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Motel Lover

Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, image
Photo caption
The Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mex., is on the National Register of Historic Places.


Andrew Wood's mom never had time to take the family on road trips. Now assistant professor of communication studies at San Jose State, Wood combs the country with his wife, photographer Jenny Wood, for the coolest motels to enshrine at, their tribute to the American roadside inn.

Q: What exactly is the difference between a hotel and a motel?

A: Motels are autocentric, with an emphasis on privacy and individualism. Hotels require you to enter through a lobby and go through a ritual of surveillance and display.

Q: Why the motel mania?

A: Motels are the confluence of culture, history, and architecture. They're where you meet real Americans.

Q: What's one of your faves?

A: The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, Calif., is just about the tackiest, gaudiest, most jaw-droppingly bizarre place I've spent time. There's an obsession with pink—you can get pink sugar. And each room is unique, like the caveman room or the '50s room—that's the 1850s.

  Q: What kinds of things do motel connoisseurs appreciate?

A: First, the neon sign. Then there are the old metal chairs. At night, you can sit out on one of these chairs, chat with strangers, and you've got a community. Last, and more rare, are the individual garages.

Q: Where can you find those?

A: On the outskirts of town along aging highways. Invariably, these places are past their prime, but some owners still take pride in their tourist courts. The Blue Swallow in Tucumcari, N.M., comes to mind.

Q: Are you a sucker for kitsch?

A: Staying in an old motel isn't just a goofy experience. It's about living momentarily in a simpler time.

Photography by Jenny Wood


This article was first published in March 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.