You can always tell the people who have never really "ridden off into the sunset." They're the ones who still think it's romantic.
The reality is anything but romantic. The sun is blazing into your eyes, and no matter how you squint, you can't really see what's up ahead. You can feel the mother of all headaches begin to take up residence between your temples. You're hot. You're tired, and tired of being on the road. You're hoping that a decent motel will magically appear over the horizon, one with air conditioning and a mini bar. And you discover that hell is an empty, westward highway that never ends.
That is where I was late one August day. Keith and I been riding since the morning, through a desert heat that we were not used to. We were both dehydrated and tired. Monument Valley was visually dramatic in the late afternoon sunshine, but the view was not enough to stop me from wishing I'd forced a stop in Mexican Hat, Utah, a half hour before. We hadn't seen another vehicle on the road and I figured we were about halfway between Mexican Hat and Kayenta, quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
I looked in my rear view mirror and saw a view I had to photograph. Keith was ahead of me and I knew he wouldn't be happy about a delay, but I pulled over anyway. I watched him ride off, taking the camera gear with him. While I waited for him to notice I wasn't there anymore, I took the water bottle out of my pack and took a long swig of the tepid water that did nothing to wash away the bright metallic taste of the heat and the dust.
The look on Keith's face as he pulled off his helmet matched the tone of his voice as he said, "What now?" I gestured back the way that we had came, at what I had seen in the mirror.
"I need to take a photo."
He looked the view, really looked at the vivid red desert bisected by new blacktop so straight that it seemed like it went through the distant red cliff rather than curve around it. He saw the same thing I did, and handed me the camera. He smiled and said, "Good eye. I'd have missed that one."
He gave me some hints on composition, and we talked sporadically while I aimed the camera at the scenes around me.
"I'm about done with this", he said as I sat in the middle of the road, focusing on the distant hills. I pressed the shutter button twice before I answered.
"Yeah, me too. Where do suppose we are?"
Keith helped me up and took the camera to take some shots of the dusty bikes in that golden sunshine.
"Middle. Of. Nowhere."
"Literally. What do you figure, we're about halfway to the next town?"
"I guess. The question now, " he said as he put the camera away, "is do we go on? Or do we go back?"
I remembered the two-story hotel I had seen beside the river in Mexican Hat, the one with the all-important air-conditioning grills under each of the windows that overlooked the San Juan River. I mentioned it to Keith and added, "Plus, we'll have the sun at our backs for the half hour, rather than it glaring in our eyes."
"Sold. Let's go."
The ride back seemed quicker, as it always does when you know that the end is in sight. We pulled into the hotel's courtyard and smiled at each other in relief as we walked into the office. An older woman with long white hair, wearing a white t-shirt over an ankle length red peasant skirt, smiled at us and gently explained that there was no vacancy, hadn't we seen the sign?
I know I blinked in surprise. No vacancy? WTF does that mean? It took me a second to remember that it meant no room at the inn. In all of our travels over the previous years, we had never encountered No Vacancy in any of the budget or mom and pop motels we tend to frequent. There was always room and we had grown complacent.
The wind had been knocked out of my sails, but Keith still had the presence of mind to ask her if she could recommend another hotel in town, someplace clean and cheap.
"Go to the Canyonlands Motel. It's up the hill on the left, beside the gas station. Don't even bother with the other ones, they're crap."
Off we went, up the hill and turned left into an uneven gravel parking lot. The Canyonlands Motel looked pretty dismal, with cracked stucco around each door and a broken neon sign that now only said "Budget Rat s."
"Well, this is special." I muttered to Keith as we headed to the office after making sure that the NO part of NO VACANCY was unlit on both sides of the sign.
“At least it will be cheap," he replied. He really is a most frugal man.
We opened the door, and I worked to keep my face blank. I'm sure it was a tidy place once, but now it had the look of a place that had slipped quietly by inches. It wasn't dirty, just messy as hell. People had put stuff just anywhere rather than put it away. Folded linens were piled high on the end of the counter in a tower that had a decided lean to it. A large dented industrial vacuum squatted in the corner in front of red vinyl chairs that had been new a few decades before. One of the chairs had a dirty white plastic bucket on it, filled with cleaning supplies with a pair of used yellow rubber gloves tossed over them. A box of cheap garbage bags sat on the other chair. Magazines and rolls of hotel toilet paper and boxes of thin motel soap were heaped around with no attempt at organization.
A teenage girl sat at a computer on the other side of the counter, sitting back in an old office chair with her feet up on the counter. She slowly put her feet down when we asked her if they had any rooms available.
"Sure," she said, giving us a wide smile through snaggle teeth. It was my turn to get the accommodations so I chatted with her as I filled out the card. She was friendly, if a bit odd. Her hair had been dyed black, but a while ago and her roots were coming in a mousy blond. Frankly, it looked like it had been cut by a lawn mower, choppy and spikey in the most peculiar way. She wore black eyeshadow which only served to highlight how small and porcine her eyes were in that round, white face, and the scarlet lipstick had been applied outside the lip line giving her a clownish look. She stood up as I finished filling in our information, and I saw that her glitter nailpolish had been picked off and chipped halfway down each bitten nail.
The crowning glory of her look had to be her t-shirt. It had to be at least 2 sizes too small and covered her ample form like a sausage casing ready to split. A black and red banner design had been airbrushed on it and the words Baby Boo was written in a bilious purple script that warped and distorted as the t-shirt stretched over her chest.
