Monday, April 6, 2020

Hotel Floors, Truck Stop Parking Lots, Train Stations at 2AM, and Other Mundane Adventures

Most travel is pretty uneventful. Adventure is expensive, and better left to people on reality television anyway. How else to explain the popularity of hyper-managed, pre-programmed bus tours and cruises? Even the task of walking foreign city’s streets is too much to handle for many Americans.

While I am a bit snobbish about such packaged tours, I must admit I am a regular Bilbo Baggins when it comes to adventure. As a child when I first read The Hobbit I felt a visceral empathy with homebound Bilbo’s discomfort with having been dragged from The Shire by a bunch of dwarves on a strange and threatening quest.

Like Bilbo, however, I have managed to have some travel adventures against my will. For me like most travelers, my biggest adventures are the unintended ones. They happened in mundane places, like airports, train stations, and truck stops (more on the latter in a short bit.) The adventures have made those drab places more eventful than most of the places I visited intentionally on those trips. With the episodic nature of travel in mind, here are some postcards of accidental adventures.

A Truck Stop East of Toledo Ohio
I grew up in a rural Nebraska middle class family that loved traveling and pinching pennies in equal measure. That meant I saw a lot of the country but also never stepped foot on an airplane until I was an adult.

My parents’ cheapskate ways meant maximum discomfort for me on family vacations. I had two sisters, so to save on hotel costs my parents would book one room for the whole family, with my parents in one bed, my sisters in the other, and me sleeping on the floor. Evidently the extra ten bucks for the rollaway bed was an unnecessary expense.

Because we invariably stayed in the cheapest lodgings possible on our 80s vacations (think one rung above a heroin shooting gallery), I spent a lot of my nights with my face next to old shag carpets from the 70s that seemed to carry a mountain of dirt in every follicle. I have one powerful memory of a roadside motel in Sterling, Colorado, woken up by a massive blast of sunshine coming through the ridiculously large gap between the door’s bottom and the floor, a freight train blaring its horn nearby.

One rule of our hotel stays was to never make reservations for hotels for stops along the road. Instead, as we grew tired after a long day of driving my parents would decide to stop somewhere, then stop into multiple hotels at that interstate exit or town, inquiring about their rates until my father found one to his satisfaction. It was a risky strategy, and ridiculously time consuming when we kids were tired and irritable after a long day. One fateful night in July of 1987 in Toledo, Ohio, our luck ran out.

We were making our big trip to Washington, DC. In typical Tebbe family fashion, we decided to get a head start by leaving after my dad got off work on Friday and making our first drive in the evening, thereby minimizing the number of vacation days he had to take. We drove about four hours to somewhere in western Iowa. The next morning the only plan was to get as far as we could, with the goal of arriving in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the day after that. It was a beautiful summer day, but started inauspiciously, as my dad left his credit card at the station where he gassed up our 1984 Chevy conversion van, and we had to turn around and get it. We drove across the Iowa and Illinois prairies, a wall of tall green corn the only thing outside of the van’s windows until we hit Chicago. Driving on I-80 meant mostly bypassing the city, and we hit Indiana in the late afternoon.

At that point my parents decided on a spur of the moment side trip to South Bend to see the Notre Dame campus. They both went to a regional state college, and have a thing for going to elite college campuses, which are as exotic to them as a Burmese marketplace. We even went inside the university library. I get a little embarrassed today thinking about the sight we made as a bunch of rural tourists gawking around the stacks.

Being devout Catholics, we popped into the campus church as well. Mass was about halfway through, but my parents decided to stay for communion, thus fulfilling our obligation for the week, since it was late afternoon on a Saturday. (My parents are the kinds of Catholics who go to mass on vacation. When I took them to Boston last summer we went to an early morning mass in the basement of the Catholic student center on Harvard’s campus.)

We left South Bend afterwards, still trying to get through Indiana before stopping. At some point the decision was made to stay the night in Toledo, just across the border. We rolled into the Glass City later than normal, the sun already down. My dad went into a Ramada, and learned the awful truth: the American Legion was having their national convention in town, and there were no hotel rooms to be had in the entire area. Back in those days every one horse town in America (including mine) had a Legion chapter. According to the clerk, hotels were booked “from here to Youngstown.”

We went to get dinner after that at an Arby’s. This was an extravagance to please the kids because we normally ate picnic out of our ice chest on the road to save money. My father queried the kid behind the counter about other nearby cities that might have hotels, and he mentioned Sandusky. (This, children, was a common practice in those dark ages before the internet.) We trudged from the Arby’s, exhausted and demoralized. I believe at this point my mother began wondering why, with increasing volume and intensity, my dad refused to reserve hotels in advance.

So we drove on, ostensibly for Sandusky, which was over an hour away. At this point it was after nine o’clock at night. We had been on the road for over twelve hours, and it was getting to be too much. We didn’t make it into Sandusky.

Instead, we pulled into a truck stop in an extremely dark and isolated spot far from any town. My father went inside, and secured the best hotel bargain we ever got: eight bucks to park in the semi-truck parking area so we could sleep in our car. Since my father’s brother was a trucker, he must have known that truck stops offered this convenient service. I also think he was secretly pleased at having managed to save so much money.

