Days Fifteen and Sixteen,September 26, 27:On The Road Again

We didn’t actually leave New Orleans until early afternoon on Sunday, planning to drive only as far as Shreveport before stopping for the night. Big mistake. Not leaving late, but rather stopping in Shreveport.

The drive itself was fine, with only one blip when we got held up for a while by a nasty four car pileup. Traffic barely squeezed by on the right shoulder of the freeway, but after that it was smooth sailing. The problem came with our choice of motel. We’d had no real complaints to this point with any of our accomodations. Sure, we could nitpick about this or that detail, but when you’re traveling on a budget and not staying at the Ritz, you don’t expect perfection. The Merryton Inn in Shreveport, however, provided us with a new low water mark to measure everything else by.

Sunset over wheat field in southeast Colorado

(Sunset over wheat field in southeast Colorado)

The problems began right at check-in. The extremely hefty young lady (I’m trying to be kind here) behind the counter was monologing on a cellphone when I stepped inside, and continued to talk while ignoring my presence for the next three or four minutes. The gist of her tirade was how badly her boyfriend was treating her and how she just knew he was seeing some other chick and if she found out who it was, that girl better get her ass outta town or she’d f… her up good. I stood there more than a little stunned not only at her language but simply at the fact she had a boyfriend. I’d never even met the man and I felt sorry for him, and had no difficulty understanding why he might want to shop around.

When she finally ended her call she not only never apologized for the wait, she somehow managed to make me feel as if I should apologize for interrupting her phone call. During our entire transaction, she never once made eye contact with me or acted like I was anything other than a nuisance to her.

“Can I help you?” she asked in a clipped monotone.

“Yes, I need a room for the night,” I said, handing her the page from our discount coupon booklet. “And I have this ad for a $47.99 rate.”

She sighed heavily and scrutinized the ad as though if she stared long and hard enough maybe she’d could change the numbers on it. Then she started clicking on her computer. Three minutes later she was still clicking away.

“Problem finding a room?” I asked.

“Problem’s with this damn computer,” she muttered. “Ah caint git it to take this rate y’all want for this here ad.” A minute later she hollered toward the rear of the office. “Darla! This computer ain’t workin’ right a-gin.”  She waited about ten seconds before yelling once more in a tone of voice usually reserved for calling tardy children in for dinner. “Darla, where you at?”

She turned around in a huff and shuffled away from the counter with a mumbled, “Just a minute,” directed at me.

A couple of minutes later she returned alone, shaking her head and still muttering. “Tell you what I’m gonna have to do. I caint get it to accept this, so I’ll charge you the regular rate at sixty-five dolluhs. Then in the mornin’ when you check out, just bring this sheet I’m gonna print out and they’ll run it a-gin and git you that cheaper rate there.”

“Umm…” Every instinct told me to run away fast and not look back. Silly me, I plunged ahead. “I suppose.”

We finished the transaction and when I got back to the car, my wife asked what took so long. I related the story and she looked concerned.

“Maybe we should go somewhere else,” she said.

“Nah, just a little speed bump getting checked in,” I said. “Besides, I already paid, it’s late, and I don’t feel like driving around looking for another motel. It’ll be fine.”

Another lesson learned: always listen to your wife’s intuition about these things.

Our room was on the second floor and a long walk down the corridor from the elevator. I opened the room and went back to the car for a second load. When I returned I took one look at my wife and knew she was not happy. I sometimes call her the Inspector because that’s what she does: motels, food, clothing purchases, whatever the item, she inspects it rigorously and her standards are, shall we say, somewhat higher than mine, which is undoubtedly a good thing. Take cooking for instance. Like most guys, I invoke the five second rule. Something drops on the floor, I pick it up, blow on it, maybe rinse it if something looks stuck on, and it’s edible. Not the Inspector.
In this case, she stood holding one of the bath towels and shaking her head.
“Look at this,” she said, holding the offending cloth about three inches from my nose. “Not clean. And not soft at all.”
I pushed the towel back to where I could focus on it, and it did seem a trifle gray along one edge and a bit rough. She then turned her scrutiny on the bathroom tub, toilet, and sink. While she continued with the inspection, I walked into the main room and looked up at the smoke alarm, or I should say what was left of the smoke alarm. Someone had removed the batteries and left the cover dangling open. One of the curtains wouldn’t shut completely. The carpet smelled musty and the Inspector found animal hair on it. We always specify pet-free rooms as Irina is allergic to dogs. To top it off, there was the unmistakable odor of stale cigarette smoke in this supposed non-smoking, no-pet room. The tobacco smell was not overpowering, but lurked in the background like some insidious creature just waiting for the right moment to pounce and strike full force.
“Well, at least the bed seems good,” I said, trying to put a shine on the situation.
While neither of us were exactly thrilled, we deemed the room acceptable enough for a one night stay despite our dissatisfactions. Still, it was quite a comedown after our week in the condo.

While she showered I set things up for a late, light, in-room dinner. She emerged complaining about the towels again, and I put it down to female pickiness. That assessment lasted until I finished my shower and tried to dry off.

Now I don’t mind a rough towel. In fact I prefer them. But these were towels only in the most academic sense of the word. They were made of cloth, and many years ago I’m sure they had the ability to absorb water. Now, however, in texture and absorbency they more closely resembled a #3 grit sandpaper, which would have been fine if I’d wanted to refinish some of the furniture in our room rather than grind off three layers of skin. On the plus side, they made great bandages for my exposed leg bones after I’d finally rubbed all the water off.

