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Charles Portis On Motel Life, Lower Reaches

Illustration for article titled Charles Portis On Motel Life, Lower Reaches

Here's a beaut from Charles Portis, published in the Oxford American:

Back when Roger Miller was King of the Road, in the 1960s, he sang of rooms to let ("no phone, no pool, no pets") for four bits, or fifty cents. I can't beat that price, but I did once in those days come across a cabin that went for three dollars. It was in the long, slender highway town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

That cute and unwieldy name, by the way, was taken in 1950 from the name of a quiz/comedy radio show, and has stuck, against long odds. The show was okay, as I recall, a cut or two above the general run of broadcast ephemera, with some funny 1949 moments. But why re-name your town for it? And by now, a half-century later, you would think the townsfolk must surely have repented their whim and gone back to the old name, solid and descriptive, of Hot Springs. But no, and worse, the current New Mexico highway maps no longer offer both names, with the old one in parentheses, as an option, for the comfort of those travelers who wince and hesitate over saying, "Truth or Consequences." Everyone must now say the whole awkward business.

I was driving across the state at the time, very fast. There were signs along the approaches to town advertising cheaper and cheaper motel rooms. The tone was shrill, desperate, that of an off-season price war. It was a buyer's market. I began to note the rates and the little extras I could expect for my money. Always in a hurry then, once committed to a road, I stopped only for fuel, snake exhibits, and automobile museums, but I had to pause here, track down the cheapest of these cheap motels, and see it. I would confront the owner and call his bluff.