The perks of ditching the key card
I’ve had enough of hotels in this short lifetime. One weekend after another traveling to college soccer games, academic conferences, family vacations - all of them came along with a hotel key and a room, each one identical to all the others.
Hotel chains, I assume, offer the same comfort and consistency that restaurant chains do. A customer can visit one in Omaha, NE and expect the exact same thing they got at the branch in Charleston, SC. Reassuring, I suppose. But when in Rome, I, for one, would like to know without a doubt that I’m in Rome. The texture of a place, it’s uniqueness, it’s odors and sensations are not to be found in the bottled environment of a hotel room. How are we to know where we are if every place looks exactly like the last?
In September 2014, I traveled from my family home in central Florida across the country to Davis, California, to begin my graduate studies. Anything that would fit in the back of my Honda CR-V came with me. Anything that did not was sold, donated, or left behind (with the important exception of my 4-string banjo and mandolin, which were lovingly packed and shipped to meet me upon arrival).
Along the way, I made a resolution: complete the 10-day road trip without once booking into a hotel. That meant a lot of camping in little-known state parks and public forest lands. It also meant an excuse to reconnect with friends and family scattered across the U.S., and to appreciate the hospitality of all-but-strangers along my route.
Only a few hours drive from my family home in Florida, Savannah had long called to me for its air of history and mystery. I spent the afternoon walking a zigzag through every block in downtown before driving to Washington, D.C., to pick up an old college friend and spend the night at her cousins’. A mini-reunion ensued the next day, when we drove halfway across Virginia to Blacksburg, the home town of another college friend. Our trio of former roommates and/or teammates sat in rocking chairs on front porches and yarned our way through several years of unshared history, forked roads merging again.
I then drove through West Virginia to the town of Versailles, outside of Lexington, Kentucky. My dad has a veterinary practice back home, and his first business partner had moved here years ago with his family. My parents count them among their oldest friends, having raised their children alongside my brothers and I. They had a small cattle farm and cut flower business in Versailles and I had visited them once with my mother what seemed like ages ago. They hosted me for two nights in their 19th century farmhouse, regaling me with family memories, toting me along on the day’s farm operations, and sending me off with a wave and jar of freshly canned tomato salsa from their garden.
The proliferation of hotels and chain restaurants is a symptom of the homogenization of the countryside. My quest to avoid them took me to some unexpected corners. After several hours of driving through Midwest corn country and with the rumblings of hunger in my belly, I took a random interstate exit and ended up in Birdseye, an Indiana town so small it barely warrants a point on the map. It was Sunday, and the local burger joint and ice cream shop were closed. A flaking, red and white hand-painted sign informed me, “Rabbits 4 sale.” A deli tucked away in the back of an ancient hardware store supplied me with a grilled ham and cheese sandwich and a bag of potato chips, which at the time seemed like the most decadent meal I had ever been served.
In St. Louis, MO, I spent the night at the home of a friend’s parents. Grabbed a frozen custard with her mom, pizza with her brother. Lolled in the pool. Eating cereal the next morning in their kitchen, surrogate mom quizzed me on my plans for lodging that night. Upon learning that I had none, she pulled from the crammed shelf above the toaster a bound booklet containing the names and addresses of the multitude of cousins and relatives that make up my friend’s very large and very Italian family. She ran her finger down the list and stopped at an entry. “Is Lawrence, Kansas, much out of your way? We have family there who could put you up for the night. Let me give them a call.”
Broken Bow, NE
Lawrence was more than I had ever expected from a little Kansas town. The hip and bustling downtown led me to a fine brewery. Bookshops and music stores, historic buildings, and restaurants brightened my glance with their cheerful storefronts. My hosts, strangers to me, soon became less so, and our conversation grew more animated as the afternoon wore on and common interests were discovered. I realized that I had spoken to one of the couple before, on a recommendation from the same St. Louis friend, as someone who knew musical instruments. In a phone conversation, this man had pointed me to an instrument shop in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I ultimately purchased the same beautiful, magical, 4-string banjo that was on its way from Florida to California at that very moment. My hosts had been more than willing to offer me their guest room, they said, because many strangers had done the same for them in their errant pasts. I recognized this statement as a wink; if I wanted to thank them, the best way was to pay it forward.
