One point emphasized in the many Route 66 oral histories I’ve looked through is how long it took to travel from place to place. It might seem obvious, but the way we experience travel today—getting on the freeway and driving anywhere between 60–80 mph—is not the same as it was in the mid-twentieth century. Road conditions were often precarious with roads not always paved, traffic piled up on roads through cities and small towns, cars required drivers to stop every hour to refill gas and water bags to prevent overheating, and extreme speed limit restrictions (by today’s standards) made every trip, even if it was to the next town over, a journey in its own right.
This is particularly significant for me because my research as a historian looks at the reproductive landscape in New Mexico, and considers how women in the state experienced birth both utilizing traditional healing practices (like curanderismo) and professionalized medicine. The facility I wrote my thesis about, the Santa Fe Maternal Health Center, provided women in the area vital prenatal, postnatal, gynecological, and general medical care. However, because the Center offered contraception to their patients, doctors in the city refused to work with them for fear that such affiliation would jeopardize their careers in Catholic Santa Fe and at the only local hospital, St. Vincent’s. Instead, Dr. Evelyn Fisher Frisbie of Albuquerque, New Mexico, would drive north once a week to treat patients and prescribe and administer birth control. When I originally thought about the path that Dr. Fisher Frisbie took, I pictured the route we use today using the interstate. It’s fairly direct, easy to traverse, and takes about an hour. However, when Dr. Fisher Frisbie would have started her weekly trips in 1937, the interstate was not yet developed and she likely had to drive using the Old Santa Fe Trail and portions of the pre-1937 Route 66. This would have taken far longer and made the journey and her devotion to these women that much more poignant.
What’s more, this new understanding of New Mexico’s transportation and travel environment emphasizes how difficult it was for women to access certain medical care unless it was already available in their communities. The Santa Fe Maternal Health Center was the only facility in the state for a good thirty years to offer contraceptives, and one of a small handful of maternal facilities in New Mexico as well. And yet, women from nearby, but remote, towns like Tijeras and in adjacent counties would save money, ride share with neighbors, and correspond with the facility to ensure they could get the care they needed. Route 66 and new development on other travel corridors in the state made access to the Center easier, to be sure, but the determination to make this journey on a regular basis and for better maternal care speaks volumes for the women, the facility, and the medical landscape in New Mexico as well.
Again, these are things I probably should have realized on my own. But in going through these documents about Route 66 and the experience many Hispanic families had on this road, I’ve been able to better understand how important this road was as a lifeline and how isolated many of these communities were. I’ve obtained a greater understanding of the landscape and how existing travel corridors were used, as well as how advancements in transportation transformed small town New Mexican communities and provided new access to healthcare, economic opportunity, leisure, and employment.