Motel names are often steeped in etymological significance, a point that’s been made somewhat redundantly on these pages. But there’s another element to the nominal strategies of the roadside motor court, one which also speaks to the various qualities that so often define these places, namely safety, impermanence, convenience, and leisure.  

Just as seemingly unmotivated motel names like Desert Rose, Blue Swallow Sea Breeze, and Space Age bear complex symbolic layers, even the most humble and transparent monikers gather together complex genealogies: to wit, the preponderance of Hilltop motels isn’t the result of some laziness on the part of those nominating these sites.

If the motor court acts as a fortification on the frontier that is the North American roadside, then one can imagine the wide range of benefits offered by an elevated position. Not only is the motel visible from far away — its neon sign shining like a beacon in the night — but once a guest arrives he can survey the land for his possible pursuers (think Nabokov’s Lolita here) or chart a course through what lies ahead.

The inherent humbleness of the designation “hill top” is also a boon for the motel owner. While a certain superiority is inferred by the topography, the inn itself is given only the most basic status: its value is derived from its location rather than any inherent quality. As always, one feels at ease making no investment in a place with so little identity. 

Where better to stop for a night than at a waypoint that allows you to see where you’ve been and where you’re going, caught for a moment in suspended animation like the spinning rim of a wheel? 

This is what motels were made for.

Lead photo by Sarah Fortman. Fourth photo by Andy (ho_hokus). Postcards sourced from Ebay.