The 1950s and 1960s were the heydays of America’s love affair with the open road. Gasoline was cheap–20¢ to 30¢ a gallon—and flying was expensive, so during summer vacations many families hit the road in search of adventure or just a break from tedium. They would need a place to stay if they weren’t camping or dragging a trailer, which opened up an opportunity for roadside sleeping accommodations.
There were a few major hotel chains: Holiday Inn with their enormous green, yellow and orange signs; Howard Johnson’s, which added lodging to many of their numerous restaurants in the 1950s, and the Phoenix, Arizona-based Ramada Inn, which opened its first motel in Flagstaff. But many vacationers stayed in small mom-and-pop establishments along highways and near small towns. They were initially known as “motor lodges,” “motor inns,” “motor courts,” or “motor hotels,” which was eventually shortened to “Mo-Tel.” Out West they had romantic-sounding regional names like Aztec, Apache, Desert-Aire, El Sol, Ghost Ranch, Monterey Court, Sun God and Thunderbird. One could park right outside the room and haul everything inside without having to climb stairs or wait for an elevator. They were relatively Spartan compared to now but it was adequate and exciting.
We never took extended family vacations when I was growing up because we didn’t have much money. I lived in Arizona; I finally saw the Grand Canyon 30 years after I’d left the state. And going to Disneyland was completely out of the question. I didn’t miss anything, though. I made it to Disneyland in 1989 during a business trip and was surprised at how small it really was compared to Disney World.
Sometimes, instead of trekking back to Bisbee after visiting friends, we’d stay overnight, or a couple of days, at the Thunderbird Motel in Tucson, on a strip of four-lane highway known as “The Miracle Mile.” We usually got Room 25, one of the few with two double beds. It had real air-conditioning unlike the ubiquitous evaporative “swamp coolers” found in most desert homes. The beds were made with white linens stretched so tight and smooth you could bounce a quarter off them. I’d never used a shower before staying there. And I remember that crisp, clean smell that welcomed us when we walked in, untainted by cooking, wet animals or old beer farts.
The swimming pool was the best part: bow-tie shaped; going from two feet at one end and eight feet at the other end where the diving board sat, and surrounded by tasteful desert foliage. I’d change into my bathing suit as fast as I could and run out the sliding glass door. I can still remember jumping feet first into the water and the abrupt change in sound from outside noise to that other-worldly SCHWOOOOOP as the water closed in around my ears. There was an underwater light at the shallow end; I’d swim up to it, sometimes with my eyes closed because it was so bright.
I don’t ever recall my mother or step-father sitting poolside to make sure I didn’t drown. Maybe they watched from the room or listened for a distress call. Maybe they trusted me not to do anything stupid. Or maybe they just weren’t as paranoid as parents have become.
The Interstate Highway System marked the beginning of the end for the roadside motel. I-10 bypassed the Miracle Mile and by the mid-1970s it had become a haven for prostitutes, drug dealers and gangs. Many of the landmarks were demolished and in 1987 the Miracle Mile returned to its old name, Oracle Road. The golden era had come to an end.
Time heals some wounds. The Thunderbird has found new life as a men’s residential recovery center for Teen Challenge Arizona, an honorable use of an old building. The nearby Monterey Court now houses galleries, specialty shops, a café and an outdoor venue for live performances. The Ghost Ranch Lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places and was converted to senior housing.
I spend a lot of time in hotels, but none of them compare to the thrill I got staying at the Thunderbird. T