Paul Vlachos is a New Yorker who understands The West. And he is a New Yorker who understands New York. Wherever Paul goes, he finds signs of life…
1. South Lake Tahoe, CA – 1998
There’s not a lot of neon in this photo, but there’s enough artificial incandescence to make up for it. At Doc’s, every day is a holiday. I’m not sure if it’s still there. I do remember making the run through this high altitude, mountain resort town that night. I pulled in with my friend, Peggy, after a long day of driving, and this was when I was truly obsessed with motel signs. I guess I still am but, on this trip, the first thing we did upon pulling into any town at night was to cruise up and down the whole strip and shoot signs. And, since this was in the day of slow films, we had to drive, stop, set up our separate tripods, shoot, and then keep going. Doc’s was just one of about 7 places I shot that night. This photo has always looked and felt to me like some joint out of a late ‘40s film noir. And, being in Tahoe, it might as well have been one. I can see Robert Ryan pulling up in an old coupe and desperately trying to find a room for the night so that he can just straighten out his mind and then tend to the guy who got shot, the guy who’s bleeding all over the back seat of his Plymouth. Yeah, Doc’s has seen a lot of action.
2. Winnemucca, NV – 2002
This is one of my favorite motels and, the last I saw, it was up for sale, which saddened me greatly. Once I discovered the Shady Court, there was no other place in Winnemucca I ever wanted to stay. The time-capsule rooms from the late ‘50s, the space-age theme on the main sign, and old man who used to say, without fail, “Have a safe trip.” every time I checked out. This is NOT the main sign, but a large sign at chest height at the end of the parking lot. The highway was on the rear of this sign, and this was meant for people on the main drag in Winnemucca. You see, the Scott Shady Court sits about 4 blocks OFF the main drag, so the management needed to find a way to get people to venture down to it. Once you check in the first time, of course, you are hooked. I need to get back up to Winnemucca, one of the crossroads of the hot spring universe. Shhhh! Dont’ tell anybody. It’s a secret.
3. Susanville, CA – 2007
If I’m in Susanville, it usually means I’m going to take that long, dirt back road up to the Black Rock Desert, the fast gravel road that dead-ends into the pavement near the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge. That’s usually why I’d be in Susanville. There’s an old theater in that town with some amazing old neon.This bar is across the street, as I recall. It says “Pioneer” and you can just barely see the martini glass that says “Drinks” on it. A friend of mine and I once agreed that a broken motel sign was an absolute reason to not stay there, to keep pushing on until you found a new motel. For a bar, though, I see no reason why that prohibition should apply.
4. St George, Utah – 2002
I wonder if the Sands sign still lights up the night in St. George? When Jim asked me if I could do an all-neon column for this month’s Zephyr, I thought it was a great idea and, since I have a ton of motel sign shots, I quickly grabbed a few and put them on my computer so that I’d have something to work with on the road, where I am now. “BE OUR GUEST” must have been satisfying to whoever thought it up and commissioned this sign. It must have been a light bulb moment, so to speak, when they thought of that simple declarative sentence. The more intriguing thing to me, though, is the “SWIM POOL.” My first thought was: did they charge for the lettering and keep the word short? Why not “swimming pool?” My second thought was: perhaps it’s a regional thing: maybe people say “swim pool” out west instead of “swimming pool.” Which reminds me of my favorite new possession: the complete Dictionary of Regional American English. I invite you to look it up and, maybe, to buy a copy for yourself. Be my guest.
5. Flagstaff, AZ – 2000
There is so much to like here. So why is it not one of my favorites? Don’t get me wrong, I like the sign, I just don’t look at it much. Maybe it’s the covered wagon? I don’t know. By far, the most compelling thing for me is “European Hostess.” What is going on here? Why is that supposed to resonate anywhere, but especially in Flagstaff? I guess it’s aimed at foreign tourists who are headed to the Grand Canyon. Yeah, I guess that’s it. This sign is strange – it seems like a lot of parts that should not fit together, but they somehow do.
6. Southwest Utah – 2000
I am ashamed to admit that I don’t remember the exact location of this place. I don’t even recall it as being a town, but more of a blip by the side of the road. On top of that, I know I stayed here twice, once in 2000 and once in 2003. If I were home and could look at my original files, discern the photos on either side of it, and ponder a while, I could probably figure out exactly where it is. Unfortunately, I am not home as I write this, so the best I can say is “Southwest Utah.” I could be wrong, though. I’ll have to find a way to live with myself if I am.
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