Nat Cole's "Route 66." Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Lucy and Desi's Long, Long Trailer. After World War II Americans hit the road in record numbers, and the pop culture machine couldn't help but take notice.
This all changed with President Eisenhower's Interstate Highway Act in 1956, which aimed to tie the nation's major cities together with a system of superhighways. By 1960, more than 10,000 miles of new asphalt were in place. It was by these new routes that Americans would reach the future. The grand old highways, and the hundreds of small communities that survived because of them, were bypassed and left to wither away.
Some of the roadside inns continued to eke out a living, taking in the occasional tourist or trucker, but most were abandoned or converted into residences. As a result, though Americans in general were enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity, their rural neighbors were beset by economic gloom.
Enter Alfred Hitchcock.
For an interesting study of the effects that the Highway Act had on rural communities, see his 1960 film Psycho. After escaping Phoenix, Arizona, Marion (Janet Leigh) accidentally turns off of the newly built main interstate onto the older U.S. Highway that leads to the Bates Motel. This exchange follows:
Look closely when she signs the motel register, and you'll see that The Bates hadn't taken in a single guest in over eight months. Imagine the Bates' feelings when they were, in effect, put out of business by the new interstate that rerouted travelers away from their motel. No wonder Norman had an attitude problem.
In fact, it could be argued that the real evil in Psycho is not Norman Bates at all, but those forces in our society that scuttled the American Dream for countless small town communities across the nation.
Then, in the mid-'60s, U.S. 99 was replaced by Interstate 5. The portion of the old highway that runs through the north end of Portland was renamed Interstate Avenue. But when completed, the I-5 freeway, built several blocks to the east, offered precious few off-ramps to bring travelers to the businesses that had been built in hopes of serving this new generation of travelers.
The house that I grew up in during the '70s and '80s was one block off of Interstate Avenue, and it wasn't uncommon to see prostitutes in front of the Rose City Motel, or to see a police car lurch into the parking lot of The Viking Motel. The enormous sign of a local church warned passersby that "The wages sin pays is death" in brimstone-worthy gothic lettering. Interstate Avenue was a neighborhood full of potential -- or, who knows? literal -- Norman Bateses.
Miraculously, the vintage motels are still there. And their signage is a flamboyant theme park of neon and painted tin. Las Vegas in miniature. If they haven't been protected under the Historic Register Act, they should be. These signs harken back to an era when automobile travel was practiced as if it was a constitutional right, part of our Manifest Destiny.
There's the Westerner Motel, an enormous metal plank topped by a jauntily tilted neon cowboy hat. I imagine a boy from another era persuading his parents to stop here for the night. After tucking their son in to bed, they sneak across the street to the South Pacific island-themed Alibi Restaurant for a cocktail in the Tiki Room, a lounge that features wooden Tiki idols and imitation grass roofs. It is dark and exotic and underworldly. You half expect Jack Lord to emerge from the men's room.
The Palms Motor Hotel crouches behind a neon sign that is perhaps 40 feet tall and 15 feet wide. It features palm trees, monkeys, and a massive yellow illuminated arrow that points you toward the lobby. As a bonus, prospective guests are promised FREE TV. Not to be outdone by The Palms, the nearby Mel's Motor Inn offers wayfarers DIRECT DIAL PHONES and COLOR TV.
By 1975, over 42,000 miles of superhighway had been built, relegating nearly half of the older U.S. Highways to the status of "bypass" or, worse, were decommissioned altogether. For many small towns that struggled for their existence even under the best conditions, the superhighway system was the final blow to their survival.
Independently owned motor courts were further marginalized by corporate chains like Motel 6, which opened its first location in Santa Barbara in 1962, attracting budget travelers at $6 per night. The thrill of discovering the unique atmosphere of a local roadside motel was eventually replaced by the bland assurances of sameness and efficiency.