Motels and Hotels I remember

Fifth in a series.

Oasis Motel in Gretna, Lousiana

Thanksgiving weekend in 1998, I lived in Austin, Texas, working as a contractor for Apple Computer. It was my first-ever Thanksgiving weekend away from my family. The Wednesday before the long weekend, I sat with a bunch of work friends in the backyard of some bar whose name escapes me and Google. It was a chilly night, in the mid 50s, and drinks were flowing. A bunch of us were trying to figure out how to spend our time off. I had no idea, but my co-workers were concerned about finding me a place to spend with friends and food. I got several offers to come over for turkey and all the trimmings. It was nice to feel so wanted.

But the best offer was when I found out that Chris and John were planning a road trip… to New Orleans.

I had never been to New Orleans, but it had captured my attention more than once in books, songs and movies. The Big Easy! Crescent City! Mardi Gras! Let the good times roll!

I asked them if I could tag along, and they agreed. Splitting costs three ways was cheaper than splitting it two ways. Since John didn’t have a great car, and neither Chris or I had any car at all, we were taking a rental car.

The following morning they picked me up. It’s a 500+ mile road trip, give or take, from Austin to NOLA, or about 8 hours of driving. Luckily, we had a four day weekend, and three drivers to take the wheel. I remember driving through San Antonio, though we did not stop there. To this day I’ve never been. When we passed through Houston, we stopped at a Denny’s for dinner; I remember the oil-covered canal and the huge oil derricks pumping oil and burning off the extra, making the landscape look like a watery Hell.

East Texas was green and swampy, very much unlike West Texas, which is dry desert. And southern Louisiana is, of course, the Bayou, a lush green dense wetlands.

The trip itself was largely uneventful, but once we got to the city proper, it was late and we decided to get a motel first. We drove through New Orleans and over the Ponchartrain Expressway, to the land on the other side of the Mississipi River, into the suburb called Gretna, before getting off the highway. We first came to the Oasis Motel, the improbably-desert-themed resting point for our two night stay.

We were three cheap guys, so we all shared a room. One on each bed and one on the floor, I volunteered for the floor first. Chris and John joked about cockroaches, but I was too punk rock to care. The room was just like every other motel room you’ve ever been in: smelled of stale smoke and sweat, beige in spirit if not in color, mismatched bed clothes and curtains.

Once we dropped off our bags, we drove back across the toll bridge to explore the wonders of Bourbon Street. It was a foggy night, and the streets were home to wandering groups of tourists. I marveled at the fact that we could get our booze in to-go cups and walk out into the street; just another way that New Orleans was different than my hometown.

The architecture was different, as well; tall townhouses with large wooden double doors, and balconies that looked out over the street. Chris explained that those balconies were filled with women showing their breasts for strings of beads during Mardi Gras – another idea that was new to me, but as a lover of breasts, I approved.

It looked crowded to me, but the bartender at the first place we stopped that night made mention that it was dead due to the holiday. That’s right! It was Thanksgiving! I ran into the back to find a pay phone and called home.

My mom and dad could barely hear me over the music and noise of the bar, but I shouted a Happy Thanksgiving to them and happily explained that I was fine even without turkey and stuffing. And then, my family duties discharged, I went back out into the perpetual party that was Bourbon Street. We worked our way down the street, one bar at a time, until we reached the dark end, where Lafitte’s Blacksmith Bar and Grill lay. The oldest building in use as a bar in North America, it was purportedly built by the pirate Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre, back in the early days of the Union. Inside it was black as pitch and lit only by incandescent bulbs made to look like candles.

We stayed out almost all night, and Chris and John had a hard time getting me awake the next morning, because the tradition was to have coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde. I wasn’t a coffee drinker, and I was hungover, so I was grumpy until John patiently explained that I was harshing his groove. “This is a tradition. You don’t have to understand it. Just go with it.” Since I preferred much more substantial breakfasts (something with eggs and bacon) selling me on light fluffy dough-y things was a bit difficult, but eventually I got into it. Well, I got into it when the coffee and beignets were there in front of me and ready for devouring.

We wandered the city the rest of the day, and in the evening decided to take a vampire and ghost tour. On the drive back to the motel room, we got lost in the thickest fog I can recall, and made many loops of the freeway system around the city before figuring out how to get back across the river into Gretna. And the following morning we toured a Mardi Gras museum, filled with old floats from many past parades.

