In the story of America, the road is beautiful, the people are beautiful, even the motel is beautiful. It’s beautiful even when there is no chance of that, even when it is an ordinary, respectable chain franchise that promises anything but a surprise, or when it is the very opposite, a no-tell motel where the dirty little surprise—of a place just funky enough so a woman can cry to heaven without fear of summoning the police—is what motivated the choice. The motel is beautiful because it is a caldron of expectation fueled by a thousand songs and stories, a thousand real or borrowed memories of the motel as a place where sex happens, or might.

Always there is the promise, but then… the delivery. I remember once picturing something charmingly louche while driving to a motel described as being out of the way. It was under a highway in New Jersey. The man at the front desk asked, "One hour or four?" The carpeting was a stained shade of puce. A small paper fir tree twirled "Evergreen" odor out into the room from a bedside lamp, and just overhead in a gold-tone frame a stagecoach hurtled forward across a stormy plain. Dirty in all the wrong ways, at least a paper strip across the toilet seat guaranteed "Sanitary."

Disappointment was part of the romance of the road from the start. The nation’s first stag film fantasy was a road trip. In the 1915 silent A Free Ride, a mustachioed man and two women are bouncing along in a Model T, the air ripe with possibility. They stop for a pee, a caress, and in an instant one of the women disappears—to watch?—while the other is led to an auto robe spread on the ground. The mustachioed man pounces, dropping his trousers as the camera moves in close for a view of his rather feeble buttocks thumping away. Seconds pass and it’s done, the act and the film—as so often with fantasy, more thrilling in the hothouse of imagination than in fact.

Lately I’ve been driving America’s roads, where picnic sex and its more prosaic indoor substitutes are secondary to the carnal in its most basic sense, to bodies in motion and at rest; in other words, to men, women and children simply surviving.

* * *

It’s plain that the American dream of lighting out for the territory has gone awry when the school bus pulls up at the Quality Inn. I could name any chain motel of the low-frills type—a Days Inn or Best Western or Howard Johnson. The phenomenon is not uncommon; it just used to be confined to the obscure motel specializing in weekly rates for construction workers, transient soldiers, ex-cons, drug addicts and writers on really small expense budgets. Now almost any motel might be at least partly residential. But I am speaking of a particular motel near a particular East Coast city, and here two yellow buses have been coming by ever since a man on the first floor was arrested and his 7-year-old daughter, hard up for a ride, went knocking door to door at 7 am, asking strangers if anyone could take her to school. At least seven children from the motel ride the buses each morning and afternoon. The walkway on the side of the motel where the girl lives with her troubled father, crippled mother and older brother is lined with plastic toys.

A church pays the $324 a week to lodge that family, but many of the fifteen or so families who live in the motel full time are "self-pay." It is unclear why the church pays more each month for one room than the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in town, but there is no mystery why the poor pay more. Their jobs don’t pay enough to save. Motel living is expensive, but there’s not another landlord who will forgo a security deposit and one month’s rent upfront. So they pay weekly, cobble up meals through some combination of microwave, crockpot, rice cooker, toaster oven or McDonald’s Dollar Menu, and try not to go crazy with the parents in one bed, the children lined up in another beside it and only a few square feet of bathroom privacy.

I noticed the children before I ever saw the school buses. They are less inhibited than the children of travelers, who always look puzzled when the residential kids ask if they can come to their room later to play. Mostly unwired, these kids play physical made-up games in the parking lot almost every evening. They are remarkably kind and resourceful. In the motel’s breakfast room, they know how to find any supply. It seems they eat Belgian waffles with butter and syrup every day; on weekend mornings I have watched the skinny 7-year-old girl work her way through a cup of yogurt, a bowl of cereal, a waffle, several sausages, a bagel and an apple. Some of the kids drink coffee; it’s supposed to help their asthma. Like dystopian pioneers, they approach life in the motel as an adventure. Some of them must worry—the little girl looks spectral sometimes—but they seem not to have learned to be ashamed.

A young woman I’ll call Dora who lives on the second floor with her husband, Nick, and three sons, ages 5 to 11, told me she’s anxious that any day some mean kid will try to teach her boys that lesson. "I mean, I feel embarrassed for them." Nick and Dora fell in love when they were 16. They had an apartment, saved money and bought a house. Last December they lost it in foreclosure, but really the house was lost eight days after the closing, when the steel mill where Nick worked laid everyone off. Nick and Dora hung on for months, but the cord finally snapped. They spent Christmas at a Super 8.

The Quality Inn is cheaper and nicer, safe, clean, with a pool in front and a creek out back where the boys fish and explore. Nick drives seventy miles each day for his new job, and the family spends everything he makes. Dora is looking for work now that her youngest got into all-day kindergarten; if she could make just $300 a week, they could stop whirling in the spiral.

In other rooms are other trials. A couple with a dog, waiting for a house to be finished. A couple with two young daughters whose house burned down, fighting the insurance company for a settlement. A trucker whose wife went kind of mad and stabbed him in the motel; she’s gone now. A clerk in the lobby, laid off by an engineering firm, hoping for a response to his online job applications, surer each day that his only chance is back in India. A couple with a baby whose mother, call her Stevie, is wasting away.

Six months ago, when the baby was born, Stevie was beautiful. That’s what people say. Now she is sometimes bruised as well as bony. Everyone is a little scared of her man and a little scared for her and the child, but they must be a little scared of Child Services too. Now that the Snow Birds have made their annual drive-through to Florida, the motel owners need the income as much as the residents need a roof. No one interferes; that bit of motel etiquette stays strong. But there is talk: Stevie always needs a ride or $5, $10. People spot her the cash—who doesn’t understand being short for diapers?—until the dollars add up and the lenders find themselves on the other end of need. The first time Stevie asked someone for a ride to the truck stop, she came back with $100 to settle her debts. "I don’t sell my ass; people like me," she snarled. The last time, after an hour among the trucks, she had $10.

It’s Motel-land, and somewhere someone is fucking and laughing in the face of absurdity, but sex is the least of it.

Homepage image courtesy of Flickr user timlewisnm