A few months ago, edging my way south down through the heart of the high plains, the sun was low as I drove into McCook, Neb. A city that's famous -- in some quarters, anyway -- as the birthplace of Kool-Aid, McCook oversees the Republican River valley. It's home to about 8,000 persons and perhaps an equal number of railroad cars. The hour was late -- driving in the dark makes no sense to me -- and I needed a place to stay. Checking the AAA guidebook, only one local motel presented itself: one of those redoubtable Super 8s.
Not so fast. Okay, I've stayed at my share of Super 8s and Motel 6s over the years. But even at $40-plus for a bed and a shower -- southwest Nebraska is sparsely populated and prices are not at Mayflower levels -- the issue of cost-benefit entered my head. Would staying at the Super
8 put my dollars to their highest and best use? Could I do better using my God-given eyes and my Ford-built windshield?
Time to consider the sub-economy hotel alternative.
Ten minutes later I was checking in at the office of the Red Horse Motel, an older spot on U.S. 6/34, at the eastern edge of town. Without the vintage neon sign announcing its presence, its modest appearance might easily lead a travler to pass it by. Built sometime in the 1960s, it provides 36 rooms with limited amenities: no operational swimming pool, no basket of soaps and rare oils and no breakfast of any continent. Also, you can forget about a cabinet with Fritos for $3 a bag. But the bill for a night's lodging was $28.
At $28 or $228 a night, hotels -- no matter how hard they try -- never achieve the comfort and intimacy of being at home. In its way, Room 12 at the Red Horse was like all hotel accommodations, if at a diminished scale. It was, in a word, adequate. It was certainly small in area, allowing for only the queen-size bed, night stand, a table and chair. A Spartan bathroom provided only the amenities guaranteed by the Geneva Convention: toilet, shower, soap and towel.
The sub-economy motel isn't for everyone. It takes more work to find, it's not always predictable as to either quality or price and it can include the unexpected. It's not always the thing for me. But like many other lower-end, locally owned and operated places I've stayed in over the past 20 years, the Red Horse proved a good deal. You might consider it on your next trip to Nebraska -- perhaps for a week of pheasant hunting or that long-awaited family visit to the High Plains Museum.
Next morning, with a good night's sleep and a refreshed by a world-class hot shower, I was heading south on U.S. 83 in the direction of Leoville and Colby, Kan.
There are times when the combination of low cost and simple-but-adequate accommodations make a place like the Red Horse -- or Lee's Center Court Motel in Batavia, N.Y., or the Route 66 Inn in Amarillo, Tex., or the Budget Inn in Middlebury, Ind. -- both appealing and satisfying.
When traveling on business, I'm just another middle-level cog helping to keep commercial airlines afloat. The destination is likely a major metropolitan area at which there's a conference, a class or some kind of presentation. At night, too, my lodgings are predictable. More than likely, they were selected by my company's travel department and involve an Omni, a Sheraton, a Westin or some other pseudo-luxurious look-alike.
When major vacations or holiday weekends roll around, accommodations of choice involve a different set of criteria. Then, I'm likely to be traveling with my friend Betty, and exhaustive advance research is always part of the methodology. We often book into bed-and-breakfast-type places, but also stay at small hotels or resorts when they seem appealing.
The Out-of-the-Way Way
But for me, there's a third category of travel that has little in common with the first two. In these cases, I am on my own, traveling by automobile -- sometimes by motorcycle -- and rarely am I in a hurry to get anywhere. More often than not, I'm in rural areas and small towns that constitute more than 80 percent of the nation's floor space. Skirting, as much as practicable, the interstate highway system, I
thereby increase the chances of being in out-of-the-way places.
Earlier this year, I was driving east in Oklahoma, along the Kansas line, in the so-called Cherokee Strip section of the Sooner State. Somehow, I ended up in Ponca City, city of "oil, soil and toil," my first visit there. Upon arrival, it was evident to me -- and, I'd imagine, to anyone with a nose -- that Ponca City smells like the giant oil refining and storage machine that it is. Time to move on.
That's how I ended up 15 miles north, a guest at the Golden Acres Motel in Newkirk, Okla. The price: $22. As I signed in, I chatted briefly with Ace Patel, who bought the 16-room motel with his wife, Sue, in 1982. We talked a little about playing golf in northern Oklahoma and their second-oldest son, Prateev, whose bag of clubs was reclining in the corner. I rarely encounter other guests, but do enjoy occasional conversations with motel owners and operators.