We probably spent about 10 total hours in that motel room over the course of our stay. That fact, and the huge amount of food and alcohol I ate and drank account for my lack of memories of the place, specifically. But that trip sealed my love for that city. I’ve been back once but would love another trip someday.

Maybe even during Mardi Gras.

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Motels and hotels I remember

Fourth in a series.

Luxor in Las Vegas, Nevada

Man, oh, man, I want to post about my stay at the Luxor. But, damn, considering the length of previous entries in this series, my story about the Luxor would fill an entire novel.

I’ll just leave you with these two conversational snippets to try to encapsulate the whole experience, one from the first night, and one from the plane ride back.

Part the first:

The hotel room is completely dark. The room is silent except for the rattle of the air-conditioner. Then:

Me: Promise you won’t try to kill me in the middle of the night?
Her: [Icy silence, then] I’m not going to kill you tonight.
Me: [laughs] I want to find out how this story ends.
Her: [incredulous] You mean you can’t already tell?
Me: No! I can’t wait to find out!

Part the second:

She and I are settled in our seats, both reading different biographies of Philip K. Dick

Me: [more than slightly buzzed, I set down my book] C’mon, admit it, we had a great time.
Her: [considers this] It did turn out… better than I expected. After that first night…
Me: We’re passionate people!
Her: Are you crazy? Do you remember? We wanted to keeeeel each other [she makes a stabbing motion]
Me: But we got over it!

Someday, man… someday… I’m going to write that novel.

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Motels and hotels I remember

Third in a series.

Hilton Portland in Portland, OR

Sometime in the late ’80s…

How did I get here? I was sitting in a windowsill at night, with a cute curly-haired blonde girl I had just met a couple of days before, on the top floor of the Hilton. We could see up and down Broadway, the signs and traffics making a light show just for us. It was a romantic spot. We had had to evade security, and in fact could probably be tossed out if they discovered us. A little privacy, a little shared secret, an awesome view… a boy and a girl alone…

Her name was Christine, and she worked at Wunderland, a nickel arcade out in East county. I’d been there with my friends a few nights ago, and had flirted with Christine, and when we left, I had gone back inside to get her name and phone number. But the guy at the counter wouldn’t let me back in, and wouldn’t tell me her name, and so I’d left my number with him, figuring it was a lost cause.

Two nights later, she’d called me back. She’d been impressed that I had had the balls to try that, and wanted to talk to me. We talked, the next night I’d convinced my friends to go back to Wunderland, and while my friends dumped money into the machines I hung out with Christine. We stayed until closing time, and when we left, Christine came with us. She and I rode in the backseat of Andy’s Trans Am, “The Flaming Chicken”, and Matt and Andy in the front, back to Andy’s house where my beater truck was parked.

Then, I and Christine drove around, and I remembered a secluded spot where we could… talk.

But Christine had a secret and a load of guilt. Once we were alone, she would not look at me, which even I, with my not-so-finely-honed social skills knew was a bad sign. I asked and asked and finally she told me:

“I have a boyfriend. We live together. He’s probably wondering where I am right now.”

Um, OK. Interesting. I guess she was just being spontaneous when she’d agreed to get in the car with three strange boys and not go home.

She told me more: how boring her boyfriend was, how he was only into comic books and didn’t like to go out, how I’d seemed so fun and flirty and (I’m not kidding) how I had actual friends like Matt and Andy. And that was all it took to make me stand out from her stay-at-home comic-book-reading live-in-boyfriend and get her to come with us.

But that was the limit of her courage. She still wouldn’t look me in the eyes. She wouldn’t commit to seeing me again. She told me not to call her again, either at work or at home, because her co-workers knew her boyfriend and word would get back to him. I tried to talk her into meeting me again but even I could see that that wasn’t going to happen.

So… right, right… that was how I got there.

So I took her home, and never heard from her again. Never saw her working at Wunderland again, either. Another unfinished story.

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Motels and hotels I remember

Second in a series.

White Pines Motel in Ely, Nevada

I wanted a solo road trip this time. It was late summer, 2000. It was the weekend that Burning Man was going on, out in the Nevada desert, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to Burning Man. It might have been fun, it might not… mainly I didn’t want to spend my whole weekend in one place. I wanted to be mobile.

