s p a c e s: overnight stay

the sparkling observationalist
33 min readMay 12, 2022

Anywhere, U.S.A.

It’s check-in time at the motel we’re stopping at for the night. Where are we going? Where have we been? We don’t recall. We only know that we’ve been riding in a car for hours and now it’s time to stop and rest, our bodies jangling from the vibrations of travelling along the rough, patchy roadways of North America. Interstate exit signs have teased different locations of this motel brand for miles, but we made reservations for this specific point on the map, estimated to be a good resting point after driving a reasonable number of hours. It seemed like a good idea at the time of booking, being conveniently situated right off the interstate for an easier start getting back on the road in the morning and surrounded by recognizable stores and fast food chains, should needs arise. We did not anticipate the extra hour of pre-rush hour traffic from lane reductions due to construction — which had been abandoned for reasons unexplained as equipment sat unmanned, despite it being an average workday during average work hours. The twenty minutes of heavy rain early this morning already got the drive off to a harrowing start. Driving west directly into the lowering sun’s path during the last hour strained the efficacy of the car’s sun visors. But we have arrived here at last.

In the lobby at the front of the three-storey, L-shaped motel, a reception clerk hovers behind a tall counter. They offer a subdued welcome, commensurate with the rates the motel charges. We present the email printed with our reservation code, they require only our name. Consulting the computer, they confirm the details of the reservation — just the one night? Yes. This is not the sort of place one is keen to spend extra nights in — but we don’t tell the clerk. They work here; they know the reputation their $$ rated motel has on TripAdvisor and such. Not that this particular joint appears overtly seedy or rundown; merely unremarkable. The clerk issues our credit card-style key in a card-sized paper sleeve, scribbling the room number on the front in blue ballpoint pen, and proffers a paper map of the motel, circling the room’s location with the same pen. They provide directions for how to access the other parking area around the other side of the motel and confirm our awareness of the pool and breakfast hours before sending us off and wishing us a pleasant stay.

We make our way around the motel and trudge up the concrete stairway with our personal belongings to our unremarkable room in Anywhere, U.S.A. This side of the motel, the longest part of the L, overlooks the sprawling beige shopping centre across the bustling thoroughfare that leads from the interstate exit into town. The actual town is five miles away or so. Are we in the Southeast or the Northwest or somewhere in-between? In a place like this, it’s almost impossible to tell. That’s the point of these interstate eyesores — giving travellers all the familiar conveniences of national chains with none of the quirks and charms of the individual municipalities they occupy. Landscapes are blighted in the name of commerce and all the locals get is resentful when out-of-towners crowd their favourite after-church restaurants during peak vacation season. Later, when we’re filling in our map of places we’ve visited, there will be lengthy debates about what counts as a place and as visiting and we won’t even realize we’ve forgotten we’d ever been to this town.

Somewhere along the second floor corridor is our no frills room with a parking lot view. The tan brick wall is a monotonous row of identical green doors, square picture windows, and rectangular grey vents. Door, window, and vent. Door, window, and vent. Door, window, and vent. The pattern is occasionally broken up by semi-circle sconces and emergency paraphernalia higher up the walls. A young family decked out with pool accoutrements passes by, the youngest boy stopping briefly to conduct a test of the bright green steel railing along the outer perimeter of the corridor for durability and flavour. We exercise our own extraordinary self-restraint to not peer in the open windows as we walk past while searching for the metal number plaque that corresponds with the number scrawled on the keycard sleeve. We arrive at our door, at the end of the corridor, conveniently located around the corner from the short passage where two vending machines stand guard next to the utility closet housing the large, grating ice machine. Will this prove to be an impediment to sleeping tonight?

Our credit card-sized key has been magnetized to unlock the room door but the timing of the key swipe has to be just right, or so we’ve learned from other motels with similar mechanisms. The trick is to insert the keycard into the top-loading slot and wait for the green light, push the lever handle to open the door, then remove the keycard. Push the handle too soon or remove the key too quickly and the light will flash red. We manage to time it right and the door easily swings inward.

Voila! This is home — for the next few hours, at least. Come in. Shut the door. Set the bags on the table. Relax.

What’s that smell?

We’re now standing in a standard motel room with two queen-sized beds. We booked this room because it was twenty dollars cheaper than the smaller one with the single king-sized bed. The standard two-queen guest room always seems to be the cheapest, especially on the discount booking sites. It is an absurd waste for a solo guest’s one-night stay, the square footage out-sizing a basic one-bedroom condo. It might be a nice respite for a couple who’ve been cooped up in a compact coupe for a squazillion hours, having the freedom to spread out a bit before continuing further down the road in cramped quarters. For two couples, the space might strain their capacity for courtesy over the shared facilities and varying approaches to falling asleep. An occupancy of more than four people…well, did anyone happen to notice if the lobby had a public restroom? But on a road trip where unexpected expenses can put a hitch in one’s get-along, twenty bucks savings is quite a victory. At any rate, it’ll do for the night.

