Balmorhea, Texas on Last Night of Road Trip
This was to be our very last night of a 27-day road trip!
After many grand, festive, retro, vintage, historic and curious overnights, we were going to be staying at a family owned, 11-room motel, serving travelers since 1946... kind of in the middle of Nowhere, Texas.
A Long Day
It shouldn't have taken quite so long getting to our tiny town, driving from Cloudcroft, New Mexico. But we squeezed in two more National Parks on the way. Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and Guadalupe National Park in Texas. We managed 13 National Parks in 27 days.
It was nearly 7 when we pulled up to the little cement block, motel office. The NO VACANCIES sign didn't worry me. We'd made reservations a couple months before.
nice enough to plead with us to be guests in his home for the night. Don and I were stunned. After months of careful planning, why would we have our only glitch, in a tiny town, with no other options... or cell service for that matter! We said thanks, but turned down the offer and headed down the road.
A Cabin at Balmorhea State Park?
The reason we'd put Balmorhea on our route was that we had hoped to revisit the nearby State Park, with the world's largest spring-fed swimming pool. (3.5 million gallons!) It was just up the road, so maybe we could stay in one of their cabins. We spotted the empty pool, as we pulled up to the "No Vacancies" sign at the entrance.
Beautiful Texas Highway 17
The next closest town was Fort Davis, 30 minutes away. We have always loved this drive and it was extra lovely as the sun was setting. But the stress level was high. We knew of a few small inns in Ft. Davis, but it was a Saturday and likely they were booked. I tried to call as we drove, but there was no cell service.
Suddenly, my phone came to life and alerted me that I'd had a few missed calls. I listened to a voicemail from David, begging us to come back. "I have a room for you. It's being cleaned right now. Please come back." What to do? Return to the frustrating motel that looked pretty weary to begin with? Or drive on to a number of towns to discover no vacancies?
We were half way to Ft. David, but I texted David that we were on our way back to his motel. The pink sky and rising moon tried desperately to lift our spirits. It helped a little.
David and His Dogs
The dogs, like the sunset and moon, cheered me up. Even though we'd wasted lots of time and the whole intereaction had felt awkward and frustrating, we had a room. I didn't ask why a room was suddenly available. I'm guessing he must have called his wife, who was out of town. She must have prompted him in solving our problem.
Room # 2
The L-shaped motel was kind of cute with its western-rustic look. The moon was rising and all was quiet, except for a yapping Yorkie in room number 1. "I told them not to leave Molly alone in the room." David apologized. "They've just gone to dinner. She'll stop barking as soon as they get back."
We opened the screened doors (with decorative bars) and our room was revealed. It wasn't the Queen Room that David had delightfully described over the phone months ago. But it was freshly cleaned and we had a place to sleep on the last night of our fabulous road trip.
Moon Over Motel
All the pickup trucks that had filled the small lot were gone to dinner, I guess.
I was glad everyone had deserted the place so Don and I could just shake our heads and quietly chuckle over this odd end to our trip. We grabbed a beer and a cup's worth of wine from our cooler and headed back, past a cow skull here and a wagon wheel there...
... towards the rusty metal yard chairs. There was no hurry for anything. We were already too late to make it to the little Mexican Cafe down the road.
Peaceful in the Yard
David had told us, the motel was mostly filled with divers. Many guests who use the inn are often in the area taking scuba classes at the the state park's spring-fed pool.
I had read the motel's website and knew not to expect your average tourist at The Eleven Inn. We might be sharing the motel with campers or cowboys... drillers or truck drivers... harvesters, hikers or hunters. I found this very curious.
An Old Playground
Tucked far back in the yard, we found a picnic table and some well worn playground goodies. Like the sunset and moon and the dogs... the playground put a smile on my face. I didn't play. That's how tired I was on night #27. Usually, I would have given the merry-go-round at least one rotation!
You could still smell the smoke from the fire pit, maybe from the night before. There were barbecue grills and more tables. I was reminded of how fun this place could be on any other night. If the guests were as varied as described, we could expect a very interesting evening around the campfire.
