Ghosts of Monte Vista

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Author’s note: I wrote this piece for the Winter 2001-2002 issue of Route 66 magazine. It was my first professionally published magazine piece. I was a different writer then, though not perhaps quite that different than I am now. In the spirit of a happily haunted Halloween, I reprint it here, literary warts and all, unaltered even though some of the details are no doubt out of date. Photos by Ellie Tam.

The trance circle a block away finally dissipated sometime just after sunset, leaving behind nothing but the faint stench of patchouli in the crisp night air. We passed by them earlier, and they’d not proven to be what you might call the best or most energetic dancers, but then that was acceptable since they had not been dancing to what one might call the best or most energetic music. It was the electronica equivalent of a coma. Droning, uninspired electronic thumps accompanied by people with dirty dreadlocks, wearing burlap and beads, shaking their hands and stepping up and down in a fashion that communicates “I have to go to the bathroom” in most of the world. Thankfully, their unfestive festivities faded with the coming darkness, surrendering to the sounds of nature after hours: summer breeze through leaves, the chirping of crickets, the grunting of frogs looking for a date.

Flagstaff isn’t a large city, and once it shuts down for the day, nature begins to creep back in at the corners like a haunted mists drifting over lonely Scottish moors. With a bit of luck, this mist wouldn’t bring with it the assembly of werewolves, wyverns, murderous pirate ghosts, and other such nasties wont to travel under the cloak of night and fog. Rain came on and off throughout the day, breaking long enough to provide my gal and I time to tour the city by foot, and pouring long enough to insure a night cooler than a member of the Rat Pack uttering a sentence that ends with the word, “baby!” A sweet, crisp breeze wandered in through our open hotel window, bringing with it the smell of juniper and pine and all those other natural high desert scents a lad doesn’t get familiar with while living in New York City.

Our night in Flagstaff was our night to spring for fancy digs before heading on to the Grand Canyon. Not that we’d stayed in many bad places. There was a bad bit of luck with a motel in Tulsa, but the Wigwam Village, (Holbrook, AZ) El Vado (Albuquerque, NM), Silver Saddle (Santa Fe, NM), and Blue Swallow (Tucumcari, NM), were all top notch places. Now we were searching for something almost regal. The kind of place where they leave Aveda products in your bathroom. The kind of place where Clarke Gable and Humphrey Bogart once stayed. Historic. Antique. Old American regal, that combination of elegant class and refined ruggedness. Robert Mitchum made into a hotel. The Monte Vista was just that sort of place.

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Situated at the corner of Aspen and San Francisco Streets in downtown Flagstaff just a block away from Route 66, the Hotel Monte Vista has served as the home away from home for movie stars, socialites, and Route 66 pilgrims. It was born from the mind of Lowell Observatory astronomer VM Slipher, and built using money from a municipal bond championed by Slipher in order to meet the need for posh digs that catered to the growing number of tourists heading out west. Slipher himself designed the hotel, and on New Years Eve 1927, doors opened in time for everyone to come together for the excessive drinking of bootleg gin, wearing of novelty hats, and cursing of those Temperance League ladies.

The hotel became ground zero for Flagstaff’s social scene. “Meet me at the Monte V” became a common call. Mere months after opening day, Monte Vista made history when Mary Costigan, the first American woman to procure a radio broadcast license, aired a daily three-hour program from her studio in room 105. Less savory history was made in 1931 when The Man busted up a bootleg liquor operation that led right to the doors of the area’s number one speakeasy: the Hotel Monte Vista.

After World War II, baby boomers turned their autos west on 66 in search of romance, adventure, and a good cave tour. Money and movies followed. Opulent Western epics from men like John Ford settled in for location shooting around Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon, or out in Monument Valley. Since those rugged stars of American adventure weren’t about to rough it in Tuba City, Flagstaff and the Monte Vista became the unofficial headquarters of Hollywood in the Not-So-Old West. Nearly everyone who was anyone called the hotel home at some point. Clarke Gable, Spencer Tracy, Bing Crosby, and Jane Russell were just a few of the Tinsel Town luminaries to stretch out at the Monte Vista. One of the rooms was even used as a location for a scene in Casablanca.

