When the motel owner clanked the key down and slid it across the counter, I forgot for a second where I was.
The tan plastic fob read “Dalton’s Bedpost Motel/Meade, Kansas,” but the familiar rounded diamond shape conjured images of other motels over the decades. Beach motels in Florida, cabinlike units near national parks, adobe lodgings that wrapped around a central courtyard in the desert Southwest.
When I was a kid, the Navy would move my dad from the East Coast to the West Coast or vice-versa with some frequency, always in summer. We would load up the paneled station wagon and drive across the continent, stopping at motels every few hundred miles.
Not being campers, our home base on vacations was always a beachside or roadside motel, usually with a big neon sign boasting “color TV” and “air conditioning.”
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Motels were designed for the car culture, and by the end of a long day, when everyone was cranky and tired, seeing a neon vacancy sign was better than Christmas.
We only stayed at true motor lodges where you could pull your car right up to the door of your room. There were several advantages to that. You didn’t have to haul luggage for five people into the room; the car was your closet. Also, back when most motels didn’t allow pets, it was easier sneaking the dog in when you didn’t have to traverse a lobby.
On this trip to southwest Kansas, I didn’t have a dog to sneak in, but I relished all the features that delivered on the illuminated sign’s promise: “We may be small ... But we have it all!”
My room was just big enough that you could walk around the queen-sized bed, nightstand and recliner. The built-in vanity area outside the bathroom was outfitted with a microwave, coffeemaker, beige plastic ice bucket and undercounter minifridge.
Below the tubular metal wall-mounted coat rack was a folding suitcase stand. Next to the coat rack was a wall mount for the 23-inch flat-screen TV.
The bathroom offered four clean white towels, two shrink-wrapped plastic cups, paper-wrapped soap and plastic packets of shampoo.
That is what I love about mom-and-pop motels. They do have it all, as far as basic comforts are concerned. I don’t need a fitness room, jacuzzi tub or a loaner bathrobe. I don’t need the room to be bigger than about 14 feet square — I’m going to sleep in there, not play tennis.
The large double-casement window over the bed actually opened, a bonus if you prefer night breezes to air conditioning, as I do.
Outside my door was a charming and comfortable wooden bench where I sat and enjoyed the distinctive orange-and-purple western Kansas sunset.
When the owner took back the key at dawn’s first light, he offered me a complimentary breakfast of a packaged cinnamon bun and tiny juice box, which I passed on, and a protracted thank you with full eye contact, which I savored.
I enjoyed that motel more than the most expensive place I ever stayed — a tragically hip luxury hotel in San Francisco where the front desk clerk answered the phone by saying, “Whatever, whenever,” implying I had landed on some new planet of fabulous service. I asked for a corkscrew to be sent up to the room and the clerk replied, with no trace of irony, “I don’t have one.”
So many places promise the moon and fall short, while motels promise clean linens, ice and a window A/C unit and usually come through.
Most are not as bad as the TripAdvisor reviews make them sound. I always imagine these are people from big cities who have never been to the Midwest before, or people who only picked the motor lodge because it is cheaper but then want it to be like a big-box chain.
The night I booked my room at Dalton’s Bedpost, the most recent review read: “When I went to take a shower there was what I first took to be an ornamental toad in the shower. After poking it, it jumped so it was a real toad after all.”
My neighbor once told me about a mom-and-pop motel in the desert Southwest where he stopped for the night and ended up staying a couple of weeks because of the beautiful courtyard setting and hospitable owners.
“Who stays at a box motel for joy?” he asked.
Good point. I was disappointed not to find a toad in the shower, but I found joy at that little motor lodge in Meade and would stay there again the next time I’m passing through the Cimarron River Basin.