Formed from remnants of the National Old Trails Ocean-to-Ocean highway, and spawned by the even older Cumberland Road, U.S. Highway 40 glides through small towns and large cities with the air of an antique dowager left at the alter for a younger model. She wears what few pearls left to her and winks at midnight at anyone who will pay attention. Traveling her length is fraught with danger, sometimes, but also the possibility of discovery.
For two summer days, Jenny, Vienna, and I met her in Sacramento. West of the California capitol, Highway 40 appropriately adopts the name "Capitol Avenue" and becomes a land of chain-linked vacant lots, duct taped windows, and drive-in movie theatres turned into trailer parks. While Sacramento invites you to seek out baubles such as the gloriously deco corner of Broadway and 16th where even the bars recall the vertical optimism of the jazz age, we choose to focus our attentions on the fringes of town where Highway 40 slinks and waits.
Following the trail laid by Planet Soma's website, whose quirky summary of Sacramento motels inspired this visit, we start with the adults-only Experience Lodge, attracted by the diving girl sign (see day/night image to the left). The Experience, which features round waterbeds and mirrored walls and ceilings, maintains fairly strict standards: "Positively one couple per room." But the rules for outdoor activities are a bit looser. Wandering past pink and purple painted walls, I hear a nasal 'sniff' and look up to spy a heavyset woman in a billowing teddy getting a breath of Sacramento car exhaust. She wears nothing from the waist down and doesn't seem to mind the attention. As she bends over to pick a corn on her feet, I turn to leave.
Down the road, not far from the Golden Motel, the folks who run the Dude Motel have worked to create a small oasis in the middle of the slowly decaying highway. Roses and other colorful blooms sprout perilously close to the streaming traffic. Sitting on the stoop next to the office, a guy hassles with a woman friend: "When I get the money, we'll get out of this shithole." She looks him up and down, saying nothing, but tosses me a wan smile.
Between the Plaza and Sunset Motels lies a grassy field where a pool or even miniature golf course might have entertained folks on sunny days. At the Plaza (next to the beat up car with a smashed out rear windshield and bumper sticker that reads "Nice Legs. When do they open?") two late model Nissan Maximas guard the entrance to an open motel room. Leaning against a post, a dude in a grungy work shirt drags lazily on a cigarette. Without too much effort he follows my eye as I gaze from the cars to the interior where two other guys lie on the bed watching soccer. Across the street, a bench advertises the Three Nos:
As dusk settles into night, odd pieces of neon light up along Highway 40. While Jenny composes a shot, a fellow rides by on his bike, bony legs pumping under a red tank top. For no particular reason, he shouts "I've lived here my whole life! 41 years." Later, while Jenny shoots a photo of the Casa Mobile Park, a small crowd gathers around a nearby bus stop and peers into the digital display of her shot: "It looks a lot better on there than it does up there." Down the road, cops have set up a sobriety checkpoint, vans and testing equipment lined up in grim efficiency. But the officer who stops us is friendly enough: "Had anything to drink?" he asks. " Having a good time?"
The next day, we travel east of Sacramento, where Highway 40 becomes Auburn. Next to Salazar's Dance Studio where two private lessons will set you back twenty bucks (no appointment necessary), the Tradewinds Motel sizzles under a crisp June sun. The Indian owner clad in a traditional sarong is suspicious of visitors, removing a broken broom handle to open the door. Behind her, framed black and white photos of Betty Grable and other forties and fifties luminaries gaze cheerfully. Naturally I ask about them. "The pictures were up when we got here," she mumbles.