Econolodge, Super 8, Motel 6, Travelodge - all were mile markers in my journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Denver and eastward through the flatlands to Baltimore. I drank from plastic cups, dozed to the sound of leaky toilets, and dried myself with towels the size of postage stamps, but there were a few surprises, too: complimentary newspapers and continental breakfasts, free local phone calls, a fax and copying service, in-room microwaves and nonsmoking rooms. One night, though, I sure did wish for ear plugs.
Even so, such accoutrements! Green-plastic fly swatters at a Best Western room in Abilene, Kan.; a silver disco ball at a Comfort Inn Lounge in Triadelphia, W. Va.; and a hand-printed do-not-disturb sign at the Route 66 Motel, in Atlanta, Ill. And such art! Indian maidens, floral arrangements, lush countrysides - all peering at me from the bland but friendly walls of my highway homes.
In all, I drove 4,411 miles in a 1986 Honda Accord loaded with the contents of my life: clothes, office files, a computer, a six-pack of Tahoe beer, and a Remington bronze of The Scalper that was too heavy for United Parcel Service to haul. I had lived in Los Angeles and Lake Tahoe for three years and was moving to Baltimore in a road trip slung across America's belly, Interstate 70.
This was to be a low-budget run, and with the exception of a $65 room at a Days Inn in Boulder, Colo., it was just that. My average room rate with tax: $40.93. For one thing, I learned that you can talk yourself into a discount at almost any motel. Membership in the Automobile Association of America, the American Association of Retired Persons, the military or a corporate affiliation is usually good for a 10 percent discount. Also, rest areas, gas stations and truck stops often stock booklets with coupon discounts for food and lodging in their region.
It was last autumn - a fine time to be checking out the nation's supply of economy lodging, the fastest-growing segment of the industry, in which ''economy" is now defined as a room-rate cap of $45 in a place with no significant public spaces such as conference or banquet rooms. In fact, the market has become so crowded with economy motels that many properties are upgrading their services and offering competitive prices, which is good news for travelers.
Each month, the market research firm, D.K. Shifflet & Associates, surveys 30,000 U.S. households about their travel habits. Figures for 1994 show that economy lodging represented a 30 percent market share of all room nights.
Sixty-five percent of economy-motel guests are between the ages of 18 and 49, and 40 percent earn annual salaries of $25,000 to $49,999. Forty-one percent are college graduates, and 60 percent are male. Fifty-seven percent of motel guests stated their purpose as leisure, and 43 percent were business travelers.
It was Motel 6 that popularized the small, economy chain motel when a couple of Santa Barbara real estate developers opened their first $6-a-room- motel in California in 1962. The interstate highway system was spreading like crazy at the time, and California was involved in one of the biggest real estate booms in history - a perfect synergy for the birth of the drive-up chain motel.
Now, Motel 6 is owned by a French services and lodging group and operates 770 motels in the Lower 48, with more than 30 million guests a year. Since 1990, the chain has almost doubled its number of locations, and certainly the Tom Bodett TV commercials have turned Motel 6 into a household name.
During a typical day's drive, my mind stretched into the far reaches to ponder the great mysteries of life: Where are the mates to all the single shoes discarded along America's highways? Why is blue-colored window washer fluid clear when it hits the windshield? What do people do in Kansas? After the rigors of such a day, I'd be pretty tired come sunset, and that's when my search would begin for an off-ramp leading to (I hope) clean sheets.
I chose my spots based on curb appeal, proximity to a restaurant - most economy motels do not have on-site dining - the room rate, and my level of fatigue. However, it is possible to plan: Most chains have lodging directories you can carry with you, and all of them have toll-free reservations systems.
At the Comfort Inn all-you-can-eat buffet in Triadelphia, W.Va., motorists David and Sharon Dillman told me they usually pack Holiday Inn and Comfort Inn guides.
