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Motoring in America

Traveling recently through the Southeast, visiting some of the older, smaller cities, I have been impressed anew by the disappearance of all places to stop overnight except for the chains of large motels. Most of these are situated at the side of a large highway, often several miles from the center of town. As far as the surroundings reveal, one might be anywhere except where one is; and the interiors are as standardized as the food. Through the night the roar of passing cars and trucks sounds inexorably.

I have nothing against the motel chains --locality and reduce travel to a series of bland, unidentifiable one-night pauses. At their best, to be quite fair, these motels can be comfortable; the fare can be consumable, the service cheerful, and an air of professional efficiency overlies the entire operation. But a price is paid for these benefits. If one is assured of escaping the misadventures of traveling, one is also deprived of the unexpected discovery, the rememberable encounter.

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My own experience as a traveler in America goes back a good many years. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was in its heyday when I was at college, and it was my delight, during several summer vacations to motor with a friend to see what was going on in the country at large. Novel experiments were being set on foot -- to dam rivers, bring electricity to rural communities, plant forests, clear trails, and in general to put people back to work. Observing and listening as we crossed and recrossed the continent, we often slept at night under the stars. It was a good way, we felt, to get a sense of the land, but it is not necessarily one I would recommend in place of a Holiday Inn.

Yet there were at that time, and for a good many years afterward, lodgings of a kind appealing to the weary or the curious traveler. One of these was the tourist cabin. Set out in neat rows, each with its own space around it and its little front porch, these primitive structures gave one the illusion of being free and independent. Gradually these cabins were brought closer together, then piled on one another in wings or towers. The new word for them, motel, was invented. In place of the natural airs which once breezed through the cabins' opened windows, air conditioning was installed; and communal balconies took the place of individual porches.

Even better than these cabins -- for they brought one deeper into the heart of the community -- were the tourist homes. Almost everyone of my generation will remember the old houses where Main Street stretched beyond the town's central core, often tree-surrounded and with well-kept lawns, which bore discreet signs indicating that tourists were taken in. In these I have found conversable souls, ready to expound local history or discuss political trends, and making the Traveler feel thoroughly at home. I suppose that nowadays no one quite dares be hospitable to the stranger passing through town. Besides, many of those ample, ancient structures have been torn down. The tourist signs have vanished, and with them has gone one of the most delightful of American institutions.

If one wanted to stop for a week or two, extending one's researches into rural or small-town lore, there was still another resource -- the boardinghouse. I can recall now many a crowd of wayfarers gathered about a single round table in the evening, or on Sunday, eating the proverbial chicken. Here fates crossed temporarily; one caught glimpses of human beings as they partly revealed themselves, often hesitantly, half-affrighted by their own candor. Then the curtains closed upon their lives, and each went his separate way.

On my recent journey I picked for one night's lodging an establishment with the inviting name of "The Carolina Inn." What pictures filled my mind as I searched it out! How cozily in my imagination the place presented itself, with vine-clad gables and open fires! Alas, it turned out to be only another motel, an obnoxious tower surrounded by asphalt parking spaces. So the inn was going --boardinghouse, had gone already. One can still travel hopefully, as Robert Louis Stevenson urged us; but to arrive is almost inva riably to be condemned to a motel.

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