At first glance, everything seems clean and tidy and in relatively decent condition. The overall decor is dated; definitely not worthy of a picture postcard. There may be a few minor scratches in the furniture’s cherry wood laminate finish, but no fist-shaped holes in the walls or massive water-stains shaped like Benjamin Franklin’s silhouette in the popcorn ceiling. The walls have a lightly stuccoed texture, like vanilla custard haphazardly smeared over the surface. The drapes, upholstery, and bedspreads are coordinated in a colour palette of warm cream, rustic red, and mossy green. Above the beds are twin prints of a misty field of wildflowers packaged in large brass frames with crimson matting. Underfoot, the durable broadloom carpet, dull maroon with green square polka dot pattern, is tamped down along the high-traffic path between the door at the front end of the room and the bathroom area in the rear. The virginal untrodden carpet peering out under furniture beyond foot reach appears plusher and more vibrant, serving as testament to mankind’s oblivious impact on its environment.

Here at the front of our temporary digs, to the right of the door, is the room’s sole window, its primary curtain — a heavyweight, single-panelled drape in a rust and olive striped pattern — shoved to one side to let in a modicum of natural light, which barely grazes the surface of the round dinette table or the two matching vinyl upholstered chairs, presumably provided for civilized guests who do not eat pizza in bed while watching free HBO. The daylight filtering through the semi-sheer white curtain, the motel’s attempt at a flimsy semblance of privacy from passing looky-loos on the exterior walkway, bounces a squint-inducing reflection off the large mirror hung over the sink counter at the back of the room. Dangling from the aluminum drapery track are a ball chain loop and a plastic baton. The metal ball chain draws the sheer curtain open and closed, while pulling the baton will guide the heavy drape across the window to block out the view, such as it is. Despite its thick black-out lining and seemingly full coverage of the window, the drape will still somehow permit a sliver of illumination from a nearby street light to cast a golden glow against the room’s wall into the wee hours.

A light switch on the slim patch of plaster between the door and the window controls the floor lamp in the corner that provides ambient amber lighting for the small dinette set now covered in the stuff we lugged in from the car. All the lamps in the rooms are nearly identical, with shiny brass bases and cream-coloured pleated shades, only differentiated by height and use. Maybe the lamp shades are actually pale cornsilk or regurgitated cashew. It’s hard to tell how much is tinged by the mixture of warm and cool incandescent bulbs throughout the room, what has faded with time, or become discoloured from decades of use.

Just beneath the window is the room’s heating and cooling device. It is forcefully blowing cold, noisy air from its top and side vents. The control panel in the top of the A/C unit is conveniently open to display its colour-coded dials and buttons, red for heat and blue for cold. The icons around the dials are lightly faded and partially worn away but seem to indicate fan strength. It takes some fiddling with the “hi”-to-“lo” knob to quiet the blower to a dull roar, but the immutable manufactured breeze squelches any intention to linger over the dinette set for even a sensible snack.

So… What shall we do first, all alone in this spacious motel room? Phone the front desk to request tomorrow morning’s wake-up call? Turn on the television set to see if the local news gives us any sense of where we are? Jump up and down on the beds? It was a long drive and, well, the last rest stop was quite some time ago. A beeline to the bathroom seems in order.

It’s a straight, well-worn path to the rear of the room where the bathroom is located. A true innovation of mid-to-late 20th century motel design was placing the sink within a countertop outside of the proper bathroom, freeing up larger travelling parties to tend to their ablutions more efficiently. The separation of the sink from the rest of the bathroom suite allows one guest to shower and attend to private concerns while another can brush teeth or do some lite washing up. It does put at a disadvantage those who are shy or squeamish about tackling oral hygiene routines in an exposed area — who needs to feel self-conscious about their flossing and gargling habits far from home?

Our weary visage grows larger in the mirror on the back wall. To the right of the granite countertop is a small room where the toilet and bathtub are neatly tucked away in darkness. Groping at the wall just inside the room reveals a wall switch with two toggles — one controls the overhead fan and the other operates the light. We won’t be here long enough to learn which toggle’s which and will repeatedly persist in switching on the fan first. This will prove most alarming at 2 AM, when Nature insists on issuing its own wake-up call. The mirrorless bathroom looks clean enough at first glance, but the overwhelming drab-ness of the room — its bone-coloured shower-bath and toilet set, tan tiled floor and buttery-sandstone linen-textured wallpaper — undercuts any sense of this being a sterile and sanitary environment. Although we’ve never visited this town or stayed in this particular motel, we could swear we’ve been in this bathroom a dozen times before. It’s unnervingly identical to any other standard motel bathroom. Disorientatingly so. Close the door to the outside world, with no windows or decor, there’s no sense of time and place. We could be peeing in Lima, Ohio in 1982 or showering in Ocala, Florida in 1995. The exhaust fan hums overhead behind dusty vents flanking the dingy translucent light fixture that casts a dull, jaundiced hue on the room. It’s hard to tell if this timeless plainness is a result of careful visitors or a hospitality warehouse well stocked with buttery-sandstone linen-textured wallpaper. The bathroom is lightly worn in spots — tiny tears in the wallpaper, near-microscopic mold-adjacent dark flecks splattered in hard-to-reach corners, hairline cracks in a couple of the large floor tiles — but no indications of how long it has weathered the abuses of people in their most vulnerable states in its current state. Now is definitely not the time to calculate the average number of occupants that might’ve shared this room based on an average two-night stay and determine whether we reckon there’ve been 360 occupants or 540 just over the course of the last year. What stories could be gleaned from this toilet seat alone?

