HOTELS ACROSS AMERICA
In the beginning there was a Quality Inn off the interstate near Asheville, NC. We drop our bags on the floor. The car is in the shop.
Let’s stare at the ceiling. Let’s sample the hand soap.
Let’s wander over the overpass and buy cigarettes and dinner. After this night I will be able to say: I have observed a solitary man drinking milk, and only milk, at a Waffle House at one in the morning. I have felt the remoteness of myself, and it was like my nerves were vibrating. I have noticed the absence of manzanita shrubs. I have felt how love is a living, breathing thing, like some kind of jellyfish, pulsating in the distances between two loving bodies.
I think: I will need to remember this, because it will go away.
Let’s close the blinds. Let’s enjoy our privacy.
The guidebook cautions bad weather in the Wyoming summer. Black clouds portend disaster, a word we recognize as meaning ill-starred. But when you point to that splotch of green on the map where it says Medicine Bow National Forest, it is decided we will go to Medicine Bow National Forest.
Several guidebooks say: Bad Weather Passes.
When you look at the Alpine Lakes you say, “See, wasn’t it worth it?
The sun is reflected in the water.
I sometimes love you like the way I imagine God loved the people of Wyoming when he gave them these lakes. We stumble upon a frontier chapel named St. Albans, and it is the color of blood. We stand at the altar in painful make-believe. Two eyes staring at me, brimming with love, and something else I am afraid to name. I want to ask the question, to drop to the male knee, but I know I can’t (guidebooks caution: Visitors May Feel The Presence of Ghosts), and it’s like we have witnessed our own unbecoming.
We can’t escape the rain coming down the mountain, but it’s a clear starry night as we check into the Mountain View Hotel in Centennial, WY. A biologist tells us he is studying the effects of the bark beetle on local moose populations. “A bunch of trees are dying,” he says. Can the moose find shade? Moose hate the heat, we learn. They can’t stand it. They belong in the cold. Let us toast to the moose. “On the other hand,” he says, “less shade means more plants, more food.”
The moral of the story is that there is a good and a bad to everything.
In the morning we make love, and afterwards you cry.
The diner hangs a sign to symbolize our love: “Help Wanted.”
When the car breaks down again no one can blame him. It’s year three, after all. Though we can’t blame him, we can and should be disappointed in him, because he decided to break down in Provo, UT, and now we are staying at the seedy shitty gross Knight’s Inn in Provo, UT.
Perhaps he had some sympathy for Provo because it is clear this town fucking hates pedestrians. We walk over a mile to get coffee and food and beer, and we observe the shadowed ridges of those grandiose dirt mountains, whose beauty is made strange by the fast-food restaurants dominating the foreground. And we think, “We have been here before.” And then lying on the high desert highway dirt, you see the improbable carcass of a fish. “How did it get here?” you ask. “How? How? How?” And you are not only talking about the fish, but about us and everything else.
I quip: “Ill-starred.”
But it doesn’t feel right to laugh.
Behind the relative safety of motel drapes, let’s rank the Western United States.
“New Mexico, Montana, Washington, Colorado, Arizona, California,” you say. (Note: We do not rank Home.) “That’s the easy part.”
Where it gets tough is at the bottom, because there’s real competition in terms of awfulness between Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. “Of course Idaho and Utah have Mormons, but on the other hand, Nevada has Las Vegas – and remember that horrible night we spent in Pahrump last year?”
We have written our own sordid guidebook. We have placed asterisks next to cities.
Let’s drink another beer.
“I wonder where motels buy their furniture,” you ask. “How come they always look the same?”
In the morning we call a man we find on Craigslist. He labels himself a nonprofessional mechanic. His name is Mike, and he blesses us with a small miracle: no transmission problems; it’s only a stuck carburetor float. He demonstrates. “See. No fuel getting to your engine.”
We give him fifty bucks.
“This inn is full of weirdos,” he says. And then a man stares at us from his lawn chair.
“That’s George,” Mike says. “He’s the biggest weirdo of them all.”
We drive off, waving like mad to our new friend Mike.
Goodbye, Provo! Goodbye, dead fish, may you swim forever in fish heaven! Goodbye, Mike, you grease monkey hero! And even goodbye to you, George, the biggest weirdo of them all!
