American Motels

The American motel deserves its place as part of our collective cultural imagination, an iconic symbol of freedom and the open road. Almost always a spare, decrepit room, even its bleakness is part of the charm; neon signs, crummy wall-to-wall carpeting and all, its honesty and sheer plainness possesses nobility.

The first motor hotels began to appear in the southwest United States in the mid 1920’s, in conjunction with the rise of the automobile, providing respite for the weary traveler looking to catch some Z’s on the roadside.

Yet throughout 20th century cinema and literature, there is usually something slightly ominous about the motel; a kind of unspoken dark side, conjuring images of hot desert landscapes, L.A. noir thrillers and the infamous shower scene from Psycho.  All variety of lost men, criminals on the lam, and extramarital adulterers consist some of the the usual menu of what’s going on in these places, each seeking “a type of seclusion and anonymity which is to be found nowhere else.”

Kim Bowen expresses this idea most eloquently in her tone poem on the subject from The Manipulator [No. 23,1991]:

“How is it that one’s sensations are so expertly blended as to lead to a feeling of such charmed terror the minute you lock your door behind you, the turned key spilling its hugely oversized key-ring which clunks dully on the chipped paint around the handle.  Could it be the awful symmetry of the beds, burnt umber covers skimming them perfectly, the queerly matched carpet, the peculiar alcoves especially designed for suitcases destined never to be unpacked, the art chosen by an unseeing eye. . . Who can say they have felt truly safe behind that flimsy door which opens not onto a community safe and familiar, but onto a lonely highway leading from and to who knows what.

Despite the classic quay-shaped design, inviting a merry intimacy, who can know who lurks in the cabin across the way.  At night, the only true friend is the moonlight reflecting on the bonnets of the cars nosed in like pigs in a trough.”

In the motel, Americans can see themselves clearly reflected.