I want to take a road trip like it’s 1975. Start off at the Conoco fillin’ station for a map (free with fill-up), pack some sardines, shoestring potatoes and RC Cola and drive until everyone in the family has the urge to vomit and cry.
When I’m so tired I can’t see up from down, I want to find a decent motel with a swimming pool for the young’uns and a coffee shop that opens at 5 a.m. so I can get up in the dark, destroy everyone’s sleep with nose blowing and whatnot and then walk across the parking lot for a sweet roll and black coffee served by a waitress who calls me hon.
I figure I can go pretty deep into this charade with the sardines and maybe an old paper map, but the scarcity of motels—real motor hotels—would cause me to break character and initiate a Google search on my iPhone to find what I need.
Motels were once the kings of the road, but somewhere along the way the word motel was excised from our road trip lexicon as America’s lodging companies decided it was too low-brow. Our “upgrade” was a fake-stucco, multistory box sealed off from the outside world. Instead of driving up to the door of our room, we now schlep all our stuff in totes across a parking lot. Then everybody gets squashed into an elevator that most often is terrifyingly slow and jerky. Next morning, we serve our own lukewarm breakfast on styrofoam plates waiting behind people who haven’t combed their hair or changed out of their pajamas.
But travel with me, if you will, to Amarillo’s old Northeast Eighth—Route 66—during a time when stopping for the night was the best part of a trip. Under the glow of humming neon signs at the Plainsman, the Vic Mon or the Chalet, travelers could rest up for the next day’s drive, in comfort and style. Along Route 66, the motor hotel reached the apex of indulgence on a budget, and Amarillo (you’ll see) was a motel mecca in the golden years of highway travel.
Motels were the offspring of tourist camps—campgrounds for cars where folks either slept in car seats or pitched a tent. Mentions of “tourist camps” first appeared in Amarillo newspapers in the early to mid-1920s. Then in 1926, U.S. Route 66 was laid out from Chicago to Los Angeles with Amarillo smack dab in the middle, and it didn’t take long for local entrepreneurs to see that paved roads and better tires were helping Americans travel longer distances without stopping. When they stopped, they were dog-tired and needed a good bed and hot food in order to recharge. The rustic tourist camps quickly evolved into tourist courts featuring cabins that sheltered both the traveler and the car they drove up in. This transformation gave us the word motel, a portmanteau of motor and hotel.
Amarillo boasted more than 30 motels by the 1930s, mostly along Route 66. Many evoked a Southwest feel with faux adobe walls complete with vigas protruding from the roofline. Almost every room came with a one-car garage, so the Roadster could get some rest, too.
By the ’50s and ’60s, Amarillo’s motels caught the Mad Men bug hard, rocking a modern aesthetic of plate glass and sleek lines. Swimming pools, in-house diners and, oh yes, ice machines were de rigueur for a prime motel experience. Some offered full-service banquet facilities, like the Vic Mon, built in the early ’60s along the new 66 bypass. Lodging felt like a Las Vegas resort. The traveling public loved it.
Interstate 40, a late-1960s addition to the highway network, largely destroyed this magic on old 66 in Amarillo. Business dried up, by the ’70s, the empty rooms found more exotic uses. Some memorable new motels were built on the Interstate, however. We got the Camelot out of that trade, and don’t forget the lush tropical atrium of the Villa Inn or the recreational wonders of the Holidome at the old Holiday Inn off Ross.
These motels brought the outside in sans the dust and wind. Shutting out the world, however, was the trend that ultimately pushed motels toward irrelevance. The older, autocentric accommodations began to seem outdated in the ’80s and ’90s. Travelers started to prefer rooms that didn’t open into a parking lot.
Motor hotels have struggled in the decades since but are making a comeback. Taking inspiration from Tucumcari, our Route 66 sister to the west, owners of some of the remaining properties on old 66 have made some nice changes. One example is the former True Rest Motel, which has been spruced up and rebranded as the Route 66 Inn in an effort to bring tourists back to the old road.
A growing class of travelers are keen on a more traditional type of road trip (without the vomit and tears) and a restored motel is a trip back to a simpler time. That’s a good thing. There’s a certain poetry in road noise and sunsets viewed from a patio chair at the front door of your room, and that poetry reads like America.