Vanishing Point A Bookand Websiteby Ander Monson


And when I say North I mean this:

This, the Vacationland Motel, was an image I was hoping to use for the cover of Vacationland. It took me a while to track down because the motel is no longer the Vacationland. It's a Best Western. Or something like it. An InnSuites. A Country Inn. A Holiday Inn. A Budget Host. A Budget Host. The building is about the same, the rooms likely somewhat modernized, but the sign is gone. The postcard is dated 1954. Like everything in the past, the place betrays us when we look closely at it.

For what seems like six weeks but may be much less, I lived in a motel like this--though not this one--in downtown Houghton. It was dreary but alright, as I remember it. Games of D&D were played. I remember shag carpeting but that seems doubtful. I remember a couple partial room dividers. Low ceilings. Darkness. Beyond that I don't remember it. Like the Vacationland, it's a real motel, not a hotel. Nothing ho, or hoity-toity about it. This is meant for cars to enter and park outside of. This photo predates my memory of the Vacationland, since the cars look like ones from the 50s (though I have no eye for cars so could be wrong: 40s, even?). My Vacationland had a large pool in the central courtyard, and had, I think, at least another set of rooms to the left of the building you see here. But it looks much the same. Even the rhetoric of age here seems about right. The image is grainy, and you can see the halftones from the scan if you look closely. There even appears to be a plane (?) flying by on the upper left, or perhaps it's something else. It's difficult to imagine a plane flying up in this part of the world when this might have been taken.

The postcard has the following text on its back:


Houghton, Michigan                  Phone 889

Two miles south on Highway U. S. 41. Every modern
convenience with central heating and phone in every
room. Edward Juntila, Owner.

"The Pride of the Copper Country."

Copyright 1954, The L. L. Cook Co.


Then splitting the writing side from the address side, it reads, "A Genuine Kodachrome Reproduction. The L. L. Cook Co., Milwaukee, Wis.," touting the technology of reproduction when it was still magic to some of us. Then "POST CARD." And the obligatory box reading "PLACE STAMP HERE." Was it legally mandatory, I wonder, since I it's on all the vintage postcards I remember seeing, or was the idea of postcards still so relatively novel that we needed direction on how to use them? Oh, the stamp goes where?

The postcard smells like aging paper. A little bit like smoke. If I sniff hard I can almost believe I can smell what was actual in the past, a passing trace of cigarette, a slight scent of pine. Meat on the grill somewhere. Wet dog. A crying child.

Even though it isn't my past, it's someone's past. You can still find shots of it online, apparently. I don't recommend you look, since we're not talking about the same place. The place is different now. It's entirely different. This is the magic of the photograph, that it preserves what is no longer anywhere else. But click [here] if you really want to see it. They've improbably added a two-story set of rooms on the west side of the lot. They've renovated the rooms, expelled any trace of who might have stayed there in the postcard shot. The wood might still be the same, the clouds of insulation, maybe, a fixture, a couple pipes. It's amazing that this little place, which doesn't seem like much, has been operating since at least 1954.

Last, I presume the figure standing between the building and the first car is the photographer, his (?) assistant, or his (?) travel companion. He poses for us. He might just be an unrelated traveler, en route to some place or other up in the Northern part of the Northern peninsula of Michigan, and happened to be getting out of the car when he saw somebody setting up some kind of equipment down by the road, pointing it at him and the motel, and decided to pose, or possibly was transfixed by what was happening even if he didn't know what it was. He is literally transfixed by the photographer and the photograph, held fast there against his will (or not), and kept here, on this small piece of history that's apparently popular enough to even be Googleable (if you image search for Vacationland Motel Houghton you'll see a couple lower-res scans of this very postcard), posing there for us. Perhaps his wife, or lover, or someone is waiting inside, wondering what on earth is taking him so long, what he could be doing in the parking lot. You just send him out for a minute and this is what you get? Why doesn't it surprise me? Or maybe he's getting something out to surprise me, an engagement ring perhaps, a gift, or something darker, a gun, that throws all that conflict from last night and the night before into relief so that anything could happen to you here. This is not your home. This is the unfamiliar North. People here have guns. People here die in different, unexpected ways. As your mother said, be careful up there: in the city at least there is someone to hear you scream.