There were homegrown celebrities as well. Shoeshiner Greg Martinez and porter Isaac Henderson became celebrities among the celebrities for their high level of service. Frankly, I have to ask if anyone would try being a jerk while shining John Wayne’s boots. There are some things a man doesn’t do, and telling off The Duke when his boot is inches from your head is at the top of the list. Another local legend was barber Sam Cancinas, who was once flown from Flagstaff to Phoenix just so he could give Eisenhower a hair cut. You wouldn’t think Ike had enough hair to justify flying barbers around the country at taxpayer’s expense, but what can you do? I’d be happier if the nation flew hordes of old barbers around and made senators take the bus.

There were also more than a few rough and rowdy characters to keep things from being all proper ladies and guys with top hats. For a place that was considered the upper-crust toast of the town, the Monte V had plenty of shootings, cowboys on horseback in the lobby, and drunken brawls. Few and far between are the places where so much history doesn’t come with haunts. In the 1950s, John Wayne himself reported seeing a ghost in his hotel room. No one was going to call The Duke a liar, and the hotel’s reputation as a haunted hotbed spread like gold fever. Who knew that eventually John Wayne himself would be counted among the ghosts still walking the halls in search of soothing mint scented moisturizer for his otherworldly hands?

Quite a few spooks seem to call the hotel home. People hear band music coming from the lobby. On the second floor is a room where a woman was murdered. The hotel avoids putting guests with pets there because dogs go crazy. Room 305 has a rocking chair that appears in the same place next to the window no matter where it’s moved the night before. There’s a phantom bellhop who bugs people by knocking on the door to deliver room service. Naturally, when the guest goes to see what was going on, nary a soul is in sight.

Then there were the two bandits who knocked over the bank next to the Monte Vista. They decided that after the heist they would have a drink in the hotel bar. It’s not the smartest plan in the world to celebrate your bank robbery by heading next door for a drink. One of the rakehells was shot during the getaway, if you can call running next door much of a getaway, and died at the Monte Vista’s bar. Needless to say, legend has it that the boneheaded brigand still lingers in the saloon.

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Each room is named after a famous celebrity who had once called it home. I reckon ours contained a member of Queen at some point, because they were gazing down at us in their underlit “Bohemian Rhapsody” pose from a poster next to the bed. Having Freddy Mercury staring at me while shining a flashlight under his face was doing very little to soothe my thoughts pertaining to ghosts.

The trappings of modern life were smothered out by the atmosphere of the hotel, and one had but to step into the hallway to suddenly find oneself with feet firmly planted in the lush carpet of another time. The eyes of countless dead movie stars stared out from pictures on the doors as I wandered down the aging halls. Hey, Lee Marvin! I wonder how many of them still pay their rooms a visit. Although I don’t consider myself an overly superstitious person, I enjoy believing in the existence of ghosts, and I was happy that I liked many of Lee Marvin’s films. I wasn’t in the mood to have his spirit hassle me because of some rotten things I might have said about the sequel to The Dirty Dozen.

Even if there were ghosts lurking around every corner, it was a pleasant break from motels filled with drunks and screaming children or those crystal meth dealers we’d shared the courtyard with in Tulsa. I’d much rather deal with the living dead than with someone who refuses to turn down their Creed CD. The carpet seemed to absorb all sound. It was only midnight, and judging by the people I’d seen checking in, it was a largely young crowd who came to the Hotel Monte Vista these days. Yet here it was, deathly quiet as if no one else was in the hotel. I walked down the hall and saw not a soul. The place was a tomb. Ghosts, you say?

My favorite Monte Vista ghost story involves a guest who hung raw meat from the chandelier. Apparently, he misunderstood the old catch phrase and was eager to meat people at the Monte V. He died in his room. During renovation, workmen would find bed linens thrown to the floor and the television going full blast. Spooky, but it beats returning to a room full of meat hanging from the ceiling.