I’d rented a car for the weekend, decided I’d just drive. South and west mostly because Portland is in the northwest corner of the US and there’s so much that is, well, south and west of Portland.

A couple of weeks before, I’d read in the Oregonian Travel section about a hotel called “The Little A’Le’Inn” (get it? “Alien”) in Nevada, near the famous Area 51. I couldn’t remember the name of the town it was in at the time, but it sounded like a good goal. I decided, mentally and without any more research, that I would spend one night in the Little A’Le’Inn. I didn’t save the article – all I remembered afterward was that the inn was located in a town in Nevada, near Area 51, in a town… um… with a woman’s name… that starts with an “R”.

So, fast forward to the Friday of my long weekend. Getting the rental car was a hassle in itself, as I did not have a credit card at the time and therefore Hertz wouldn’t honor my reservation. Hertz referred me to Dollar, where the girl behind the counter was very pleasant until I casually mentioned, in passing, that I might take the car to see Hoover Dam. She balked at this and refused to rent the car to me. Apparently their contract and insurance doesn’t cover me if I travelled beyond any state that borders Oregon. Hoover Dam is right on the Nevada/Arizona border, and this was enough to get this girl (I do not remember her name) to deny me a car.

I had to wait for the manager of the office to show up to approve the rental. The manager was quite confused as to why the girl wouldn’t rent to me, as she took me at my word that I would honor the rules. I guess the girl was just abusing her petty power… Very frustrating.

At any rate, now I had the car, and once I stopped to get my luggage from home, I was on the road. I had an atlas, and at my first dinner stop, in Eugene, I pulled it out to locate my destination. I didn’t see Area 51… but then, I didn’t expect it to be listed in my atlas at all and didn’t even bother looking for it. I checked the lists of town names, and settled on Ruth, Nevada.

Yeah. That sounded right. Woman’s name, starts with an “R”.

Ruth was very near the Nevada/Utah border, in the northeast corner of the state, and looked to be a tiny town. Perfect.

Google Maps shows that it’s 814 miles from Portland to Ruth, but it shows a different route than I took. I drove south as far as Eugene, where I stopped to buy some CDs (had no music with me, since I wasn’t really into music at the time but needed something to keep me awake), then cut over to Klamath Falls, and then took back roads to cross over into Nevada. Then south until I found highway 50, and that took me east. The drive itself wasn’t that interesting; I remember seeing signs in K-Falls protesting the “theft” of water from there, and I remember using a porta-potty just after crossing into Nevada that was the only structure for miles and miles; I also remember driving across the flat desert towards a cliff wall that seemingly dominated the landscape for an hour or more, and then having to drive up the face of it, at right angles to my previous direction, before continuing on.

Night fell while I was still several hours from Ruth. The rocky, flat desert gave way to mountains on either side. I tried listening to the radio to see if I could get some local flavor but couldn’t tune anything in. Clear night sky, stars like bright diamonds, rocky cliffs on either side of me, and utterly alone with no traffic in either direction; I could definitely see this as the location of an encounter with alien life. I told myself ghost stories in my head to set the mood.

Then I passed what looked like lights from a trailer park off to the right side of the highway. It was past me before I realized what the lights were, and then the highway curved down and around a left-curving corner…

And, passing into a valley formed by the cliffs on either side of me I was dazzled by the neon lights of casinos and hotels, all effectively hidden until the last moment by the mountains.

I had reached Ely, Nevada – which my atlas told me was the next town after Ruth. I must have missed it!

It was late, nearly 11 PM, so I drove slowly through town, looking for a motel to stay in. But almost every motel or hotel, large or small, showed “NO VACANCY”. Maybe that had to do with the swarms of bikers on motorcycles, everywhere? It was like a Harley-Davidson convention or something. Black leather jackets with elaborate insignia were being worn by almost every human being I saw.

I passed through town and didn’t find an open hotel. I knew if I went much further I’d end up in Utah. I briefly considered crossing over just to spite that girl at Dollar… but I was tired. Maybe tomorrow.

Resigned to sleeping in the car, I drove back through town to stop and get something to eat. I went into a convenience store, picked up some beef jerky and soda and water and chips (road trip food) and, when I walked back to my car, spotted the sign at the White Pines Motel across the street come on – it had been dark just moments before.

