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Genius Loci

The Mohawk Trail motel

Eastern Summit Motel postcard, circa 1950s.

Impeccably planned, the heist goes off without a hitch. Connections are met, the spoils divided, and off you ride into the sunset with sacks of cash, art, or jewels. It’s the perfect crime, and we all fantasize about it. At least I do, as I while away the many hours I spend behind the wheel of a rented car on my business trips to western Massachusetts. Most often these ventures find me on the Mohawk Trail, the stretch of Route 2 that runs between Athol and Williamstown. In addition to seasonal souvenir stands and obsolete view towers, the Mohawk Trail is chockablock with roadside motels of a particular era, unassuming structures that popular culture loves to depict as way stations for desperate people on the run. They figure prominently in my imaginary capers.

French King, The Olde Willow, Giovanni’s Red Rose, Oxbow Resort—the motels of the Mohawk Trail offer the windshield archaeologist an object lesson in the evolution of American leisure travel, from tourist camps to motor courts to motels. The Internet may tell you they are permanently closed, but they mostly hang on, travelers having long since shifted from highways to freeways.

One of these, the Eastern Summit Motel, has gone dark, its empty shell perched above a scenic overlook near Whitcomb Summit in Florida, Massachusetts. (Midcentury postcards billed this region as “America’s Switzerland.”) A pair of faux stone gabled-roof buildings containing 14 rooms, the motel is boarded up but relatively intact, notwithstanding the odd soffit droop. A large red metal arrow lies behind Room 4, pointing at nothing in particular.

The Eastern Summit Motel has a kind of gravitational pull on me. It’s hard to resist the temptation to pull over and walk around it; I often do. Though abandoned, the motel still feels very much as depicted in those postcards, ghosts of tourists past taking in breathtaking views of the Deerfield Valley. Other presences seem to linger here, too. These are the phantoms that have made motels such uniquely interesting architectural items in cinema. We don’t know exactly what goes on inside that carpeted room with the color TV, vibrating bed, and quilted satin paper–lined oak dresser, but we suspect and hope it is anything but ordinary.

The roadside motel is easy to romanticize; it has become synonymous with the open road and all of its freedom, possibility, and isolation. It exists in the margins of society: out of town, on the edge of the highway. A spartan alternative to the hotel, typically without the latter’s shared social amenities. And although the roadside motel has ceded considerable ground to the “dependable” allure and convenience of the larger chain operations, it is a persistent and inscrutable mythology, harboring secrets not easily unlocked with a plastic key card. Whether you’re on vacation or on the lam, the roadside motel is not simply a remnant of 1950s two-lane culture. It is a space apart from everyday life, where you can reinvent yourself, your past, your getaway.