Motels and The Mother Road
In order to enjoy this website, there are two things you really ought to appreciate, or learn to appreciate -- Route 66 and motels. Both have been my passion for some time, and cybertechnology has finally given me a place where I can vent on these two subjects with the faint hope that perhaps I’ll find an audience willing to listen. In order to make your journey through my site more palatable and interesting, I promise to provide some colorful photos as well as some reproductions of a number of very nifty postcards from my large vintage postcard collection.
First, a confession. Back in the '50s, when other little girls were playing with dolls or teasing the daylights out of little boys, I was sitting at a small drawing board my father set up for me in our basement “rec room”, designing motels! When other kids dreamed of being firemen or housewives or veterinarians, I dreamed of nothing more than being a motel owner. Not many people knew about my smoldering desire, although occasionally my parents would show incredulous visitors the elaborate schematic drawings of tourist courts and motor inns I was cranking out on a daily basis.
How did this aberration occur to such an otherwise seemingly-normal grade school kid? I think it has to do with my intense love of the open road, a love which began at age four when my mom and dad took me on my first “road trip”. Being an only child, I never had to share anything with anyone, and that included the big back seat of our 1951 yellow and black Plymouth. That domain was mine alone, and from that vantage point I got my first taste of what it was like to be in a “different” place, to watch an unfamiliar world go by, and to help with grown-up selections such as a place for lunch or a motel for the night. I can truthfully say that even as a small child, I never experienced a single minute of boredom while cruising down an open road in an automobile. It is where I belong, and it continues to be where I am at my happiest.
On every road trip my family took, one of my favorite moments of the day was when my mother would suggest to my father that it was time to find a motel for the night. Each year, we would go to Florida twice, once in the spring and once in the fall (my parents took me out of school for these trips, and teachers never objected as long as I reported on my vacation in a somewhat scholarly way when I returned), and each summer we would take at least one “big” road trip (usually out west) and some smaller ones (often to Canada). My dad loved road trips as much as I did, and I suspect my mother did as well, although I can’t recall her enthusiasm matching that of my dad’s and mine.
Anyway, around 4:30 in the afternoon, my mother would suggest we begin the process of finding lodging for the night. Since we were an early rising family, we might well have already logged 10 hours in the car by that time. We liked to stop early for several reasons: for one, the earlier we stopped, the fewer NO VACANCY signs we were liable to encounter. Second, early stopping meant more time in a refreshing motel pool (complete with swirly slide, if I was lucky) before dinner. Finally, stopping early meant I could finally go to the bathroom, something I was always reluctant to do in gasoline station facilities.
Mom would get out the trusty AAA Motel Guide and we would scout out the next couple of towns through which the AAA Triptik had routed us. For some reason I never pursued, my mother hated Duncan Hines. The AAA Motel Guide and Quality Courts guide were her bibles, but if a motel sign indicated that the premises was recommended by Duncan Hines, she would shudder as visibly as if the sign read, “Yes, we have rats!” I never understood her prejudice, and never will, as my mother passed away before I thought to ask her.
After much leafing through pages and reading descriptions, we’d choose one or two motels that sounded up to our high Richards family standards. When we finally found the motels themselves, we would cruise through the parking lot just taking in the general ambiance. To this day, I only know that some of the motels felt “right” and others felt “wrong”, but I can’t pinpoint the characteristics that made them so. Since it was still quite early in the evening, we could be as choosy as we wanted to be. Once we found a motor court that felt right to all of us, we would stop at the office and Dad would go in to negotiate the room. Back in those days, everyone always inspected the room before making a final commitment, so usually Dad and the motel owner would emerge from the office and Mom and I would follow as we were shown to our potential quarters. Once again, our acceptance or rejection of a premises was based on “feel”, although I’m sure that such attributes as cleanliness, spaciousness, proximity to a decent place to eat, and that ever-desired swimming pool were the criterion on which that “feel” was based.
There’s not much I can say about a motel room that everyone in America doesn’t already know. Just saying the word “motel” conjures a certain smell, a distinct quality of light, the hum of an air conditioner, a well-made but probably lumpy bed, a glass wrapped in paper, water that never tasted like “home”, a rubber mat with suction cups for the shower floor, a light bulb that didn’t produce quite enough light, a paucity of clothes hangers, and a friendly desk clerk (usually the owner back then) who was quick to suggest that the best breakfasts in town were to be found in the little cafe which, coincidentally, happened to be connected to that very motel.
