If there were nagging questions in my mind that riding my motorcycle for 50 days across the continent to rediscover 50 mid-century motels, meet the moteliers and learn the stories behind the icons of a classic era in Americana history was in any way a flight of fancy, I declare today it is not!
Last week, on a cool November morning, I went for a ride. With no particular destination in mind, I set the GPS to give me a round trip 3-hour route on some new country roads and took off.
After an hour on the road, I approached a crossroads and something caught my eye. I have never been here before, nor did I really know where I was. But, at one of the four corners, in a small fenced field beside one house, were five grazing head of cattle, the fuselage of an aircraft staged to look like a crash, and painstakingly mounted on the side of a shed were the skeletal remains of a vintage neon sign with the letters M O T E L perfectly spaced. The symbolism struck so hard I almost lost control of my bike.
I pulled over to the soft shoulder and dismounted. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was five weeks to the day I turned 50 and one month to the day that my Dad passed away. Dad introduced me to motorcycles and even loaned me the money to buy my first bike. He was a philosopher, a sailor, a diplomat and a lifelong public servant. On family vacations growing up, Dad always preferred to stay at independent motels and hotels to meet the locals and relished engaging in conversations with them. He also loved cows. No one ever understood why, he just did. And one of his prized possessions was a painting of cows in a pasture.
But if the symbolism of the cattle and motel sign weren’t enough, there was the airplane fuselage that amplified the scene. In August, Dad’s only brother also passed away. I didn’t know him well, but I remember my uncle as a war hero. He was a Lancaster Bomber pilot during the Second World War who was shot down. Hearing of his story growing up, I often imagined what that experience must have been like.
So here I am, standing mesmerized trying to absorb what I’m seeing–just me, my bike, the cattle, and the aircraft with the MOTEL sign. The scene is surreal, unscripted and staged like a movie set. And though I don’t hear the Twilight Zone music, before me in full view and built to scale is the metaphor of this journey, telling me to do this.
So no, this isn’t a flight of fancy. But I invite you to join me on this ride where together we can rediscover the highway icons of the past and a classic bit of Americana history!
“I know that we are all fated to live and die alone, but, if there is to be any communication with others, I must assume all other humans must, to a very large degree, share my perception of ‘reality’. The history and the perspectives must be different, but we are all in the same play. All of us either tied by bonds of determinism or ricocheting through chaos. And if our spark of being is, in fact, only a spark, then being is one and the same time the biggest jackpot and the biggest joke in the universe.” – A.Kingsley Beattie, July 7 1992