Best Part of Our Stay
So we sat for a short while and let the soothing sounds of the crickets and the balmy breeze ease us into the night. We were suddenly able to laugh at this final stop on our journey. We realized, out of 27 nights and 6 states, this motel was our only Texas stay. Instead of ending our month with a big splashy hotel, we were keeping it simple, coming back to reality.
We should have stayed put and had snacks in our room for dinner. But we headed across the street to a wooden icehouse that was serving food till late.
We skipped showers and headed off before sunrise in the morning.
I dropped the key in the box with "Thanks, David" written on a note. I feel bad that David never got to show his best hosting skills... and we hardly got to share our good guest talents.
How can my memory not be tainted by the silly mix up? If only David had been less embarrassed about it and just laughed with us, later.
So, I think I'll choose to focus on the notable memory of sitting under the cottonwood trees, in that mosquito-free yard... the crickets, the white lights lining the roof, the moon... and of course that funny little playground. Let's end it positive!
Cloudcroft, New Mexico
The Newer Lodge
We drove up a quarter mile from the sign and found this curious lodge sitting on top of the slope. Originally a log constructed lodge was built in 1899 to house loggers, I guess. By 1908 a fancier lodge was built, mostly for travelers coming to escape the Texas heat. That one burned in a fire and the current lodge was built in 1911.
What To Do?
The weather was cool and gloomy when we arrived, so no one was making use of those options. But there were a number of guests unloading golf clubs. I don't care much about golf anymore, so I would rather go back to 1911, when there was dancing in the pavilion and tennis courts and bowling and burro rides for the kids.
The small lobby desk was bustling just inside the door. So was the gathering room with the copper-lidded fireplace and stuffed beasts, above and beside the hearth.
The crowds dispersed (off to the golf course) and I could manage a few photos without men in sweaters, greeting one another with loud voices and handshakes. Nice guys, I'm sure. I just hate it when I feel like we're crashing someone's private party. There seemed to be a lot of groups.
Finding Our Room
The decor in the lobby area reminded me too much of a Texas Ranch House. I was excited to head for our room and see some proof that our hotel was over 100 years old. We passed the gift shop (which had some fun stuff, actually) and I was delighted by the set of windows with layers and layers of shiny varnish.
Up, Then Down
I had to stop and just stare at the worn wood on a few steps down to a lower hall. Could one ever come close to calculating the number of shoes that have worn down that wood?
Stairs and a Window
We paused in the hallway, which was filled with wonderful history and news clippings and then made the hike up the red stairs to the second floor. It's nice they had a landing with a pretty window, in case you need to disguise your exhaustion by pondering over the pretty glass design. I wasn't quite used to the altitude, so I was huffing and puffing.
There wasn't anything too special about the hall, but we were down at the end on the left. It wasn't exactly the hall from "The Shining", but there was a resident ghost named Rebecca. So I kept an eye out.
Surrounded in Pine
A Very Cozy Room
We are used to small rooms, small beds and baths. If you like historic hotels, you expect it. But since we were not in a huge touristy area, I thought $154. was a little high for a room of this size, that hadn't been renovated in some time.
A Fine Bar
Rueben was a delight as he served us at the "certified" Brunswick bar. Supposedly the carved bar once belonged to Al Capone. There were some other characters seated nearby and we chatted with many.
There was a young man who seemed homesick and giddy when he learned we had a son who shared his name. There was a curious, but bossy older woman with amazing stories of her grandmother, the concert pianist and her father who cured the poor... but when she began to rant on about how her father tried to throw LBJ in jail for corruption... Don and I decided it was time to go explore the tower!
Tower at Sunset
Rueben encouraged us to get the key from Kelly at the front desk and hike up for the view. I raced up the stairs, scared I'd miss sunset and practically had a heart attack. I hadn't noticed the altitude until I stopped at the first level. I gasped and laughed at the leather "recovery chairs" that seemed to be put there for people like me.