The chrome towel rack and shelf installed over the toilet is loaded with gleaming white towels stubbornly defying the yellow tinge permeating the space, their fresh bleach scent confidently contending their cleanliness. Over the rod drape two hand towels; two bath towels perch neatly folded atop the chrome tubing shelf. On top of the toilet tank is a plastic tent sign from Housekeeping instructing guests on where to leave used towels during their stay, encouraging multi-day guests to reuse the towels as much as possible.

The door knob is a standard round, stainless steel model with a push-button lock in the centre of the knob. It is the placebo of door locks. Push it in — ostensibly locked. Turn the knob and the button pops back out, unlocking the door. Only parties on the other side of the door can know whether the door is truly locked. Fine for our needs; nerve wracking for anyone travelling with a chatty bathroom-barger.

Motel designers didn’t quite anticipate the challenge of keeping clean socks dry during wardrobe changes in this bathroom. Apart from the single chrome hook affixed 1/4 ways from the top of the door, which can hold a single pair of trousers and a shirt or two, there’s no viable spot to set one’s change of clothes, if necessary. Guests have to improvise where to set their small cleans and dirties while changing or showering. The toilet inexplicably has no seat lid. The top of the toilet tank is an option, if one is inclined to relocate the Housekeeping sign and the spare rolls of TP wrapped in protective paper covering. One could try draping undergarments over the shower curtain rod and hope that nothing tumbles over into the tub while one is trying to figure out the single-handle faucet control while keeping the citrus-tinted shower curtain from billowing inward.

The top square of the abrasive toilet paper on the roll has been thoughtfully origami’d into a decorative fan shape. Seems a shame to destroy it mere moments into our stay. At least this toilet has a lever flush and not the push button flush that offers the promise of efficient water usage, which, while important in the grand scheme of conservation, does not always assuage fears of needing to call for a plumber.

Now we’re refreshed and ready to investigate the rest of the room.

The speckled desert brown sink counter runs the length of the back wall, providing plenty of surface space for dopp kits and toiletry bags to be emptied onto. The counter seems to float magically at approximately waist height, secured directly to the wall with no cabinet beneath or visible structural support beams anchored to the floor, leaving plenty of storage space for a steamer trunk or two. Set next to the sink is the obligatory complimentary toiletry set, which is comprised in total of one small bar of face soap in motel-branded paper wrapping and matching travel-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner. What more could any body need? Toothpaste, for a start. In case of missing toiletries, there’s a tent card on the counter inviting guests to contact the front desk for hygiene necessities not included in the set provided. Does Housekeeping keep a stash of toothbrushes and sanitary napkins in the supply closets or does the manager send a staff member across the parking lot to the 24-hour major chain pharmacy to fetch the missing item? Has anyone ever phoned down for late night emergency floss? Or does everyone just lie awake angsting over their own forgetfulness?

Attached to the wall between the sink and the bathroom is a compact, handheld hair dryer, useful for quick styling before hitting the road or drowning out self-flagellating thoughts. A small towel rack is fixed alongside the hair dryer and holds two small white washcloths and a white hand towel, none of which are wholly effective at drying, washing, or scrubbing away the travel blahs. The light switch controls the fluorescent tube fixture above the mirror, which casts a harsh greenish-white illumination enhancing all the impurities and imperfections that can accumulate on any given face. In the shrinking daylight hours, the last of the sunshine sneaks through the window and punctures the mirror with one last blinding glare that spares said imperfections from further immediate scrutiny. A brass-toned engraved plaque is affixed to one corner of the mirror reminding guests that more towels are available on request and to also not remove towels from the room. Without knowing there’s a pool on property, one’s mind can reel at the possibilities where one might need extra towels or want to use those towels beyond the room’s boundaries. Surely, a dead body would be wrapped in something larger, like the quilted polyester bedspread. Of course, an accident involving considerable blood loss and requiring hospital care would certainly deplete the room’s towel stash.

In the farthest corner of the counter sits a brown plastic ice bucket with a short stack of individually-wrapped, clear disposable cups. One never knows when one might host an impromptu motel room party with fellow 3 AM floss shoppers. Or need to keep severed body parts protected until extra towels arrive from the front desk.

Another innovation on display in this counter is the slot at the front side designed especially for tissue dispensing. As if by magic, single tissues can be elegantly plucked from this notch. There’ll be no yanking tissues straight from a box like a classless yokel here. In fact, no other tissue boxes are visible, so let’s try to keep our uncontrollable sobbing over forgotten floss to a minimum. The small wastebasket underneath the counter can really only handle approximately one night stay’s worth of garbage, provided one’s single night accumulates no more trash than a plastic cup, a soap wrapper, and three tightly crumpled tissues.

