MOAB, Utah — The doorknob had smashed a sizable hole in the wall of our room at the Apache Motel. The rusty bathroom ceiling fan made a harsh scraping sound, and the industrial carpet sported several suspicious stains.
We loved the place.
The neon sign at the motel, built in the early 1950s on what was then the town’s main street, is classic: A giant white arrow spears the motel’s name alongside the archaic image of an Apache. It glows with pure midcentury sentimentality.
On a nine-day road trip last month, my best friend, Emily, and I found dozens of these pop culture touchstones as we wound through the rock country and national parks of Utah, the old mining towns of Colorado and the vast red rock reservations of New Mexico. We relived the glory years of road-tripping — the gritty motels, restaurants, bars and diners that have been replaced or are overlooked as modern travelers choose safe hotel chains and familiar fast-food joints.
Our mission was to find those reminders of classic American road trips before they fade into oblivion. The rule was simple: If it wasn’t built before 1975, it wasn’t for us. We awarded bonus points (or, in our case, pints) for a place such as the Apache, which had the right mix of retro aesthetics, character and rundown charm, plus a dash of celebrity. (John Wayne and John Ford often stayed at the Apache while filming in the area.)
We were so intent on re-creating the classic American road trip experience that we used a paper Michelin road map, instead of our iPhone directionals. Each morning we would plot the next chapter of a back-road course that took us to small, wind-swept towns that often had these relics.
During our 2,700-mile quest, we stumbled across dozens of still-operating classic roadside businesses. But we also found plenty of places where weeds grew out of the broken windows and the faded “for sale” signs spoke volumes about the luck (or lack of luck) in finding a buyer. Every turn of the tires took us back in time.
Towering red sandstone cliffs surround the low-slung Zion Park Motel in Springdale, Utah, built in 1972 and just a mile from the national park. A slide carved into a chunk of rock catapulted swimmers into a simple swimming pool. We drank wine and stared at the enormous sky, which was littered with stars. When we grew tired of gazing at the sky outside, we could continue inside where cloudy blue heavens were painted on the ceilings of the rooms.
We hiked Zion’s Emerald Pools Trail the next morning, a 3-mile stroll through monoliths, before setting out for Monument Valley. Along the way we came upon Kanab, called “Utah’s Little Hollywood” because so many westerns —including “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “Stagecoach” — used the town as a location.
Even more important, Kanab is a veritable holy grail of midcentury motels. Like snap-happy children, Emily and I ran from inn to inn taking pictures of stunning old neon signs: Quail Park Lodge (which has been remodeled, but its retro vibe is intact), Bob Bon Inn, Four Seasons Motel, Treasure Trail Motel and Aiken’s Lodge.
The grandma of them all was Parry Lodge, whose rooms are named for the stars who stayed there, including Wayne, Dean Martin, Clint Eastwood and Barbara Stanwyck. Like aging silent-film star Norma Desmond of “Sunset Blvd.,” the Parry Lodge has seen better days, but that gives it a sense of romantic nostalgia tinged with tragedy.
A large white plantation-style main building gives way to rows of rooms along a vast parking lot built around an old barn. The rooms are dimly illuminated and out of date despite a remodel, with tacky patterned bedspreads and a harsh fluorescent bulb in the bathroom, but they are clean and well-kept.
Retro, we quickly learned, doesn’t necessarily mean refined.
Night had fallen by the time we reached Monument Valley, so we drove into the town of Mexican Hat, Utah (population 34), where we got a room at an old trading post called the San Juan Inn in a steep red rock cliff above the San Juan River. The original part of the inn was built in the 1950s, although the trading post predates it by at least a decade. Our bathroom window opened on a sheer rock wall that you could reach out and touch. The beds were comfy and the décor plain and pastel, but the tub was gray in a way that looked unscrubbable.
In the morning we had fried eggs and toast at the motel restaurant, the Olde Bridge Grille, which was filled with scuffed wooden chairs and tables and covered with kitsch. The coffee was terrible and therefore perfect.
After driving the rocky 17-mile loop road through Monument Valley, where we marveled at the stark beauty of the park’s iconic buttes, we were covered with a fine red dirt, so we headed for Moab and checked into the Apache Motel.
Just before lunchtime the next day, we climbed onto classic red diner stools beneath a Formica counter at a little burger stand in Moab called Milt’s Stop & Eat, a 1954 diner where we had the best meal of our trip.
Milt’s features hormone-free, grass-fed beef burgers and hand-cut fries with housemade fry sauce, a clever mixture of ketchup, mayonnaise, salt and pepper.
“Fry sauce and Jell-O are Utah staples for some reason,” our friendly server Jim Aleff told us. Emily had a juicy Cowboy Burger with melted cheddar cheese, jalapeños and an onion ring, and I had a Peggy-O Ranch burger with avocados, tomatoes and ranch sauce.
We hiked off the calories in Arches National Park with a trip to Landscape Arch, a giant with a span of 290 feet, then sped on for the cool, green of Colorado. There we took a dip in the hot springs in Ouray and bunked down for the night in the old mining town of Silverton. But the vibe of these stops was more 1870s than 1970s, so we quickly detoured south to New Mexico.
At sunset we pulled into the quaint town of Taos, N.M., and checked into El Pueblo Lodge. It was built 100 years ago but became a motel in the 1950s. This was the best-kept motel of the trip: The grounds were neatly manicured, it had a lovely kidney-shaped pool and we found barbecue pits and picnic tables. The rooms were large and clean with pretty wooden porches for lounging. The motif was adobe and Southwest, and the place spoke to the past without giving up on niceties of the present.
Our breakfast the next morning was a gooey egg enchilada at Michael’s Kitchen, which opened in 1974 and attracts a big morning crowd. With a cool old sign, a scratched diner counter and round, red stools we found it easy to picture yesterday’s travelers. After discovering the joys of New Mexican sopaipillas at Michael’s, they would surely head for El Santuario de Chimayo, which features an 1816 adobe church and a pit of sacred earth said to have miraculous healing power.
We stopped here before heading to our final destination, the hard-as-nails town of Gallup, N.M., my birthplace.
Gallup has a strip of old motels along a stretch of Route 66; my parents, who were once teachers on the nearby Navajo reservation, recommended El Rancho Hotel & Motel. The sign on this 1937 classic boasts of the “Charm of Yesterday … Convenience of Tomorrow.”
Yesterday’s charm was apparent in our Rita Hayworth room (hordes of old stars once stayed here too) with its old carpet and rickety wood balcony that looked over the faded glory of Route 66 and its successor, the brutish Interstate 40.
The next day we took the latter home, passing unremarkable motel chains and fast-food places. No charm, no character, no portal to the past. What fun was that?