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Diners, motels and neon signs: What you’re missing on America’s byways

In a tin box that holds old pictures, love notes and a yellow 45 RPM adapter is a collection of motel keys. One is a diamond shape with a number on it. It took some muscle to open a motel door back then, and the effort was worth it as you slipped into the room and began your exploration.

Iím a bit of an old motel junkie. Motor hotel, or motel, allows you to drive right up to the door of your room. Somewhere in my growing-up years I became enamored of any motel that had a neon sign blinking outside. You know, kind of like Bates Motel? Compact and L-shaped or two angles with the office in the center and a pool fenced in out front, I loved each and every layout and how they would try to entice a customer to stay there.

ďAir-conditioned,Ē ďColor TV,Ē ďIce Available,Ē these little blurbs from days gone by still exist on some of the older motels, tucked away on byroads that are now harder to find. The big box world of motels took over and are crammed into every interstate off-ramp across America. Just behind them though, or down the road around a bend, are the jewels that I seek. Get off the interstate, quick.

When we were young, we traveled many trips by motor home, and campgrounds across America became as familiar to me as breathing. We also stayed at motels, just enough to spark my interest in them. When I lived in San Antonio, there were breathtaking little gems that had separate rooms and a carport you could drive into. I loved that particular street, once a main thoroughfare, where all the pink stucco and red-shuttered motels sat, still in glorious use.

When I got married and we took a trip somewhere, we would always search for motels like this, sometimes paying $25 for the night. My husband and I were of the same mind when it came to lodging. Although we both liked being comfortable, just to stay where a neon light blinked cozily outside was enough to make up for the hard mattress.

We took a trip west 16 years ago. The kids were young, and the road was an open book. I had a book on Route 66, and we picked up the Mother Road somewhere in Missouri, our van packed tight. It was like a treasure hunt as we stopped at points of interest and tiny cafes noted carefully in the book. I watched like a hawk out the window, finding rundown motels that had fallen into disrepair scattered along the road like left-behind memories. Iím a note-worthy junk picker at any given garage sale or thrift store, and like magic these relics of the past caught my eye.

We were true to the road and stayed on it when it went off the highway and into cornfields and tiny towns. It was brick in some places, and the structures, especially in some of those barren states where you can see miles and miles, were waiting for us in all their ruination. I wanted each and every one.

If you ask the kids anything about that trip, they wonít tell you about the Grand Canyon or Pikeís Peak, but they will tell you about Cadillac Ranch, somewhere outside Amarillo, Texas, and all the tiny motels we slept in. From Missouri to somewhere outside L.A., we sought out the best that 1950ís America had to offer. We ate at diners, drank myriad cups of coffee and stayed in rooms with tiny bars of soap and cement block showers painted glossy white.

In Tucumcari, New Mexico, our blissful little motel had the most spectacular neon signage out front, not one light burnt out in the entire technicolor vision. The tiny pool tucked in the left front corner held our kids as they splashed happily, the sun sinking down in a blaze.

One of my goals was to stay in the Wigwam Motel, each room a splendorous concrete wigwam. When we arrived, it was closed for repairs, and my heart sank. We meandered through the tiny windswept burg, the late hour and sinking sun on the barren road making it a desperate search. We found the only other motel in town, a place no one stayed because really who is in this town searching for lodging? The Herrera family, thatís who, and this is the other place the kids remember as it may have been the worst motel of our travels. We chuckle now, but having no other choice, we bedded everyone down in one bed and tried to sleep through noises and chaos outside though only one other car was there.

We left early, blazing a trail on through California all the way to the coast. We slept in our van at a campground near Durango, Colorado, when no motels were to be found, bear warnings and all. My husband assured the kids as they bedded down with concerned faces on the folded seats that he would wrestle a bear to the ground if one came.

Weíve met many more rooms in our travels, enough to fill a book. The Palmetto Motel, somewhere in South Carolina; the 1960s vintage orange-rug-red-sink room in Salem, Massachusetts; or maybe the trippy mural room in New York City, all neatly filed and remembered.

This past weekend we needed to get away for a night and headed to Columbus to do just that. We searched for a room in the vast complex of big motels and ended up with one, the only one that had rooms where we were. It was every motel in every horror movie Iíve ever seen. It needed a desperate renovation, dating from the Ď60s, but we pulled up and entered our corner room and embraced it for what it was. If Iím comfortable every single place I stay, Iíll never feel like I left home, and where is the adventure in that?

Published: July 19, 2016
New Article ID: 2016707199982