Opposite the bathroom door is the two-foot wall rack that passes for a closet in this room. A proper closet in a motel room is begging for things to be left behind, like one’s best suit or trash that wouldn’t fit in the petite wastebasket or an expired body that couldn’t be carried out because there was too much foot traffic on the breezeway. In lieu of a tiny enclosed room is one more motel room innovation — the hardwood hanger rack with the same style chrome tubing shelf as in the bathroom. The clothing rod holds five hardwood hangers fitted with specialty, fixed ball-top sliders so they can’t join guests on the rest of their travels. In the mid 20th century, clothes hangers were such a hot commodity that motels were compelled to prevent rampant thievery, apparently. Two hangers have metal clips for creaseless hanging of trousers or skirts. Held in the clips of the end hanger is a plastic laundry bag, a throwback to the days when travellers could have their laundry sent out and returned within their stay. Now it’s offered a courtesy to keep soiled garments separated from the clean within one’s luggage for the rest of one’s journey. An extra brown fleece blanket is folded neatly and rests atop the chrome shelf above. There are no posted plaques or signs about whether or not blankets or any sort of bedding can be removed from the room even though the fleece blanket is arguably more absorbent than the bathroom towels and would certainly be cozier to wrap in after emerging from the chilly outdoor pool waters.

Beneath the hanger rack stands a small steel safe perched on a pedestal bolted to the floor. On the off chance one has brought small valuables such as cash, passports, microfilm containing government secrets, or jewellery, the engraved plaque on the safe informs us that the motel cannot be held liable if those things go missing unless placed within the safe. How often have guests punched in a numerical code and shoved their prized possessions into these safes before bed only to forget those possessions and the numerical code until three hours down the road?

Against the short partition wall next to the hanger rack leans a folded, full-sized ironing board accompanied by an iron placed into a wall-mounted holder. In our casual road trip garb, we see no need for pressing out the wrinkles that come from be folded up in a car for hours on end. But the next guest might’ve come to this town to attend a graduation ceremony or top secret meeting requiring uncreased trousers and they’ll be relieved to extend the screeching metal legs of the ironing board and plug the iron into the nearby wall outlet to smooth their dressy but easily crumpled fabrics.

Tucked behind the safe is a folded chrome luggage rack with black straps stretched across the metal tubing. In what some would call a more civilized time, but was perhaps a time when rigid suitcases were de rigueur, folks would hoist their hard, dirty baggage onto the luggage rack and unlatch the case to unpack the necessaries for their stay. In the soft luggage times, duffel bags and satchels and large tote bags are flopped onto the beds and rummaged through for items on an as-needed basis. The extraordinarily cautious may take their luggage into the bathroom to minimize impact between their possessions and whatever might be lurking within the carpet fibres, mattresses, and other soft, dark surfaces.

Which brings us to the second most important task to tackle before settling in for the night’s stay — checking for bed bugs. There’ve been reports in recent years of the dastardly creatures plaguing motels and hitching rides with unsuspecting travellers. Although the handy bed bug report website didn’t list any recent sightings in this motel, it’s good to stay vigilant and do the next guest a solid by reporting any telltale signs of the bloodsucking creepy crawlers. It does mean undoing a fair amount of labour the Housekeeping staff put into making the beds. If a bed appears undisturbed after a single night’s guest, do they bother with the chore of refreshing the bed linens? Is it better to use the surplus bed as a blanket fort for telling creepy ghost stories involving motel mishaps, or to invite the guests behind the door to the adjoining room over for a toga disco?

The two identical queen-sized beds are set along one wall, jutting out in opposition to the rest of the room’s furnishings, with a single nightstand nestled between them. Each bed consists of a cherry wood laminate headboard, a starchy polyester bedspread in an abstract red-and-green floral pattern certainly chosen to cleverly mask the tough and sundry stains that can accumulate on communal fabrics, four standard pillows in white pillow cases, a brown fleece blanket with satin border tucked tightly along the edge where the mattress meets the box springs, plain white bedsheets, and a crinkly mattress cover. Inspection of the mattress corners shows no evidence of unwelcome pests. A large printed tag on the mattress indicates they’re switched out every three months, resolving most concerns regarding the history of activities engaging said mattresses, if there’s any comfort to be had in sharing a bed with only dozens of other human bodies instead of thousands. At least we can rest easy without the hassle of switching rooms or relocating to one of the other three chain motels nearby.

We must remember to leave a note with our tip apologizing to Housekeeping staff for being so discourteous towards their efforts so early in our stay, but that we recognize and appreciate those efforts.

Between the front bed and the main door is a mysterious door with no informative engraved brass-tone plaque and only the same push-button lock in the door knob found in the bathroom. Seasoned travellers know this opens to the room next door, for those larger parties requiring more than the standard two queens and still tolerating each other enough to not demand rooms on opposite ends of the motel. It’s always tempting to crack open the adjoining door to make sure the folks in the next room have kept their side shut. And to confirm that it is just a boring door and not a portal to another dimension, for which we have no printed maps or lodging reservations.

