Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 22, 2018

Signifying: Free Cable TV! Mindlessness!

One of an occasional series celebrating the endlessly fascinating world of signage.

On a recent visit to Tehachapi, California, both The Counselor and I were impressed by the neon sign assembly for the Santa Fe Motel on Tehachapi Boulevard, downtown.

Motel sign Brad Nixon 4317 680

In addition to its neon, that sign boasts several classic components, including “(No) Vacancy” and “Color TV.” I suspect that the “Free Cable TV” at the top replaced a predecessor that might’ve said “In-Room Phones.”

In fact, the sign touts “TV” THREE times, which was almost certain to lure in the discerning travelers of another era as they rolled through downtown Tehachapi. At one time the street was U.S. Route 466, a primary east-west route between Barstow, Bakersfield and the coast. The 1960s construction of California Route 58, just north of Tehachapi, bypassed the town and left the Santa Fe with only local visitors.

Motel sign Brad Nixon 4321 680

Obviously, ALL TV is now “color,” and many of you don’t remember any other kind. Plenty of vintage signage still promotes it, including at the Palm Motel, just a few miles away from me along the Pacific Coast Highway in a suburb of Los Angeles.

Palm Motel Brad Nixon 1838 (450x600)

The Palm’s still-lighted neon has the eye-catching, multicolored COLOR TV sign provided by RCA, once featured on motels all across the United States equipped with those high quality RCA TV sets.

I like the irony that both the Palm and the Santa Fe “Color TV” signs are faded … in the case of the Palm’s, almost to illegibility.

What the Santa Fe’s sign is missing for the current era, of course, should be up in that top circle today: “Free Wi-Fi.”

Motel sign Brad Nixon 4323 680

Their website says they offer free Wi-Fi, but the sign hasn’t caught up. It’s the contemporary roadside attractor that outdoes any other present-day hospitality feature aside from, perhaps, the always popular, “HEATED POOL!”

A Lesson in Mindfulness

My point today is actually about what I not only did not photograph, but didn’t even notice while capturing the Santa Fe Motel sign.

Granted, it was 1:30 in the afternoon of an already jam-packed day. We’d driven 2-1/2 hours across mountains and desert to reach Tehachapi, walked around the Apple Festival, toured the town’s museum, the old theater and the Depot Railroad Museum. We still had more of the festival to see, we were going to drive 14 miles to look at the Tehachapi Loop, and then faced the return drive that would dump us onto LA freeways at dusk with thousands of other travelers returning from their own weekends. A lot of detail to take in.

Still, as a seasoned traveler, writer and photographer, I pride myself on noticing things: observing. So it pains me to admit something I only realized several days later when I was looking through my photos from the trip: I didn’t so much as look at the actual Santa Fe Motel.

It was right there, a few feet away from the sign. Was it some classic retro structure from the ’50s — or older? Perhaps even a surviving bungalow court? Or a completely modern, gleaming palace of hospitality? I had no clue. I literally didn’t see it.

I had to search for it online to even recall what it looked like. Here’s Google’s view from 2012:

Santa Fe motel Google

Okay, it’s not a vintage motor court or icon of architectural style. Perhaps I didn’t miss anything significant. Perhaps. But we’re not sleepwalking here. This is all we have: our five senses and whatever we make of what they tell us. Ignoring the Santa Fe isn’t particularly meaningful: scarcely equivalent to texting while driving or leaving the kids untended in the pool to go check the clothes in the dryer. But if there’s a raison d’etre for this blog, it is that the remarkable is observable within the quotidian; what’s near and familiar can be just as worth observing as something distant, exotic. In order to do that, we have to pay attention.

Keep looking, friends. We only pass this way once.

The Santa Fe Motel is at 120 West Tehachapi Blvd., Tehachapi, California.

High resolution versions of most photographs in this post, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Santa Fe Motel exterior © Google, retrieved Oct. 20, 2018.


  1. Your exhortation to “Pay Attention” is a good one; occasional reminders are in order. But it occurs to me that you’re suggesting only a part of the story when you say, “This is all we have: our five senses and whatever we make of what they tell us.” Because our senses are limited and contingent, what they bring to our attention will necessarily be limited and contingent, as well. We not only don’t see everything, we can’t see everything.

    Two examples come to mind. On a trail, I’ve adopted the general practice of looking on one side on the way out, and the other side on the way back. It’s not perfect, but it has increased the number of interesting sights I see. And I never delete an image in camera any more. There are treasures hidden within those photos that weren’t visible to me until I see them on a larger screen with better resolution.

    Of course, the difference between searching and browsing plays a role, too. When we’re off with a purpose in mind, it’s easy — and often necessary — to limit the scope of our seeing. When we’re simply off to see what we can see, it’s a different sort of adventure. To put it in boating terms, at that point we’re neither cruisers nor racers: we’re gunkholers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I found both “gunkholers” and “gunkholders” (one or two words), but “holers” seems more accurate, and now I know THAT word. I only know some of the wonderful John Barth’s sailing writing, including Tidewater Tales, and certainly he MUST use that word, somewhere.
      I fully accept that full awareness of anything, ever, is unattainable, and I’m happy to participate in the Zen of seeking, with realistic (I hope) expectations, because I simply didn’t the gift of omniscient wisdom, nor should I have it. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved this. I grew up traveling all over the country with my parents and this signage brings back a lot of nostalgic memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So you saw and photographed the hotel sign, but missed the hotel. You think that’s bad? Phhht. You’re not even close to being in the Big Leagues.

    Allow me to provide the appropriate context so that you can better see (pun intended) the great distance you need to travel before you get to “the bigs” and arrive at my level.

    I was in Venice, Italy, a few years ago for the first time. One early, cool and misty April day, I was casually strolling around St. Mark’s Square, taking in the atmosphere. Admittedly, there is much there to get one’s attention.

    One of the world’s oldest and most spectacular cafes is in that square. Probably everyone who reads this blog will have heard of Florian’s. Despite its large and dominant fascade, I managed to walk right past it without even peeking in, let alone ordering an espresso. Oh, the humanity!

    Now THAT is what I mean by The Big Leagues. You’re not even even in the Minors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmmm. Walked right past Florian’s. Well, it is tucked in under that portico. And — as you rightly point out — it’s surrounded by some of the most significant architecture in at least the western world, where even the design of the gosh-darned paving stones is considered a work of art (Andrea Tirali).
      What’s too bad is that you apparently didn’t go to Venice with anyone who’d been there before, to alert you to things to be on the lookout for. In such a welter of impressions, it’s difficult to see everything.
      Thanks for the consolation.


      • Well, I was in Venice with some significant others on that trip. But they weren’t with me during my little blurry-eyed Walkabout that misty morning.

        In fact, I never would have visited Venice AT ALL and seen so many treasures had it not been for said significant others. Thanks so much for the memories!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mutual. We’ll go back and sit INSIDE at Florian’s which I’ve never done in my half dozen visits.


  4. Now I feel better. Thanks. When you have only a handful of days, there’s just way too much to see and do there.


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