And the sign showed “VACANCY”.

I sprinted across the street, dodging noisy motorcycles, and went into the office.

“Wow, you’re our first customer,” said a bathrobed, baseball-capped beard behind the counter.

“You have rooms tonight?” I asked.

“Yep.” He started to get the paperwork. “Power just came back on. Been out, all up and down the street. This is not the weekend to miss any business!”

“Right,” I said, “the motorcycles.”

“Hell, it’s Labor Day weekend! Pretty much make our nut for the whole year tonight!”

The motel was a semi-circle of maybe eight or ten one-story rooms, around a gravel driveway. A concrete fountain that had probably been purchased at a Wal-Mart somewhere was in the middle. The buildings had a Western motif, almost like a log cabin. I could see that maintence wasn’t the highest priority, but since this was the only room in town, it beat sleeping in the car. I drove the car across the road and parked in front of my room.

The room was tiny, and panelled in fake wood, with a carpet whose color, even in bright sunlight, would still resist description; in the dim yellow light of the one lamp, it was no color at all. The sheets on the bed were about the same, but appeared to be clean, although the blankets had several burn marks from cigarette ashes. Home, sweet motel room. I wondered about the previous occupants and drifted off to sleep.

Next morning, I took the quickest shower I could (just armpits and a-hole) and wrote a quick note in my journal before checking out and finding breakfast at a nearby casino. I flirted with the waitress, a fellow Oregonian college student bound for the U of O in a week or two.

I thought about my plan to stay in the Little A’Le’Inn. I guess I’d missed my opportunity. I decided I’d drive back along Highway 50 to find Ruth, get some pictures, and then move on. Still had several days before I had to be back at work. I was bummed but not too bad; I was playing this all by ear, anyway.

After breakfast, I drove back west. I found a sign, pointing south, along a side road, that said “Ruth 0.5 mi.” A half-mile from the highway, I found a… settlement. Just as I had thought from my brief impression last night, it was truly just a collection of trailers and mobile manufactured homes. Lots of large satellite dishes. One of the trailers looked like a store of some kind, and I needed directions, so I went in.

While getting a couple of bottles of water and some more jerky and Red Vines, I eavesdropped on the conversation between an older lady behind the counter, and two more older ladies and an older man on the customer side. Two of them had just come back from a vacation and were talking about it and showing pictures. The conversation was interrupted when I brought my purchases up.

“Say,” I said, “I’m looking for Ruth.”

One of the ladies, the one with the pictures, spoke up. “I’m Ruth.”

Confused a moment, I tried again. “No… I’m looking for Ruth, Nevada.” They all laughed (probably tell that joke to every tourist that comes through). “It’s supposed to be near Area 51…?” I offered, helplessly.

Again, they all laughed. “Son,” Ruth told me, “you’re lost. You’re at least 200 miles from Area 51!” She pulled out her pictures. “We just got back from there! Want to see?”

Stunned, I leafed through the pictures. One was of Ruth standing in front of a green traffic sign reading “The Extraterrestial Highway”. Another was of Ruth standing in front of a white pre-fab building with a silver flying saucer on a pinacle above.

“That’s the Little A’Le’Inn!” Ruth proclaimed. “I won fifty bucks there! Those slots are loose!”

“See… that’s where I was trying to get to,” I explained. “But I guess I got lost.”

“It’s in Rachel, Nevada,” the store proprietor said.

“It’s clear down south,” Ruth said.

“That’s about as lost as you can be, and still be in the state,” the man said.

I groaned. “Oh… I see. All I could remember was the letter ‘R’!” I laughed along with the rest of them.

I got directions from the group, and after arguing a bit, they agreed that the man’s (wish I could remember his name; he was Ruth’s boyfriend) directions were the best and easiest to follow. I headed back through Ely, and drove south, still trying to at least get a picture of this fabled motel…

But that’s a story for another time.

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Motels and hotels I remember

First in a series.

Hilton in San Francisco

My friend Rodney and I, in… summer ’90? ’92? must have been ’91… decided to take a road trip one weekend to San Francisco. I had my Porsche 924 at the time, in Nutmeg Braun, which made a great road-trip car for two single guys. Rod was legally blind – he could see up close but beyond a couple of feet it was fuzzy. Had some degnerative retina disease. I’d known him since high school, and his sight was always getting worse and worse. But he was still a fun guy to hang out with.