Their criteria, according to David Dillman: "It's got to look clean, doesn't smell and is quiet, plus we like an on-site restaurant and friendly people. And my wife likes to open a window." The Dillmans, who own a hardware store in Grant Park, Ill., had seen a Comfort Inn TV ad in New Jersey the night before offering a 30 percent discount with advance reservations for people 50 and up. The gal at the reservations desk in Triadelphia wouldn't give him the 30 percent rate so Dillman walked 20 feet to the lobby pay phone, called in his reservation, and walked back to the desk to collect his reservation at the reduced price.
Economy-motel rooms seem to have a familiar sameness: a double bed with floral bedspreads, a table and chair, a dresser with TV, small bathrooms with cruelly lit mirrors and no toiletries, plus a drive-up parking spot. Few have clock radios, so it's a good idea to pack an alarm clock. While few motels provide toiletries, most will lend out hair dryers, irons and the like from the desk.
One of my favorite motels was the Super 8 in Wells, Nev., off Interstate 80. Welcome mats were outside each room, and my large quarters had a king- sized bed, a couch with coffee table, a table and chairs, a small refrigerator and microwave, and cable TV. The shower dripped, but it was a good deal for $39.40, including tax.
It has been 20 years since Super 8 offered single rooms for $8. Nationwide, its properties have an average room rate of $38. All are franchised, but they're subject to a tough quarterly check-up by corporate inspectors who assess the motels' exterior, parking lot, and the cleanliness and quality of the rooms.
"We have stuck with the basics - impeccable cleanliness and friendly manners," said Robert Weller, president of Super 8. "It may sound corny, but our watch phrase is 'Clean and friendly.' "
Wells, a highway travelers' stop in the middle of the vast Nevada desert, has a casino and a wonderful truck stop. That's where I discovered the all- hickory tire knocker, priced at $3.99, that truckers knock their tires with so that they can identify that special ping, telling them the tire's all right.
I understand the importance of such sounds. Drive these kind of distances alone, and car sounds become as familiar as the beating of your own heart. I know every rattle and wheeze of my Honda, which proudly finished this ambitious journey at just over 130,000 miles. I carry a tool kit in the car, though on this cruise the most important contents were the Windex and paper towels. (A lot of bugs died for me on this trip.)
I get a kick out of a road trip -creating a still life from salt and pepper shakers on a green Formica tabletop at a truck-stop restaurant; cash register promotions for "Tooth Pick Packs That Hang Anywhere;" and billboards like this one near Winnemucca, Nev.: "Winnemucca: One Traffic Jam Every Decade."
Road travel also keeps one up-to-date on who's sponsoring the litter- removal programs on our nation's great highways - groups like Cowboys For Christ in Warrenton, Mo., and Mr. Brithow's Class in Washington, Pa. And, when you want a leg stretch, there are always roadside museums. On this trip, I passed museums for basketball, towers, railways, trolleys and "farm stuff."
It's fun, too, to travel in places where California license plates still create something of a stir and where you pay after you pump. To get the true measure of a place, though, it's important to venture off the interstate. That's where you'll find wonderful old roads with names like Lick Hollow, Pig's Ear and Secret Town.
On Route 40 through Pennsylvania, I stopped at a couple of old road toll houses to read the rates: "Every led or drove horse, mule or ass, 3 cents." In Abilene, Kan., I loved the "Jenny 4 Homecoming" banner - black painted letters on a white sheet - slung across a tidy lawn on Buckeye Street. A 1995 calendar from John's 66 on Buckeye now hangs on my fridge in Baltimore. I also
put the sprig of sage that I picked up in the Nevada desert on my dashboard, and for weeks after the trip, on warm days, I could pick up its raw scent.
I have a friend who talks about starting something called the Society for the Preservation of the Long Way Home, and if he ever organizes it, I hope to be a charter member. One trucker I met, 56-year-old Bill Uselton, said, "The thing about the road is that it's always changin.' I just love the ride."
I feel that way, too, but it is reassuring to know that at the end of another day of driving, someone's left the light on for me.
IF YOU GO
* Here are some toll-free numbers for economy-motel chains: Econolodge, 800-424-4777; Comfort Inn, 800-221-2222; Travelodge, 800-578-7878; Best Western, 800-528-1234; Super 8, 800-800-8000; Motel 6, 800-440-6000.