The nightstand between the beds is full of treasures to behold. A small black clock radio displays the current time in large red digital LCD. The alarm is set to 7:30 AM. The radio is set to the static between FM stations, as though a previous guest twisted the dial through all the stations to find the least vexing local disc jockeys spinning the hits from yesterday and today before settling on the blaring whahncks of the built-in alarm to rouse them for complementary DIY waffles in the lobby before check-out. What was good enough for them, we determine, will be good enough for us. The beige telephone is a relic from the late 20th century, with its spiral cord and push-button dialling. A printed faceplate sticker, corner edges furled and unfurled by fidgety callers of motel’s past, displays all the vital details about the motel — its address, direct phone number, and fax number — and all the dial codes necessary for making local and long distance calls. Dial 0 for the Front Desk. Dial any room number directly to reach other motel guests. A printed sticker affixed to the nightstand, its edges worn and grimy, details in numerous bullet points the rules and rights of telephone calls and what charges will be applied for when and how. To calculate the costs for making a domestic long distance phone call back home, there’s a small notepad and ballpoint stick pen branded with the motel’s corporate information. Motels do provide the most useful souvenirs.

This nightstand has one drawer with an ornate brass handle and an open cubby underneath. Inside the drawer is the requisite Gideon Bible, its spine uncracked and its foil lettering as pristine as the day it was shoved into the drawer. Is it possible this room has been occupied solely by pious folk who never leave home without their own velveteen bible, loved and worn so much that it could almost pass as another occupant, or that guests have absconded with copies of the good book so frequently that Housekeeping staff keeps a stack on their cleaning cart to replace along with used toiletries and souvenir pens? Or is it more likely that guests let their fingers traipse through the thick, ragged tome of the Yellow Pages stored in the nightstand cubby below more often than the Lord’s pages?

Mounted on the wall above the nightstand is a single brass rectangle from which two equally brassy lamps protrude, each just within reach of its respective bed. The bedside lamps are operated by pressing the nipple-like click-button switches, perfect for guests who do a little lite reading to get sleepy, less than ideal for the bedmates who need near-total darkness to drift into slumber, but a sheer delight for anyone who loves a clicky-nipple light switch. Unfortunately, the bedside lamps can only accommodate one bedtime reader per bed, as the wattage isn’t bright enough to extend across the vast expanse of the queen mattress. Thankfully, there’s TV.

Across from the rearmost bed is a four-drawer dresser with a black 27” CRT television set on top. The spacious drawers provide ample storage for guests who like to fully unpack for their stay. Three of the drawers are completely empty and unblemished, indicating that hardly anybody bothers with them or the housekeepers diligently remove forgotten items while preparing for incoming guests. In the bottom drawer, an extra pillow has been stashed by a wise Housekeeping staff member who knows that in a motel room, as in real life, there are never enough pillows.

Placed with the television are the anything-but-universal remote control, the laminated channel listings, and an outdated, slightly water-logged pocket guide promoting HBO’s schedule airings. Had we been here six months ago, we could’ve seen Goodfellas, Grease 2, and a mini-marathon of Arli$$. Apart from the premium movie channel, the rest of the channel selection is skimpy — a cable drama network, cartoons channel, sports, weather, TBS, home shopping, national news commentary, more sports, a couple of regional tele-ministries, pay-per-view movies, and the local news. It’s as though cable companies provide motels with a specialty package of lame channels designed to distract guests from the disappointment of a closed pool or frustration with noisy neighbours but dissuade them from lingering beyond check-out time. Still, there’s a little something for everyone, provided it isn’t the weekend, when programming is limited to infomercials and sports. Surfing through the channels while navigating the unintuitive remote, we note that the local broadcasts look so different, the weather maps foreign, and the station IDs unsophisticated. And Jeopardy! is always on at a different time than back home.

Next to the dresser is a plain rectangular desk with a chair tucked in front of it, presumably to meet the needs of the business traveller on a budget. There are two wall outlets at desk level; one with a single jack for an ethernet connection to access the still wired Internet, the other a standard electrical outlet with one socket free and one occupied by a desktop lamp with the clicky-nipple switch on its square brass base. A framed mirror hangs over the desk, presumably not for the business traveller to chide themselves while reflecting on their work-life balance. In the corner of the desk mirror is an engraved plaque notifying guests that this is a non-smoking room. On the front of the desk is a brass handle that matches the nightstand. Fruitless yanking on the handle and a fondle of the desk’s underbelly proves this to be a false front. So much for hidden desk treasures.