Basically, I maintain that motels haven’t changed much since the '40s and '50s. Yes, the big chains have taken over and caused many mom-and-pop operations to die. Of those which remain, over half are operated by those of Indian or Pakistani heritage rather than native-born Americans. Yes, more motels must be accessed by inside corridors now, rather than affording the convenience of pulling one’s car right up to the door. Yes, there are some “new” amenities like in-room coffee pots and hair dryers. Yes, glasses made of glass have been replaced with plastic cups. Yes, king size beds are now an option. And yes, for some diabolical reason, the practice of putting the sink on the outside of the bathroom is becoming pervasive. But..... the basic motel room is intact. A bed (or two)... a nightstand with lamp and phone on top and Gideon Bible in the drawer, a long, low dresser on which is found a tattered folder containing an inadequate supply of motel stationery, another lamp, an ice bucket, and a TV. A table and two chairs. A closet or hanging bar with a couple of permanently affixed hangers. A bathroom with all the necessary amenities, including a bathmat neatly folded over the side of the tub, a woefully tiny sliver of soap wrapped in paper, several clean white towels that don’t quite wrap around as fully as those you have at home. It’s all there....... always was, always will be.
As a child, and more so even now, I feel completely at home in a motel room. Perhaps it’s the sterile atmosphere that speaks of no agenda other than my own. We never know the person who slept in the bed before us, nor the one to follow us. We are suspended in time and space. We have no worries about cleaning the place or decorating it or even making the bed. We can simply exist there, then shed the room like a cocoon in the morning. To me, that is an incredibly free feeling. I’ve always been rather rootless anyway, and the feeling of floating from one spot to another from day to day is very appealing to me. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind being on the opposite side of the registration desk, either. I’d love to be the owner who is fortunate enough to meet a succession of new people every day, who hears new stories each day, who makes new friends, albeit very temporary ones, every single day.
During my childhood career as a motel designer, I created fanciful arrangements of rooms and driveways and parking spaces and landscaping, and once in a while I’d even violate the sacred “interior layout” of a motel room and rearrange the furniture! I would Scotch tape six or nine sheets of typing paper together to make a blueprint-size working surface, and all my lines were drawn with a ruler. I would be careful not to violate certain long-held motel strictures -- one parking space per room only, paths that led to the pool from all sides of the motel, an office in a centrally located place, decorative trees and shrubbery everywhere. But after that, my imagination went crazy. I would create motels in the shape of snakes and stars and initials. The impracticality of construction was meaningless to a kid my age. The neon signs I designed for outside my motels were other-worldly, gaudy, even more so than the ones in front of real motels in those days. My motels had owners (usually they were Laurel Richards and a husband of choice), maids (all named things like Lulu and Frieda) and guests who signed a guest register (Mr. and Mrs. John Wilson, children Karen and Billy, driving a 1952 white Ford Fairlane) and all the detail were carefully recorded. If a roadside archaeologist unearthed those documents today, he would surely think he’d found a real motel guest book, along with rather crudely-drawn architect’s renderings of the motel in question. I was a details person, in miniature. And I had a dream.
It’s many years later now, and I’ve never owned a motel. But, I still stay in them! And I’m blessed with a daughter and friends who share my enthusiasm for the “old road”, who join me in boycotting corporate-owned entities, and who tolerate, and even encourage, my constant desire to be in a car, driving down an old road, waiting for the first hint of dusk to fall so that the evening motel selection procedure can begin.
Now, if you’re looking for a great old road, still filled with motels in all manner of condition, you need to look no further than the old Route 66. I’ve been an aficionado of Route 66 for years, ever since I traveled it in its heyday in the '50s with my parents. Of course, back then I didn’t know that it would be decommissioned in favor of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, nor that it would become an icon in the 21st century, with multitudes of books, articles, and videos produced about it and the people along it, but I’m very pleased to say that I was in on the ground floor of the resurgence of appreciation of this venerable Mother Road.
To go into its history would be foolish here. Instead I will simply refer you to the following site, http://www.national66.org/66hstry.html where there is a concise history that will tell you what there is to know about the ribbon of highway which stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles, and which recently celebrated its 80th birthday. Putting "Route 66" into a search engine will afford you thousands of entertaining and informative sites as well.
Sometimes, the news is better. Some motels exist in a second life. A few become antiques malls, or they become resident apartment complexes, or take on other uses which cause their structure to remain recognizable. Some still even have their original signs. Motels that are structurally sound but aren’t motels any more are still sad to me, but not as sad as those which are disappearing or have disappeared completely.
On the other hand, many continue to flourish! The good news is that all along Route 66, the tenacious spirit of its good citizens is evident. Often, motels are still open, still attractive, and still inviting. They might even be operating under the same name they sported 40 or 50 years ago. Some original owners, despite being elderly, are still around. Some have handed down their property to family, and some have sold to people like me, who have always wanted to own a motel by the side of the road. The motels may seem old-fashioned, and a traveler might have to put up with a pink-and-black tile bathroom, or a mattress that’s seen better days, or lack of 100-channel cable TV and WiFi in every room, but the trade-off, to me, is worth it. Staying in an old motel is saving a piece of Americana. It is activism at it’s finest.
Thus the majority of my website will be dedicated to showing you the motels of Route 66, before and after. Be sure to press the other buttons for other roadside related goodies, as well. And don’t forget the links..... I have a lot of friends counting on me to ask you to check out their websites, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in a single one of them if you take the time to do so. I have very cool friends!
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