Did I mention our neighbors across the hall who seemed to be hosting a Cinco de Mayo fiesta in the middle of September, complete with a live mariachi band? Okay, I’m not sure if the music was live or not, but the people certainly were, all eighty-seven of them. I peeked out our door at one point and saw a guy carrying in a case of Coronas, followed by a woman lugging two suitcases Three kids under the age of ten trudged behind, along with their Grandma, Aunt Consuela and Uncle Tito. I was surprised they didn’t bring their three dogs and a goat as well.

They were met with loud and enthusiastic greetings by the group of people already in the room. I don’t know what the maximum occupancy of the room was, but they surely exceeded it. Or maybe the motel had a special “Bring your entire village for the weekend” promotion going on.

Miraculously enough, they quieted down by about ten-thirty and we got a decent night’s sleep, which was a good thing since we had another long day of driving ahead of us on Monday.

Sugar cane fields, Louisiana

(Sugar cane fields, Louisiana)

Next morning I was shocked by the cool weather – by Louisiana standards, anyway – which greeted me as I loaded the car. Naturally, the day we leave the state, it cools down. I entered the lobby to check out, expecting a hassle over the reduced rate. Luckily there was someone competent behind the counter this time and she took care of it quickly. I also gave her an earful about the poor quality of the room and how maybe that should get us an extra discount, but while she murmured sympathetic words about our “bad experience” the best she could offer was a reduced rate on another night’s stay. I shuddered at the thought, cut my losses and left.

And so we said goodbye to Louisiana and re-entered the Lone Star state, covering again the same stretch of freeway to Dallas and discovering quickly that a weeks time had done nothing to improve the scenery. Skirting around Dallas, we took highway 287 heading northwest from Fort Worth, which turned out to be a more direct, time-saving route. 287 runs a little south of the Oklahoma border, past Wichita Falls, and after many long hours of coma-inducing driving we sped into and quickly out of our old friend, Amarillo.

From there we continued north on 287 heading for the Oklahoma panhandle, which has to be the quickest south-north traversal of any state in the Union. In fact I can’t even say for sure how long it took us to cross Oklahoma because we never saw any sign saying we’d entered Colorado. The map indicates forty miles of highway, the only town of note being Boise City. A little north of there we crossed the Old Santa Fe wagon trail, then the Cimarron River in an area of treeless, rolling hills. Just to the west, in the extreme northwest corner of the state, lies Black Mesa, at 4,973 ft. the highest point in Oklahoma.

Shortly after that we entered Colorado and it looked just like…Oklahoma. This southeast corner of Colorado is much like any other midwest plains state – flat farm country – and nothing at all like the mountainous portions of the state. With the sun heading down I expected to continue making good time for another hour at least, but hadn’t counted on being waylaid by that old travelers nemesis: road construction.

I’d seen signs a few miles earlier – road work ahead, expect delays – but at this time of day, after six p.m., I thought they’d surely have knocked off for the night. No such luck. We ground to a halt, sat there a few minutes idling before I got out of the car for a look around the flatbed truck ahead of us. A looooong line of vehicles snaked away into the distance.

I reached back in and switched off the ignition. Irina got out with me and we both stretched the kinks from our weary, aching bones and backsides. It wasn’t all bad, waiting. The temperature was perfect, the setting sun cast a golden glow over the wheat fields around us and it felt good to stand for a while.

Ten minutes later a convoy of vehicles whooshed past us in the opposite direction. This went on for some time. When at last our line began to move forward, we never broke thirty miles per hour for the next twenty minutes. I could see why this was a 24 hour a day project. There was only one lane of pavement, with the other side of the road torn up right down to the dirt.

By the time we got back up to speed, I calculated we’d lost about forty-five minutes driving time. I’d wanted to push on to Lamar, but when we hit Springfield it was already dark and Lamar was another 50 miles north. We decided to stay at the Starlight Motel, right on the highway, which I figured would have lots of traffic noise, and it did. But there wasn’t much choice. We only saw two other motels, one of them with a No Vacancy sign lit.

Springfield is a farm and ranching community and a truer rendition of rural, small town Middle America would be hard to find. This is a land where the men wear cowboy hats and boots and drive pickup trucks – old, dusty, and battered – not as an affectation but because they need them as practical working tools. And yes, many of those pickup trucks have a rifle in the rack above the rear window and an old, sun-faded NRA sticker in that same window. This is red state America, and proud of it.

I asked the motel proprieter to recommend somewhere for dinner and he steered us to the Longhorn Steak House, within walking distance. But then, everything is within walking distance in Springfield. I wasn’t really in the mood for steak but again, not many options.

There were a dozen or so other patrons inside, and you could tell from the easy banter among them that most of these folks were locals who knew each other. All in all, the Longhorn was not a bad deal, with friendly service, reasonable prices and portions, and decent food that filled us up. Given the circumstances, it could have been a whole lot worse.

I’d say the same for the Starlight Motel. Nothing remarkable, but a vast improvement over the previous night in Shreveport. I’d give it three stars. At $65 it’s a bit overpriced for the small size of the room and the all night rumble of semis cruising by on the highway, but I wasn’t about to complain. At least the proprietor was courteous and helpful, the room didn’t smell like an ahstray, and the towels were made of real cotton and not steel wool.

Count your blessings.

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