At least our conversion van was bigger than the typical automobile. I leaned back the ridiculously appointed captain’s chair and got maybe two hours of sleep, much of it interrupted by the bright lights of the truck stop and the sound of barking dogs.

That experience on a July night at an Ohio truck stop taught me some things, like the need to reserve hotels in advance. It also made me much more capable of weathering and even savoring the future inadvertent adventures travel has to offer. Most of these have involved sleeping in suboptimal locations and leaning into the surreal weirdness of being in a place I am not supposed to be.

Manchester Airport, 3 AM
There was the time I went to Ireland for a debate tournament in college managed by the world’s least competent travel agent. On the way home we flew from Cork to Manchester in the evening, but our flight back to the states wasn’t until the next morning. Instead of getting a hotel, we stayed the entire night in the Manchester airport, pretty much the only people there. I can still recite the automated message that played throughout the night over the PA exactly every fifteen minutes in a clipped, passive-aggressive British voice: “Attention. Please do not leave any baggage unattended. Any baggage left unattended will be confiscated, and possibly destroyed.”

I didn’t sleep much. Instead I brown-bagged a small bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream (I was twenty and wanting to savor one last hit of store-bought liquor) while reading a bunch of British film and music magazines I couldn’t buy back in the States. My truck stop experience eight years made it easier to just sit back and enjoy an accidental adventure.

Overnight Stay in Zoo Station
The same goes for 2002, when I was in Germany on a three week research trip scouting archives for my doctoral dissertation. This was perhaps even nerdier than traveling to Europe for a debate trip. My advisor had a cheapskate streak to rival my father’s, evidenced by him still driving his tiny Honda Civic hatchback from his grad school days, complete with sagging rear bumper. He had advised me to take an overnight train on my way back to Berlin before flying out to save money instead of staying another night at a hotel or pension. Who was I to doubt his sage wisdom?

I soon realized that things had changed from his grad school days beyond the rust on his hatchback. There were no overnight trains from where I was traveling, so instead I took the latest train possible, and got into Berlin’s Zoo Station at night, with a plan to take the early train to the airport the next day. I had to spend about four hours in the train station in the dead of night, where I noticed a bunch of other people camped out with their luggage who had the same idea. We were this weird fraternity of young broke travellers and seeing my compatriots there put me at ease. We didn’t say a word to each other, nobody needed to.

Sitting there also gave me a chance to observe those strange hours when even in the busiest of cities, life shuts down. I saw the cleaning crew that’s invisible to those who don’t spend the night in a train station. There is also a certain kind of mystical calm when you are in a place that’s normally bursting with noise and excitement when it’s empty. The residue of years of souls passing through and the emotions that have been spent there seem to hang in the air, tangible now with all the people and clatter removed. That dirty, empty train station with its high glass roof became a kind of monastery cathedral in that moment.

Tenting in a Hail Storm
A lot of aging involves doing the stuff you swore you were never going to do when you were younger, like wearing khakis, having kids, and living in the suburbs (at least as far as I am concerned.) In terms of travel, it meant revisiting the places in Nebraska I had been to a thousand times and long claimed I had tired of.

One year before my twin daughters were born, my wife and I flew out to Nebraska to see my family, then to drive up to the Black Hills, Badlands, and Niobrara River while hitting some familiar stops along the way. We decided to go camping for most of it, except for a brief stay in Deadwood.

The first night we stopped at the Nebraska National Forest, near the town of Halsey. On my family trips to the Niobrara River for canoeing and tubing growing up we always stopped there for a snack and bathroom break, I was always put off by it. The forest is not natural, planted there in the early twentieth century and at one point the biggest man-made forest in the world. It sits in the middle of the wide open expanse of the Sandhills, one of the most subtly beautiful landscapes in America. The trees there look out of place, imposters where they don’t belong. Nostalgia is such a powerful disease that I wanted my Jersey girl wife to experience the uncanny weirdness of the place.

We pitched our tent under some scrubby pine trees but before we went inside to sleep the temperature dropped ominously, a Nebraska summer sign of danger. A great big thunder cracker of a storm was headed our way. Cell reception was pretty spotty, so I could only intermittently see the radar map on my weather app all lit up Halloween orange and fire engine red.

Once we got into our tent I realized that I had left the rain cover for it at home, not realizing the center of the top was only mesh. I scrambled and used the plastic wrapping our tarp came in to imperfectly cover the hole. Soon a blacker than black darkness fell, the storm clouds blotting out all the star and moonlight. The rain pounded angry and soon we heard the telltale ping-ponging of hailstones, a sound that brings both a thrill and a fear to a native Nebraskan’s heart. Being an emigre, I miss the feeling that the sky is trying to kill me, a common sensation that livens up the staid daily life of the rural Great Plains.

Truth be told I was scared, but put on a brave face for my wife. We got pretty wet, but the flimsy plastic kept us from being totally soaked. Once a boring pit stop on family vacations, the Nebraska National Forest has gone down as an adventurous place in the lore of my new family.

We have traveled plenty with our kids, but no real adventures. It’s not responsible, and unlike my father, I make sure to get hotel reservations ahead of time. But maybe, just maybe, we will get to have an accidental adventure in an unexpected place together, and have a new story to pass down together.

[Editor's Note: I submitted this for publication. It was (inevitably) rejected. I wanted it to live on, so I hope you enjoyed]

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