Happy Trails

Getting motorvated in Manitou Springs.

At a time when air travel's become risky business, vacation planning takes on a whole new dimension. The newly fearful can no longer blithely book flights to Timbuktu or even Grand Rapids without experiencing trepidation. The new, extended airport regime of long hours spent being frisked, profiled and interrogated is daunting on its own. But then you have to get on the plane.

Vacationing has lost its true raison d'être -- the wind-down factor -- unless you follow the rules of Lyle Miller's throwback world, a place where jalopies loaded down with bedrolls chugged along state highways, stopping to rest in commercial enclaves where people could rest their weary bones after a hot, dusty day on the road.

Miller, who works for the Colorado Historical Society and proudly notes that he's a native Coloradan born on Colorado Day, is also a scholar of the motor court. His enthusiasm for such overnight idylls as the Okla-Texa Court and the Peggy Sue Lodge, with slogans like "Designed for sanitation and beauty" or "Sometimes we lose a fish, but we never lose a guest," is both touching and catching. He recently lent his passion and expertise to a CHS-sponsored motel-court tour of Manitou Springs, one of the best places in Colorado to find that now-antique culture somewhat intact.

And what a tour guide! Miller even wears the right regalia for the job, in spite of the cool, lower-Pikes Peak drizzle encountered on tour day: a Hawaiian-style shirt festooned with restaurant signs inviting weary travelers to "EAT." (He's also re-created a '50s-era motel room in his basement, complete with the chenille bedspread, blond dressers, Magic Fingers bed and "an old TV that doesn't work," and who professes to sleep there on hot summer nights or whenever unrequited wanderlust comes over him. "It's a hobby that got out of control," he admits.)

Miller's interest in motel evolution is a matter of heritage: He sweetly shares the mid-century family pictures that inspired him, including those taken by his grandfather, who spent his first days in the area camped out at Hart's Corner Court on Morrison Road. Miller's fascination led him to study motor-court lore, following a timeline that started with folks in Model Ts (so-called "tin-can tourists") overnighting in auto and tent camps. Those later evolved first into bare-bones cottages -- what Miller fondly notes were known as "rabbit hutches, chicken coops and glorified outhouses" -- then into stand-alone courts with amenities, and, finally, into connected motels. It's quite possible that he knows every remaining vestige of such places, intact or not, in all of Colorado.

The march of progress hasn't been kind to motor courts in this state; dozens have been demolished along South Santa Fe Drive in the Denver area, for instance. But in Manitou, you still get the idea. Miller can point out every remnant that's escaped the bulldozer, including rotting shacks, weirdly configured outbuildings, and rentals with peeling paint. The true experience can still be relived there by staying at such motel-row beauties as the adobe-pink El Colorado Lodge or the mundanely genteel Wheeler House. For entertainment, you can sample the springwater, ride to the top of Pikes Peak, play vintage pinball machines at vintage prices in the arcade or drive through the Garden of the Gods, which is free, even at the golden hours of sunrise and sunset.

Whatever you do in Manitou, be assured that you'll have a place to rest your flightless head when the day is done. They're guaranteed to be "modern" -- i.e., they have bathrooms. Or choose by the signs: Who could resist the classic Scotty-dog neon fronting the San-Ayre Court or the misplaced sailboat emblem at the Mel Haven Lodge, or a host of others, including the one at the Millwheel Motel that Miller thinks should be in his basement. Sweet dreams.

 
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