X Prize: The Motel


OK, sometimes I think I’m immune to learning anything. Kate and I went down to the SpaceShipOne launch in June and wound up staying in Lancaster, about 25 miles from the Mojave Airport, the staging site. That meant we had to get up ridiculously early (2:30 a.m.) to make sure we got to Mojave by 4 a.m. to avoid getting stuck in a monster traffic jam that never really materialized. Ever since then, I’ve been telling myself that the really smart thing to do for the X Prize launch, which logic dictated would happen in September sometime, would be to call a motel in Mojave to see if anyone would put a room on hold. But since that was the eminently sensible thing to do, I hesitated to act.

Then Burt Rutan announced yesterday the first prize launch will be attempted September 29. So first thing, I filed my story. Then I called the Best Western down there in Mojave, which is just outside what turned out to be the press entrance to the airport. Rutan announced the launch about 11 a.m. When I called the motel at 1:30 p.m. or so, the clerk told me the entire 50-room joint was sold out from September 28 through October 6 (Rutan hopes to do the second flight on the 4th of October, the anniversary of the launch of Sputnik I in 1957).

The clerk directed me to another motel, the Mariah Country Inn. They already had a waiting list, and the clerk there told me it would take three or four days to get back to people about room availability. Then I called the Econo Lodge, which advertises “nice clean rooms, away from train” (Mojave’s got a fairly substantial railroad yard).

The clerk there checked the nights I asked for — from September 27 through October 6. Yes, they had a couple rooms still available. But he wanted to tell me about a few ground rules first. The rate would be $159.95. I could cancel, but only with 30 days’ notice. And once that 30-day notice deadline passed, I’d be on the hook for the entire 10 nights I had reserved; I couldn’t cancel a couple nights in the middle or cut the stay short without paying for it.

I asked the normal rate for the room we were discussing. “Oh — 69 dollars.” “So you guys are really making out on this deal.” “Yes, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.” Ah — the beauty of the free market at work.

All of which reminded me of two comments from our June visit. A couple of California Highway Patrol cadets who were directing traffic all night before the launch said they had never seen so many people in Mojave. “All the motels are booked,” one said, “even the ghetto ones.” Later, Kate overheard another woman in town telling a friend about the launch: “Wow — this really put Mojave on the map.” And her friend answered, “And tomorrow it’ll go back to being a ghost town.”

Yep, one with plenty of cheap motel rooms. I finally threw up my hands and booked a room in Tehachapi, again about 25 miles away, for half the price of the Econo Lodge room.

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