Happy trails (not so much)
Travel writing is so unbearably perky. Resorts are wonderful, restaurants are heavenly. In most such writing, even traffic jams are quaint. As if the entire planet were one big Club Med, full of martinis and masseurs.
But travel isn’t really like that. Despite the best propaganda from the nation’s chambers of commerce, often travel is bad food and lumpy beds. There is rain and mud, closed museums and long, hot queues. And with endless miles between destinations, one is often forced to choose interstate highways, which are endless miles of boredom. An interstate in Kansas doesn’t look much different from one in Vermont: just a closed off view of trees and crown vetch.
And so, you suffer soggy, cold fried chicken, motel mattresses with valleys running down both sides, showers with water that smells like a dead opossum, gas station restrooms smeared with grime and tar and perpetually wet floors, and occasional automobile breakdowns, flat tires or the anxiety of passing a sign that says, “next services 235 miles.”
What is all the more astonishing, and seldom written about, is that it is frequently the miserable portions of a trip that are most memorable. Surviving them can strengthen the bond between travelers the way surviving a war bonds veterans.
And when we reminisce, it is often as not about the night there were no motel rooms to be had, or the day the transmission fell out in Death Valley.
I call such occurrences “adventures.” We had many adventures during the 1980s, when my wife and I were both teachers and had long summers off. Each year, we packed up the car and set off on cross-continental trips. The first, in 1982, covered 10,000 miles in two months. If I recount a few of those adventures, we cannot hold it against the places where they happened. Times have changed. Some we have revisited and had a great time, even if our first impression was somewhere below the level of dismal.
Take Forrest City, Arkansas. It is now more than 30 years since we came to that benighted place in the flat floodplain farmlands just west of the Mississippi River. We had traveled some 600 miles that day, from western North Carolina and were too exhausted to go further.
The city was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan and a notorious Confederate cavalry general during the Civil War. Today, I’m sure the town — for to call it a city is to inflate a civic brag — is much nicer now, with better accommodations and eateries, but when we stopped there, it was a sorry, forlorn town, in every particular on the wrong side of the tracks. We stopped at the D&M Motel, now long out of business, if my Google search is right, which was advertised as “the best in the state.”
The cracked concrete parking lot, with crabgrass poking through didn’t tip us off. The crazy old crone who was “concierge” didn’t give it away, either. I suppose our first real signal was when we got to our room, that underneath the paper “sanitized-for-your-protection” band on the toilet seat, a cigarette butt and a raft of soggy ashes floated in the water.
We needed to eat before turning in, and when I asked the hotel keeper for a dining recommendation, she told me, “If it’s just good old fashioned eatin’ yer after, I guess the best is the Blue and White Cafeteria. If ya want barbecued beef, then Barbecue Pete’s … no, wait, he was closed down by the health board. Yeah, I guess the Blue and White. It’s where we always go.”
The restaurant was a cracked stucco building next to a railroad bridge. We were the only car in the dirt parking lot. When we were seated, our booth had a view, through the flyspecks on the window, of the railroad embankment.
Three obese middle-age trailer-park renegades were dolled up in waitress uniforms and one took the pencil from behind her ear and stopped chewing gum long enough to bring us menus and greasy glasses filled with water. I removed a hair and took a slug, stared at the menu and tried to choose something non-toxic.
I forget what I ordered, but whatever it was, the flies loved it.
But even after this repast, I believe the concierge was right. After driving through the town, I believe the Blue and White was the best place in town. I had no reason to assume there was anything better on down the road and we had already driven 600 miles, so we did our best to sleep discovering to our itchy discomfort that the room had already been rented to a national convention of fleas. Too tired to complain, we slept and scratched.
A few years later on another trip we were in the upper Midwest, headed from the North to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. After a long day’s drive we looked for a motel only to discover it was the weekend of the Sturges Rally, and tens of thousands of motorcyclists had converged in that quadrant of the state. We steered slowly through Sturges in between large bearded men in sleeveless leather coats and biker chicks in jeans and boots, and among the thousands of shiny choppers leaning beside the road chock-a-block like schools of fish. We stopped at one motel and a very helpful concierge laughed a kindly sort of “what-fools-they-be” chuckle but phoned around to see if any other hostelry might have a chink in the wall they could rent to us. No luck. He finally found a place; it was a hundred miles away, off to the northeast from town, down endless state highways, well off any beaten track and well out of the itinerary we had so lovingly planned. Exhausted as we were, we wove our way back out of the invaded territory and its armies of bikers, and into the back of the back of beyond. We found when we got there, there was one single room left. We took it, slept in it, and felt grateful that the water coming out of the tap only smelled necrotic.
Another time, we camped near Shamrock, Texas, just off Interstate 40. It was one of those industrial campsites filled with RVs, with a laundry and camp store in the center. That evening a violent thunderstorm blew up. Before it hit, our neighbor, who had been there for a week, told us that the previous day, a tornado had ripped through the area. Did marvels for our confidence. When the storm came full, our the floor of our tent began to wobble like a water bed and the whole thing began to luff wildly. We were actually afloat in our tent. Then, we were airborne in the tent. We knew we had to get out, but when we did, the tent began to fly off. I held onto it as it gained altitude, and over my head, it tore back and forth like a kite out of control. The rain did not come down in drops, individuated, but more like Niagara Falls, a sheet of water.
My wife ran to cover in the brick laundry while I wrestled the tent to a draw as it got caught in the sheet metal roof of a concrete picnic table. I joined her in the safety of the building. All the campers were there. Babies were crying, newlyweds were feuding, old people were remembering the storm of ’47. As the worst of it passed those in camper-vans began to return to them and we went back to our car. I managed to disassemble the tent, and stow it. We got in the car and tried to sleep in the seats. It was misery.
Eventually, we gave up and drove into town looking for a motel and found one open at 1 a.m., with an office aromatic with curry. We woke up the concierge and got the last room, half hidden by a tool shed. Inside, the floor was covered in a none-too-clean grass-green shag carpet that not only sat on the floor like a bad toupee, but actually continued up the wall for three feet, like a hairy wainscoting, and also continued up the sides of the bed. We were soaked, our clothes were soaked, the car was soaked, the tent was a jumble of nylon and tentpoles puddled with water. But we slept well. We didn’t have to deal with any of it till the next morning.