'I could tell you stories," says Bonnie Wallace, timing the pause perfectly. "But I won't."
Wallace, 60, is manager of the Owl Lodge, one of the few old snowbird motels on East Benson Highway that still bother to "put on a face" that approximates the glory years.
From the 1940s until the '70s and early '80s, shivering salesmen from St. Louis and farmers from Fargo daydreamed about Benson Highway, Miracle Mile and the snowbird strips up in Phoenix, as soon as the skies "up North" turned gray and the dirty street slush froze to their cars.
A lucky few, if they were retired or well-off, stayed until things thawed "up North."
Benson Highway, not Interstate 10, was, well, the highway to Benson. It was Tucson's main drag, at least until the freeway, in fits and starts, was built through Tucson. It bypassed the snowbird motel strip on Benson Highway in the late 1960s.
In a 1989 Arizona Daily Star story about the history of the freeway in Tucson, Bonnie Henry quotes a Benson Highway businessman. "One morning we woke up early. It was so quiet we couldn't sleep. All the cars were gone."
To most Tucsonans now, Benson Highway is just a seedy stretch of road on the way to the airport, a place to punch the door-lock button if they hit a red light.
Wallace, who came to Tucson in 1979 and has lived and managed motels on Benson Highway since 1989, says the motel's current owners are keeping the Owl up and leaning toward long-term tenants, rather than one-night motel customers. Things are pretty calm these days, she says.
It wasn't always that way. There was a rough-and-tumble period, after the snowbird business died out in the 1980s, when things were pretty rough on the neon highway. She doesn't want to talk about it. It's better now, she says.
Wallace said the Owl's new owners put about $2,000 just into restoring its '40s-ish neon sign.
These days, Wallace says, the Owl, 2015 E. Benson Highway, and many of the other lodges and inns are more apartment than motel.
The Owl has a 95 percent occupancy rate most of the year, she says, and now only one of the tenants is a snowbird, a winter visitor. Most of the others are retired or tradesmen working in town temporarily.
In the old days, Wallace says, "There were people who were here from October to April. Same unit every year. They (the motels) took reservations and supplied maid service, dishes and linens."
Back in the day, winter visitors didn't stay in Foothills resorts or 40-foot, $250,000 RVs. They pulled into a motor court and looked forward to Tucson's mild winter days and, when the sun got low, broke out the cocktails and fired up the grills in the tidy common areas.
Most of the motels had tiny kitchenettes, bathrooms tiled in pastels and a bedroom that would make a Motel 6 look spacious. Outside, there were well-kept lawns, crystal-blue pools, a distinctive neon sign and, usually, some palm trees.
As you drive east on Benson Highway from Kino Parkway/Campbell Avenue today, there are more signs than motels: The Wagon Wheel, Redwood Lodge, Western Star, Lariat, Howdy Manor Motel, Eagle's Nest Court, Sunset Gardens, Acadian Court, the Sunbeam and the Scotsman, the Bucking Bronc Court and, near the end of the strip, near Valencia, the Apache Tears Motel. Most are closed, or nothing but signs in front of bombed-out remains, with their pools empty or filled in. In some cases, only the signs, or evocative palms, remain.
The strip is again becoming a place of interest to tourists.
Maintenance man Calvin Moore, 46, remodeling rooms at the Mesa Lodge, next door to the Owl, says foreign tourists taking pictures of the motel signs are a regular event.
June Shaffer, 50, manager of the Apache Tears Motel, 4603 E. Benson Highway, says she was concerned when she saw four or five men out in front of the motel walking around and pointing last weekend.
Turns out they were foreign tourists, taking pictures so they could bring home a bit of disappearing Tucson.
● For a peek at some snowbird motels' neon signs, visit www.roadsidepeek.com