Bryson's America: At least the Bates Motel had shower curtains

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The Independent Culture
SOMETHING I have long wanted to do - and if this column came with expenses I'd be doing it right now - is visit the Motel Inn in San Luis Obispo, California.

On the face of it, this may seem an odd quest since the Motel Inn is not, by all accounts, a particularly prepossessing establishment. Built in 1925 in the Spanish colonial style much beloved by Californians, Zorro and almost no one else, it sits in the shadow of a busy, elevated freeway amid a cluster of gas stations, fast-food outlets and other, more modern, motor inns.

Once, however, it was a famous stopping-place on the coastal highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. A Pasadena architect, Arthur Heineman, gave it its exuberant style, but his most inspired legacy lies in the name that he chose for it. Playing around with the words "motor" and "hotel", he dubbed it a mo-tel, hyphenating the word to emphasise its novelty.

America already had lots of motels by then, but they were all called something else - auto court, cottage court, hotel court, tour-o-tel, auto hotel, bungalow court, cabin court, tourist camp, tourist court, trav- o-tel. For a long time it looked as though "tourist court" would become the standard designation. It wasn't until about 1950 that "motel" achieved generic status.

I know all this because I have just been reading a book on the history of the motel in America called, with dazzling originality, The Motel in America. It is an awfully dull piece of work, full of sentences like "The needs of both consumers and purveyors of lodging strongly influenced the development of organised systems of distribution" - but I bought the book and devoured it anyway because I love everything about motels.

The golden age of motels was also, as it happens, the golden age of me - the Fifties - and I suppose that's what accounts for my fascination. For anyone who didn't travel around America by car in the Fifties it is almost impossible now to imagine how thrilling they were. As late as 1962, 98 per cent of motels were individually owned, so each one had its own character.

Essentially they were of two types. The first type were the good ones. These nearly always had a homely, cottagy air. Typically, they were built around a generous lawn with shady trees and a flowerbed decorated with a wagon wheel painted white. (The owners, for some reason, generally liked to paint all their rocks white, too, and array them along the edge of the drive.) Often they had a swimming-pool and a gift shop or coffee shop.

Indoors they offered measures of comfort and elegance that would have the whole family cooing - thick carpet, purring air-conditioner, a night- stand with a private phone and a built-in radio, a television set at the foot of the bed, a private bath, sometimes a dressing-area, and Vibro- beds, which gave you a massage for a quarter.

The second kind of motels were the appalling ones. We always stayed at these. My father, who was one of history's great cheapskates, was of the view that there was no point in spending money on... well, on anything really, and certainly not on anything that you were mostly going to be asleep in.

In consequence we normally camped in motel rooms where the beds sagged and the furnishings were battered, and where you could generally count on being awakened in the night by a piercing shriek, the sounds of splintering furniture and a female voice pleading, "Put the gun down, Vinnie. I'll do anything you say." I don't wish to suggest that these experiences left me scarred and embittered, but I can remember watching Janet Leigh being hacked up in the Bates Motel in Psycho and thinking, "At least she got a shower curtain."

All of this, even at its worst, gave highway travel a kind of exhilarating unpredictability. You never knew what quality of comfort you would find at the end of the day; what sort of small pleasures might be on offer. It gave road trips a piquancy that the homogenised refinements of the modern age cannot match.

That changed very quickly with the rise of motel chains. Holiday Inn, for instance, went from 79 outlets in 1958 to almost 1,500 in less than 20 years. Today just five chains account for one-third of all the motel rooms in America. Travellers these days don't want uncertainty in their lives. They want to stay in the same place, eat the same food, watch the same television wherever they go.

Recently, while driving from Washington DC to New England with my own family, I tried explaining this to my children, and got the idea that we should stop for the night at an old-fashioned, family-run place. Everyone thought this was an immensely stupid idea, but I insisted that it would be great.

Well, we looked everywhere. We passed scores of motels, but they were all part of national chains. Eventually, after perhaps 90 minutes of futile hunting, I pulled off the interstate for the seventh or eighth time and - lo! - there shining out of the darkness was the Sleepy Hollow Motel, a perfect, Fifties sort of place.

"There's a Comfort Inn across the street," one of my children pointed out.

"We don't want a Comfort Inn, Jimmy," I explained, temporarily forgetting in my excitement that I don't have a child named Jimmy. "We want a real motel."

My wife, being English, insisted on having a look at the room. It was awful, of course. The furnishings were battered and threadbare. The room was so cold you could see your breath. There was a shower curtain, but it hung by just three rings.

"It's got character," I insisted.

"It's got nits," said my wife. "We'll be across the road at the Comfort Inn."

In disbelief, I watched them troop out. "You'll stay, won't you, Jimmy?" I said, but even he left without a backward glance.

I stood there for about 15 seconds, then switched off the light, returned the key and went across to the Comfort Inn. It was very bland and just like every Comfort Inn I had ever stayed in. But it was clean, the television set worked and, it must be said, the shower curtain was very nice.

`Notes from a Big Country' by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, pounds 16.99) can be purchased at major bookshops or by mail order on 01624 675137