The Beautiful Decay of the Wigwam Motel

The Wigwam Motel, an old Route 66 roadside motel comprised of 20 tipis, shows that roadside Americana is not long for this world.

by Megan Koester
Jun 28 2016, 4:00am

All photos by the author

The Wigwam Motel, a roadside attraction on the potholed remains of Route 66, is a series of diamond-shaped structures that opened in 1949 in Rialto, California; a long-neglected municipality one hour and one universe away from Los Angeles, where everyone stares at you like they're going to kick your ass or fuck your wife or kick your ass while fucking your wife.

When I say Rialto is bleak, I mean exactly that: Hopeless. Inhospitable. Barren. How bleak is it, you ask? So bleak, the man restocking Gatorades at the local convenience store was carrying a gun.

Route 66, in a literal sense, no longer exists. The highway that once connected the nation, from Santa Monica to Chicago, was decommissioned in 1985, deconstructed piecemeal into a series of nondescript and neglected streets, a tired and abandoned road to nowhere. It is very difficult, in the modern day, to drive down Route 66; you can try and follow a map, but to do so is an exercise in frustration. You are no longer going from point A to point B. Because the interstates have rendered what was once a simple route ineffably complex. And, after all, who the fuck knows how to read a map anymore? We have apps to do that.

The Route 66 signs in the Wigwam Motel's gift shop are new, the tchotchkes cheap (check in on Yelp and get a free postcard!) and made overseas. It feels perverse to celebrate such a venerable part of America's history with imported, disposable knicknacks. We do it, however, because that is exactly what we do.

But you can't just dispose of a motel comprised of 20 tipis. (Far be it for me to "Um...actually" you, but they're tipis, not wigwams; wigwams are domed. Someone in 1949, apparently, didn't approach the task of constructing a novelty motel, the theme of which was the culture of the people we systematically murdered for the purposes of Manifest Destiny, with the utmost cultural sensitivity.) Although the Wigwam Motel was almost discarded, in a way, having fallen into decay and transformed into a pay-by-the-hour fuck motel (a sign that reads "Do it in a Tee Pee" which once hung outside is now stashed away out back) before it was purchased by the current proprietor's parents for $1 million in 2003, an investment they, as of two years ago, had yet to recoup.

The motel's structures are externally beautiful and well-maintained. The interiors, not so much. (There was visible gum on the bed frame of the room I rented, and a foreboding "187" carved into its bathroom mirror.) My room was most certainly clean, yet clearly worn. But modern visitors don't come to places like the Wigwam Motel for the interior, they come for the exterior. The endless photo-ops, the selfies. In that regard, the Wigwam Motel remains a true roadside attraction because, were you to happen to drive by it, were you to have the misfortune of passing through Rialto in the first place, it would catch your eye, as it is the only truly beautiful thing within miles.

The overwhelming majority of the people who continue to lionize Route 66, flocking to roadside attractions like the Wigwam Motel like moths to a flame, are white—according to a 2001 study by Rutgers University, a staggering 97 percent. It makes sense, as whites were the target demographic during Route 66's pre-desegregation heyday.

To continue to hold the Mother Road in such high regard, in spite of the decay that surrounds it, is very white indeed, in that doing so is a form of disaster tourism. The only way to truly enjoy yourself is to close your eyes to the reality of the world that surrounds you.

Though there used to be seven, there are now only three Wigwam Motels left. Soon there will be two, soon there will be one, soon there will be none. It is an inevitability, as there is little room for novelty and uniqueness in the modern age. Everything now is an interchangeable chain. All architecture looks the same. The rich live in glass boxes. The poor live in stucco ones. Which is not to say that, in the 40s, everything was the world's largest ball of string, or a restaurant shaped like a derby, or a motel comprised of tipis. But still, those structures were comparatively ubiquitous. We are, seemingly, becoming more unique as a people—or, at least, pride ourselves on how special and individual we are. But the outside world—all that exists beyond the self—is becoming interchangeable. Perhaps we have become too unique to feel comfortable with an expression of uniqueness in anything other than ourselves.

We no longer need roadside attractions because we no longer need to be enticed off the interstate. Because the interstate is the destination; it's why we're there in the first place. We get on the highway to go to Target. We get off the highway to go to the Red Lobster. We know where we're going; we have a purpose. And if we ever stop somewhere we haven't yet patronized, a place we've never heard of, we'll probably look it up on Yelp first in order to ensure we're not making a mistake.

The Yelp reviews for the Wigwam Motel are, to put it mildly, mixed. Some people love it. These are people who visited specifically because they knew, before they had even set sight upon it, they would love it. And then there are those who claim to have had run ins with the owner. But, to me, he seems like a person trying his best. He is a man out of time, operating something that is, I assume, not long for this world. I could certainly imagine the role of being the captain of a sinking ship being taxing and stressful. As I checked in he sat, alone in the front lobby, staring off into the middle distance. I felt for him. Arguably too much.

While I initially viewed it as gruffness upon check-in, I now realize it was most likely exhaustion. For that, I do not judge him. Truly doing the Lord's work, I harbor no judgement toward his establishment at all. I just ultimately felt profoundly uncomfortable to be a woman, alone, in Rialto, a city where everyone walking down the street seems like a loose cannon. And some of those loose cannons wander off the street to wander around the motel grounds, asking you for bus fare. (Shout out to the man who was just trying to get back to Moreno Valley; I'm sorry I didn't have the change you needed.) The windows of my wigwam seemed easily penetrable, as did the lock on the door. Which is why I ultimately chose not to spend the night in Kumar, the proprietor's, probably not long for this world motel. He was watering the lawn when I, at 8 PM, asked to check out, in spite of the fact I had checked in four hours prior. "Is everything all right?" he asked, as I gave the key card back. "Yes," I said, terrified I had made a mistake. "I just need to go home."

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