And then there was the ghostly woman who lingered outside one room, the ghostly prostitutes in another (do you have to pay extra for that room?), and the annoying phantom of a man who coughs all night.

I dig being scared. I go out of my way to make it happen. Supernatural scares. Things that give you the creeps. Here in this regal old hotel, an eerie feeling lurked in every corridor, behind every door, ready to scurry off and hang up some meat before you could get a good look at it. Shadows running rampant. You could almost hear the echoing voices of parties long gone. A piano, the clinking of glasses, of plateware. Lee Marvin barking at the waiter to get him another scotch.

It was all imagination, of course. If I was hearing these sounds, then they went no further than the inside of my own head where dead action stars often threw little get-togethers in the wee small hours of the morning. In reality, there were no ghosts here. When I descended the stairs to the first floor lobby, I did not find the smartly clad apparition of Clarke Gable leaning against the counter complaining about the towels. There was only the buzzing of the Pepsi machine and the cute girl working the graveyard shift at the front desk. She smiled and said hello as I dropped coins into the machine. I returned her greeting, and we exchanged small talk about late nights and dull jobs, nice hotels and haunted rooms. After our chit chat exhausted itself, I headed back upstairs, back through time. Ghosts. What a silly notion. If this place was haunted, I’d hardly be lucky enough to add “Was menaced by ghost in Flagstaff” next to “Had a really great enchilada in Tucumcari” on the list of things I’d done on my Route 66 trip. Still I was having fun twisting my mind until I could believe that something otherworldly was going on. Not that it took that much doing. The atmosphere of the Monte Vista post-midnight was just as effective at helping conjuring up images from beyond the grave as if I’d been sneaking around the catacombs of a labyrinthine Gothic cathedral.

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Lulled into a sudden sense of sleepiness, I decided stalking the hallways in search of spirits was going to have to come to an end in favor of catching a little shut-eye. I had a long drive to the North Rim ahead of me, and “stayed up late looking for ghosts” was a pretty lame excuse to dole out when the police asked me why I fell asleep at the wheel. I headed back to the room, where my gal was already fast asleep, Queen looking down upon her like guardian angels. Lights out. Silence and stillness except for a gentle breeze.

I lay there for I don’t know how long, watching the room slowly fade to gray, then fade back in, then fade again. I’ve never been very good at falling asleep. With lids heavy from a whole day spent seeing sights, I stared at the wall, at the chair in the corner, at the plant sitting in the far corner. Wait a second. There was no plant in the far corner. Or was there? Well, there was one there now. My body tensed and froze, and I felt my stomach drop out from under me. There was someone behind the plant. Had I left the door unlocked, allowing some local rapscallion access to the room? No. The things locked automatically, after all. Yet there was the shadow, as plain as my hand in front of my face had I been able to place my hand in front of my face.

My body went dense, unable to move, as if I was lying with a heavy bag of sand on top of me. Breath came in short gasps, and I could feel myself shaking and sweating in the cool midnight air. I blinked, and the form was still there. Definitely human in shape, and definitely not just a trick of the darkness. There was someone standing in the corner. No, not standing. Not anymore. It was walking across the room. Slowly, head cocked in my direction, scrutinizing me through the gloom. And then I realized there was nothing but empty wall where the television had been. I let escape a weak little sigh of relief. A dream. I was dreaming. Half-dreaming, at least, tricking myself into seeing what I wanted to see.

Revelation didn’t chase the form away, though. I followed it with my eyes as it sauntered across the room and dissipated into empty air and shadow as it reached the door. And then I sat upright, breathing heavy, fully aware of my surroundings. The television was there. The plant and the form were not. I could feel the wind nippy against my sweat-covered skin. The fugue state slipped away. I slid out of bed and out of the room, standing again in the time warp of the lush red and gold hallway. I closed my eyes and could still hear the sounds of clinking glass. Indecipherable chatter. Laughter drifting off into the night. Somewhere, from a distance down the hall or leaking down the ornate staircase, I heard the faint sound of someone coughing.

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