered book, Personal Power: How to Create a Compelling Future.
Somewhere on my walk around Glenrio’s ruins, I find the inspiration for my journal entry’s most illuminating observation: “Yuccas and cactus, and saw a small lizard.” This note, written sometime after resuming the drive west, was not just the inane commentary of an aspiring travel writer. Nearly six years later it reminds me of everything I missed along the way. I’ve forgotten a great deal; my sensory memories, those that would fade and can’t be captured by a camera, are mostly gone. My attention was on all the wrong things, not the least the vanity of our story as it might be translated into text. This preoccupation had been corrupting our experience from the very first night, when we had failed to find an open campground or cheap motel in central Illinois. Exhausted and desperate, we climbed onto the roof of a closed-down hot dog stand and unrolled our sleeping bags. Three hours later we climbed back down, covered in bug bites and deprived of sleep. I consoled myself with the expectation that this complication was perfect for our story. But I was ruining the story as it unfolded, a clear sign that I wasn’t the person I insisted on being. My preoccupation distanced me from the torment of that sleepless night. In failing to live fully in the moments as they came, I’m unable to relive and relay the true experience.
So it was in Glenrio. I remember that animal odors lingered in buildings and that dust latched onto my skin, but I can’t recall what either smelled or felt like. Some would argue that these character details are unimportant, that the ugly decay of a frontier ghost town is not a memory to be stored but a blemish to be covered, replaced by more optimistic recollections. Why dig up the bodies of the dead? Why pull back the curtain on opportunity lost? The buildings, after all, are only the skeleton of the town in its prime, when Glenrio was an encampment along America’s path to Manifest Destiny.
Decay is more abundant outside the Glenrio post office. As we step into the wide-open lobby of the First/Last Motel and its adjoining cafe, we can’t sidestep the carpet of M&M-sized droppings. Built in 1953 as the State Line Cafe and Gas Station, the business was later expanded to include the Texas Longhorn Motel, all parts operated by Homer Ehresman and his family. To better entice traffic off the road, Homer erected a sign proclaiming his motel to be either the first or last in Texas, depending on your direction of travel. Fragments of the sign convey what it was, but the message now reads “Fi in Texas.”
We step carefully through the building, which is accessible from all directions through open doors and obliterated windows. As in the post office, the ceiling is slowly coming down. But where the mail room was well-preserved, the motel lobby and its adjoining rooms have been thoroughly gutted and trashed. Blue-green paint and wood paneling still cling to the walls, but only the cafe’s faux-leather booths, anchored beneath an intact window, are in good condition—and only those that aren’t altogether missing. The tables once dividing these booths are long gone, and one corner of the main room has become a repository for unexplained refuse worthy of a dumpster.
The disfigurement of the First/Last Motel was demoralizing; I’d expected a time capsule and found a heap of garbage. Time had pummeled the building’s distinctive qualities to dust, the natural elements more cost-effective, if a little slower, than a proper demolition. Pfeifer and I took our time wandering around the motel lobby snapping photos and wondering what had happened. Where were the animals that had caked the floor in excrement? How had so much trash come to fill a corner of the room several feet high? We were standing in a nuclear wasteland but, like any radiated zone, life hadn’t disappeared, it had simply changed form. Not entirely dead, the ghost town sizzled with stillness. I could have pressed harder to find answers to my questions—should have, if I were what I was pretending to be—but confronted with these unexpected variables, I felt an itch to continue on down the road. I took pictures of Pfeifer taking pictures, putting more distance between myself and Glenrio.
In the end, Glenrio was just too small to stand a chance. The optimism of its youth, when Route 66 seemed like the pinnacle of westward achievement and not merely the stepping stone to a much broader brush stroke, faded to black as the Interstate was slowly built section by section. It had limited amenities and few persuasions to divert drivers from their course to larger San Jon. By the late 1970s, New Mexico’s easternmost stretch of I-40 was one of the last segments awaiting completion. Route 66 at Glenrio had become a deathtrap: four-lane Interstate traffic from Texas was being funneled onto the two-lane alignment where a rash of fatal accidents had earned it the nicknames “Bloody 66” and “Slaughter Lane.” Government officials demanded the Interstate’s completion, but with a caveat: that the federal plan to run the alignment 10 miles north of San Jon be amended to brush it against the town’s outer edge. Had this demand been denied, San Jon would have been crippled, too far from the highway to profit from its traffic. Glenrio, meanwhile, might have survived as the lone oasis on a 60-mile stretch between Adrian, Texas and Tucumcari, New Mexico. But San Jon won, and Glenrio dried up.
The road through Glenrio is now termed a “business loop,” and it fulfills this role just as a walkway lined with empty shelves is called a shopping aisle. The First/Last Motel in Texas was shuttered in 1976. The tracks of the bankrupted Rock Island Railroad were pulled from the ground in the early 1980s, just before the post office closed. In June 1985, Route 66 was formally decommissioned from the United States Highway System. None of its businesses lived to see the day.
We had a schedule—much too tight, too restrictive for our adventure to organically unfold, but Fall classes were starting and we had built an extensive itinerary—and between us and the western sun was the specter of promise—a mirage, maybe; it all looks the same from a distance—floating out ahead, just as it once had for this town. Glenrio, like every other outpost of Route 66’s past, shared with those passing through it the pursuit for more. I was impatient and hungry and I yearned to be complete, a whole creation, not some work-in-progress with an undetermined future. Glenrio is well-acquainted with people determined to make the life they want. All of us sought something, were chasing something that might be there or might not. It doesn’t always mean failure, but there’s a lot of ground between that and success. Sometimes you can’t know until you drive the distance yourself. And sometimes you drive, and when you get there, you wonder what, exactly, you were hoping to find.
Back in the car, Pfeifer takes his turn behind the wheel. We drive on toward Santa Fe down a red clay road that’s seen Route 66’s birth and death. I hold my notebook in my hands and rack my brain for the details worth recording, clueless as to what matters. Even in this moment the memories trail off in our cloud of dust. We pass through Endee, Glenrio’s smaller neighbor, now equally vacant. I turn my head for one last look: a square tan building pans across the window to reveal a wall promoting, in bold black letters, “MODERN RESTROOMS.” Once, of course. But that was a long time ago.
Jonathan Crowl‘s work has previously appeared in Foundling Review. He lives in Boise, Idaho, and can be found online at jonathancrowl.com.