The American motel had its beginnings with the automobile and traveling hoards of sightseers and salesmen. What a brilliant marketing strategy to have your rented room open to the parking lot where your car can spend the night just inches from you. I am a fan of the motel. I like the flat ranch style architecture and frankly, I like to be able to see my car from the peephole in the motel room door. There is also something comforting about knowing exactly what to expect when you stay at a motel. There will be polyester bedspreads, tiny toiletries, and if you're lucky, a coffee pot in the room.
If you are motoring west, take I-40 to Route 66 just south of the Mojave Desert. Most likely, you will be the only car on the road for miles and miles. No houses, no fences, no sounds, no animals, just you. When you reach the town of Amboy, population 20, go south to the oasis of Twentynine Palms, California.
Sitting on a hill alongside the Twentynine Palms Highway is the Harmony Motel. This was the motel where U2 stayed while filming videos for their 1987 album, The Joshua Tree. At the time Bono was lounging around the kidney-shaped pool, the Harmony Motel was a certifiable dump. In 2001, Jeffrey Jones, the current owner, came along and took a chance on the Harmony.
"The Harmony was well known as one of the worst places around." Jones explained when I asked him why he bought the place. "I made an offer on it immediately after my first visit. I thought it was perfect, in spite of my friends' objections."
"Where If Not Now," reads the sign at the Harmony Motel as we pull into the indistinct parking lot. This is my first indication that we are here to suspend expectations of what a motel is supposed to be. I walked through an old wood and steel fence to the Harmony courtyard and looked for the office. I knocked on a door that looked promising but no one answered. I had a tiny yearning for the florescent lights of the all-night office at Motel 6. Finally, a 20-something-year-old woman peeked out from the kitchen where she was feeding a pig-tailed baby girl.
"Oh, are you Ms. Welch?" Name recognition upon registration? That has never happened at a Motel 6. "You are in Room 4."
She showed us our room, which consisted of one bed, one chair, one table, and a lamp. No TV?! I gasped for air. What are we going to stare at all night? The dogs? Each other???
I took the room key from the woman and tried not to show my distress.
After a long shower (where I used the only toiletry provided by the Harmony, Dr. Bronner's Vegetable Soap), I fell fast asleep and forgot that I should have watched TV.
The sun was shining directly into our room when I woke up at 6:00 a.m. I hadn't taken in the desert landscape surrounding the Harmony the night before, so what I found in the morning was stunning. Blue-gray hills surrounded our motel courtyard but it seemed that I could see for miles around. Each of the motel's rooms opened up to the central garden where cacti and grasses were arranged in sandy gravel that was raked in swirly zen garden patterns.
Jeffrey, our motelier, offered us coffee from the communal kitchen and shared a bit of his theory of hospitality. "I don't have my own philosophy, but I wish to minimize distraction here so that my guests can become more familiar with their own during their stay." I told him that I didn't know what to do with myself when I couldn't watch TV and as soon as those words came out of my mouth, I knew that the Harmony could teach me a few things.
Maybe it seems counter-intuitive that a motel would have a credo. Motels have become like U.S. politicians, they are so safe and predictable that one can hardly tell the difference between them all.
What do you do when there is no TV? Sit by the pool, my friends! No matter that it was cold enough to require a wool sweater, I am so rarely in the vicinity of a pool that I will wear a parka just to linger near the water's edge. Harmony's pool area is enclosed by a fence made of recycled wood salvaged from a barn that was demolished at a local Twentynine Palms landmark, the Roughley Manor. Galvanized metal sheets make up other parts of the fence creating a contrast of weathered materials with shiny new pieces. The landscaping allows for privacy without sacrificing the incredible view. There is a hot tub, too, but I was not feeling that intrepid.
While the sun was shining it became clear that the cool desert breezes wanted us to do something besides sit on our arses. Thankfully, the entrance to Joshua Tree National Forest is a few miles down the road from the Harmony. If you don't know what a Joshua Tree is, it looks like a palm tree gone terribly wrong. These scraggly trees are not the only visually striking elements in the park, there are huge rock formations that seem to ooze across the earth like enormous mounds of smooth flesh. Since we were visiting in the winter, the park wasn't full of campers and hikers as is usually the case for this popular destination.
Pretty soon it was getting dark and we headed back to the Harmony to cook our dinner in the communal kitchen. An adjoining communal dining room is painted with abstract desert views while the floor sports a mosaic of mismatched tiles. The fanciful dining area is a departure from the motel rooms which are stripped bare of all décor. Our room's only decoration was a weathered ladder hung on the wall behind the bed. There may have been other guests at the Harmony during our stay, but I'm not sure. We could have been up all night talking to the folks in Room 3 and making instant friends, or not. It was entirely up to us.
After an evening playing endless rounds of Uno and almost enjoying the absence of TV, I realized why the desert is such a popular place for peyote trips. The desert landscape makes it seem like anything is possible. There are no trees to distract you from the sky, no TV, no telephone, no decoration, just the moon.
I think the Harmony could have a new sign, "Where, if not here?"
For more information and reservations go to: www.harmonymotel.com
Photos: Alisa Welch