A thin leatherette portfolio with the motel logo stamped on the cover sits on the desk alongside a comment card and another branded ballpoint pen. The portfolio holds the motel’s guest directory and serves as a crash course for the town we’re in and the motel itself. Flip it open to find the motel’s house rules and safety regulations. Forget when breakfast is served? Check the directory. Not sure whether it’s permitted to visit the pool after 11 PM and to dive in noisily with glass bottles and room blankets? Check the directory. Need to send an emergency fax to a client who apparently runs an office in 1997? Check the directory. These laminated pages outline motel amenities like the fitness room and laundry facilities and the process for procuring of rollaway beds and shower caps. There are several pages dedicated to synopses of area attractions and points of interest, relevant maps, and an advert section masquerading as a business guide featuring select restaurants offering discounts and delivery for motel guests. The biggest points of interest in this town are an outlet mall down at the next interstate exit and several churches with Sunday services, for when there’s nothing good on TV. The oldest family-owned steak restaurant is a three-mile drive from here. The whimsical coffeehouse on Main Street, wherever that is, only stays open until 3 PM. Upscale dining can be found in the Historic District. Guests dining at Chili’s can get 15% off their bill of $35 or more by showing their keycard. If there’s a pizza joint in this town, they didn’t dole out dough for advertising space in a dinky motel guest directory.

It’s been a long day and still vibrating from the long stretch of raw, unsmoothed asphalt that ran along the parade of deserted construction machinery. The thought of getting back into the car today is abhorrent. Though hunger may slither in under the door, we’ll likely just break into the car snacks we brought in or nip around the corner for vending machine junk food.

After sorting out the necessities for the night and reviewing the plans for tomorrow’s travels — taking a couple hours to veg out with snacks and TV on the non-sleeping bed — it’s time for lights out.

Debates will be waged throughout history over which bed is optimal in a standard room with two queen-sized beds. Everyone’s needs are different — some prefer to be closer to the constant stream of cool air from the ever-vrumming A/C unit, while others abhor the turbulent white noise and prefer absolute silence and darkness, others still require priority access to the bathroom, and a few need to be in eyeball range of the clock radio to count down the sleepless minutes until the alarm blares. The larger the travel party within one room, the greater inevitability that someone winds up with a suboptimal sleeping arrangement. We’ve chosen the rearmost bed in the room for its proximity to the bathroom and television.

Before we can snuggle in under the blankets, let’s pad across the room to the door to ensure it’s securely shut and locked, per the safety guidance outlined in the guest directory. The door has an interior deadbolt and a steel door latch at peep hole level. A quick peek out reveals a fisheye view of the immediate walkway and railing outside our room — no dangers there…yet. Hooked onto the lever handle is a plastic Do Not Disturb door hanger. There are instructional signs posted on the door reminding guests to engage the deadbolt and security latch for privacy and protection. We’re all just very trusting that this plate glass picture window in the aluminum frame needs no additional securing, though. Also affixed to the door is the motel floor plan map and in-case-of-fire safety and security procedures, as well as the fine print on the state’s hotel laws and regulations. Above the peep hole is a notice for check-out time and the estimated room rate per day for single and double occupancies, which is perplexingly higher than the base listed rate on the motel’s official website. What are the odds that we’ll wish we’d been better acquainted with the fire precautions and state hotel ordinances? Is ignorance a solid defence in the event that flossing with a neighbour under a blanket fort after midnight is deemed illegal in this municipality?

Yawn! Shut off all the lights and climb into bed, already.

Good night, corner floor lamp. Sweet dreams, desk lamp. Sleep tight, fluorescent bathroom light. Don’t let the bed bugs bite, bedside lamp.

Alone in the darkness.

At first, it feels nice to settle into bed, head resting on the cool pillow and the lingering bleach stench stinging the nasal passages with delusions of purifying the sinuses. The stresses of the day fade away. The pressures of the night creep in to fill the void. The pillows deflate and warm suddenly. The body seeks support and tenderness from the bed, now determined to harden and dip in all the wrong places. A car alarm wails in the distance — that’s not ours, is it? The blankets weigh heavily. Limbs tighten and aches intensify. Across the room, the A/C smugly whirrs and hums. Over on the wall, the smoke alarm blinks its little red eye in disbelief that we didn’t carefully read the safety guide in the event of fire. Maybe the room smell is a mixture of freon from the ancient A/C, bleach, and that pink almond-scented soap so often used in institution settings. Is this an institution? We dream of an engraved plaque over the motel lobby telling guests “you don’t have to be crazy to stay here, but it helps.” Cars rumble along the road and around the parking lot below. The sheets rustle with the slightest movement, the mattress cover crinkles at the mere thought of movement. The street light outside is not content to contribute to the room’s ambience with its glowing strip along the wall, it must zap off for twelve seconds and snap back on in a sickly pale green, then take the next two minutes transitioning to its full power golden glow before zapping off again. Murmuring guests trod past the door, their rolling luggage clacking behind. A silent negotiation commences with the clock radio, which insists on taunting us with the slowest passage of time in recorded history. Falling asleep now would result in X number of hours, providing we woke up with the alarm. We’re roused from a brief nightmare about oversleeping by the rhythmic clattering and clunking of the ice machine. Oh, well. Maybe there’s something on late night TV to offer a comforting distraction — the last 20 minutes of Backdraft, a rerun of Seinfeld where the gang is lost in a parking garage, sports recap, the TV guide channel, some Law & Order spinoff in the midst of an intense interrogation, a televangelist flailing arms in the air with eyes squeezed shut while screaming about how salvation can be had for the cost of one cup of coffee per month, or the Magic Bullet infomercial. What is it about watching a group of neighbours get excited about unlikely blended food combinations that is simultaneously compelling and soothing? …And how does it end? Did they discover that the real Magic Bullet was the friendships they blended along the way?