Just in Time!
We paused not too long, before continuing up to the last level.
The funny shaped windows gave us a better view, over the trees to the mountains beyond. And straight up we could see the light from the cupola windows. There was also a sign, reminding us to refrain from carving our names into the wood wall. Which is pretty funny because when Judy Garland visited long ago, she carved her name, as well as another special guest, Clark Gable!
I couldn't believe no one else was racing up the stairs to take in the view with us. What a perfect sight. I still could not believe I was seeing this view, in New Mexico!
A Dinner View
Earlier, I had peeked into the dining room to see what the seating options were. From looking at old photos, I could tell that this dining area by the windows, had once been the porch. What a wonderful view.
The Original Dining Room
We made reservations for 8:00, in hopes that the dining groups and families would be finished up by then. It was quiet when we walked through this room, but the piano player was still performing... on the platform between rooms.
Next to Rebecca
First off, the salad & bread was heavenly. My Veggie Pasta Alfredo, with thick noodles and green chiles was pure comfort. Don's pecan crusted salmon with asparagus and rice, tasted as good as it looked. And our young server Leigh had sweet stories of raising her small daughters in the Cloudcroft world... which sounded sort of like fictional, Mayberry.
Cold and Sunny
We slept well despite the fact Kelly at the desk had apologized the night before, "Oh, I'm afraid your room doesn't have heat, but I can get you a space heater and more blankets!" It got down in the thirties, but we were fine. We hiked in the morning and ended up sitting in the back of the hotel as the day began to warm.
Coffee and Coats
There was complimentary coffee in the morning and we took it out by the pool and watched a cute family playing catch on the lawn. We were still full from dinner, so we shared a day-old muffin, before packing and moving on down the road.
As we headed down the drive, I felt like I hadn't had time to figure this place out. It felt like a retreat/resort that families or golfing buddies return to year after year. Not that everyone knew each other, but I felt like we were the only first-timers. Mostly I'll remember the isolation of this odd building up on the hilltop. If the weather had been more ideal I would have really craved a porch!
Hiway House Motor Hotel Chain!
For our one night in Albuquerque, Don and I were excited to stay in the historic Nob Hill area, in a retro motel with an awesome orange sign!
As we headed towards the Nob Hill area on the old Route 66, we enjoyed quite a festive display of old motel signs. We hoped our motel would not be as creepy as the ones we passed.
There It Was!
We spotted it on the left. The sign with the cartoonish jalopy and the words "Sleep Is Our Business" was hard to miss. This was going to be one of those "Stay before it's gone!" places.
The HiWay House chain, was started by construction magnate, Del Webb in 1956. The chain was never as popular as Howard Johnson's or Holiday Inn, but they were scattered over the western states. Now there are just a couple of these Colonial Style Motor Hotels (with goofy orange signs) left!
Experiencing the Retro
At a glance, the 2-story motel, with alternating pinkish-orange and blue doors had a fun throwback feel. But as we drove into the parking lot, the place looked a little wearier than the images on the website. There was an outdoor area with a grill and some plants. But judging from all the full ashtrays, I think it was just a smoking lounge.
When I was a kid, a pool was all that mattered. This motel had one, but I wasn't tempted. As I glanced at the pool, my eyes followed the stairs upward, to some chairs and a table that had been pulled out of the motel room. The door to the room was wide open (at that moment) and the middle-aged couple enjoying a few smokes and beers on the porch, appeared to be living there. I began to wonder if the Airstream parked in the lot was inhabited as well. In fact, maybe all the "guests" were long term.
On the other side of the parking lot, we spotted the hotel office. I headed over, but found the door locked. I pressed the buzzer and waited. Then I realized who our hosts were. The woman who had been lounging on the porch perch above the pool, headed down to unlock the office door. "You need a room?" The woman spoke firmly, with (I guess) an Eastern European accent.
