Neon motel and restaurant signs from the 1930s light up Route 66 like an outdoor laser show, transforming the town into a drive-by museum. (There's also a real museum, called the Route 66 Auto Museum, that displays classic cars and memorabilia.)
The theme continues inside the establishments as well. At the Comet II restaurant, a wall is plastered with photos of Santa Rosa during its wilder days, when men rode horses to work and ladies accessorized with shotguns. Not that the diner is historic in any way -- a plaque outside the place reads, "On this site in 1897, nothing happened."
At the Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, N.M., divers swim 80 feet down year-round.
About 10 miles south, though, something big did occur: Billy the Kid ate his last Christmas dinner in 1880. The site of his final holiday meal, months before he was fatally shot in nearby Fort Sumner, rests in the town of Puerto de Luna, an ancient adobe village. His host was a Polish immigrant and priest named Alexander Grzelachowski, and his home and general store, where the outlaw bought sundries, still stand. But they're easy to miss.
The house sits on private property, hidden behind another house, ranch equipment and a squall of dogs and geese, but is open to the public. Inside, it's fun to play sheriff and outlaw, pretending that the holes were made by bullets and the empty cowboy boots by the bed were left by the Kid, never to be filled again. Yet the attraction also has a flea market quality to it, and the stuffed animals and can of Bud Light are decidedly not Billy's.
But the legend of the Kid persists, as does the one about the Blue Hole, the bottle cap and the coin.
With that in mind, I headed back to the diving spot to test out that so-clear-you-can . . . theory, or a modified version of it. I flipped a coin high into the air and watched it sink into the clear water. Somewhere between the goldfish and the reflection of the clouds, I lost sight of my penny. Perhaps if I returned on Wednesday, I'd be able to see if it landed on heads or tails.
Andrea Sachs will be online to discuss this story at 2 p.m. Monday during the Travel section's weekly chat at www.washingtonpost.com.
Details: Santa Rosa, N.M.
GETTING THERE: All of the major carriers offer connecting service from Washington to Albuquerque. Rates on Frontier, United and Delta, for example, go for around $225 round trip. Santa Rosa is about 118 miles east of Albuquerque, through a mountain pass -- so be prepared for slow, steep, snowy driving during winter.
SCUBA DIVING: The Blue Hole is off Route 66, just minutes from town. The Hole is open 24/7, though the on-site scuba shop (the only one in town) is open only weekends and sporadically through the week (call Stella, who runs it, at 505-472-3370 for info). Rentals are $30 for two tanks and a set of gear, $5 for tank only, $4 air. Divers need a permit, sold at the scuba shop or info center on Route 66 (look for the scuba flag) ; a mail-in form is also available on the Santa Rosa Visitors Center's Web site (see below). Perch Lake also has a sunken plane 55 feet below the water that is ideal for advanced divers. The $8 permit covers both sites for a week. For directions, instruction and rentals, you can also check with an Albuquerque scuba shop, such as Sandia Snorkel and Scuba (505-247-8632, www.sandiasnorkel.com).
STAYING THERE: The town has chain hotels and Route 66-era motels along the Mother Road (also called Will Rogers Road). The top-star property is La Quinta Inn (1701 Will Rogers Dr., 505-472-4800, www.lq.com; doubles from $80 a night), which sits high above Route 66 and has valley views, a pool and a continental breakfast. There is also a Comfort Inn, Best Western, Holiday Inn Express and Days Inn. Though almost 50 percent cheaper, the older motels can be a little dodgy, and you might just want to enjoy the places -- and their neon signs -- from the outside. Check with the chamber for a list.
EATING THERE: Divers convene at Joseph's Bar & Grill (865 Route 66), which is more than just a restaurant: There is also a gift shop, a bar, pool tables and enough artifacts from the Route 66 days to count it as a museum. The menu is heavy on (New) Mexican cuisine, such as enchiladas ($6.50), tamales ($8.30) and chalupas ($6.50). But steak, sandwiches, burgers and seafood (just remember, Santa Rosa is land-locked) are on the menu. For a break from refried beans, the Golden Dragon Restaurant (3307 Will Rogers) has the usual Chinese fare, with most entrees in the $5-$8 range.
MUSEUMS AND HISTORY: Besides Route 66 itself, the Route 66 Auto Museum (2766 Route 66, 505-472-1966; $5) is packed with classic cars from the 1930s on up, plus Route 66 memorabilia. The old adobe village of Puerto de Luna is 10 miles south of town; you can see the Nuestro Senora del Refugio Church, remains of the original County Courthouse and the Grzelachowski House, where Billy the Kid supposedly ate his last Christmas dinner.
INFO: Santa Rosa Visitors Center, 505-472-3763, www.santarosanm.org.
-- Andrea Sachs