Call me crazy, but somewhere along the line, I have fallen in love with motels. I guess the reason is that a motel is a refuge – shelter, warmth and rest after a day of rough-and-tumble on the road. It’s a welcoming home of sorts — a bivouac, a foxhole, a windbreak.
I will always remember pulling into the tiny motel in Cuba, in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, in a freak blizzard, in a car with summer tires. We had no reservation, but we simply couldn’t go on. I can still see the rosy neon sign — Cuban Lodge Vacancy — glowing bravely through the blowing snow. To our utter and everlasting relief the night-manager was glad to accommodate us. Believe me, we didn’t check the star-rating, but I’d have given it five, sight unseen.
I reckon the cheaper you can get your true necessities, the better. In fact, the cheaper accommodation is, the longer you can afford to stay on the road. It’s your basic economics.
Properly considered, there’s an air of mystery about motels. Questions arise. Who has stayed in this room? Let your imagination go. Imagine a long queue of people who’ve stayed there, names, occupations, plans. Where were they going? What were they going through? What plots were hatched here, what trysts concealed or exposed?
I love the zany names and outlandish signs; I’ve seen hundreds of them – The Hi-Lo, The Capri, The Stardust, The El Rancho, The Aloha, The Tiki, The Bit-0-Paris, The Hotel-Motel, The El Sol, and a great favorite of mine (with a nod to The Eagles), The Motel California.
The word motel began appearing in dictionaries after WWII. It is, of course, a fusion of the words motor and hotel, a literary device called a portmanteau. The first place to use the word was the Milestone Mo-Tel in San Luis Obisbo, California, in 1925. This, the world’s first motel, later renamed The Motel Inn, closed in 1991, and has since been demolished. This is a great pity — I’d nominate it as a Shrine of the Road, a National Monument, if not a World Heritage Site – a fine piece of old-school Americana. I’d pay big money to stay there.
But, to be honest, if I’m trying to find an acceptable place to stay, Motel 6 (“M6”) springs immediately to mind. Everyone seems to have an opinion on M6 — generally unfavorable. Most of these negative opinions, I believe, are ill-founded. I have stayed in dozens of them — some are excellent (for what they are), others need a facelift, or perhaps a change of neighborhood — but OK in a pinch. You should research your choice of motel online a bit; my favorite site is TripAdvisor. On a given property you get the full range of reviews — from Excellent (“Best M6 in the country!!”), to Terrible (“This place sucks — rude staff, cigar-stink, loose toilet, and dead cat under bed”).
You obviously need to pick a place where most of the reviews are favorable. Don’t be discouraged, however, by the odd Terrible rating, all M6s have some. These trollish reviewers usually don’t understand the spartan philosophy of M6, and get furious about the lack of amenities, or, say, a missing bath-tub plug.
When I’m on a road trip and wondering where to spend the night, I simply go to a convenient McDonalds, grab a coffee, and use my iPhone and their free wifi to do my market research. You can’t really go wrong. Most M6 guests, incidentally, turn up without reservations.
Motel 6 was founded in 1962 in Santa Barbara, California by two local builders, Wm Becker and Paul Greene. They set out to build a chain of budget accommodation. They figured they could build staff and run a profitable motel charging $6 a night per unit – hence the company name. I’ve stayed at the Santa Barbara M6; it’s now $177 a night, before tax — but it’s nice, and just a block from the beach.
These original M6s were bereft of “frills”, to be sure – no Kleenex, shampoo, radio, phone or clock — but they were clean and reasonably comfortable. I was amused to learn that their “television receivers” were coin-operated black and white jobs. The decor was described as “functional for easy cleaning”. One imagines a maid blasting the rooms with an industrial pressure-washer.
There are now1100 M6s in North America at the moment; the brand is owned by The Blackstone Group of Manhattan, an enormous multinational private equity company with offices worldwide; they’re doing fine, with $300B in assets under management.
A note about “pet-friendliness” is in order. We usually travel with our Australian Shepherd, Rosie. Many motels won’t accept pets; they’re simply too much work for the management. Those that do usually charge a hefty fee – about $25 a night. But I’m here to tell you — M6 does it for free; this really helps the budget when you’re on a long trip. Because so many Boomers travel with pets these days, M6 has found it profitable to adopt this policy, and I am grateful for it. Nowadays, you often see well-heeled travelers with fancy cars at M6, mostly, I believe, because of the liberal pet policy.
In the mid-80s, the wizards at M6 head office launched an advertising campaign – a clever and successful one. They thought of TV ads, but figured the featureless rooms wouldn’t turn anyone’s crank. Accordingly, they decided on a radio campaign. They needed an announcer with an honest, unpretentious, friendly voice. Enter Tom Bodett, a builder and occasional contributor to National Public Radio, in Homer, Alaska.
In the M6 ads Bodett rambles engagingly, with hillbilly music in the background.
“Let’s give the phrase ‘in this economy’ a rest….Motel 6 has the lowest prices of any national motel chain….something to think about, in this economy —oops.”
“At Motel 6, you needn’t look for avocado body balm or French milled soap.”
“We were frugal before frugal was cool.”
His famous tagline:
“We’ll leave the light on for you.”
You just have to smile. Bodett’s ads have won numerous awards through the years for innovation and creativity — and no wonder.
So, as I say, somewhere along the line I fell in love with the idea of the motel, and especially M6. M6 is the underdog of the lodging world, the plain-jane who tries hard, the VW Beetle of accommodation. People from all walks stay there, from millionaires to welfare recipients. You’d fit right in. All the rooms are the same, so it’s like going into your own bedroom at the end of the day. You know what to expect, and where everything is. Pretty clean and pretty comfy and really frugal – in my books, M6 is the unsung hero of the road.