I wanted to take a picture of her as she frowned down at her desk, as if the act of searching for our reservation, was a huge inconvenience. But I didn't dare. I snapped a cell pic of the Li'l Snack machine instead... as if I could somehow capture her reflection in the glass. ( Not sure why I felt I needed some photo to capture this awkward memory) Finally, she reached into a wooden slot and handed me the key to room 105.
Flowers and Shutters
Grand in Its Day
I've certainly seen worse. The room was dated, but spacious. There was a fridge and microwave and a coffeemaker... with no coffee. And there was also an odor. Don and I argued a bit, since he thought it was some strong cleaning product and I was pretty sure the product was trying to mask the smell of vomit.
Are We Staying?
We left the door wide open as we examined the room. Nobody was making us stay, although I couldn't picture our frowning host giving us a refund, too easily. So I looked around and admired a few items. "Awesome lamp!" I exclaimed. I'm sure I saw one of those swag lamps in a Dean Martin movie once... with cigarette smoke swirling in its glow. And what an impressive set of controls just over the bed. Heating, cooling, volume and music? No Magic Fingers, though.
More Windows and Space
Behind the partition was a dressing area, with a carpeted bench for suitcase storage. You don't see that luxury anymore. We opened the back window to get a little cross ventilation and noticed a nearby Pilates studio behind us. They had nice music, which floated through the window, along with fresh air.
I'm pretty sure the tub and sink were original from when the motel opened in 1958.
And what a hoot to open the shower curtain and see the logo from the sign, decorating the wall tile. You just have to laugh at the idea of sharing the shower with this proper little husband & wife in their red car!
Okay We'll Stay
Don and I have weathered a few bad ones with all our oddball overnights. So after we looked around, I was a little surprised to hear Don ask, "So do we stay?" I had to laugh. "Unless we are in some kind of danger, we can make it work." So Don settled in and made a phone call, while I headed back to the office for ice.
A Blurry Memory
"So, I guess this motel has some history!" I said, trying to open up some conversation while the man scooped my ice. He was busy, inspecting my ice... then discarding it and scooping up some more. (yikes) The woman behind the counter answered without looking up. "1959." That was the end of the history conversation. I gave up and thanked them for the ice, although I wanted to say, "Well, the website says, 1958!!"
Enjoying Nob Hill
I had to laugh with Don about Mr. and Mrs. Norman Bates. Although that's an insult to Norman, since he at least smiled. But we decided to stay, since the surrounding area had some fun places in walking distance.
We refused the adjoining Korean BBQ place, that had once been the motel's coffee house. It's under separate ownership, but we wanted to get a little further away. Next door there was an old Texaco, converted into a bar/restaurant. It looked sort of fun.
Across Route 66
And across the road there were a number of popular looking places, with colorful signs and good aromas. We heard some pleasant sounding live music from one direction and some siren sounds coming from the other way. It's an intriguing area, what can I say.
Two Fools Tavern
The Business of Sleep?
Come morning, I was ready to check out and move along.
We didn't see mice, but there was a hole under the sink, with evidence that mice had visited. I was eager to have a reason to speak to our host one more time. I was going to be friendly, and just inform her of the problem.
I figured I was giving her one more chance to be a good host... to be apologetic. Maybe she was a morning person and she'd leave me with a better impression. So I rang the buzzer. And I rang it again and again. No one ever came. The door above was closed and the chairs were empty. I dropped the key in the box, just as an young arguing couple stomped by on the sidewalk. I so was happy to be leaving.
I will remember this as the retro motel stay, where we never felt welcome! We gave it the "happy traveler try" and there were no rewards for our efforts!
This motel has such potential. The Nob Hill area is "coming back" with music and good food and this worn, old motel is right in the middle of it. It perplexes me that no one has swooped in to renovate this place. There are many Baby Boomer Travelers would spend decent money to stay in a well renovated boutique motel with reminders of travel life in the 1950's and '60's. Someone needs to come to the rescue! It won't be me. .. I'm still irritated.
