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« Blue Highways: Snowflake, Arizona | Main | Blue Highways: Payson, Arizona »

Blue Highways: Heber, Arizona

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWilliam Least Heat-Moon (LHM) bemoans the decline of hotels in America.  There's not much on the internet about Heber but since when has that stopped us from perusing, pondering, questioning and answering?  We'll think a bit about what the hotel was and has been and what it is today.  Click on the thumbnail of the map at right to place Heber on your mental geography.

Book Quote

"....I began anticipating Heber, the next town.  One of the best moments of any day on the road was, toward sunset, looking forward to the last stop.  At Heber I hoped for an old hotel with a little bar off to the side where they would serve A-1 on draft under a stuffed moosehead; or maybe I'd find a grill dishing up steak and eggs on blue-rimmed platters.  I hoped for people who had good stories, people who sometimes took you home to see their collection of carved peach pits.

"That was the hope.  But Heber was box houses and a dingy sawmill, a couple of motels and filling stations, a glass-and-Formica cafe.  Heber had no center, no focus for the eye and soul: neither a courthouse, nor high church steeple, nor hotel.  Nothing has done more to take a sense of civic identity, a feeling of community, from small-town America than the loss of old hotels to the motel business.  The hotel was once where things coalesced, where you could meet both townspeople and travelers.  Not so in a motel.  No matter how you build it, the motel remains a haunt of the quick and dirty, where the only locals are Chamber of Commerce boys every fourth Tuesday.  Who ever heard the returning traveler exclaim over one of the great motels of the world he stayed in?  Motels can be big, but never grand."

Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 1

US Post Office at Heber, Arizona. Photo on "thornydalemapco's" photostream at Flickr. Click on photo to go to site.

Heber, Arizona

My family rarely traveled very far when I was growing up, so I really didn't gain an appreciation for hotels.  What I did gain was a sense of their utilitarianism; when we drove down to what used to be Marriot's Great America in Santa Clara, California we used the room for sleep and changing, and we used the pool for swimming.  Otherwise, we really didn't stay there much.  When we were traveling, the motel was where we slept.  In my home town, the buildings that were called hotels were somewhat dark and dingy, with scary bars.

My wife, whose father was a university president, has a much better appreciation for hotels than I do.  When she grew up, her parents traveled with their kids a lot, and they stayed in hotels all over, such as the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago.  She loves old hotels that have managed to stay in business, and if we see one, we usually have to wander in and check out the lobby and its decor.  Sometimes, she'll even book us into one for a stay.  It's at these times that I can appreciate what my wife sees in hotels - the comfort and home-away-from-home feeling.  Sometimes, it's even the opulence that makes one feel like he or she is staying in a castle, a place worthy or royalty.

LHM foreshadows by many years in his quote about the lack of a hotel in Heber, and the decline of the hotel in America in general, a book called Hotel: An American History by University of New Mexico associate professor and historian A.K. Sandoval-Strausz.  This book, possibly the first attempt to place the hotel in the context of U.S. history (it was, after all, an American invention), is an extremely interesting look at the how the hotel shaped America.  Hotels are uniquely American inventions because they grew out of an American reality and gave rise to other American institutions, such as the apartment building.  One was embarrassment, as American innkeepers realized that they didn't have public boarding suitable for the important VIPs of the day, such as George Washington.  A second was the growth of a nation westward.  As the people of the United States expanded ever outward, places were needed to feed and house tired travelers temporarily as they made their way through places, and waited for the next train or wagon to take them onward.  Third, as LHM alludes, hotels often became the anchor of settlements and towns across the nation;  a central place where communities and people passing through them came to meet, socialize, and do business.

Of course, as train travel gave way to automobiles, travel became more swift, and destinations became more far flung as the car lengthened the amount of miles one could travel in a day, a lot of old hotels gave way to the motel.  The rise of the motel and its simple rooms and amenities coincided with the decay of the old hotels except in major cities.  Many communities lost their old hotels, demolishing them in favor of new construction projects.  What LHM couldn't have seen when he wrote Blue Highways and passed through hotel-less Heber, however, was that many communities now look back on the old hotels with nostalgia.  Some are revitalizing them, maintaining the old ambience and feel of the hotel but modernizing them at the same time.  In Albuquerque, where I live, I know of at least one hotel that has been revitalized, the Hotel Andaluz downtown.  A developer here even remade an old mental institution into a new hotel, the Parq Central, that has an interesting ambience - a rooftop bar in the former medical dispensary that has the best view in Albuquerque.  Other communities are seeing their hotels rise phoenix-like from the ashes.  Famous artist Judy Chicago and her husband are remodeling an old hotel in Belen, New Mexico as their home and art studio, for example.

I am still coming to appreciate the hotel for what it was, and what it could be.  There's no question, however, that the loss of an historic building in a community that once housed a hotel is a true community loss.  Another Albuquerque story; a sad one.  The old Alvarado Hotel, a large Harvey House hotel that fronted the train tracks through the city, with architecture and furniture designed by Mary Colter, had fallen into disuse and was demolished in 1970.  On its site now stands a transportation center, the contours and outlines of which sadly recall the once stately building situated there, welcoming travelers with a bed and a meal after a long train ride.

When you travel, do yourself a favor sometime and stop in an old hotel.  Eat in the restaurant, get a beer or cocktail in the bar, or just hang out in the lobby for a while and watch the people come and go.  If you have time or money, stay for a night  It doesn't matter where you do it.  Just enjoy it, and realize it was once THE place to be.

Musical Interlude

I happened upon this video of Wilco actually singing about a hotel, in a geographically appropriate place.  Enjoy Arizona Hotel!

If you want to know more about Heber

There's not much on the internet, so I've assembled some little that I've found.  If you want to add what you know, feel free to do so in the comments!

Facebook: Heber-Overgaard page
White Mountains Online: Heber & Overgaard
Wikipedia: Heber-Overgaard

Next up:  Snowflake, Arizona

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