Checkout time at the last motel

Since the frontiersmen rolled out their wagons and headed West, since Jack Kerouac first stuck out his thumb and hitched a ride, hitting the road has been at the heart of the American dream. But the dream is dying. And the first casualty? That quintessential Stateside resting-place: the $25-a night palace of dreams
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The Independent US

Dusk is just beginning to gather when we drive slowly into the small town of Kilgore in north-eastern Texas. Kilgore is a college town, it has services; it has, according to the state guidebooks, a town centre that is under a conservation order. These are all promising signs that it might also have something else: a cluster of small motels somewhere on the outskirts which will provide a comfortable and congenial night's rest. And that, right now, is the priority.

Dusk is just beginning to gather when we drive slowly into the small town of Kilgore in north-eastern Texas. Kilgore is a college town, it has services; it has, according to the state guidebooks, a town centre that is under a conservation order. These are all promising signs that it might also have something else: a cluster of small motels somewhere on the outskirts which will provide a comfortable and congenial night's rest. And that, right now, is the priority.

With a practised eye, you can spot a promising motel a mile off. It should look neat and clean, with a paved yard, and maybe - in the south - a small swimming-pool. It should have its office clearly posted, and its sign brightly lit at nightfall. A small "AAA Approved" sign is a definite plus. The building should not be too big (that makes it too "commercial") and not too small (these are just not a going concern, and experience suggests that they come perilously close to being dosshouses). They may be all in one long, low block, semicircular, or split up into cabins or cottage units.

When you walk into the office, it may take a little time to raise the owner; that doesn't matter. He or she may be feeding the family or the cats, or watching television. The important thing is that the office should be clean and tidy, preferably with a display of local tourist brochures and a stack of local restaurant menus. And the owner/manager does not have to be profusely welcoming, just passably pleasant and, above all, willing to let you see a room. Sometimes they will give you a couple of keys to take a look yourself; sometimes they will come with you, sometimes they say no: take it or leave it. In which case we leave it. Always.

Once you are allowed to see the room, chances are that it will be entirely acceptable: one or two double beds, carpet, television (not always with a remote control), bath or shower and clean towels, and heater or air-conditioner, according to the season. The price, depending where you are in the US and whether it is a holiday or weekend, will be anywhere between $25 (£15) and $60. More, and you are into hotel territory. Less? Well, suffice it to say that you probably would not have stopped there in the first place.

For decades, the moderately priced small motel was a staple of the American road culture. It was the modest, but civilised, lodging that allowed whole families to traverse America in their very first car on their very first paid vacations. For all the Jack Kerouacs and James Deans, there were thousands of ordinary Americans, and not a few foreign tourists like ourselves, whose first encounter with grass-roots America was from the road. And, though few seem to have noticed, that chapter of American history is drawing to a close.

The "conserved" centre of Kilgore was hard to find, partly because it comprised only half a dozen streets, and few functioning services. We made for the interstate highway; Kilgore, like so many small towns once orientated on their railway station, has refocused itself on the trunk-road system. Sure enough, just a couple of miles away from the old Kilgore was the new Kilgore: the college campus, a couple of museums, and a thriving thoroughfare of seemingly endless shopping centres.

And there, at a slight curve in the road, at the end of a short drive and slightly elevated, stood an absolute classic of the genre: the Community Inn motel. With clean lines, a neatly trimmed lawn and an illuminated Sixties-style neon sign, it was exactly what we had been hoping to find. Except that when we drove up to the entrance, the sign, instead of advertising the room rates or facilities - cable TV, Jacuzzis, or whatever - said: "Sale Tonight".

The Community Inn at Kilgore was indeed a classic of its genre in every way, including its demise. The privately owned motels that have clustered beside the country's highways, accommodating travellers through the heyday of American family motoring, are fading away. During a decade of driving for work and pleasure in many different regions of the United States, we have found it steadily harder to find these standbys of Fifties and Sixties road culture.

On this most recent trip, through Louisiana and eastern Texas, we stayed only one of seven nights in a family owned motel. And even then the single-storey clapboard building was showing its age: the floors were a little creaky, and it needed a coat of paint. Still, it looked out over the dunes, there were a couple of restaurants within walking distance, and the owner was affable. Old-style resort areas such as this, by the coast or inland, are the last repositories of the small motels. But as the owners retire, so the motels - or the land they stand on - are sold off or simply abandoned.

Among the few new buyers for family-run motels as going concerns are first-generation Indian immigrants, who have become a conspicuous presence in the small-motel sector. Whether because of prejudice or the higher prices they tend to charge, the Indian motel-owners are, by and large, not popular. One of the first indications that Indians have been buying into an area are signs reading "American owned and operated" on other motels in the vicinity, and observation suggests that their rooms are often the last to be let on any given evening.

By buying two or three small motels in one small town, or one stretch of road, one family can establish a mini-monopoly and jack up the prices. But observation also suggests that the motel way of life is not for the next generation: like the sons and daughters of their parents' predecessors, they are making their way into management in the big chain hotels, where the hours and pay are more predictable and the benefits, such as healthcare and pensions, offer a measure of security.

It is to the chain hotels, too, that former motel-enthusiasts now resort, as we reluctantly had to do in Kilgore. At the opposite end of the shopping strip from the defunct motel was a cluster of familiar signboards reaching into the by now dark sky: a Holiday Inn, a Ramada, a Day's and a Hampton Inn, all conveniently sited for the interstate highway.

The benefits - consistent standards and lack of surprises - are also drawbacks: the so-called "cookie-cutter" architecture, the interior decor, even many of the café menus, are all standard across the United States. Any sense of place has been lost, except as supplied by the printed brochures about local attractions set out in the lobby.

The rise of mass air travel, the expansion of business travel, and the completion of the interstate motorway network, along with customers' demands for more predictably comfortable accommodation, have all contributed to the decline of the small motel, as have inheritance taxes and rises in land values near major arteries.

The small motel is not the only emblem of America's romance with the road that is nearing extinction. The roadside diner, with its chrome-edged lunch counter, mock-leather booths and tabletop juke-boxes, has ceded so much ground to McDonald's and Burger King that it is starting to return as retro-chic parody. No upmarket shopping mall is now complete without its very own branch of "Johnny Rocker's", serving hamburgers, milkshakes and perhaps even "breakfast all day", but not, alas, the home-made meatloaf and lemon-meringue of yore.

The fabled cross-continent roads, such as the east-west Route 66 and the north-south Route 1, have also fallen on hard times. Maintenance money goes first to the motorways, leaving these pioneering roadways to the locals - and a declining band of inveterate nostalgics who still take pleasure in experiencing the glories of the North American landscape from the windows of a car.

In a country as fast-moving as this, where the old is banished with as much alacrity as the new is embraced, the passing of the road culture may prove an exception. Though scantily chronicled as yet, it already occupies a special place in American hearts. At a recent exhibition entitled "See the USA" in Washington, the fortysomethings and above were out in force, reminiscing almost tearfully about their family journeys to distant parts. The early road maps, the postcards, the quirky gas stations, the diners, and - of course - the motels were all recalled in loving detail.

"Makes me want to hit the road right now," wrote one of the many contributors to the visitors' book. The majority, though, let slip a singularly un-American yen for the past. "Makes me want to travel back in time," read one of the more characteristic. "Look at how the country has degenerated."

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