Durango, Colorado in Fall
The hand carved sandstone building was just as impressive as I remembered from nearly 3 years earlier.
December of 2011
The weather was very different when I stayed with my brother and sister, three years earlier. We were in town to attend our half brother's funeral, so my memories are not fun and festive.
But what I do remember, is the warmth and comfort of that grand hotel on two snowy nights. The Christmas decorations and celebrating guests could have had an opposite effect. But somehow, the hotel seemed to soothe.
No Snow in September
We arrived on a lovely, warm afternoon just as couple tour buses stopped to unload their middle aged tourists and luggage. Oh joy. I wasn't ready for crowds. The night before we had been the only guests at the Creede Hotel. Of course there were only 4 guest rooms at The Creede... and 93 at The Strater.
Remembering the Lobby
Once the bus crowds moved on to their rooms, I was able to look around the quiet lobby and remember how it once looked in December, with wreaths and ribbons, Christmas music and the fireplace glowing.
But it was more fun imagining the hotel 128 years ago, when a pharmacist named Henry Strater built the spectacular, red brick hotel. He ran his pharmacy in part of the building and attracted guests by filling the hotel with parlors and pianos and wood-burning stoves in each room. It even became a winter retreat for many locals, who closed up their homes to move in.
When I wandered around it was clear that someone (besides a company) was taking great pride in this hotel. Everything from the Victorian walnut furniture to the sweet old phone booths, looked well tended. There were a lot of complications with ownership, when Mr. Strater ran the hotel for only about 12 years. But, since 1926 the Barker family has been involved in the ownership.
Rod Barker is the current president/CEO of the Strater. It would be fun to know what he remembers. His parents ran the hotel for 30 years, modernizing with TVs and phones and heating. I wonder if Rod knew his grandfather, who bought the property in 1926, when the hotel was 39 years old.
So Many Patterns!
I also like climbing towards a skylight! They did have an elevator, which helped with luggage.
Thick drapes, dark woods, heavy furniture... But when it's done well, I love it. Don is a foot taller than me and he didn't even complain about the small bed.
Staring Out Windows
Wall & Ceiling Paper!
I never had wallpaper next to my bed as a child, but I did love finding images in drippy layers of paint, on the walls next to my childhood bed. As I kid, I don't think I ever could have gone to sleep if I'd had such wonderful designs above my bed!
As always, I'm grateful to have a bathroom in an old hotel. When the Strater was built, every guest room had its own washstand and a cabinet, which stored the bed pan! There was also a 3-story privy. I assume that was outside. I can't quite visualize that!
Food and Entertainment
The Diamond Belle Saloon was one option in the hotel, for food and drink. Yes, it was a little touristy. There were servers dressed like dance hall girls and there was a honky tonk piano player.
But the tourists brought their money, which is why the hotel is still here. Besides, the piano player was fun. And I could imagine Room 222 right above us. That was the room author, Louis L'Amour always requested. He said the honky tonk music from the saloon below, inspired his western writing.
Later in the evening, Don and I sat up on the second level of the other hotel lounge, to enjoy some of the live entertainment. We couldn't see the performer from there, but we could keep an eye on the woman by the fireplace who was whooping it up after numerous martinis.
She had a piercing whistle and she told the singer she'd pay him 20 dollars, if he could guess how many divorces she and her husband had between them. The singer's guess of 10, was too low. The correct answer was 11. Maybe there would have been fewer divorces for this woman, if she laid off the martinis!
An Old Phone
I would like some drinks, please!" It turns out the phone I thought was a cute prop, really works.
I missed seeing the snow this time. And I didn't hear the Polar Express whistling behind the hotel. But everything else was how I remembered it. Yes, it is touristy. But that's why there's money to maintain and renovate as needed. We have seen so many neglected historic hotels. It's nice to see one that's filled with happy guests.
So we made an attempt to return this past fall. When we arrived, it almost looked like smoke, lingering from 3 years ago. But the quiet little town was just soggy with fog and cold, drizzle.
