Mom’s Motel

From the series "Songs from the Valley Towns," circa 1994
From the series “Songs from the Valley Towns,” circa 1994

Scanning some photographs I took in the mid 1990s, I located an interesting detail. There’s a B-17 parked near the edge of my photo. In twenty years, I never noticed that before. I might have, when I took it, but I’ve slept since then.

Mom's Motel (detail)

What always intrigued me more was the name of the hotel, adjacent to Highway 99 in the Central Valley of California. We’ve all stayed at mom’s motel, haven’t we? Growing up in the Valley, I spent a lot of time driving around, and quite to this day I feel that the highway is my home. It’s the landscape I know, and in most ways, my favorite book. There’s always something interesting to read.


Before I could drive, I used to ride my bicycle down to Milt’s Coffee shop, just across Highway 99 from Oildale, California to sit and read.  One of the books I distinctly remember reading there was On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Milt’s seemed like the natural place to read it; the view was perfect.


Milt's Coffee ShopThis was always my landscape— weeds and freeways. It’s been a strange transition, to go from this to the mid-south, to the upper midwest, and finally to the east. I’m going to visit Maine next week, for the first time. It’s a long way from Oildale. I’ve never understood why others weren’t as fascinated as me by the man-altered landscape. I never found it ugly at all.

I feel as if I’ve really discovered a kindred spirit in J.B. Jackson. His obituary in the New York Times spells it out succinctly. I look forward to reading the next chapter out there on the highway.

Whenever we go, whatever the nature of our work, we adorn the face of the earth with a living design which changes and is eventually replaced by that of a future generation. How can one tire of looking at this variety, or of marveling at the forces within man and nature that brought it about?

The city is an essential part of this shifting and growing design, but only a part of it. Beyond the last street light, out where the familiar asphalt ends, a whole country waits to be discovered: villages, farmsteads and highways, half-hidden valleys of irrigated gardens, and wide landscapes reaching to the horizon. A rich and beautiful book is always open before us. We have but to learn to read it.

John Brinkerhoff Jackson, “The Need to be Versed in Country Things,” Landscape , Vol. 1 No. 1. Spring 1951

I’ll never forget opening up Ed Ruscha’s books when I started college: Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, Thirty-four Parking Lots, and especially Every Building on the Sunset Strip. BC actually had a copy, thanks to Harry Wilson.

These books taught me to pay attention to something besides pornography. Landscape porn, in particular, has overshadowed the way most people look at the world and I find it awfully sad. This was the primary lesson I learned as a young adult, staying at mom’s motel.