When we wake again, the light sliver on the wall has turned to a cool natural white that indicates that morning has broken, albeit rather overcast and gloomy. The clock declares it is 6:45 AM. Ugh. Do we attempt a brief snooze before the alarm sounds or join the rest of the early risers in the breakfast lounge?

A bracing wake-up shower — nothing like groggily wrestling with tiny screw-top bottles under a tepid low-flow waterfall to start the day — and a first pass at packing up, then it’s down to the lobby. Oh, but wouldn’t it be nice if this room had a coffee maker? The deluxe king rooms have coffee makers and mini fridges. We’ll know better for next time, we vow, to splurge for the deluxe room. Next time, maybe, we’ll find a motel with pizza delivery. Next time, we’ll travel backwards through time and book a room at a classic Howard Johnson’s motel and restaurant.

Logically, it would follow to pack up our stuff, load the car, have breakfast, check out, and drive merrily away towards our next destination. But there are things one might want to do back in the comfort of the room before enveloping back into a car for an untold number of hours. So, we resolve to leave our toiletries strewn across the not-quite-bathroom counter and prepare to navigate lobbywards. Should we put the Do Not Disturb sign out?

According to the fire escape route, there’s a concrete staircase just around the corner to a short pathway that runs alongside the pool and leads straight to the rear entrance of the motel lobby where the breakfast lounge is located.

Got the keycard? Let’s go a-wafflin’!

At the foot of the staircase is the Housekeeping supply closet, its double doors wide open to display shelves piled with white linens and jugs of disinfectant and individually wrapped rolls of toilet paper. An orderly queue of grey Rubbermaid carts has formed at the doors as they await replenishment for the day’s sanitation rounds.

The pool at 7:05 AM is already bustling with activity. A couple of athletic men try to get their morning laps in while avoiding a mother and her three small children splashing and squealing in the shallow end. For this, pool view rooms charge extra?

Inside the lobby building are several spaces open for guests use. Across from the reception counter is a cozy seating nook composed of two wingback chairs and a round end table with a surface scarcely larger than a beverage coaster. Tucked behind the reception area is a tight, unoccupied office space labelled “business center” with a couple of PCs and a combination fax machine and inkjet printer, looking about as useful as the fire plan posted on the room door and as pristine as the Gideon Bible. Next door is a glass-enclosed exercise room with a ceiling mounted television tuned to ESPN, one full set of weights, and two treadmills with “out of order” signs printed in Comic Sans on plain letter-sized paper taped to the electronic controls.

Our raison d’être lays before us through the double-wide doorway. Breakfast is served in a large, plain room cluttered with furniture and people. It’s unclear what purpose this space served before motels embraced the most important meal of the day. Conference room for budget businesses? Reception hall for shotgun weddings? Bingo parlour? Comedy club? Whatever it was, the breakfast lounge is desperate to put its past behind and cement its identity as a homey cafe. The avocado-stained walls are decorated with brass-framed paintings of peaceful pastoral scenes. The square cafe tables with walnut finish are topped with tiny vases of silk flowers. A big-screen television sits inside a walnut armoire in the farthest corner of the room, next to the glass-panelled double doors that look out over the pool. The dozen or so tables are set on the large bisque-coloured tiles in two tidy rows down the centre of the room, their chairs alternating between being neatly tucked in and ever so slightly obstructing the bleary-eyed who haven’t taken their first sip of morning coffee.

The early birds are volleying across the room between the two long, charcoal granite countertops laden with what the motel calls “deluxe continental” breakfast. The feast is served buffet style, with the room divided into foods and beverages. Along the left-hand wall is the assortment of beverages. Guests can grab a styrofoam cup and choose from ice water, orange juice, and grapefruit juice from the electronic juice dispenser or morning roast, decaf coffee, or hot water from the rack of stainless steel urns. Tea drinkers will find a little basket filled with orange pekoe and Earl Grey sachets. Coffee drinkers can customize their brew with tiny, single-use pots of half & half and several types of sugar or sweetener packets from the black plastic condiment organizer. Whole milk and skim milk cartons sit chilled in stainless steel carton holders. The only stir sticks available are the red plastic ones. It’s too early to rail against the motel’s commitment to saving money over saving the environment, but we’ll certainly consider not forgetting to write a sternly-worded letter to corporate about it.

The right-hand counter is a veritable what’s what of breakfast foods. For the strictly continental crowd, there’s a two-tier basket display of fresh looking apples and bananas, a basket of protein cookies, another basket with fun-pak boxes of cereal and instant oatmeal packets, and a three-tier acrylic display case filled with bite-sized blueberry muffins, lemon danish, bagels, and bread slices. Individual containers of strawberry yogurt float in a decorative tin bucket full of rapidly melting ice. The hot breakfast selection served in the stainless steel chafing dishes is paltry by comparison. Lift the lid for one dish and find warmed scrambled egg discs; in the other, piping hot sausage patties. In a Venn diagram of “good” and “free,” these circular foodstuffs would be on separate plates in opposite ends of the room. Oh, well, it’s the thought that counts.

