He’s been there for 50 years, but he’s just not walking yet. Clyde the Camel has been a feature on the Motel Safari sign in Tucumcari since 1962, added just three years after the motel opened. Since some of the camels that had been used by pre-Civil War military surveyors in the area had been set free when their mission ended, a camel seemed an appropriate image.
Current owners Richard and Gail Talley have had the Motel Safari for five years, and they’ve been hard at work bringing it up to the standards of its heyday. Eleven rooms are ready for visitors who swoosh by on classic Route 66. Some rooms even feature the original mid-century furniture with which they were equipped.
Clyde’s sign, Richard explained, was backlit plastic and over the years had taken a beating from the high winds that sweep through the area seasonally. The couple has been gradually reworking the sign, and ultimately plans to give Clyde the alternating illumination of neon legs that will let him “walk.” Just don’t hold them to a timeline.
“The rooms come first, because you can’t sleep on a sign,” is the way Richard puts it.
Tucumcari is a town of 5,300 souls midway between Amarillo, Texas, and Albuquerque, N.M. The Talley’s classic American roadside motel is beside the most iconic American road of all, Route 66, which ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. Interstate 40 passes nearby, and other major routes intersect. It’s a crossroads in a sparsely populated area, and hardly a place you’d think of as a hub of international tourism – but you would be wrong.
“Route 66 has a global following,” Richard said. From Memorial Day through October, he describes it as “crazy busy” at Motel Safari. Ninety percent stems from reservations, and 70 percent of that comes from from overseas. The largest single nationality would be the United Kingdom, followed by Norway and Australia, but countries all over Europe are represented, he said.
“When they think of Route 66, they think of the very first motels, hot rods, blue jeans, Americana and man, are they into the cars! Typically they’ll fly into Chicago, rent something like a Mustang convertible, and drive to L.A. They come from cold, crowded places and they love our sun and the open road,” Richard said of his international visitors. “They get out here and there’s the great expanse of the Southwest and it’s hot and dry and they love it.”
Some international visitors book the Safari Motel based on its website (www.themotelsafari.com ), but the motel also has relationships with several tour booking agencies overseas.
The Talleys cherish being able to interact with each guest and relax with them on the patio underneath the sign patrolled by Clyde the Camel, watching America pass by on Route 66 in the form of cruising teenagers and painstakingly restored vintage cars. That’s why they haven’t been in a hurry to get the motel back up to its previous total of 22 to 23 rooms.
“It is supposed to be retirement, and we’re more focused on enjoying our guests. Eleven to 14 rooms is a great size to still be able to deal with just about every single guest that comes in on an individual basis,” Richard said.