Arizona Motels

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We drop off the I-10 superslab and roll south along state road 80, past Tombstone, toward Bisbee and the Shady Dell RV and Trailer Park (see the postcard image above). Along with classics like the Blue Swallow motel and the Madonna Inn, the Shady Dell is one of those sites you must add onto your next roadside trek. A set of refurbished trailers, including a vintage Crown, El Rey, and Airstream, the Shady Dell is worth going out of your way because it gets the details right. In our 1951 33-foot Royal Mansion, we find a black and white TV that plays midcentury movies and television shows; cocktail glasses and an edged glass shaker; and a phonograph featuring Nat King Cole, luau tunes, and plenty of other platters to get your feet tapping. Virtually every drawer reveals some new surprise. Wanna fill a glass? Tiki mugs await. Wanna check out ads for that new De Soto? Leaf through copies of Time and Newsweek from the late forties and early fifties. Reading about the new television season, I learn with some worry that new "filmed shows" seem to be displacing live drama: "They are under-rehearsed, under-conceived, under-executed. The only hope is that the public and critics will rebel against the avalanche of mediocrity." Outside, each trailer surrounds a court festooned with Christmas lights and comfy chairs. By the road, Dots Diner offers a neon-stripped streamlined moderne eatery with lip-smacking shakes and floats. With a range of road bullets for most every taste and historical inclination, you might say that the Shady Dell is the Madonna Inn of Trailer Courts.

Summer 1996 Route 66 trip: As you might guess, there's not a lot of grass in this part of the country - probably due to drought conditions. In fact, folks around here were thrilled about the last two days of light rain. Traces of precipitation mark our arrival to Holbrook - a swell collection of motels and highway history in a convenient L-shaped drive. In his 1946 Guidebook to Highway 66, Jack Rittenhouse wrote of this town: "Holbrook is now a quiet county seat, but in its early days was a rootin', tootin' cowtown, where the boys could blow off steam accumulated through long, hard days on the range."

We stop at the 66 Motel - a long and thin building edged by semis, pickups, and construction equipment. The top of the sign flashes a burst of light that reflects in the windows of rooms four through six. I wonder if the occupants find the rhythm annoying or comforting. The Budget Inn down the road is brightly lit in pink, orange, and blue. The kidney shaped pool reflects the neon arrow, turning its deep red into a lighter hue. One of the many wagon wheels we've seen around town is hitched on a cart to a wood-carved dinosaur across the street in the parking lot of Mr. Maestas Restaurant. I walk in to talk with the manager who says we can feel free to come by in the next morning for free coffee. I don't know if he knows or even cares whether we are staying at his motel.

Further into town, we meet Lloyd and Jim next to the double-decker Holbrook Inn. Jim is a tall mustachioed dude with a string tie and wide brimmed hat. With his friend nodding encouragement, he talks about his line of work. He's a boilermaker: "when you turn on the lights in the morning, you pat the boilermakers on the back. They built the boilers that turn the generators to make all the lights work, all the vessels that got to the moon, all the tanks that hold your water, anything under pressure."

[camera]66 Motel [camera]Budget Inn

[Wigwam] We say our goodbyes - and thanks - and cruise for the other side of town and the Wigwam Motel. This architectural wonder is just one of a handful of teepee-based motels that survived the fifties and sixties when western themes got more mileage than today. What surprises us most is how large the room really is. Yes, there's air conditioning, a full sized bathroom, and a comfy bed. Many of the residents are people who, as children, were denied their chance to "sleep in a wigwam."

During our 2000 return trip to the Wigwam Village in Holbrook, I have a chance to chat with John Lewis who patiently recalls the stories he's shared with thousands of folks. He represents a second generation of family members who have cared for this historical landmark. They don't make a profit off the Wigwam, but seem to genuinely get a kick out of folks' reactions to it: "We get a lot of people who drove past 35, 40 years ago, back when their parents would drive straight through from L.A. to Oklahoma City, or Amarillo. They never got a chance to stay in a Wigwam, so they get pretty emotional." Perhaps the coolest thing about this motel is that the family has positioned classic cars next to each teepee. Getting up in the morning, it's kind of surreal to find a Galaxie 500 next to a Mitsubishi Galant, a Buick Special next to a hulking SUV, and a Ford Ranch Wagon next to a Nissan Sentra. The best part of the visit, though, is the chance to cheer John with the news that the Rialto, California Wigwam has started to get cleaned up: "Oh, Frank Redford [creator of the Wigwam concept] would be turning in his grave if he knew what had been going on there."

[camera]Wigwam Village

Heading west, we stop by Joseph City. Once a Mormon settlement, the town is best known for the Jackrabbit Trading Post - with its selection that ranges from porno playing cards to Navajo rugs to 66 memorabilia. If you've got kids, the giant rabbit alone is worth a visit. It is here also that we find what remains of the Pacific Motel. This relic has long been run over by high weeds. Even the shingles are rolled up like broken tree bark where the sun beats down the hardest. The office window advertises Master Charge ("the interbank card") and BankAmericard. After a bit of exploring, Vienna finds animal footprints on the toilet in one of the rooms. Our visit here is brief.

