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Abo Pass Highway ­
New Mexico US 60

Nobody’s Mother Road

Always playing second fiddle to the Mother Road, US 60 got its start in New Mexico as part of the short-lived Ocean-to-Ocean Highway (O-to-O).

Organized in 1911 as a confederation of California, Arizona and New Mexico road boosters, the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Association pushed to build a cross-country road from Los Angeles to New York, using the old Santa Fe Trail as its backbone.

Unlike its nearest competitor, the National Old Trails Road (NOTR), the O-to-O entered New Mexico from the west on an old wagon road connecting Springerville to Socorro — a road some claim to have been blazed by Kit Carson in the 1840s.

Competition from the NOTR — and the fact that the O-to-O’s chief promoter, Col. Dell Potter, jumped ship to head the Southern National Highway Association — scaled back the project to only link Los Angeles to Yuma.

Abo Pass Highway

The origin of the Abo Pass Highway or Abo Highway is murky. Named after a Pueblo Indian trading route, the highway started in the mid-1910s as a way to link Clovis to Socorro.

By the mid-1920s, the highway had expanded east into Oklahoma and Kansas, promising a hard-surfaced link to civilization.

"All it takes to make a Christian or a believer out of a county commissioner or other road authority, is to take him on a trip through the east, where all the main roads are hard-surfaced, then bring him back to the dirt roads of Kansas and Oklahoma" (Abo Pass Highway meeting, June 12, 1922, Arkansas City, Kansas).

The Abo Pass Highway folded sometime in the mid-1930s, just as US 60 came on line as a trancontinental route joining Virginia Beach, VA to Los Angeles. Taking up the reigns, the US Highway 60 Association, Inc., of Bartlesville, OK, promoted the new numbered highway as an alternative to Route 66.

In the 1980s, individual states decommissioned long stretches of US 60, including several hundred miles between Lexington, VA and Evansville, IL, and its entire route across California. New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma are the only states in the Southwest where one can drive a continuous alignment of US 60 today.

The New Mexico stretch of US 60 and the Abo Pass Highway offers a diverse, sun-filled jaunt across the state's often-overlooked midsection. Part of the old named trail has been revived as the Abo Pass Trail Scenic Byway linking the Salinas Missions to Instate 25.

Routing

The 1924 Rand McNally Junior Auto Trail map depicts the Abo Pass Highway on an alignment that evolved later into US 70 (renumbered as US 60 in the mid 1930s).

Starting in the east at Clovis, the Abo Pass Highway clung closely to the AT&SF right-of-way. Current maps, however, show a relic section of the Abo Highway just to the north of US 60. Curry County Road 12 starts at the outskirts of Clovis and moves west on an unpaved road to Melrose. At Melrose the old highway continues west for several miles before swinging back to US 60. This is the only section we know of that still retains the highway’s name.

At Fort Sumner, the Abo diverted from current US 60, dipping south to follow the railroad and touching the now-abandoned communities of Agudo and Ricardo. Different also than today’s highway, the Abo Pass Highway spanned the Rio Grande near Socorro, approximately 25 miles south of its current Bernado crossing.

From Socorro to the Arizona line, US 60 closely shadows the alignment of the old named highway.

Despite recent efforts to promote US 60 as the Ocean-to-Ocean national historic highway, no part of US 60 east of Socorro aligns with the earlier named highway.

Section 1: Clovis to Encino

Clovis, the former cow town currently powered by Cannon Air Force Base, is the eastern terminus of the Abo Pass Highway. OST pathfinder Harry Locke, who mapped part of the Abo Pass Highway in the late teens, instructed drivers to reset their odometers in front of the Lyceum Theatre on Main Street. Opened in 1921, the Boller Brothers-designed theater hosted the likes of John Phillip Sousa, Tom Mix and Shirley Temple in its heyday, and showed its first talking picture, “Chinatown Nights,” in 1929. Shuttered in 1974, the City of Clovis purchased the venue in 1982 and restored it as a performing arts center. For an informal tour of the old theater, inquire next door at the Lyceum Barber Shop. Sutton’s Bakery at 515 Main offers an old-time bakery experience. Beyond its Streamline facade are glass cases displaying rows of tiny tea cookies, boldly colored in bright blues, greens and reds.

The Abo continues north on Main Street, hanging a left (west) on Seventh, a busy commercial corridor and pilgrimage path to one of the great shrines of rock and roll. Several blocks down an image of a sly fox greets motorists, announcing the Foxy Drive-In, a Clovis institution since the late 1950s. Legend has it that Buddy Holly and the Crickets stopped here for burgers and Cokes before heading down the street to Norman Petty’s studio. The landmark drive-in still offers outside curb service, while indoors customers shout their orders into tableside phones. Though not exactly 1950’s prices, a hamburger will set you back only $2.35; a shake, $1.80.

Several blocks to the west is the famous NorVaJak studios. The brainchild of recording innovator Norman Petty, NorVaJak studios opened in 1953 on the site of a grocery store and gas station owned by his uncle. Petty scored his first hit here in 1956, recording “Mood Indigo”. His innovative recording techniques — especially-close vocal miking and slap-back reverb — would soon define Buddy Holly’s style.

