As I hoisted my pack up over my shoulders and slid it into place on my back, I considered myself lucky to have survived the night. I was heading out on The Wild Azalea Trail, just south of Alexandria, Louisiana, for a three-day backpacking trip. It was a relief to be out in the woods after spending the night in the worst motel of my traveling experience. My husband, the leader of our Sierra Club trip, had planned on spending the night in one of the decent hotels in Alexandria after arriving there in the late afternoon. He did not book rooms for our group as Alexandria was not considered a hot-spot tourist destination back in our adventure days of the early 90s. We saw the signs as we entered the city: Welcome Young Christians! Who knew? This modest location was to be the site of the young Christians spring conference and every room in town was booked for the weekend by the faithful youth of the American south.
This fact forced us to look elsewhere. We found our evening accommodations just outside of town along the highway at a place frighteningly called “Motel.” This was definitely not a place where Christians of any age would choose to stay—unless they were of questionable character and/or looking for hookers or drugs. In other words, just perfect for finding cheap rooms as daylight dwindled on a lovely spring evening on the edge of civilized central Louisiana. We were in that unique position of choosing between risking our lives camping beside the road or risking our lives squatting in a shit-hole motel. We chose the motel for the luxury of having doors that locked.
As we pulled into the parking lot, an expanse of crumbling concrete complete with wayward weeds and debris, which covered every square inch of real estate surrounding 20 or so rooms, my husband and I concurrently decided we would not let our passenger Laurie have her own room. We figured a man and two women checking in together would attract less attention here than a woman settling into a room alone. We allowed the eight other guys on our expedition to decide for themselves how they wanted to distribute their bodies for later identification in the remaining available rooms.
I have occupied hotel/motel rooms across the terrain of this vast country and into the bookends of southern Canada. This was the worst. “Motel,” a name lacking only the “Bates” in front of it, was not only a dump, but somewhat unsettling. My standards don’t run to multiple stars and concierge-type accommodations, but even I have need of some comforts while sleeping away from home. It’s nice if the door comes all the way down to the floor and doesn’t leave a huge gap at the bottom, allowing for the entry of snakes or rodents or other unknown fauna of backwoods Louisiana. I need to see clean sheets and bedspreads, unstained, with no cigarette holes burned into them. If there had been a fire in the room, I think staff should have repainted the blackened wall surrounding the electric socket where that disaster occurred. There is a distinct difference between run-down shabby and gangland crack warren. I looked around for something to steady me in this place of doomed hopelessness. Our room had a clock that worked. If there had been Yelp reviews back then, that would be the nicest thing I could have said about it.
Not wishing to touch the icky bed linens with any of our exposed skin, we unrolled our sleeping bags on top of the beds, joined the young Christians in their pre-bed prayers and slept the uneasy sleep of the damned. There were noises in the night, but we were too exhausted (and timid) to investigate them. I could only sleep knowing that if we survived the night, we would be spending the next two nights out in the woods, sleeping on the ground in tents. Creeping critters notwithstanding, that scenario felt like a well-deserved step up.
That’s not to say I hate crappy motel rooms. The star system is irrelevant to me as I have my own criteria for judging a rented room. If it’s clean and I feel safe, I’ll enjoy my stay, especially if there’s a bit of quirkiness or memorable circumstances, despite its lack of luxury. The Flagship Hotel in Galveston, Texas was one of my favorites. Built in 1965, by the time my husband and I started enjoying weekend visits there, the place was sporting a bit of squalor. We did not notice. The hotel was built over the water, right on the beach. We never paid much attention to the crappy old carpets and shabby looking rooms because we could open the sliding glass door and listen to the sound of the waves as they lulled us to sleep. We never noticed, that is, until we dragged my mother-in-law (a lady more accustomed to fancier digs) to the place when our son was a toddler. Once she delivered her opinion, scrutinizing the accommodations through non-enchanted eyes, we had to admit the place was as attractive as a damp and lumpy front-porch mattress. This may have made us love it more.
Like the amusement pier before it, which had been devastated by Hurricane Carla in 1961, the Flagship was torn down after suffering extreme damage via Hurricane Ike in 2008. It’s what hurricanes do. In its place the Historic Pleasure Pier was rebuilt to its former glory, haplessly awaiting the next big blow off the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe I’m a nostalgic, boring old fart, but it seems barfing on the magnificent roller coaster is not as much fun as drifting off to dreamland, listening to the gentle sloshing of the gulf shore waters beneath an aging hotel teetering on old pilings.
These travel memories have been stirred up by our recent trip to Maine and the hotel/motel stays along the way. When planning for a one-night stay, I tried to find something in a reasonably safe area, with an equally reasonably low price. We were to spend one night in Portland, Maine, to allow for a visit with my brother and his wife and pick up my son and his girlfriend at the airport the next day before we drove to our final destination. The hotels in Portland are expensive. Even the shittiest rooms around the Maine Mall in South Portland (where I had affordably stayed on previous visits) were advertised for over $400 per night. So, I pushed my pre-trip search perimeter beyond the city boundaries to a place I’ll call “off the turnpike.” Enter the Motel 6.
After a long day of driving up the I95 corridor, that notoriously bustling thoroughfare, we were raggedy and worn out. By then we might have welcomed a friendly farmer with a hay barn to crash in. What we got was the Maine Tourism Bureau Dormitory for Foreign Workers. Maine has always been short of a domestic labor force during the summer months, usually importing workers from places like Jamaica and Ukraine. Ukrainians being in short supply this year, workers have been coming from a variety of foreign places with more laborers than labor. They must be housed somewhere convenient to the city, and it seems the Motel 6, somewhat of a lost cause with exceedingly bad reviews, had been brought back from the brink by housing the much-needed workers while still offering rooms to travelers at below-market rates. We got the AARP discounted fee of $198/night. The room was the no-frilliest of no-frills rooms we had occupied during our trip. But it was clean, the parking was free and we had lots of company. With various accents ringing about the place, we felt we were hanging out in an international college dormitory. As a semi-permanent dwelling, residents hung out in the hallways and in the parking lot, chatting and cutting up with each other. Children ran around, making the noises of playing children everywhere. It was all very charming until we wanted to go to bed.
A short time after 11 pm, I heard the manager speak to the nearby residents. All was quiet after that and we and the hard-working staff of Portland, Maine slept the contented sleep of those who have found a good bargain in an over-priced world. As I snoozed, I was able to add one more place to my catalog of memorable lodgings, even if the only stars it had were hanging in the sky, illuminating the parking lot.
For weary travelers everywhere,