Small Town Motels

On a recent road trip, my husband and I stayed in chain motels that blurred together like the daily brushing of teeth: nothing special to distinguish one experience from the next. Interstate lodging is generic. I prefer the eccentricities of rural, locally owned motels like those I frequented when traveling as a consultant to smaller school districts in Colorado. One, I’ll never forget.

Unknown-2I entered the office of the only motel in town through the mingled odors of an overweight dog snoozing among chew toys and the floral fragrance surrounding the grandmotherly desk clerk: “Be right with you, Hon, soon as I get old Sparky here going.”

I didn’t know whether Sparky was the stapler disemboweled on the counter or the work-begrimed man with weather-reddened cheeks who had entered before me. As I waited, I studied the hand-written signs posted around the room: advice about paying in advance and the uselessness of credit cards; friendly warnings that your mom would be called if you tracked mud and that unruly dogs would be cheerfully shot.

Unknown-3I wiped my feet, paid cash, and received a pat on my hand along with my carbon-copy receipt, “You look all tuckered out, Sweetie. What you need is a good night’s sleep. Just park in front of your room; we’re glad you’re here.”

Trucks hauling battered toolboxes and an occasional dog avoiding unruliness marked several rooms as taken; the rigs of deer hunters fronted others. I squeezed my car in between a dented truck loaded with pipe and another sporting camouflage paint. Light leaked into the night air from open windows. Work-hardened men and vacationing hunters leaned against their vehicles, talking to distant loved ones on their cell phones, nodding as I passed.

images-2Inside my room, I found a plastic sack spread on the floor for my muddy boots and a homemade book of jokes for my amusement. I found no clock, no remote, no blow dryer; but also no stray hairs, no dubious odors, no over-priced mini-bar. The sheets, bathroom fixtures, and floors were clean, the paint fresh, the pillows soft. I liked it.

I enjoyed similar experiences in other local motels: a manager who requested I not let his cat in no matter how much it scratched at my door; the bed that wouldn’t quit shaking until I crawled under and unplugged the Magic Fingers massage unit run amuck; the owner I called for reservations who said he and the missus would be gone, but they’d leave a room unlocked, and I could slide my payment under the office door when I left.

I prefer out-of-the-way, mom-and-pop motels; I like being assured I’ll feel better after a good night’s sleep.


24 thoughts on “Small Town Motels

  1. Great, brave post Janet- I am a connesuer of tawdry motels, and have written about some favorites. In Brooks, Alberta was a sign saying- HUNTERS! Please do not clean fish or game in your room. A friend, her Pekinese and I got snowed in once in Neepawa M.B. I called the place “The Peeping Tom Inn” She got under the covers in her clothes, clutching her purse all night convinced we would die. The dog dove under the bed and when I dragged her out she was eating french fries- with you in the joy of serendiptous discovery.


  2. They all have a similar smell to them. Not sure if it is the soap or the musty single panned windows. You are right about the hospitality and when you are off the beaten path it is nice to have a friendly face. I have stayed in a number of notable places while driving the ALCAN highway, characters for sure!


    • Oh, Carrie, your comment brings back memories. I had forgotten the motels my sister and I stayed in when we drove the ALCAN highway in 1971 and the characters we met.I also remember that all along the way we felt welcome and safe.


      • Awesome! I love that you have driven that highway. And yes, characters for sure! Hope you write about those adventures if you feel inspired, would love to hear about them.


      • Ha! Well, sisters are good at holding a grudge…even if they say everything is fine. No pressure, but I really would love to read about your trip. My husband and I drove the highway from AK to Seattle to get married (why did we drive you ask? Well, my mother wanted us to open gifts in Seattle –where I grew up– so we needed to drive and then rent a u-haul to bring back the wedding presents to AK, what were we thinking!) and then again when we moved from AK to CA (where we thought we would drive to Haines, AK to catch a ferry to Seattle but the ferry never came, so we had to drive over 2000 miles in 3 days to get back on schedule after waiting so long for the ferry, again, what were we thinking!) There is always a story on the ALCAN 🙂


      • I loved hearing about your two trips, Carrie. We do amazing things when we’re young without fussing too much about them. My sister, Barbara, was single and had taught for two years at Anchorage High School when she came out to visit Mom and Dad for the summer in Wyoming. While home, she bought a car and called me in Carson City, NV, where I was living with my husband of four years, and asked if I’d help her drive her car to Alaska. Wow! I didn’t hesitate. But I didn’t know she’d fallen in love with a fellow from Homer and would insist we drive from dawn to dark every day to get her to Anchorage to reunite with him. I swear, she timed my bathroom breaks!


  3. I’ve enjoyed rural and rustic motels with the same friendly owners you describe. My only mistake was choosing one late at night when I was too tired to drive on. While rolling my suitcase inside, I noticed the molding inside the door was broken and hanging, obviously having been kicked in. I dragged the heavy dresser in front of the door and wedged a chair under a drawer pull. The next morning I realized I had stumbled into a very shady part of town. Two weeks later I read a worker had been killed in the resturant across the street where I’d eaten breakfast. Now, I choose my inn in daylight.
    My favorite was in Downiville, CA with its wood paneling and a ceiling fan that went rickety rick, rickety rick all night long.


    • Wow, Mercy, what an adventure. Joel and I also made the mistake of driving too long and pulling into the only motel we could find late at night. We knew we needed to be careful when we had to stand outside to register and exchanged paperwork in a drawer that the clerk, standing behind bulletproof glass, slid out to us. Loved your description of the ceiling fan, another common feature I forgot to mention.


  4. Wow Janet, the Alcan in 1971..I was 12, and with all the hippies, draft evaders, and “Transient Youth” coming to this Island, it’s what set me on the footloose path. What characters you would have met, do write about it ..Thanks, Sheila.


  5. I agree with you Janet. JL and I stayed in many of those types of motels during our early years and had many interesting experiences. My grandfather owned a motel in Lander. I can remember taking pitchers of ice to the guests or rolling out the little black and white TV if a guest had paid extra for it! (Little did they know there was only one TV channel at the time!) Grandpa also had lawn chairs for the guests to relax in the back yard. So many memories! I was his last motel maid and worked with him until his death at 94. Wonderful article!


    • When I was writing this I hoped you would read it, Janice, becauseI remember your grandfather’s motel and conversations we’ve had about it. I love the detail about rolling out the black and white TV if a guest had paid extra. Great comment.


  6. I would rather not stay in chain hotels BUT I have been in several Bates Motel-like situations when choosing a motel off the beaten path. So I am just a wee bit wary of the small motel, especially if it’s late at night and the location is in an “iffy” part of town.
    Fun post though! And I enjoyed reading all the comments!


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