A few days ago I returned from a long road trip to Colorado. It’s a trip we’ve made many times over the last twenty years visiting family. This time, we stayed at some nice hotels, each with a pool and slide. When my daughter was young, we would drop our bags in the room and immediately go off to check out the pool. Those days are gone. Now as a seventeen-year-old, my daughter’s chief concern is the hotel wifi password.
It got me thinking about my own experiences growing up. In the late 70s-early 80s, we usually stayed at motels. (If you’re not clear on the difference, motels are generally 1 or 2 floors and provide rooms with direct access to the parking lot.)
The motels didn’t have wifi, but they were absolutely magical places to a young kid. I have countless memories of rolling into a parking lot with a buzzing neon “Vacancy” sign around dusk at a town in the Canadian Rockies or deep in the California Redwoods, or out in the desert Southwest. Set against that backdrop, here are my top memories (in no particular order) of staying at a motel as a kid:
- Getting a quarter from mom to run the Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed that could turn any tired bed into a temporary amusement park ride.
- Begging for more quarters to play video games like Centipede and Pac Man by the pool.
- Begging for 2 more quarters to buy a Coke from the glowing vending machine.
- Filling up the ice bucket and dropping your Coke into the middle of it (while pretending it’s a bottle of champagne).
- Swimming in the sketchy pool with the rickety slide as the sun sets over the horizon while cars roared by on the highway.
- Walking with your sibling to the K-Mart next to the motel to scout out their display of toys and tacky tourist stuff. (And if you’re lucky, finding a cool Hot Wheels that you could afford.)
- Visiting the motel lobby and loading up on the brochures from the brochure rack advertising local attractions. Attempting to persuade Dad that you just need to visit “Butterfly World” or the “Gold Rush Museum” before hitting the road tomorrow.
- Running back to the lobby because mom said you could buy a postcard to mail to your friend in the morning.
- Going to Sambo’s for dinner. I loved Sambo’s as a kid, not because of the food (it was standard diner fare) but because of the jungle-themed decor: it was kind of like a Tiki bar for kids. (Unfortunately, I would only learn years later that this decor was exploiting the racism of Little Black Sambo.)
- Watching The Dukes of Hazzard on that new color TV before bedding down for the night.
Staying at those motels illustrated the old principle that life is a journey, not a destination. And these modest motels with their glowing neon signs and Googie architecture were an essential part of my childhood journey.
All that magic, and we never even had wifi…