I think It’s all downhill from here when we pull into Colorado, the fourth best state in the Western United States, and we check in at the Hotel Telluride in Telluride, CO.
We are idiots, because somehow we didn’t realize it would be astronomically expensive. To make matters worse, it is the Fourth of July.
Look at all these tourists. Look at how wealthy they are. “I once met Quentin Tarantino,” I hear someone say, “at that bar, right there.”
Stars compete with fireworks, and the fireworks win.
The first year of our love is exactly like the burst of a firework.
The years that follow are like the fireworks’ embers falling down in slow curves toward the earth.
“I hate these people.”
“I guess we are these people.”
Is this what it’s all amounted to? This, our dream of off-Main American freedom? Our love? Is it all just gallons and gallons of gasoline and plastic water bottles and cigarettes and beer and candy, receipts, crumpled and torn?
We’ve both thought it. I know you have. Something like: “There’s actually not much to it.” We could have been looking at lava rock or a crater lake or a butterfly or swamp or you or me. A collection of cells fit into a postcard. You and me are postcard people. You and me are prepackaged goods, like Chex Mix.
But then I think: Who doesn’t like Chex Mix?
Two beers and two whiskeys.
“We found the only place in this town that smells like piss,” I say.
We’re not really that tough. What I want now is to see you garden. To see a baby on your hip. But you’re smoking and drinking like a retired baseball player, and I have adopted the swaggering recklessness of someone who is content with slow death.
Our eyes get blacker.
I’m barely having fun, which is the greatest sin of all.
It’s only us on the street when you start to cry.
The mountains look like purity and the stars look cold and soothing, and I think one can imagine salvation in starry places. But even beautiful places stop being beautiful after a while.
Let’s just get to our room. Let’s just get to morning.
Winter on the Western Slope is colder than my eyes when strangers say hello. But sunny, too, like the way you sometimes still smile at me. I have booked a 6 p.m. flight. I will be going Home, without you. You will be staying here, without me. You will be sleeping alone at the Rodeway Inn in Grand Junction, CO.
We go see a movie about cars. The sounds of engines roaring fill the empty theater. There’s a minor plot about a child, and I nearly start to cry. Afterwards we wander through the Barnes and Noble and drink coffee and make fun of the books.
Guidebooks without asterisks.
Trips yet taken, places still unseen, how far away those days now seem.
You check into your hotel, and I carry your bags because above everything else, I have always tried to help you (the lies we tell ourselves sustain us, which is a way of saying there is a good and bad to everything). The room is frankly shit. The parking lot gives me the creeps. It’s so cold outside it hurts. And I don’t want to think about you alone in that room.
Let’s go get some beer.
We walk to the Chevron and you put your arm in mine and we put our heads down through the wind as we walk. I would like to have a psychic power. The power to instantly visualize every Chevron I have ever been in with you. This one is cold, and the lady behind the register is counting quarters.
You buy the beer this time. A twelve pack.
We walk the way we came. Trucks and trucks and cars and cars and fast-food restaurants.
Walking into that room is like going back in time. There’s a mini-fridge, which is a compliment to the Rodeway Inn, and we place the beer in it and grab one and we play cards and we drink, protected once again by the flavid drapes.
Let’s review what we have learned.
Moose are not a parable.
Diner signs aren’t symbols.
Every Western state is beautiful and perfect.
We bear no relation to the stars.
Many things we will forget.
But I know what it was all about as I look at you across the hotel table. It was about you. You were the North Star and the odometer and the overpass signs and the cold stars and the drunken bars. I believe in some kind of heaven, in which we’re still in that room, your laughing eyes … the bright flickers of love … going to get a beer from the fridge, another card game, my love …
The cold front delays my plane an hour. I am decently drunk when it’s time to go to the airport. You smoke as you drive, and we’re both shivering. The Grand Junction Airport is quite small, and you ride an escalator to get to the security check-in on the second floor. You ride it with me. We kiss. But when I turn back to look at you one final time, you’re already gone.
Author Bio: Ernie Akins is a writer living in Morgantown, WV. His work can also be found in Damnation. He says "soda," but really only drinks Coke. His Twitter handle is @ernestwrites.