They’re called the “mom and pop motels” and they’re modest owner-operated vestiges of that bygone and sorely-missed era of American motoring before the Interstate and the proliferation of national chain establishments made highway travel the soulless McTrip it’s become for most. Most, that is, except the adventurous types, touring bikers in particular, who continue to patronize these places out of both necessity and preference. It’s a necessity because they’re often the only accommodations to be found along the back roads and in the remote hamlets we tend to frequent, and it’s a preference because these motels represent an appealing middle plane between the wet tent and the sterile franchise.
It’s also a preference because of the potential for excitement and surprise that comes with staying in one of these pig-in-a-poke places, since the quality varies wildly between them, from immaculately quaint to cruddy creepy and you can’t always tell just by looking which extreme or the other you’re ensconcing yourself in. This uncertainty is what creates what I like to call “adventures in lodging.” The most famous example of the type of adventure I’m talking about took place at the Bates Motel in the movie Psycho, but it wasn’t the most realistic. Anyone who’s spent any real time in the mom and pops knows the showers rarely pack that kind of water pressure, and the drains are usually sluggish, allowing blood to pool rather than sluice away neatly. That’s pure Hollywood.
More typical if less alarming adventures usually involve maintenance and furnishings, and since mom and pops tend to be bootstrap operations without a lot of fat in the budgets, you can always count on something or other being screwed up, usually something minor like a door that won’t stay shut or a window that won’t stay open, a faucet that drips or a toilet that runs, lights that flicker or curtains that don’t meet in the middle, an air conditioner that clangs or a ceiling fan that wobbles and makes a “whump” noise. Then there’s the next level of adventure, things like toilets not fastened securely to the floor that rock sickeningly when sat upon, showers that drain directly under the carpet in the room, pillows infested with bedbugs, or comforters eerily similar to the Shroud of Turin.
That’s all pretty standard stuff, and stuff I’ve experienced routinely in my long tenure as a mom and pop habitué, and none of it bothers me particularly, being a small price to pay for the overarching humanity and authenticity of these cultural relics. It helps that I have very low standards of personal accommodations.
The same cannot be said of My Personal Nurse. Though to her credit she’s a real trooper usually and willing to indulge my weird nostalgia for substandard lodging, where we part ways precipitously is on the issue of cleanliness; she’s an absolute stickler for it, and I’m an unreconstructed dirty biker, just keeping the dream alive.
I’ve told you all of the foregoing so that I can tell you this story: A few years ago My Personal Nurse and I were on the road to Sturgis, and the specific road we were on at the time was Nevada’s Highway 50, the notorious “Loneliest Road in America.” In the middle of that long lonely road is the tiny crumbling town of Austin, and Austin has three motels. The way our trip was shaping up in the planning stage, it became apparent that woebegone Austin was where we would be alighting if we wanted to make a lot of miles that day, but be off the highway by nightfall when all the big desert critters come out to jump on unwary motorcyclists. Needless to say, none of the motels in Austin is connected to the internet, so My Personal Nurse picked one at random and called it up for reservations. The proprietor—we’ll call him Pop—was genial and told her he’d have a room waiting for us, a nice room with a queen-size bed. The rate would be $38.
They seemed to get along real well, My Personal Nurse and Pop, and the deal was well and truly struck for a night’s lodging in the middle of nowhere, so we were taken aback somewhat when we pulled into the little compound of modular hovels with the “No Vacancy” light beaming that night and summoned Pop with a bell on the office trailer door. Pop came out but didn’t exactly know who we were and why we were stopping at his motel since the sign clearly said “No Vacancy.” We jogged his memory, and he turned white. “Damn,” he said, “I completely forgot about you. I gave the room to a firefighter.” He said “firefighter” like that should mean something weighty in this exchange. You know, 9/11 and all that. We stood there mute, glaring and expectant, giving him a chance to make this right, seeing as how we were road-weary and a long way from alternatives, and he brightened and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll find something for you. It ain’t much. A couple of single beds and, frankly, I think the motel up the street might have a room. Maybe you’d rather go there.”
“Fine. Good. What’s the place like?” I asked. And Pop said the exact wrong thing. “It’s nice. Maybe not so clean.” That cut it with My Personal Nurse, and she would, by God, accept any billet from Pop, be it a broom closet or humbler, provided it was clean. And he ran our card for $38.
And, damn, was our room clean. It was clean because no one had slept in it before us, and the reason for that was it was in the midst of a complete remodel. As such, it lacked certain, shall we say, amenities. Little things like a chair or a nightstand or a lamp or a phone or a bathroom mirror. Oh, and it also lacked a bathroom door. In fact, the sum of this cell’s furnishings consisted of a pair of beds the size and consistency of cots and a new flat-screen TV hung on a wall bracket. Nice TV. And three channels of blizzard to choose from. Spartan to the point of penal, it was nonetheless incredibly clean, and it was also, in the words of My Personal Nurse, who can at times be charmingly Candidian, “Cozy.”
And let me tell you, folks, the absence of a bathroom door puts a whole new spin on coziness.
It’s all right here in the diaries…