Friday, December 24, 2010


The motel is a fixture of the American imagination.  The term entered popular lexicon in the first half of the Twentieth century, following “Auto Camp,” a quaint tag evoking a quieter time before the post-Eisenhower roar of highways and blend of diesel fuel and baloney sandwiches would become for millions of Americans their Proustian cake back to simpler times.  The parents in Robert McCloskey’s 1943 children’s book Homer Price were the proprietors of a “Tourist Camp,” a modest small-town enclave consisting of a gas station, a diner, and wooden buildings with bedrooms.  Mom cooked and tended to the rooms, Dad pumped gas and mended things.  Their son Homer lived an idyllic 10-year-old’s life, often interacting with the visiting tourists who were eager for a home-cooked meal and cup of coffee after a long day of driving.

The old-fashioned tourist camps of Homer’s world didn’t last; by mid-century, the hotel-and-motel industry was accelerating rapidly.  After the $25 billion Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 paved forty thousand-plus miles of highways across the country, increasing numbers of Americans loaded up their station wagons, strapped on car-top carriers and headed out, visiting far-flung family or National Parks, grinning wearily behind guide maps, enjoying wider (and more numerous) lanes, and tuning in AM radio broadcasts of baseball games and car-dealer ads.  The impulse to find a motel at the end of a lengthy day hasn’t changed much, but the motel itself has undergone radical transformations over the decades. Mom-and-pop motels still cling to the branches of the interstate system, but the majority of motels are now corporate-owned, offering few differences in service or styles from state to state. According to Census Bureau data published in September of 2004, there were 46,163 hotels and motels (excluding casinos) in the United States; though the recession has certainly slowed growth, there are likely more now.


You don’t plan to visit an abandoned motel.  You come upon it accidentally.  You notice how it’s been reduced to its elements.  Any entrepreneur’s flair, individualistic owner’s touches, or corporate brand bludgeoning have vanished after years of pitiless sunlight.  The buildings decay back to their skeletal origins, man-made structures meant to house the weary.  Their blueprints are showing.  It’s shabbily sad.  This devolution is a kind of dismayed silhouette of a great American promise: Head for the highways and the horizon’s marvels; we’ll take care of feeding you, recreating you, putting you to sleep.  The abandoned motel is tragic Americana.  Embalmed in time, its trumpeted features obsolete, whizzed past by ever sleeker, GPS-emboldened cars in pursuit of smoke-free rooms and free Wi-Fi.

“Un-remembering is the enemy of good places and of public history,” says Robert R. Archibald.  At an abandoned motel, un-remembering dwells at the intersection of facts and ghosts.  I took the following photographs in June and August of 2010 at two abandoned motels in western Pennsylvania.  In both cases I caught a glimpse of the motel as I was driving down the interstate.  (Jean Baudrillard, in America: “Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia.  Everything is to be discovered, everything is to be obliterated.”)  Locating the motel among generic service roads, chain restaurants, gas stations, and other hotels was tricky.  I trusted a call of the discarded to lead me there.  In both cases, the shabby motels looked a bit embarrassed to be standing at all next to new, or in some cases refurbished, establishments that — given the harsh reprove of daylight and my overly-romanticized imagination — seemed to want to glance in other directions.

Archibald, again: "Places are produced in that wonderful interaction of people, place, narrative, and time.  When the people desert these places, narratives are forgotten, ties break, and the place is unmade."

A motel parking lot is designed to invite and efficiently draw weary vehicles off of the highway and to deposit them within brightly-painted parking spaces.  We don’t expect the natural world to be there, a field rising to its own surface. The lovemaking, the fights, the children’s cries, the overindulgences; the spirits of ardent, ugly, exquisite lives blooming as something verdant and permanent.  Wild now in a different way. 

Manicured plantings, flowering shrubs, and ground cover are the hallmarks of a nice motel.  But when shrubs grow unchecked they threaten the organizing principles, redefining parameters by erasing them. The cool, regulated commerce of the 7-Up and Pepsi machines is crowded now by a countrified revolt.  What’s become of our pleasant view, our casual meeting spot?  We’re in an unexpected greenhouse. 

If you look long enough, the poured concrete and the nature-echoed curves of the pool drift, and only the metal ladder remains as an unnatural thing, a rusting toe-hold.  I look long enough and imagine the pool softening a bit at its edges, the fading blue paint turning cerulean, the depths blurring into a swimming hole lucked upon by a wandering kid in the woods.  What’s man-made and forgotten begins to give and loosen in the sun, the unnatural taking on organic rhythms.  In the quiet of a very hot afternoon I listened to the cicadas and frogs and birds doming their loud buzz around me.   I felt a pull back.  I was too wary of having walked beyond the NO TRESPASSING sign.

A resting area, a shady patio off of the room, has been obliterated by hoods, a tossed rock, or nature.  The two lounge chairs are long-gone, stolen or blown away, probably lying somewhere near the interstate. The cut branches?  Early Twenty-first century tumbleweeds.  

“Things fade into the distance faster and faster in the rear-view mirror of memory,” Jean Baudrillard, America.

Doors provide the illusion of privacy.  Removed, their absence reminds us of how thin they really are.  An empty bedside table, a tottering lamp, ugly things caught with their clothes off.  What’s missing: an eye-hole, a chain-lock, room freshener; things we hide behind.  When the elements strip away a motel’s comfort and protection, what’s left but brutality and ugliness, a regression back to the true nature of the place: a temporary stay against chaos and disorder.

“At times, the simpler the image, the vaster the dream,” Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics Of Space

You and your tired, hungry family can relax knowing that a full-service, high-quality restaurant awaits you at your motel.  A top-rated chef will prepare fresh, delicious meals to help you wind down your fun-filled days of touring and exploring.  And when the kids are asleep, dad and mom can slip down to the cocktail lounge and enjoy a drink or two, unwinding with new friends and pleasant strangers.  Then it’s back to your comfortable room for a night of blissful slumber, dreaming of tomorrow’s drives to new places, and new  possibilities.  Have a good night on us.  We hope you return. 

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