USA: Sleeping with the past

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid signs in at American hotels where the rich, famous and notorious have slept.

The marginalia of every kind of pop culture is out there for you to enjoy in America.
The marginalia of every kind of pop culture is out there for you to enjoy in America.

America might not do Old World history too well - although dinosaur footprints and 1000-year-old cave paintings are pretty impressive - but when it comes to modern history, especially pop culture, you can't go past it.

It's not just that you can go to Elvis' birthplace in Tupelo and his Graceland home in Memphis where he died in the throne room, but the marginalia of every kind of pop culture is out there for you to enjoy, be photographed at, and buy the T-shirt.

I can boast - admittedly somewhat emptily - that I now have a photo of me at Tucumcari, an unglamorous strip of motels, truck stops and cheap eateries east of Albuquerque in New Mexico. Why? Because it was mentioned in the Little Feat song Willin'.

Oh, I had a genuine reason to be at this low-rent slice of drive-by America, the museum there has the world's biggest collection of barbed wire, so in the interests of historical research I thought ...

Let's pass on quickly before I embarrass myself further.

Remember that scene in Forrest Gump when he sat on the bench and told his life story? That took place in Chippewa Square in romantic Savannah, and although there's no bench you can still have your picture taken on the spot. And when the Gump-chump finally tired of jogging and turned around and went home? That happened on the route through Navajo land to Monument Valley. If you have a guide it will invariably be pointed out.

Monument Valley is a movie buff's mecca. Here John Ford made John Wayne and the towering monoliths, buttes and mesas into stars. Ford's 1939 Stagecoach and 1956 The Searchers, among many others, were filmed here (the river Wayne crosses in The Searchers is but a dry bed today), and so were sequences for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Easy Rider and Back to the Future 3. Charlton Heston as Moses wandered through this arid wilderness near the distinctive Mitten Buttes.

Throughout the Southwest you are tripping over movie locations. Around Moab in Utah Thelma and Louise took their doomed drive, and Max von Sydow as Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount in nearby Arches National Park. Acres of Indiana Jones films were shot around the region.

When you pass through these strangely familiar landscapes you can almost imagine Clint Eastwood riding through the parched hills (he did for The Outlaw Josey Wales) or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid having their outlaw adventures in these here parts. (Yep, Robert Redford and Paul Newman rode this land, and Redford came back to Provo Canyon for his elemental mountain-man classic Jeremiah Johnson).

From My Darling Clementine and The Grapes of Wrath to Three Amigos! and National Lampoon's Vacation, the magnificent and mundane landscapes of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and, of course, Texas have provided more than just the backdrop. They have provided the ambience.

And the stars always needed somewhere nearby to stay, so chances are when you check in to a decent hotel or motel you will walk through a lobby where the famous have also trodden.

Take the Holiday Inn at Kayenta, a large affair at the gateway to Monument Valley in the northeast of Arizona. This was where Chevy Chase stepped out of his red convertible and made a great LA-style to-do about signing autographs. When the locals showed no interest in him - remember some had lunched with John Wayne - he sloped off to his room and sulked. Or so local legend has it.

Holiday Inns usually don't have much history seeping out of the walls but a place like the Strater Hotel in Durango, Colorado, just reeks of it. Completed in 1887, the massive and stately hotel was the dream of Henry H. Strater who wanted to build the biggest and best hotel in the West.

He faced several major problems: he had no money, no experience as a hotelier and was only 20 years old. But with the help of relatives he realised his dream and now, 120 years on, the hotel with its restaurant decorated with Tiffany shades, stained glass and a buffet brought from Toscanini's casa in Italy, has hosted dozens of movie stars and political figures.

Two presidents - JFK and Gerald Ford - have passed through the elegant lobby, and Ronald Reagan's favourite author, the cowboy writer Louis L'Amour, liked to stay in Room 222 above the Diamond Belle Saloon. He claimed the sound of the honky-tonk piano inspired his period-piece tales.

Musicians Dave Brubeck, Barry Manilow and Dan Fogelberg have been guests, so have Jerry Seinfeld, Francis Ford Coppola and Will Rogers.

Just a couple of blocks up on the corner of 10th and Main is a street mural commemorating the 10-round fight between 20-year-old Jack Dempsey and Andy Malloy in 1915. Four years later Dempsey, a Colorado native who knocked down Malloy, became the world heavyweight champion.

Our room at the Strater was on the fourth floor, a part of the hotel known as the "Monkey Hall" because of the shenanigans between travelling salesmen and prostitutes in the good old days.

Hotels like these are scattered throughout the Southwest and anyone interested in popular culture will be stumbling over history. Not quite "George Washington slept here" but it is amusing to see the door plaque on the Linda Ronstadt room at the Monte Vista in Flagstaff: "Remember to stop and smell the horses."

And it isn't always the famous, or the flash hotels, that make an impression.

The Budget Inn Santa Fe is a large and anonymous chain motel a few kilometres from the central square. When I checked in the Hispanic gentleman with a boot-string bolo tie asked where I was from. When I told him he said without a pause, "Then it's just as well we have pork and puha for you".

Turns out four Maori girls were here some time back filming a commercial and they took a shine to his bellboy. They sat in this very same tiny lobby where I was signing the register and tried to chat him up. The manager heard every word and liked the sound of "pork and puha".

"I guess it's like ribs and salad?" he asked hopefully.

If you check in there tell him you are from New Zealand.

If he says "choice" you can blame me.

Graham Reid is a Herald feature writer on holiday in the United States. He is travelling courtesy of BMW.

- NZ Herald

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