[camera]Pacific Motel

At last, we enter Flagstaff - a crowded but agreeable stretch of restaurants, shops and motels set against the tall trees of the San Francisco mountains. At the Red Roof Inn, I chat with Doris who redesigned the place about fifteen years ago. Basing her vision on the alpine villages of her German youth, the Red Roof of Flagstaff (no relation to the chain) offers a collection of dwarves and water carrying nymphs next to windowboxes filled with artificial flowers. There's even a magic mushroom under a set of Christmas lights draped along the junipers.

[camera]Red Roof Inn

Nearby, we find the Western Hills Motel complete with a red and white painted wagon made in 1910. Behind the desk, Louise proudly reports that hers is the oldest motel sign in Flagstaff. It is certainly impressive with its rotating wheels and galloping horses.

Down the road, we come to the Frontier Motel with its quiet yellow lantern. The owners have been here since the early eighties. As is often the case, the whole family runs this place. Even a teenage daughter offers an impromptu history lesson about how the road name changed from 66 to Santa Fe before reclaiming its original name. On the other end of town, the Saga Motel sits across from the Galaxy Diner, an explosion of nouveau neon. Behind the building, a placid pool glows under green and white table umbrellas.

[camera]Saga Motel

The next day, we take a side trip to the Grand Canyon and discover the truth in Theodore Roosevelt's statement that everyone should see this place at least once in their lives. Soon after, we return to route 66 and Williams, Arizona. This town offers a friendly stretch of the old highway; many of the businesses advertise their welcome to cross-country travellers. We stop at the Red Garter ("offering lodging and a full line bakery in a beautifully restored 1897 bordello") and fill up on cinnamon rolls. There, we learn that the alignment to Seligman is perhaps the most popular stretch of road in the state. In fact, European tourists have been known to ship motorcycles here so they can haul it over the blacktop like in the movies. Before we take off though, we visit the Gateway Motel. On this early Sunday morning, it's no surprise that the office is closed. In fact, the sign at the door reads: "for room info, please check in at the Grand Motel."

[camera]Gateway Motel

[Copper State] Later that morning, we cruise into Ash Fork ("Flagstone capital of the world") and the Copper State Motor Court. TV antennas shaped like prickly arrows point in virtually every direction. Doors of green and orange line the bumpy facade of stone, guarded by a rampart on the roof that faces west. As Jenny meets one of the residents, I notice that the garages that used to separate rooms have been converted into sheds. Soon after, Nancy ambles by, outfitted in turquoise jewelry, a cowboy hat, and a cigarette that dangles limply from her fingers. She explains that flagstone is a rock mined in the area and used in buildings all over the place. To my untrained eye, she points out the different colors and types of the stone and recalls its importance to the region. She also celebrates the highway that runs through town: "When I take the drive to Kingman [California] I never go on the freeway. I go the byway. It's more peaceful, it's not the hassle of driving, it's pretty country."

In Seligman, we stop at the Bill Mar Din Motel. Walking in the parking lot, I hear the sound of gravel crunching under my sandals. The sun beats down on an empty pool. We're even pretty sure we see a tumbleweed cross our path. In town, the 1936 Chevy Impala with a Christmas Tree sticking out from the trunk alerts us to the Snow Cap Burger Stand. Tourists take pictures of the air conditioned outhouse (with its own television) and endure the corny jokes of the owner, Juan Delgadillo. Buying an ice cream cone at the Snow Cap is a truly bizarre and wonderful experience. Also, stop by the Route 66 Visitor's Center (and Barber Shop) a block down the road. The souvenirs are inexpensive and the memories are free - courtesy of Juan's younger brother, Angel. Back on route 66, we pass the Supai Motel with lights in the sign that look like vacuum tubes and the Historic Route 66 Motel. Until about five years ago, this place used to go by the name of Navajo. Now the doors advertise celebrity residents of the past, including Connie Lee in room 102, Burl Ives in room 103, and Bill Haley and the Comets in room 105. There are no names after that; apparently celebs prefer to sleep closest to the office.

[camera]Bill Mar Din Motel [camera]Supai Motel

Near the Arizona border with California, we pull into Kingman at the Hill Top Motel ("rooms with Zenith Chromacolor TV"). We're not the first visitors to show interest in this place. Dennis, the manager, tells me about when his motel was featured in a country music video and a Japanese liquor ad. More recently, the Hill Top gained a darker kind of fame as one of the places in which Tim McVeigh holed up before the Oklahoma bombing. Dennis recalls, "we had no problems with him. He was a quiet guy - kept to himself. He was a good worker at True Value [in town]. You had something to get loaded up, he'd get you out of there in good shape. No screwing around." Dennis laughs at the irony. His description sounds like what every neighbor to a local nutcase says after tragedy strikes. Down the road, California awaits.

[camera]Hill Top Motel

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All photographs copyright © Jenny Wood. Text copyright © Andy Wood.