Doin' Time at the Blue Mist

Prison-adjacent motel is Florence's funkiest, bar none

Like most roadside lodges, Florence's Blue Mist Motel offers all the accommodations a tourist could ask for--an ice machine, a postcard rack, a color TV with AM/FM radio.

But this landmark an hour southeast of Phoenix offers amenities you won't find at any other motel in the country.

Half the rooms feature panoramic views of the Arizona State Prison across the street, a scenic vista filled with armed guards, uniformed prisoners and razor wire. For reasons that are not immediately apparent, there's currently an ambulance on permanent standby in theparking lot, ready to take off at a moment's notice. And behind the desk in the lobby is one of the owners, an East Indian woman who gets very nervous whenever anyone asks about what really went down in Room 22 way back when.

Despite the trendy pink-and-blue Southwestern decor, Florence's only motel also boasts an in-room je ne sais quoi that will send a tingle down the spine of anyone who's ever seen Psycho, The Grifters or Touch of Evil. Were they to open the nightstand drawer and find a copy of In Cold Blood instead of a Gideons Bible, some guests would not be too surprised.

If the Blue Mist didn't exist, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino would have to invent it. But first, they would have to dream up Florence. Home of a state penitentiary since 1909, the desert hamlet boasts of somewhere between 9,000 and 11,000 people. A third of the residents are behind bars, and a large percentage of the rest make a living keeping them there.

The owners of the 22-unit Blue Mist for the past 16 years, Shila and Sam Patel, have made their living by tending to the needs of the town's transitory population. They are hardworking folks with little use for idle chatter; neither sees much future in discussing the motel's past. "We run a nice place, a clean place," says Shila, who quickly puts the kibosh on any further discussion. "We don't know anything about what happened before we got here."

Part of the post-WWII travel boom that engulfed the nation's byways with thousands of independently owned motels, the Blue Mist was built 50 years ago by a local cattle-ranching family. Investors in the project included cowboy star Gene Autry, who frequently stayed at the motel during business trips to Arizona. For the first decade of its operation, the ten-unit motel had no pool and did not even face the prison. Nor was it called the Blue Mist, a mysterious moniker that some assume is a reference to desert haze at the foot of a mountain range, and others relate to fumes wafting through the prison gas chamber.

As it turns out, the name has nothing to do with either mountains' majesty or cyanide clouds. Nearly 30 years after he sold the place, one of the motel's former owners still sounds vaguely disappointed that the meaning behind his rechristening job isn't immediately apparent.

"My wife and I always thought that the Desert Sunshine Lodge just sounded too damn hot, that's all," says Joe O'Betka, a Florence real estate broker who ran the motel for ten years, beginning in the late '50s. "At that time, a lot of people driving through here--most of 'em, actually--didn't have refrigeration in their cars. So my wife and I decided to come up with a name that would make 'em want to stop in, jump in the pool and use our air-conditioned rooms."

Racking their brains for cool imagery, O'Betka and his wife finally came up with the name--and arctic color scheme--that survives to this day.

"We did real well for a small motel," recalls O'Betka, who wound up doubling the motel's original capacity during a late-'50s expansion. "We were charging $6, $7, $8, $9 a day. Nice rooms, too. In Phoenix, you'd have paid $15 to $20 for the same type of room."

While perhaps a bargain by big-city standards, the Blue Mist's rates still were beyond the reach of the more financially challenged wayfarers who showed up in the lobby. According to O'Betka, many of the hardest-up were looking for a place to stay while visiting relatives in prison across the street.

"We'd have people from out of state who maybe had someone locked up in there; they'd usually come in late on Friday and want a room through Sunday," says O'Betka. "Most of them couldn't afford to stay with us, though. So I'd send them over to the old Florence Hotel on Main Street. At that time, you could probably still get a room over there for $3 or $4 a night."

Guests who could afford to spring for a night's lodging included "truckers, families, salesmen, all kinds of people," says O'Betka. His most memorable guest? The mysterious doctor from Laguna Beach who adamantly insisted that his room have a bathtub--not a shower--during his periodic visits to Florence.

Puzzled by the empty cartons of Epsom salts that the medico always left behind, O'Betka asked a local physician what the visiting doctor might be up to.

Says O'Betka, "As near as we could figure out, he was performing [saline] abortions."

If visiting wives, mothers and girlfriends of prison inmates don't actually constitute one of the motel's major market segments, they've certainly done more than their share to romanticize the Blue Mist's image. And so has Motel, a 1989 PBS documentary that features interviews with several stand-by-your-man stalwarts whom filmmaker Christian Blackwood discovered staying at the Blue Mist.

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