"If ya need anythin, just call. I'm ______ and I'll be happy to help ya."
We both forgot her name immediately. To us, she would always be just Baby Boo.
A green rental car pulled into the parking lot as we walked out of the office, disgorging two couples that spoke in German to each other. The men talked to each other in that hearty tone that said what a great adventure this is and sauntered to the office. The women stayed by the car with slightly shell-shocked expressions and looked silently at the motel buildings. One caught my eye and we exchanged a smile and a slight shrug, silently commiserating with each other that we had ended up here in this cheerless spot.
Keith started to unpack his bike while I wrestled with an aged sliding glass door, trying to get into the room. Finally he had to come and help. So much gravel and dust had settled in the tracks that the whole exercise took far longer than it should have, and nothing we did could get them closed again. Frankly that was just as well; the room was stuffy and hot after being closed up all afternoon and the faint breeze was more important than security right then.
The room held no surprises. It was as dejected as the rest of the place. A brown and beige shag carpet filled the room and was matted with more gravel and dust from years of travelers coming in from the parking lot. Both double beds slumped noticeably in the middle and the cheap nylon comforters had pulls and snags distorting the shiny satin-like surface. Everything seemed clean though and the scent of bleach overlaid the smell of heat and dust. I won't touch anything but the sheets, I thought. And NO WAY am I walking on that floor in bare feet.
While Keith fiddled with the TV and looked for the air conditioning controls I checked out the bathroom. Clean but dingy pretty much sums it up. While the porcelain and tiles were clean, everything was just a little chipped and shabby. I wondered how I would ever get dry with towels as threadbare as the ones hanging on a pitted chrome rail.
"You're not gonna believe this," Keith called from the other room.
"Only one channel?"
"Worse. No air conditioning."
"Are you fucking kidding me?!?"
"There's this space up near the ceiling, but I don't know if that's it."
I sighed. "Well, let's go ask on our way to get some food."
"You going to shower first?"
"No, let's just go. I'll just get all sweaty and dusty again. I'll shower before bed."
Baby Boo was still in the office, and looked genuinely puzzled when Keith explained that there was no air conditioner in the room.
"Oh there totally is. There's one in every room. It's just a little different that what most people are used to."
That was our introduction to swamp coolers, also known as evaporative coolers. It is not, as Baby Boo claimed, an air conditioner. It is a fan that blows air over water, and cools by adding humidity into the room. She told Keith how to turn it on, and I waited by the road while he went back to the room to get it started.
"It's going to be a special night," he said to me when he came back.
We started walking down the road to find a restaurant.
“The room is getting damp, but not cool. I think separate beds tonight”
I sighed. I didn't like it very much, but we'd learned that a night spent trying not to roll into the dip in the middle of an old bed didn't make for a good night's rest. Add heat and we'd both be grumpy as hell in the morning.
We passed another hotel as we walked, and we tried to peer into the dim lobby as we passed it.
"How bad does this place have to be, if it's worse than the Canyonlands?" I asked Keith.
"Maybe the woman at the San Juan Inn gets a kick back."
"Just how much of a kick back can one expect from a $60 a night room?" I wondered.
Mexican Hat is not a big place, one of those blink-and-you-miss-it towns, so we soon found a sign for the Swingin' Steakhouse. The smell of barbecue was too good for us to look for another restaurant. We walked around a fence to find ourselves on a partially covered patio. There was a bar at one end, and about 10 old-style melamine tables with mismatched chrome chairs. The flag stones were uneven, and everything wobbled no matter how we shifted our chairs or propped up a table leg with a folded napkin. We turned our chairs so we could see the other end of the patio.
Here was a large firepit, maybe one meter by three meters with a grill hanging from chains suspended over the glowing charcoal fire. It was attended by a young man in a dark cowboy hat with black jeans and t-shirt, who drank from a steady supply of long-neck Budweiser bottles as he tended to the orders on the grill and kept it swinging steadily over the flames.
"You want chicken or beef," asked heavily tanned blond who could have been 30, could have been 50. "There's nothin' else."
We both settled on the beef, and I added a Bud to my order. Keith wondered idly what vegetarians would order.
"There's salad and beans and bread that comes with," said our waitress helpfully.
"Guess this isn't the place to be a vegetarian," Keith remarked after she left.
“Umm...no,” I said, laughing as I looked at the big slabs of steak on the grill
We sat on the patio and watched the stars come out against a perfectly clear sky as we enjoyed what is possibly the best steak dinner we have ever had. I splurged and followed it up with a piece of home made apple crumble a la mode, that was so good it made me sleepy with contentment.
We walked back to the motel hand-in-hand, pleased with the dinner at the Swingin' Steak. and the night in general. While I waited for the eight daddy-long-leg spiders that had been lingering in the tub to wash down the drain before I stepped in for my shower, I thought about what had been a good day's ride followed by a good dinner with good company. And as Keith later remarked, even though it wasn't the best of accommodations, Baby Boo and the Canyonlands Motel made for a good story.
The next morning, we rode along the same route. It turned out that where we stopped so I could take the photo had actually been much closer to Kayenta than Mexican Hat. If we had carried on another 15 minutes, we would have been in the kind of town you find where two highways intersect, with chain hotels, Denny's and MacDonalds. Air conditioning a-plenty, but no Baby Boo or swinging steak.Katitude is a writer from Toronto, Canada.