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In the quiet of the motel room

A pension just down the street from the Trier train station offered respite from the winding path I had taken through Germany. An air of solidity suffused the room where the woman checked me in for the night. She and her family lived in the house, which had a living room and dining room on the bottom floor. Showing me up the stairs, she unlocked the door on my room and handed me the key.

The room was dim and the lamps’ yellow light gave it a feeling of warmth. A dresser and wardrobe stood to one side and a full-sized bed with a large headboard took up most of the floor. The place smelled of old lumber and sandalwood. I dropped my backpack next to the door and flopped on the bed. Almost immediately, I fell asleep.

That night, I wandered down the Nordallee to the Porta Nigra, the old gate to the city. I ran my hand over the limestone and wondered about the Romans who built it. The pedestrian zone was nearly empty, with only small groups of people around the movie theater, The Flimmerkiste, and at the tables at Zur Glocke, a 200-year old bar. I stared at the signs whose language I could not yet understand. I felt like I stood at the edge of a new world.

I was to move into a little room under the roof at the apprentices’ school. That meant that soon I would start at my new job in the vineyard, the one I’d wandered all over Germany to find. I was an American kid who found meaningful work in the field I wanted.

Back at the room, I read a little from an American-language paperback I’d gotten from a bookstore in Giessen. The place was quiet. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a cat somewhere in the house. I spend the rest of the evening catching up on my journal, anxious and excited about what would happen next. It was only of the only times I felt like my whole life lay in front of me. I was 22.

Every time I check into a guest room, I feel that sense of adventure. I write and listen to what’s going on around me. If there is no sound, the silence is enough. The loneliness of the room makes me contemplative. My journal always grows. I get to rethink things, regroup. I consider my life and its context. I’m more objective about my problems and see new ways around conundrums I face.

This happens every time I check into a hotel or motel, either by myself or with my family. In the early 90s, I was driving the stretch between Laramie and Kansas City on long weekends, holidays, and semester breaks at the University of Wyoming. Most of the time, I drove the 14 hours straight through.

A couple of times I stopped at motels. One time, I got caught in a snowstorm and had to pull off in Kearney, Nebraska. I slid around town for a while until I found a mom-and-pop. It was a quiet place made even more so by the snow. I was nervous that night. I didn’t have money and it was a difficult decision to make the stop. I didn’t know how long I’d be there.

Once in the room, however, I made it my home. The neon lights of the sign outside my window bathed the room in red. I opened all the cabinets and drawers. I took the Gideon’s Bible and stowed it in my bag. The rest of the night, I watched television and wrote in my notebook. Life was complicated then with a baby at home, child support to pay, and school to manage. By the time I went to bed, I’d dropped all my worry and enjoyed the night. A pickup blatted by from time to time. I slept deeply and woke up late. The interstate was clear by the time I left.

Last year, Missouri State University booked me for a talk for the Missouri Center for the Book. I was to get an honorarium and a night in a motel. I really didn’t need the night. Springfield is only two and a half hours from Kansas City. But a free night in a motel was something I couldn’t turn away.

I arrived well before the time for my talk. I pulled the curtains and laid down for a nap. Occasionally, I’d hear a car outside and some people talking. But being in an old motel—it had been around since Route 66 was the way into the American Southwest—I reveled in the smell and feel of the place. When time came for my talk, I was sorry to have to give that nap up.

After my talk, I went out with an old friend I had not seen in over 20 years. We ate some of the wonderful Chinese food that Springfield is so well known for. I returned to my motel and explored the room. It’s not that there’s much difference between motel rooms, there’s not. I still felt the excitement of being somewhere other than home.

I took up my pen and notebook. I began to think about my writing and the book I had just drafted. My journal entry deconstructed the insecurity I felt about the manuscript. Basically, I found that I felt good about what I’d written but worried about getting a publisher. Would the book approach an audience big enough to attract a publisher? Was it too narrow? Had the material been done before? I finished the night thinking that, who cares, it’s my book and I believe in it.

I spent some time the next morning savoring my last minutes in that clean, well-ordered place. The motel was so charming and the people so good that I felt a bit of sadness as I pulled away the next day. I would never be back. The motel would be just a memory.

Not all my experiences in hotels and motels have been great. One time, I checked into a motel in Colby, Kansas, on my way to Laramie, Wyoming. I had stayed the night there a few years before. The people were amazing and friendly. The rooms were small, cozy, and clean. The bed was firm. I’d had a wonderful night.

This time, however, the motel had worn. The new owners spent no money on keeping the rooms up and were obviously living on the past reputation of the place. When I checked in, I looked forward to poking around, as I always do. I found dust and roach droppings. The bathroom shower leaked and the faucet dripped. The bed was broken down and was hardly more than a set of springs and worn cloth. But I had committed myself. About the time I went to bed, a couple of bikers started drinking in the next room. They yelled and fought with one another, one time coming to blows. They kept me up all night.

So, I sat at that little table and wrote in that journal. While I listened to the yelling and laughing and screaming, I looked at what was going on in my life. In the morning, I was tired and irritated. I jumped into the car and my ire diminished the farther I went. Soon, I realized the clarity with which I saw things. The night in the motel had done me good.

Looking back now, I see that every time I have stayed in an inn, I have come out better on the other side. It didn’t matter whether I was on my way somewhere or wandering indeterminate, the isolation and solitude of a strange room helped me.

This weekend we are staying at a hotel in Oklahoma. Virginia had family business and left Nick and me for the day. Nick’s been in the room with me but for an hour, when he went to the pool on his own. I turned off the lights, letting the sun light the room. I listened to the silence. (It’s a quality hotel, so there wasn’t noise, bikers fighting, or pipes rattling.) I sat down to my journal and wrote about what’s going on in life right now. I have a clearer idea where I’ve been and where I’m going.

We are together in the room now, Nick and Virginia looking for a movie we can watch while I write. I will sit down to the journal once again before bed. It will have been a good day, as every day in a hotel is for me.

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