On Hotels and Motels

[Attn: This is a post that I drafted while we were driving across the country to our new life here in LA. You know, like FIVE months ago. But like fine wine or Muppet movies, some things get better the longer you forget that you started them then discover them when you open your blog’s full desktop version for the first time since February. So, ahem…]

This looks legit.

In theory, I like to travel. I do love me a camping trip. However, when vacationing in civilization, the question of accommodation has always been sticky.  The whole hotel room thing gives me the heebie-jeebies, whether it’s the Motel 8 off Route 40 in Amarillo or the W in Manhattan.

No doubt the one end of this spectrum of fear stems back to one childhood vacation with my parents, who were partial to hauling the three of us kids (likely around six, eight, and ten years old, at the time) off on “educational” weekend trips to whatever low-budget colonial reenactment sites and sports halls of fame lay within driving distance. They way I remember it, we would drive until our parents got tired, then crash at the nearest hotel/motel with vacancy. No reservations, no booking websites, no screening reviews. This was the 80s and we were a young family on budget adventures.

One particular trip to Cooperstown or Amish country or whereever, all five of us stayed in one motel room that smelled like a cave and required us to share towels. My brother, already approaching six feet tall at ten years of age, stayed on a perilous wire cot contraption at the foot of the bed my sister and I shared. No one got much sleep and the halls of baseball history or whatever the next day were made claustrophobic with our crankiness. After we came home, it was discovered that we’d picked up scabies from the unwashed linens.

Most of the other family vacations I can remember involve renting cabins or sleeping in tents.

On the other end of the scale, there are the Radisons and Fancygams of the world that employ people just to stand around in case you need to flick a booger or something. Which, though I can see the theoretical appeal, make me very uncomfortable. Luxury hotels and fine dining restaurants feel like traditions founded to cater to folks who had servants at home, so they could enjoy the comforts to which they were accustomed, e.g., having people pick up after you, easy access to swimming pools and masseurs. To me, the modern luxury hotel feels like a trip to Downton Abbey, where you may rent a whole household staff by the night and push them around in a frenzy of fantasy power. You had valet parking as your chauffeurs, bellboys as your footmen, concierges as your  Carsons. Which, in theory, sounds kind of cool, I suppose, but honestly, I’ve always been more comfortable as staff than boss. Having other people in my personal space makes me squeamish, and having people offer to do things I could very easily do myself gives me a vague post-Catholic shame that ruins everything.  I can never, ever stop thinking about all the strangers who came to this VERY ROOM to have “exotic” sex with their spouses or mister/esses, and it grosses me out so much I want to sleep on top of the covers.

Anyway, in sum: the whole rented room, someone else cleans up after you, strange bed, I can carry my own bag, thanks, thing…it’s not really my thing. Being pampered is for babies. Most of all, there’s the issue of sleeping in an unfamiliar place. Recall that Radiolab episode where Jad and Robert talk about sleep and predation instinct.  I either can’t fall asleep, can’t stay asleep, or dream about serial killers when I have to stay in a strange place. There is also the issue of trying to walk through a strange, dark room in the middle of the night and trying not to bang up your shins. More on that later.

This has all not really been much of a problem over the past decade, as the only times (mostly) I left my home in New York City were holidays at my parents’ house. It comes as no surprise that I’m useless at trip planning. Considering travel as a standalone objective feels a bit like wearing a suit; it makes me feel grown-up and excited, but ultimately less myself in my own skin. But then, there’s this.

On the road in Arizona, black eye a-shining
On the road in Arizona

Here we are, on the life-altering cross-country roadtrip. Barreling through the desert at 75mph with fate and behemoth trucks bearing down fore and aft. It’s exciting, and worth it, and I’ve found a renewed enjoyment of cheap motel rooms with adequate chairs and yellowed towels that fit our budget. We can read the reviews online to screen for parasites, and a tinge of grunge is so much less alienating than manufactured luxury, it turns out. But maybe that’s my self-esteem talking.

We are staying in our third or fourth motel this trip, the last one until we come to our new home in Los Angeles. No skin diseases have made themselves known, and the cat has not urinated on anything or scratched up anything too expensive looking. Things seem to be charging along toward our new life just fine.

Though it’s not without a hitch, of course. A few days before we embarked on this trip, my hatred of new sleeping places was reconfirmed at a moderately upscale hotel in central New York. Two of my closest friends were marrying each other, and it seemed a wonderful twist that we could reunite with the old gang by partying together and staying in the same place for one night. Those who had told me to “have a nice life” two months earlier would be treated to my presence once again and everyone would have fun. And we did. It was great. Until sometime in the night, stumbling tipsily around an unfamiliar king-sized hotel room, groping in the total darkness for the bathroom, I managed to smash my face against the bathroom doorframe. When I returned to bed, I had a vague notion that my face hurt. When I rose with a headache in the morning, I had a shiner like a diamond.

And there’s nothing quite like the looks you get when checking into cheap motels all around America’s heartland, pallid from eight hours of driving through treacherous winter weather, with a cat under your arm and a yellowing bruise under your eye.

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