Funny Little Hotel
We arrived on September 22, just a day or two before the hotel was going to close down for the winter. It looked dark, so we hoped it hadn't already! Don and I were determined to stay at this historic place that was once the best of about 100 hotels in the once booming town of Creede.
There were 3 doors. The one on the left was to the darkened restaurant. The middle door entrance had a barrel with a closed sign. Luckily, the door to the right had a note welcoming us. There were only 4 rooms listed and ours was the only one with a name next to it. It looked like we might be the last guests of the season.
The hardware on the door was pretty ancient, so the door wouldn't click shut after we entered. We headed up the steep stairs and hoped there were decent locks on the 4 guest rooms upstairs.
Calamity Jane Room
I was pretty delighted we had gotten the room that Calamity Jane supposedly stayed in. Her portrait in the room looked nothing like Doris Day, who played her in a very silly musical in 1953.
I'm not sure if Ms. Jane would have loved this decor? The white iron bed would have suited her fine. But would she have adored the two pink walls and ruffled curtains?
It was chilly and damp, so we cranked up the heat to enjoy our little room. There were some old bits of furniture that might have been around in Jane's day. The dresser and mirror looked about right... if you blurred your eyes and imagined a white pitcher and bowl, instead of the coffee maker.
The Mystery Shower
Inside our small room, we did have a little tea table of sorts. It just made me laugh to look above the table cloth and flowerpot to see the portrait of Calamity.
She was holding that gun like she was angry about this frilly room decor. Or was she just proudly protecting her guests? I preferred the porch table instead.
Porch in the Morning
It was chilly in the morning, but we had a little coffee and enjoyed our view of Main Street, which was as quiet as the evening before. I was glad to see there was an emergency ladder draped over the railing... in case the ghost of Calamity Jane got any wilder!
The Rest of Hotel
There were enough tables in this space to probably hold every resident of the town of Creede.
I felt the need to pose with my cowboy boots, but they seemed to get lost in the shadows. I should have known I could not outshine Gene Autry, smiling down from his poster in his fancy hat!
Attached to the north end of the hotel is the restaurant that is oddly enough known for it's delicious food. Don and I had reservations for 7, but there were only a couple tables being served, so we had a drink at the bar, first.
Dave who has been the owner and chef for 15 years came out and chatted a while. He showed us a photo of John Wayne at the bar in the 1950's. Our western road trip seemed to be connecting us with John Wayne and Calamity Jane over and over!
Our Quiet Feast
Dave told us how he moved to Creede to escape the new Colorado Boom Towns. He was tired of watching the old mining boom towns, like Boulder and Telluride being taken over by the wealthy.
As we feasted on crab cakes and Caesar salad, pork tenderloin with spinach... and mashed sweet potatoes with bacon, brandy and maple syrup... we tried to imagine how a tiny place like this could serve such a feast!
This was not the first time Don and I have been the only guests at a hotel or inn. But usually the host or caretaker has a room in the building. I'm not sure which is more eerie, knowing you're all alone or knowing the host (whom you've just met) is sleeping in a nearby room.
But compared to our other stays, this was the most dreamlike and mysterious. The very thought that we could enjoy a gourmet meal on a rainy night in a deserted town in an empty hotel just makes the whole memory more surreal. I'm so glad we finally got to have our stay!
My New Year's Resolution for 2014 was to start documenting some of the memorable overnights I've had in some very odd and curious motels and hotels. Like the adventures in my Dining Blog, I have learned to enjoy the surprises that happen when you step out of the comfort zone, far away from the well-known chains.
I began with a few entries recalling my very first home away from home memories from my youth. Then, I started sharing about some of the quirky and unforgettable motels, hotels and inns that my husband and I have discovered in recent years.
The best part about this challenge was making some lists with Don and getting on the road in search of new overnight adventures. I gave myself a 2-year goal to write up 90 stories and the goal was met. Now we just keep on adding!