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. The first time I went through Fallon, Nevada, I stayed in some nondescript, modern motel. It was fine. I was heading out on my first real trip through the desert and anything was good enough. I hit the first place in town that had a “Vacancy” sign. On my way out of town, early the next morning, I don’t recall noticing the Lariat Motel, although I surely drove past it. Revelations would follow, one after another, in short order, and that trip involved a lot of catharsis and many miles driven. Either way, I did not stay at the Lariat until my second trip through Fallon. I saw the sign moving in the dark – the neon cowboy endlessly throwing his lasso – and I could not resist, so I pulled in. It was and older place, but immaculate. The office had a short hallway that ran into the living quarters and I could smell the motelier’s dinner. It smelled like fish. A very old, very thin man with incredibly bright eyes walked to the desk. He was quite efficient and went through the motions of checking me in. He was as professional as they come and he gave me a professional smile, but there was a real twinkle in his eye.
2. I went to my room, which was incredibly large and clean. It was also a perfect time capsule of early 1960s western motel decor. There was shag-like carpeting, more chairs than I could use, and a comfy bed. The climate controls were vintage, but functioned perfectly. There was a wagon wheel porthole in the bathroom, as well, and the only concession to the modern world was a 1980’s era television. This was before wifi, before the Internet, actually, and before cellphones. All my needs were met. In fact, the owner had thought of everything – the spaces outside were numbered according to the rooms, so nobody had to think about where to park. There was a pool that had been built on a large platform in the parking lot, but I never swam at the Lariat. In the bathroom, glassine covers wrapped the drinking glasses, and they said “Sanitized for Your Protection.” I wondered if they still manufactured these or if he simply had a tremendous stock of them.
In the morning, when I left, I looked more closely at the motel sign. There was a small board at the bottom – the kind that people use to advertise specials, with changeable letters. it said “God Bless America.” I drove away thinking about that.
4. Over the years, I developed a fascination with the place. I would plan some of my driving around whether or not I could stay in Fallon at the Lariat. My traveling partner through the 90’s, Peggy, also developed a love for this place. We developed a personal mythology about the old man and we lived for the short conversations we had with him every time we stayed there. We learned a little bit more each time. He said he was Lithuanian and we knew he was very old. Peggy used to speculate out loud and one day she turned to me and said, as we were driving across the salt flats west of town “Maybe he’s a vampire, Paul, and he flies around the desert at night.” This was disproved the next day, when we saw him furtively carrying a bundle of laundry from a room in the early morning sunlight. Either way, we got to know him in bits and pieces. His car was parked in front – a gold Buick Electra 225 from the mid-60’s. We asked him about it. He told us how, when he bought the place, the parking lot was gravel. There was a lawn and no pool. He pulled out an old postcard that he had. it was in a plastic cover because it was his only copy. It showed the place around when he bought it. There was the same car in the same parking space. I admired the car. “It runs perfect,” he said. This place was his whole life.
5. By 2001, the sign was peeling. I used to wish I could paint well enough to offer to help restore the sign. I’d fantasize that he’d let me stay there and I could take a week or two and fix up his sign, then drive off into the sunset. I asked him about the sign one day. He said it was 47 years old and had been custom made in Los Angeles and trucked there. “In the 50s, Fallon had 3000 people and Reno had 40,000. There was no one who could make a sign like that. The closest place they could get it made was Los Angeles. I’m always fixing it. I have had it painted four or five times since I’ve had it. There are forty transformers in it.” He was proud of his sign. He knew what he had. “Today, you could not get a sign like that for twenty five thousand dollars.”
6. The last time I saw him must have been around 2003. He looked a bit more frail. When I checked out, I said I wanted to talk to him more about his life in Fallon. He looked at me with those blue eyes and said “You’d better hurry. I’m not getting any younger.” He looked like he was 95. I drove off feeling sad. I bought a few old Lariat postcards on eBay. this is one from the ‘50s.
7. The next time I went through Fallon, I made my customary pass by the Lariat to pay homage to this, my favorite motel of all time. When I got close, it was any empty dirt lot. I had to pull into the parking lot next door and catch my breath. I felt like someone had gotten punched in the gut. I knew what this meant. I knew that the old man was dead. I called Peggy from my cellphone. She was living in Hawaii at this point, but she was awake and she picked up the phone. “OH NO,” she said when I told her. She was devastated, too. I think we both had assumed the old man would live forever. Nobody lives forever. But why tear down the motel? I needed some answers. I went into the curio shop across the street and talked to the women there. They said “He died and his son tore it down and put it up for sale immediately.” I won’t speculate on what anything means, at least not here. It broke my heart, though. I asked about the sign and they said the Fallon Chamber of Commerce had it, but I’m not so sure. I drove back across the street for one more look and noticed one thing remaining on the ground after the demolition: the “God Bless America” sign. The next time I drove through Fallon, it had become a Maverik gas station. Sic transit gloria. All things must pass. God Bless America.
POSTSCRIPT – No more than a week after I finished this piece on the Lariat, I was in Fallon again. For the first time since I saw it, I decided to patronize the Maverik station where the Lariat had stood. Why not? I did not have to boycott it forever, even though I can hold grudges for a long time. Besides, I was now boycotting the other gas station, the one on the west side of town, so I needed to get over myself. I went in and bought some donuts and some other stuff.
There was a middle-aged woman at the register, well put together, and I chatted with her for a bit. Then I paused and said “This place used to be the Lariat Motel, do you remember it?” She did not miss a beat and said “Of course I remember the Lariat.” I mentioned the old man to her and she remembered him, as well. Then, she paused a second and said “You know, this place is haunted. He’s still here. When I go into the walk-in freezer, the lights never go off, even if I turn them off. The come right back on.” She paused again. “And sometimes, the heater gloves go flying across the room back there.” We stared at each other and I said “I’m not surprised. This place was his whole life.”
I then asked her about the sign and if she knew what had happened to it. She said that it was “propped up on the edge of town.” I asked for directions and she gave them to me, but they involved the local high school. I did not want to be the guy with out-of-state plates circling the local high school, but I decided to go, anyway. As I was pumping my gas, I looked at the place and realized that the walk-in freezer was in the part of the Maverik that stood where the old man’s living quarters used to be. I shook my head and my lips tightened.
When I went looking for the sign, I could not find it, but I was determined, so I stopped into the local county museum, which I happened to pass. Some kid was standing there, holding a fluorescent fixture and waiting to talk to the woman behind the counter. Aside from that, the place was dead, although there was some interesting memorabilia on the walls. I asked the kid if he knew where the sign was and he instantly knew and gave me directions. I followed them and found myself at Oats Park, not far from the high school in Fallon. Then I saw it. The town had mounted it nicely on two large poles. It was higher than it had stood in front of the motel, but they had repainted it and given it a home. That made me happy. I don’t know if the neon works. My guess is no, but I cannot be sure. Still, it’s good to know that it’s standing proud. And I intend to visit that haunted Maverik every time I hit Fallon. I’m going to stand around near the ice cream and whisper to the old man and see what he has to say.
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