The Golden Acres business card reads "Traveling Man's Headquarters," a description that aptly covers the majority of those staying at small motels, in my experience. Construction workers, salesmen of different sorts, hunters -- and, of course, truckers -- make up the vast majority of my fellow cheap motel stayers. I see very few women at these places.
Heating and cooling motel rooms remains an art, not a science, in Oklahoma as much as anywhere. It's hot, it's freezing, the air is dead or you're sleeping in a wind tunnel. I moved the dial to "vent," set the fan on "low" and let heating and cooling pass from my mind. And the smell? Not bad. In my experience, all motel rooms, in one way or another, smell like motel rooms. At the Golden Acres, my room smelled that way -- or perhaps its odor said that it at one time had smelled like a motel room.
The Best Deal Ever
Looking through my records, I find that I spend slightly more than $30 per night, on average, when traveling by myself in smaller places. The best bargain I can recall was $14 or so in rural South Carolina -- but that was a decade ago and I never did get my room's door to lock. When I'm in metropolitan areas, prices assume a wholly different character, of course, and I'm happy to pay $40 or $50 to get what I want.
And what do I want? I certainly have no interest in staying in seedy places or crime-infested dumps. Learning by experience, I've stayed in places that I'd now avoid no matter how attractive the price. One of these was a Fort Worth motel -- where I stayed in 1990 -- that conducted transactions through a window of bulletproof glass. For me, it was both more and less than I needed.
My requirements are modest: clean linens on a decent bed (even if it's just twin-size), a good shower and direct-dial telephone service that allows my PowerBook to be connected to the world. Today, virtually all local motels provide these basics. In addition, they typically boast television with HBO.
Real life and real places rarely conform to simple classifications of expensive vs. more affordable. Even in isolated regions, small cities frequently boast a range of economy lodgings: not just the Motel 6s and Super 8s, but the Hampton Inns, Budget this and Budget that.
For example, take Chillicothe, a small and somewhat remote city in northwest Missouri and the peppy seat of Livingston County. Chillicothe has about 10 motels and you can pay as much as $55 for a single. I poked around for half an hour and ended up at the Holiday Motel, on Old Highway 36 -- meaning it's nearly hidden behind a salvage store and is adjacent to a state school bus storage lot. It was clean and quiet, though, and the bill came to $23.48, including tax.
My room at the Holiday radiated a not uncommon work-in-progress feeling. Its paint job appeared to be evolving -- after many years -- and other room components did not quite give the feel of being in their final places. The sheet of plastic duct-taped on the inside of the air conditioning unit sealed out drafts, but not noise: the family of birds making its nest on the unit's exterior awoke early the next morning and chirped vigorously until I left.
As with many of my sub-economy spots, the feeling of pre-owned furniture constituted part of my room's modest atmosphere. The brown upholstered reading chair was a plus, in the sense that not every room includes one. But it had the feeling, in terms of both quality and age, of having come from someone's garage sale.
The mid-Kansas city of Salina, at the intersection interstates 70 and 135, operates on a different scale. Because of its location, Salina is a popular stopping place for vacationers and other travelers. I approached the city from the east. With more than two dozen hotels and motels in town, there were lots of choices. I wound up at the Howard Johnson Motel on South Ninth Street. Part of its charm is that it has no connection to the HoJo chain -- it was simply started long ago by another man named Howard Johnson. It describes itself as providing "comfort, luxury, economy." True to its claim, it was somewhat fancier than some other local places I've stayed, but the $36.76 I paid to owner Pat Bittinger was well worth it.
William Casey, formerly The Washington Post's director of computer-assisted reporting, can be reached at email@example.com.
At the low end, there's no comprehensive guidebook that lays out accurately what motels are out there and their phone numbers--and that's part of the fun. The majority of these places aren't catalogued anywhere but the local Yellow Pages, and they're not nationally affiliated. Many fly beneath the radar of AAA. Nevertheless, if sub-economy motels sound interesting, and their serendipity fits your approach and pocketbook, here are a few suggestions:
* Look for them. Often they're not in the same part of town as the Hampton Inns or Days Inns. Best bets: the older section of town, or along a road or highway that's been bypassed. Any road signage bearing the suffix "old" is a good bet.
* Expect less, and you'll get it. Less space. Probably no tile in the bathroom. There might be a bathroom rug, but there might just as well be an asphalt tile floor. Tiny bars of soaps--some barely visible to the naked eye--are often the rule.
* Don't be shy about asking to see a room--and saying a polite "no" when it simply won't do. You can't afford to be timid when the alternative is to be stuck in a slum overnight.
* Do not expect to accumulate Marriott Rewards points. --William Casey
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