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A Yankee Notebook

April 20, 2015


ONEONTA, NY – This is our last night on the road – I hope. We should be pulling into our driveway in Vermont about mid-afternoon tomorrow. Sipping my evening coffee and looking around our room here at the Holiday Inn, I can’t help but reflect on the history of our marriage – and especially on one item of furniture.

We started our life together in a bare-bones second-floor apartment in the eastern Adirondacks. We had a rough board table, two chairs, a few pots and pans, a table setting for two, and a bed. Well, not quite a bed. It was probably an old dormitory cot, not quite a single bed. Any codormition required nesting together in a mutual accommodation known as “spoons.”

Then an elderly couple down the street gave us an old double bed, which was a major step forward. It was large enough to hold us both and small enough that we still kept warm in winter. An additional benefit was that the springs sagged toward the middle, making it impossible to sustain for long any ill feelings either of us might have taken to bed with him.

In our middle years, Mother insisted on a so-called queen-size bed, which gave us each more room, but requires walking around it several times to make up the bedding. It suits us; but looking at the enormous bed here in our hotel room, we agree that a king-size mattress will never do. We’d need to yodel or something to find each other if the room got cold, and getting up during the night would require some scrabbling to find the edge of the bed.

Another thing: Though both of us still like surprises, we’re less enchanted by unpleasant ones than once we were. We’ll never forget the great deal we got on a tourist cabin in Machias, Maine, in 1965. It was really cheap, and had three bedrooms; but every bed (we tried ‘em all) squeaked loud enough to be heard outside. We ended up with a mattress on the floor and minded it not a bit. But with the dignity of age encrusting us, we try to avoid that sort of thing these days. So in recent years we’ve tended to be leery of mom-and-pop roadside operations and looked instead for franchise hotels. They don’t have to be fancy – in Europe we often look for Formula One, very cheap and spartan, predictable and not unpleasant – but it’s always nice when the shower works.

Online searches for hotels are mother lodes of information: photos, rates, and customer comments. Mother is expert at this, and shamelessly (I can’t bring myself to do it) haggles for discounts and price breaks for seniority, AARP and AAA membership, and off-season rates. She enjoys it so much that I can’t imagine wrestling her for it. It also gives me latitude, in the event of a bad choice, to point out that it was her call. On this trip, she scheduled every night but the first; we didn’t know how far we might get the first day, so agreed we’d go as far as comfortable into Pennsylvania and then get off the Interstate at one of those clusters of franchise hotels and see what we could get. It worked okay: a Comfort Inn with a good continental breakfast enhanced by the folks at the next table, a family from Quebec on their way to Orlando.

In Gettysburg we stayed where we’ve been twice before, a Quality Inn that sprawls in several buildings, and has an indoor pool and hot tub and a pretty decent breakfast. Two minor problems: The Georgian at the next table, noting that Vermont had just had its coldest February in recorded history, darkly challenged the notion of global warming; and we discovered that during the cold months, locals rent a room, invite their friends and family in, and hold wild cannonball pool parties, while we staid old folks are trying to find calm waters to soothe our bones and psyches.

Next, Mother had found Brookside Cabins in the hills of Virginia: out front, a divided highway with rumbling pickups, and out back, a little porch with plastic deck chairs facing a limestone-bedded brook. No television. I sipped a bit of bourbon, listened to the happy burbling of a cardinal I never could quite spot, watched a pileated woodpecker picking through oak leaves on the hillside across the brook, and quietly cheered for a territorial gray squirrel defending his turf.

Two nights in Culpeper, the eye of many Civil War storms, were okay, I guess: a motel on a busy shopping strip on the way out of town; good breakfast; USA Today in the lobby. And then it was off to Martinsburg, West Virginia, to visit Antietam and stay at one of Mother’s most amazing finds. Not a franchise. She got the room for $55, and it was worth almost every penny. Mother often takes the complimentary cosmetics in hotel bathrooms and later leaves them at our local food shelf; but there, she said, she felt like donating some, instead. We dubbed it The Third Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and asked if we might use the hot tub they advertised. The pool was closed, for the aforementioned reasons, but the lady at the desk unlocked it for us. It was a huge room, with soaring I-beam trusses, gloomy as the photos on the Internet of derelict castles. I found the switch for the hot tub, whose water had an unhealthy-looking yellow-green tinge, and we luxuriated briefly. As we checked out of the pool, I confided to the keeper of the key that there was somebody else in the spa. Her eyebrows went up. I said, “I’d guess the body’s been in there about a week.”

We left there this morning, somehow dodged everybody else on I-81, and turned at last onto almost deserted I-88 toward Albany. This place in Oneonta, like the road, is very quiet, except for a small crowd of burly men and women wearing camouflage and attitude, setting up for a convention of the Safari Club (I think it is). They’re surrounded by dead, stuffed lions, a kudu, an impala, and a gigantic elk, and tomorrow evening will raffle off a guided safari to somewhere. Mother and I hope to be far away by then, in a room with a queen-size bed, television, and a shower that works.

Photo by Willem lange