From Kansas I cut north through Nebraska, aiming for Wyoming. I only chose to go that way because it was sandhill country. Every year just north of my Florida home, migratory Sandhill Cranes arrived at the prairie. Their piercing calls were always audible on misty mornings in fall, just as the weather was turning cool. This broad, open country in Nebraska was one of their most notable rest stops. They wouldn’t be here at this time of year, but nevertheless, I drove slowly through the glorious sunlit countryside and treasured the kinship of my fellow cross-continental travelers. I camped on national forest land just outside of Broken Bow, and moved on early the next day.
A friend from home learned I was in Nebraska and shot me a text, “You have to go see Carhenge!” It was just the sort of wacky thing that he would know about. I never would have known it was there, would never have visited it otherwise, but what excuse did I have for missing it?
As its name suggested, Carhenge turned out to be an intricate, close-to-scale replica of the famed Stonehenge of Salisbury Plains made entirely of rusty and graffitied defunct vehicles. A testament to human whimsy, it stood proudly atop the plains of Alliance, arranged with a cryptic purpose known only to those that put it there. After paying my respects, I crunched across the gravel parking lot to my own vehicle, which mercifully still rested atop all four wheels.
My dad hadn’t spoken to Bill Allemand since he was a teenager. His father (my grandfather), Doc, and Bill had been hunting buddies since before he’d been born. When he was in highschool, Dad drove to the Allemand Ranch from Washington, Iowa, some summers to help with the cattle branding. When he called the Allemands out of the blue to tell them I was passing through Casper, sure enough, they remembered Doc and his son. I was ushered into their home like the heiress to the throne. The Allemands gave me the royal tour of Casper’s dinosaur bones, oil rigs, and uranium boxes. They drove me to the ranch, where they said proudly that it was a good 10 miles from the mailbox to the house, and gave me a further tour of their son-in-law’s impressive trophy head collection. Finally, I was given the keys to an ATV and escorted to Doc and Bill’s old deer hunt campsite. I was left there with my tent and the ATV, and cheerfully told to stay as long as I like.
Reassuring, I thought, that the Allemands didn’t find it odd that I should want to camp there when there was a warm bed in Casper at my disposal. Reassuring that they didn’t think I would mind the snakes and the solitude and the sound of the coyotes barking at dusk. I didn’t. It was empty, but not lonely, and beautiful in excess. I hiked the ridges and hollows and clambered over the boulders and through the pine woods where I imagined my grandfather might have seen a buck on a cold fall morning. I pulled out Doc’s old hunting knife, which I have kept in my hiking pack for years, and prepared my evening meal. It is funny how the world spirals in on itself, sometimes.
From Casper I cut south through the panhandle of Utah, camping again in the crisp, damp mountain forests outside of Salt Lake City. I woke early for the long drive ahead, stopping at an eccentric coffee shop in Fillmore for coffee and breakfast before pointing my nose towards Highway 50 and the straight shot through the desert.
The Loneliest Road
I chose the Highway 50 route over the slightly more direct and faster Highway 80 precisely because it was less direct and slower. I learned that Highway 50 is called “The Loneliest Road,” for reasons not too difficult to fathom. It seemed the most appropriate route for its loneliness; I yearned for a breath, a pause, to assimilate my journey and prepare to flip the switch on the next part of my life. A long stretch of emptiness was exactly what I needed.
I crossed the threshold - the Sierra Nevadas - and arrived in California just in time for pumpkin season.
Admittedly, there are many easier ways I could have driven across the U.S. But my slightly meandering and often indeterminate route led to a few things that a pre-fabricated journey, hopscotching from hotel to hotel and gas station to gas station, would never have brought. A college reunion, for one. Several pristine, cloudless, star-strewn nights for another. Re-forged connections with friends and family from Washington, D.C. to Wyoming. A number of unplanned itinerary stops, resulting in such gifts as a Henge made from Cars. Places that were once points on a map, now associated with a cup of perfect coffee or a friendly front door. For the cost of a few extra miles out of my way I learned the texture and uniqueness of a vast expanse of my country.
I’ve left my key card at reception, and I won’t be needing it back.