We only had a couple of days before we both had to be back to work (he was working in construction, and I had a retail sales job) so we tried to maximize our time. I picked him up right after he got off work on Friday and was already packed and ready to go.

We drove down via I5 – just a nice straight shot. At least, that was my plan. Rod, however, kept talking about seeing all the “California beach bunnies”. I don’t think he realized that there’s a huge difference between Northern California and Southern California. I tried to explain it to him, but he was pretty insistent. So, once we crossed the Oregon/Califorina border, I turned towards the coast. I figured showing him would be better than telling him.

We found some beach access… somewhere. I don’t remember exactly where. I’d have to look it up on the map. But I remember what we saw when we came into view of the Pacific Ocean.

Rocky cliffs battered by waves, forest growing almost right up to the beach, lots of driftwood… a beautiful coast, but not exactly Muscle Beach in L.A. There were a few people out there in windbreakers but not a single bikini in sight.

Rod, needless to say, was disappointed but he chalked it up to the luck of the draw. “Maybe another beach…?”

I told him we’d try again in San Francisco.

I made my way back to I-5 and we continued south. That’s a long way to drive by myself. It’s 640 miles via I-5 and I’d added another 100 with our detour. When we got to SF it was late and dark. I suggested we find a motel somewhere cheap but Rod wanted to splurge and suggested the Hilton. He said he’d pay and I could pay him back, since money was my main objection. We crashed that night. Or, rather, I did, since I was beat. Rod went down to the hotel bar to do some drinking. He returned later, supposedly having flirted with an older woman but chickened out of going back to her room with her. I’m not sure if he was putting me on or not.

It was pretty nice in the Hilton, I have to admit. I remember it being quiet and comfortable. I remember it being pretty expensive at the time but don’t recall a specific dollar figure. We stayed two nights.

The next day, I wanted to see Alcatraz but Rod didn’t want to spend the whole time on one activity (every time I’m in SF I want to see Alcatraz and every time I’m there I never get to see it for one reason or another).

My second suggestion was seeing a game in (then-)Candlestick Park. Rod wasn’t a baseball fan but I was, and I talked him into it. The Giants were playing the Chicago Cubs.

We drove out to the ‘Stick to see about getting tickets, and right away we were approached by a scruffy-looking gentleman who offered us seats “behind home plate” for the amazingly cheap price of $25.00 a seat. It seemed too good a deal to be true… but it was true. As far as it goes. We were behind home plate… but way up near the top of the stadium. Still, it was a decent vantage point to view the entirety of the game.

I remember it being a decent game, close and low-scoring but at least one Giant got a home run. I found the box score for the game online – Sandberg was pitching for the Giants, and the Giants won, 3-6. The day was warm and sunny and both Rod and I got a bit burned, although it was breezy (duh!) up near the top of the stadium.

We stayed until the end of the game, and then faced a huge obstacle getting back downtown: traffic. It took us over an hour just to get out of the parking lot. To add pressure, I was nearly out of gas and, two hours later, and dealing with stop-and-go traffic downtown while driving a stick and having the fuel light on steady brought out the cranky in me. We finally found a gas station in Chinatown and I felt relieved but, again, beat. Rod, however, wanted to go out some more and I did, too, I suppose so we walked down to Fisherman’s Wharf. We stayed out pretty late.

I don’t actually remember getting back to the hotel that night but next thing I knew it was nearly check-out time and we had to get moving. After breakfast, we started the long drive back. I had the bright idea of driving up along the coast, since I had a vague idea of trying to find Skywalker Ranch, which was a fool’s errand since all I knew was that it was in Marin County north of SF.

The Pacific Coast Highway along Marin County’s shore is a twisty, windy, narrow two-lane. After nearly 6 hours of driving, with one or two stops for lunch and another snack, we were only 80 miles north of San Francisco as the crow flies. Driving a sporty car on twisty roads is fun… but not five hours worth of fun. And, of course, Rod couldn’t take a shift. When I suggested we head back to I-5 the next chance we get, Rod was surprised.

“Why didn’t you suggest that earlier?” he asked.