Back before design hotels perverted the concept of hospitality into look-at-me-ain’t-I-cool egotism, there were novelty hotels. You could place the tiki craze, with its flamboyant, rose-coloured hankering for the South Pacific, that caught on in the United States in the interwar years, firmly in this category. But there were other, often crazier examples that enlivened the novelty hotel market.
Very few remain, the victim of changing fashions and the newer-is-better mindset of modern times. It’s turned full circle with the retro craze, of course, but too little and too late to save some of the genuinely unique examples of long ago.
When I was plotting the course of a road trip through the US south-west some time back, the Wigwam Hotel in Holbrook, Arizona, was first on the list. It was part of the revered Route 66 of popular culture, the early 20th century highway that cut across the United States from Chicago to Los Angeles and provided an escape for the Dust Bowl refugees of Steinbeck and his ilk towards a brighter future.
When Route 66 was dismantled and replaced by the soulless Interstates, the Mother Road faded into obscurity. These days, Holbrook is just off the I-40, a roundabout way east from Los Angles and just beyond Winslow, which has as about its only claim to fame being featured in an Eagles song, Take It Easy.
My first mistake was travelling in November. With winter approaching, the days were clear and sunny but with little warmth in the sun. At night, the temperature plummeted. I arrived in Holbrook after dark and checked in just before the motel’s office closed up tight like the town itself.
The Wigwam Hotel looks exactly like the old postcards. A circle of tall teepees made of concrete with a smattering of old long-abandoned cars that lends it a certain Twilight Zone je ne sais quoi. Inside, the teepees were disarmingly spacious but the small heater had a hard time cutting the deepening chill.
I went to sleep but awoke in the early hours of the morning from the bone-rattling cold. I put another blanket on the bed, then covered that with the contents of my suitcase. As snug as I could possibly be without crawling into the suitcase and zipping it up over me, I drifted into a fitful sleep.
The long agonized low notes of a freight train’s horn jerked me fully awake. It felt like it was passing just outside the teepee and, when I investigated, found it was. The rear boundary of the Teepee Hotel is right next to the train tracks. If I was a trainspotter, I’d be in heaven. Regrettably, I was somewhere else entirely.
It was to be a valuable lesson in nostalgia. The Wigwam Hotel, just one of three surviving teepee motels left in the US, is a must-stay in the warmer months and is still operated by relatives of the original owner. But when it’s cocooning you need to endure long road trips, aim for an Embassy Suites or better and drop by the Wigwam for souvenirs and photos.
Words and photos © David Latta