According to the web site, it’s in Glenrio, although when I tagged the photos my GPS clearly indicated Bard. It’s Exit 369, in any event, and if you’re driving east to west or west to east between New Mexico and Texas, it’s a good place to stop, because Exit 369 is where you’ll find the 45,000 square foot Russell’s Truck & Travel Center, home of a vintage car museum that is, among other things, free. Also the bathrooms are clean.
It is worth noting that Glenrio, New Mexico is approximately 800 miles directly due south of Wall, South Dakota, where Wall Drug is located, just a small jump off I-90, that long stretch of interstate flanked by endless corn fields leading, eventually, to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore and then to big sky country.
The I-40 stretch isn’t entirely different, flanked by endless fields of windmills leading, eventually, to Tucumcari, gateway to the Land of Enchantment. I suppose the similarities would also include souvenirs, aisles of snacks and what-nots, restaurant, chapel and museum, one featuring Western art and dinosaur statues, the other featuring cars.
If we’ve been together a while, then you may find it surprising that I would stop, willingly, at a car museum because cars are not really my thing. On the other hand, if we’ve been together either a little or a long while, then you may know that I am married to a walking car encyclopaedia who was born and raised in New Mexico and who loves, among other things, classic cars. Since we were all hungry and all needed restroom facilities and all intrigued by the FREE Car Museum! billboard, we gave it a go.
From the Cushman motorbike outside the entrance, to the Shoney’s Big Boy statue overlooking the interior, the museum is a retro-Route 66 lover’s dream. (And no, I didn’t know what a Cushman was before my stop in Glenrio.) The day of our visit there were 22 cars and three motorbikes on display, approximately one fourth of Mr. Russell’s personal collection. All of the cars are driveable and are routinely started and moved to keep them from getting all sludgy (the museum guide’s word) – all except the 1955 Corvette Roadster, the 15th of only 700 manufactured. Mr. Russell’s Roadster has only 327 miles on it, and, understandably, he’d like to keep it that way.
Everything else gets routine rotation, so there’s no predicting precisely which cars will be on display when you visit. I’d tell you which ones were there when we visited, but, alas, I feel lucky to remember the proper names for the Cushman and the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner hard-top convertible, the two items Bernard would like to add to his Santa list.
But I do remember this: the museum is beautiful, a lovingly assembled personal, private collection on public display for the sheer love of sharing a life’s passion. That’s the story you’ll get from the museum guide, a man better suited to his role than any Disney cast member could be.
Why would Mr. Russell build this museum, ensure the exceptional quality of display, staff it with a warm, friendly and deeply knowledgeable host, and then open it to the public free of charge? Because he can, I suppose, though certainly not to boast. There’s no prissy exclusivity here; it’s an Everyman museum, a celebration of design, ingenuity and culture without any remote pretension. It is, from what little I’ve been able to research about Mr. Russell, a public gesture that matches the logger-turned-grocer’s private beliefs.
It was 2:30 when we finished our tour and sat down to eat, the lunch crowd long gone. I should mention that, among the many thoughtful amenities at Russell’s Truck & Travel Center, there are outlets at every table, ready to charge the phones of travelers who forgot their car adapters and depleted their batteries searching for a signal on the long trek between Amarillo and Tucumcari. It’s a 50s diner with a millennial twist, an Everyman’s place, as I mentioned, for every generation.
We ate our sandwiches and green chile beef jerky and talked about our favorite things from the museum. I realized suddenly that I’d neglected to get a picture of our tour guide, the fountain of both information and puns who told the kind of jokes my uncle Mel would tell, complete with the crinkles and twinkles of a natural smile. I excused myself from the table and ducked back to the gallery.
“Would you mind if I took your picture?” I asked, “You were so kind to share your stories, and I’d like to write about our visit.”
“I’m Jennifer, by the way. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too, Jennifer. I’m Art.”