Petty set the dials for numerous early rock acts, including Buddy Knox, Roy Orbison and the Fireballs, and with the 1956 recording of “Peggy Sue,” Petty shaped both the sound and career of the young Holly. The studio, which features original recording equipment and rare acetates of Holly’s demos, is open for tour. Kenneth Broad, a former pastor who met Petty when he installed a PA in his church, leads the tours, and has been known to revive the occasional UK fan who faints upon hearing the demos. The ambience of the studio and the adjacent apartment is much like it must have been in the late 1950s, down to the table lamps and the fabric of hideaway couch where Buddy often took naps between recordings.

Seventh Street continues for several blocks through Clovis’ west side, eventually linking up with current US 60. From here to Fort Sumner, the highway moves over a newer alignment. Carrying both US 60 and US 84, it is an important truck route linking Lubbock, Texas to Interstate 40 at Santa Rosa. Buckled asphalt just south of the highway is evidence of old US 60.

West of Clovis the highway opens to wide-vista country. Melrose, a grain elevator town, is reminiscent of countless railroad company-designed “T-plan” communities across the Southern Plains. A tall concrete grain elevator sits adjacent to the tracks, while a single commercial strip runs at a right angle to the north. A water tower, a row of steel grain bins and the dusty hot air complete the picture. Beyond Melrose is one of Bowlins’ vintage “Runnin’ Indians” guarding a long-abandoned gas station. (Update: the Indian figure has been removed, April 2006).

In Taiban, watch for the faded-white, wood-frame church north of the highway. Looking like a set piece from Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, the spire-less church is one of the few reminders of once-prosperous Taiban. Now reduced to only a post office, Taiban originally went by the name of Brazil Springs, after a Portuguese immigrant who settled there in 1871. In 1922 Taiban had 300 souls, including H.B. Blackman, owner of the Abo Garage — one of the few businesses named after the highway.

Near La Lande, current US 60 soars over the railroad on a modern overpass. Exit just before the overpass and continue due west to experience a short segment of early US 60.

Fort Sumner is Billy’s town — Billy the Kid, a.k.a. William Bonney. Whether or not he is actually buried here, the Kid’s name is everywhere: Billy the Kid Diamond Shamrock gas station; Billy the Kid Country Inn; Billy the Kid Museum; Billy the Kid Road; and an annual Billy the Kid marathon.

Billy in fact lived — and died — in Fort Sumner. His end came on July 14, 1881, at the hand of Sheriff Pat Garrett.

The Billy the Kid legend has fueled Fort Sumner’s economy since the 1940s. But recently Fort Sumner's story has come under scrutiny as several other places also claim to have Billy's bones. In 2004, the De Baca and Lincoln county sheriffs jointly filed a petition in New Mexico's 10th District Court to exhume the body in the grave in Fort Sumner to bring scientific advances to settle the question once and for all. While many historians believe Billy was indeed buried here, a number of characters, including “Brushy Bill" Roberts of Texas and John Miller of Arizona, each went to their graves claiming that they were the "real" Kid. In an attempt to solve the 123-year-old mystery, the sheriffs planned to exhume Billy’s mother buried in Silver City to match her DNA with the body under the Fort Sumner tombstone. Predictably Fort Sumner Mayor Ray Lopez and the Chamber of Commerce protested, fearing the wrong findings would drain the town’s economy. In response, the Chamber established a fund to keep Billy’s remains in the ground. The sheriffs' case was eventually withdrawn.

Fort Sumner is also the site of the Bosque Redondo Reservation, a concentration camp that Kit Carson used to remove 600 Apaches and 7,000 Navajos from their ancestral lands. Known as the “Long Walk,” the tragic event is commemorated in the recently opened Bosque Redondo Memorial.

West of Fort Sumner the highway narrows again to its original two lanes. After crossing the Pecos River, US 60 climbs out of the Pecos Valley onto a high plateau, reaching an elevation of 5,000 feet. The 57 miles between Fort Sumner and Vaughn are true “High Lonesome” country. Only one community, Yeso, population 39, straddles the highway between the two towns. At Yeso, Spanish for gypsum, are the photogenic remains of the Mesa Hotel (a former grocery and upstairs hotel), the shell of the Super Service station and the stone foundations and adobe walls of another dozen or so buildings.

Vaughn is a crossroads town (US 54 & US 60) that’s seen better days. Starting as a stop along the Stinson Cattle Trail, the town boomed when the El Paso & Rock Island and AT&SF intersected here. The main drag is lined with old motels, gas stations and restaurants — most dead closed — from the 1940s and ‘50s. Look for the classic Yucca and Sands motel signs. The shiny silver diner south of the highway is new and the only reliable restaurant in town. The two-story, Mission Revival-style depot north of the highway is all that remains of a vast rail yard that once included a Harvey House.

US 60 continues west on the modern four-lane US 285 — the so-called Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) highway. No evidence of the old Abo Pass Highway remains. After Encino, a beat-up town deriving its only sustenance from US 285, the highway returns to two lanes, offering one of the most authentic alignments of old US 60 in New Mexico. Stumbling across low hills and over salty playas, the relic highway snakes its way toward its namesake — the Abo Pass.

Section 2: Encino to Socorro (coming soon)

Section 3: Socorro to Datil (coming soon)