"I'm going to be late," I said to my father over the phone. "I'm stuck in Wyoming." He knew I was joking, but I really was in Wyoming....Rhode Island. It was early Spring 1976 during my freshman year at Emerson College in Boston and I was coming home for the weekend.
I had accepted a ride from my roommate for the trek down I-95 to New London, CT for the ferry ride to Long Island. My parents were expecting me to arrive on the 10:45am at Orient Point, but we were not going to make it. My roommate's car, a 1970 Super Beetle, had broken down at exit 3 in Rhode Island. Fortunately, we didn't have to wait long until a tow truck arrived (this long before the advent of cell phones and GPS). Unfortunately, the part needed to get this automobile back on the road was rare and had to come down from Providence. Although Rhode Island is our smallest state, that part took all day to arrive at that Exxon Station in Wyoming, RI.
To pass some time, we walked over to the restaurant next door. It was one of those old roadside "mom and pop" places; a motel / restaurant combination where the restaurant was more occupied by locals than travelers. I immediately fell in love with the place; partly because it reminded me of our family's luncheonette, but mostly because of its charm. And the food was delicious. Fried whole clams and freshly cut french fries from real potatoes would be a meal I would have there many times.
From that day forward, Sun Valley became a mandatory to stop any time I would drive through Rhode Island. If driving around (Riverhead to NYC through Connecticut and Rhode Island to Boston), it would work out that the gas tank was ready for a refill at exit 3 in Rhode Island. During my college years, I probably took everyone I knew and/or traveled through Rhode Island to the Sun Valley Restaurant. When friends from home would offer to drive me back to Boston, they would invariably say, "Just let me know the exit when we get close."
I graduated in 1979 and that Fall, my brother started classes at the University of Rhode Island on Route 138 in Kingston...exit 3. This insured another four years of stopping at the Sun Valley Restaurant.
I don't believe I stayed in the motel until the late 80's. By then, I had introduced myself to a familiar face in the restaurant. She was Dorothy Grills, who along with her husband John, had owned and operated the motel and restaurant for many years. In her late seventies at the time, she would always recognize me; but was inevitably behind on where I was currently living. (In radio, I had moved a few times over the years.) After my brother graduated URI, I wound up back in New England and would cover the Newport Folk Festival for a syndicated radio show I was doing. OK - three stations, but I digress. Although a good 30 plus miles from Fort Adams State Park, I always stayed at the Sun Valley Motel.
Now I don't want to give the impression that this was a five star motel. It was a place to sleep, close to the highway. The blankets were worn, the towels were small ("It's like drying yourself with loose leaf paper," my friend Jim Bender would once say). But what it lacked in amenities, it made up in charm. And it was next door to the restaurant. Eventually the french fries were frozen and the clams were strips, but the food was always tastey and Dorothy would be sitting in a booth keeping a watchful eye on the place. If you wanted to stay at the motel, she would walk with you next door and sign you in.
The last time I stayed there was October 17, 1998. It was Tanya and my wedding night. I had made reservations for a special package at the Newport Bay Club & Hotel for our honeymoon, but that Saturday night was booked. Tanya had heard me speak of the Sun Valley and was more than happy to spend the special night there. I called Dorothy Grills a few weeks prior to let her know of the occasion. When we arrived, there were fresh flowers, new linens and a bottle of champagne to welcome us to Room 1.
In March 2001 we were returning from Maine and I made the stop. It didn't matter that no one was hungry; I had to stop for coffee, a trip to the bathroom and another look.
October 17, 2003: Tanya and my 5th wedding anniversary. This time we would only be staying at the Newport Bay Club & Hotel, but we would have dinner that night at the Sun Valley Restaurant. I rounded the ramp on exit 3 and pulled on to Route 138 west. I first noticed many of the pine trees that had protected the motel from traffic noise were gone. The familiar "Motel" sign hung over the roof, but the sign out front said it all: "The Doug-Out All-American Restaurant and Sports Bar." After a long pause in the parking lot, I had to go in. A bar sat where the lunch counter once served the regulars. The booths were brand new and the front had been expanded to accommodate the requisite video games and Foos-Ball. We ordered the specialty hamburgers and drinks. Not bad. I looked around and saw the walls where the bust of an old sea captain and mermaid once hung, now replaced with Applebee-esque sports memorabilia. Just another table sat where an old cast iron stove provided heat. "The health department required them to take that out," our server informed us.
I walked over to the motel office. No sign of Dorothy and the clerk struggled with broken English when I asked of her whereabouts.
When we returned home, I searched the Internet and found relatives of Dorothy Grills. She indeed was alive and well, albeit hard of hearing. I was given an address to write the letter of thanks I had to send; a culmination of warm thoughts and memories I had probably already shared with her in bits and pieces over the years.
Epilogue - October 13, 2008:
On our tenth anniversary to Newport, I took another look mostly out of curiosity. Was it still a sports bar and motel? Indeed the building are there and the old neon "motel" and "restaurant" signs sit atop the structure, but something wasn't right. The "Doug-Out" was replaced by the "95 Cafe" and it looked closed for good. The Exxon station next store was gone, to be replaced by a Walgreens. I pulled around to the front and got out of the car for a picture of the sign.
As I looked over to the motel, I became very uneasy. People were standing along the front, chairs and furniture stacked alongside the doors as kids played in the broken parking lot with old toys. I felt very unwelcome and the sight of me taking a picture brought hard stares. Although I knew what had happened, it wasn't until we stopped at the Rite-Aid down the road that it was confirmed; the Sun Valley Motel was welfare housing and had been a place to avoid for a number of years now.
In 2009, we took the kids for their first trip to Newport, RI. The Sun Valley Motel and adjoining restaurant was vacant.
Things come and go all the time in one's life, but to see something once treasured in the final stage of decay is hard to take. Thankfully, there are memories and a place to keep them alive on the web.
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Looking for a true motel treasure? Try the Rittenhouse Motor Lodge on Route 13 in Cape Charles, Virginia. Bob Rittenhouse has been caring for the place since the 1950's and it is truly a beautiful place to spend the night or two.
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