We join the throngs and grudgingly load up our styrofoam plates with our first course that we will gorge on as the television blares the local morning program with its constant teases of weather and traffic reports while bubbly hosts with immaculately coiffed hair chirp through segments about cholesterol and pet safety in parks; patiently biding our time for a turn at the waffle station.

The waffles. Why does seemingly every adult and child clamour for motel waffles? In this room, this cross section of Americans — the dour retired couple, the boisterous young family, the harried businessman, the low-key trucker, and us — hold this truth to be self-evident that everyone loves a do-it-yourself waffle station. It is not that the batter is particularly special, except in the novelty of watching the beige goop ooze into the disposable cup from the mechanical dispenser. Is it the thrill of pouring the batter into the sizzling waffle iron or rotating the handle of the closed machine to start the two-minute cooking process? How many folks have come through motels, made their own waffle, went straight home to order their own rotating waffle iron only for it to sit collecting greasy dust in their kitchen cabinets? It’s baffling, this love of waffling. And yet, the only thing that could make it better is using a Magic Bullet to blend up an exotic batter.

Once breakfast is over, the weather and traffic reports finally issued at the conclusion of the morning show revealing fair travel conditions, it’s time to rustle up our gear, load up our modern-day covered wagon, and hit the trail. The motel staff take advantage of the lull in buffet activity to tidy up the disheveled condiments organizers, mop up the drips around the dispensers, and bus the tables of thoughtless diners. We push our soiled styrofoam into the trash receptacle under the beverage counter, nudge our rebellious chairs back under its table, and start the journey back to the room.

Oh, but who can resist the siren call of the lobby brochure rack? The wooden floor display holds the key to finding out where we are and whether it warrants a proper visit. Ten rows of full-colour brochures and trifold pamphlets for all the local attractions — independent pottery studios, the outlet mall, flea markets, antique malls, community theatre, several private museums, ooh — there’s a seasonal festival of interest, a zoo, that’s just a regional coupon book, a map of the Historic District, a regional specialty baked good trail…that is basically an advertisement for an association of twee bakeries, and take-out menus for — there it is — local pizza joints. Next time! We’ll take a few of these tacky but irresistible free souvenirs and add them to our collection of tacky motel brochures.

The process of packing in a motel room is anticlimactic. Veni, vidi, dormivi (albeit restlessly) and all I got was this tiny bar of soap. It feels silly to go through every bit of the room to make sure nothing’s left behind, knowing we didn’t use most of the things. And yet, what if… Nothing left in the bathroom, got all our toiletries, and didn’t put anything in the safe. Nothing in the dresser drawers — except the extra pillow, nothing in the nightstand drawer — except the shiny bible, the drawer in the desk was a lie. Tip and thank you note on the desk. No socks or snacks buried in the blankets or behind the pillows of either bed. Nothing under the beds — well…did anyone check under there in the first place? Who knows what dangers could’ve been lurking beneath the bedskirt all this time. There is no bedskirt; that’s just solid wood. Whew! The last thing we needed was a boogey man miffed he didn’t get invited to our blanket fort/disco flossing party.

…We could stay, right up to check-out time, if it feels too melancholic to leave. What’s on TV?

No! Daylight’s already wasting and the road ahead is long and winding and blighted with towering billboards to mock!

Wouldn’t hurt to visit the bathroom one last time.

Goodbye, room.

We gather up our belongings and pull the heavy metal door closed behind us, stifling the nagging sense that something is missing, overlooked, or left behind. Maybe it’s just the regret of never getting to use the ice bucket.

Back in the lobby, after an uneventful trudge along the corridor and out the parking lot to discover the car still there and ready to be loaded back up, a different reception clerk takes our keycard and name. They reflexively ask if we found everything okay. The only acceptable response is yes. This is not the person to burden with the flickering street light or the styrofoam breakfast plates or the lack of storage space in the bathroom. They are not equipped to take suggestions to add toothpaste as a standard room toiletry or to put an informative plaque on the adjoining room door or how the bible might get more use from heathens if it were kept in the bathroom on a small shelf where also underpants could be set during a shower. They need to know everything is fine and Housekeeping won’t be facing any problematic surprises in their routine cleaning. They tap some things on a keyboard and a printer behind them whirrs. “You’re all set,” they say, handing us a letter-sized receipt. And that’s it. No “Happy Trails” or “Safe Travels” or “Come Back Soon.” So, we’re all set.

Goodbye, motel off the interstate exit we don’t remember on the outskirts of a town we’d never otherwise visit. Where are we going? This same motel, on the outskirts of a town very far away.

the sparkling observationalist

Katharine Miller: Author. Artist. Novelty Enthusiast. thatkatharine.glitch.me