Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
We arrived at the sprawling hulk of a motel well after dark, the parking lot pitch black except for a few spots illuminated by flickering blue lights that hummed a monotonous tune. Its crumbling asphalt held but three or four cars, despite being the size of a football field. My wife and I had booked the place through a reputable chain, so we were certain that we’d have a decent room in which to rest our highway-weary bones for the night. Were we ever wrong.
Anyone reading this tale has probably had at least one bad experience with an overnight stay at a roadside motel; I know we have, the very first as we made our way through Kentucky to the ocean on our honeymoon years ago.
I still recall a vacation trip with our kids to St. Louis years later, when all we could find was a motel that took great pride in low rates, but offered the amenities of a French Guianese penal colony. If I remember correctly, it was there that I stepped on a rotten grape that was stealthily hidden among the ages-old dust bunnies and hair pins left by the cleaning crew under one of the beds. All sorts of things can run through a man’s head when he has the disturbing sensation of overly ripe fruit between his toes …
This time around, we left Boston late in the afternoon on one of the final days of a two-week journey through New England. Exhausted, and with all the sights we really wanted to see under our belts, we weaved our way through a confusing labyrinth of backstreets that eventually emptied onto Interstate 90, by then a seething mass of toll-paid frustration.
Driving in Boston, akin to the 24 hours at Le Mans, is always a challenge, but this traffic jam, at the height of rush hour, was eight lanes of migraine headache. It was pushing 90 degrees that day and the heat rose off the pavement like a stove; it took us nearly two hours to cover 12 miles.
The sun was dipping low on the horizon once we broke free of the mess. We were hungry, but not nearly as much had Joanie not packed “snacks.” It was just the two of us on this trip, but she has never gotten out of the habit of stowing away a little grub for famished kids. The peanut butter crackers, the pair of apples and the two boxes of granola bars that she’d shoved into a bag in the back seat kept our appetites curbed as we crept alongside other drivers who looked as if they wished they’d brought crackers, too.
As we neared Springfield a good while later, we decided to get off the “freeway” — a term I picked up from my grandfather — to get a bite of supper. As we pulled through the toll booth, I asked the cashier what direction from the off-ramp we should head to find a decent meal.
“Either way is fine,” she snapped through a wad of pink bubblegum. “There’s a bunch of places.” Faced with a decision, I headed north just as Joanie was confirming our stay at the motel via cell phone; we could take our time.
What we found was a greasy spoon that offered only take-out, and a submarine sandwich shop. I wheeled southward, and in the next 10 miles, we found only two burger and taco joints. Since we had skipped lunch, and had just our snacks to tide us over, we wanted a decent sit-down meal in a sit-down restaurant. Reasoning that a smaller Massachusetts state highway would eventually lead us back onto I-90 anyway, we headed west on it toward the next town, as it turned out, another 13 miles away.
We found a place to eat, and before leaving the restaurant, I asked a waitress if the highway out front met up with the interstate soon. “Sure does,” she said. “Just head up the road a few miles and the signs will lead the way.” There were no signs.
Before I pulled out the GPS — something I’ll use when common sense and an atlas won’t do the job — I finally backtracked a few miles and stopped at a gas station. “Close to I-90 here?” I asked the attendant. “Sure are,” she replied. “But don’t look for signs; one was taken down for road construction two years ago, and never was put back up. Another one blew down in a storm last month.”
An hour or so later, we found ourselves finally off the interstate madness and idling past our motel, convinced we surely hadn’t booked the most-expensive room of our entire trip in a place that looked as crusty as it did. Another phone call confirmed that we were indeed looking at our very own Shangri-La. It was a massive old, paint-pealed “motor lodge,” probably built in the 1950s or ’60s, and it hadn’t aged well. “It’ll be okay,” Joanie said. “We can’t get another room tonight, and we need to get some sleep.”
I had already convinced myself that if the night manager looked like Anthony Perkins, we’d be leaving. Instead, he was a kindly, smiling old gentlemen who assured us that we had chosen our motel well.
We arrived at our room with the realization that the other rooms surrounding it had been cannibalized of their furnishings to keep a handful of others in beds and chairs. Before we ever opened the door, we could hear our heating/cooling unit. It was a wheezing brontosaurus of a thing, spluttering out a wisp of tepid, musty fog; it was also leaking on the carpet. The bathroom was the size of a phone booth, dimly lit by only a 20-watt exhaust fan light bulb. The light over the sink worked for about 10 minutes before it expired, so I shaved the next morning in complete darkness while my wife still slept. Our in-room refrigerator was running, but warm; the floor lamp was broken, its base shoved under a table leg to keep it upright.
My habit of reading before bed proved lucky because our television, left over from Milo Farnsworth’s lab, I suppose, picked up only three or four fuzzy channels; two were shopping networks. A call to the front desk on a phone that looked like Alexander Graham Bell had last used it brought assurance that there were wireless “hot spots” all over the area, so I could get a signal for my computer. I found a lukewarm spot, instead, but it required me to stand on a chair and hold the laptop above my head near the ceiling, so I gave up.
As we got ready for bed, I had to admit that I was too tired to care that much about the room, but since the lock on the door didn’t work, I leaned the dead refrigerator and a suitcase against it, got into bed, rolled over, adjusted for the lumps and sags in the mattress, and went to sleep, that is until 3 a.m., when someone in the parking lot revved his car engine.
Our “continental breakfast” the next morning was disappointing, too. The other guests, who had to have climbed out of the sack by 5:30 to beat me to the buffet, had apparently already guzzled all of the coffee. We passed one man headed for his room with most of the available food piled on his plate. We found a bowl of boiled eggs, a carafe of warm skim milk and a banana left over. In the meantime, I was accosted by a fellow traveler, who was wearing two different shoes. He said he was on his way to Texas to visit his son, Duane, who just happened to be a “VERY successful computer programmer.” I heard stories about Duane for quite a while, and I think I now know why he chose to live in Texas …
Needless to say, we cleared out of the motel pretty quickly, brushing teeth and zipping luggage and loading the car, not bothering to complain or even fill out a “How-Did-You-Like-Your-Stay?” card. I kept telling myself that we had actually been lucky; our less-than-lavish accommodations sure beat sleeping alongside the road.
We were soon back cruising the highway, hungry but certain that we’d be stopping for a good breakfast somewhere. But we weren’t that concerned about finding a place. After all, we brought snacks.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. You can learn more about his writing and speaking by going to his website at www.mikelunsford.com. His new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac” will be released in October.