On my second try with a non-chain motel, I had a pretty good experience. I was ready for one, after my depressing stay at the Bel Aire in Missoula, which has all the old-world charm of a new-world parking garage.
This time, instead of picking a place at random after 600-mile day, I did a web search the night before and decided on the Sunset Motel and RV Park in Alliance, Neb. Two things appealed to me: the ’90s-era web design, and the fact that the owners’ names are prominently displayed. This told me they are serious about actually running their motel, as opposed to leveraging the power of social media to lure in the unsuspecting.
The Sunset does not look all that great from the outside. Driving by it the first time, I imagined the desk person to be a fat man in a tank top, smoking a Pall Mall and turning down the corner of his Barely Legal to save his place before asking me what the hell I wanted. This is how a pessimist sees the world. But the woman at the desk was smart and friendly and smiled easily and asked me if I knew the work of a certain Nebraska author (it was Mari Sandoz, and no, I hadn’t).
The room itself was quite clean — after the Bel Aire, I would say surgically clean. It smelled good. The woman at the desk had warned that the wifi had its quirks, but it worked great the entire time. The maid left a welcoming card in a juvenile hand, signing it “April J.” and adding a little smiley face. The room had a fridge and a microwave, both of which I used. (My new thing is buying a frozen entree at a Safeway or Walmart and microwaving the hell out of it. Realizing I had no spoon with which to eat it, my hostess happily supplied one, with a couple of napkins.)
I got up early to catch the early light for some pics of Carhenge. Checking out later, I asked co-owner Jean Ferguson how it is competing with chains like the Holiday Inn at the other end of town. She didn’t have to think about it.
“We’re half the price,” she said. “And we make sure our rooms are really clean.”
She said the biggest challenge she and her husband face is the seasonal nature of the business — as you might guess, the leisure class does not flock to Nebraska in the winter. There’s also the problem of trying to be known without a national ad budget.
That’s where the awesome readership of this blog comes in. We’re talking as many as nine subscribers. Next time you get to Alliance, you might try the Sunset. There’s no free breakfast and the exterior decor hasn’t changed since the '80s, but they’ll treat you right. I left April J. a larger tip than I normally do, imagining that she would spend the rest of the day thinking kind thoughts about the mysterious gent in Room 24.