Sunday, October 01, 2006

Motel Hell

Our vacation got off to a rough start. After one day in Ashland, Oregon, we fled. B pronounced Ashland a “bullshit town.” B’s not one for manufactured charm and quaint shoppes that reek of granny bouquet. We were there to hike so charm was of little use to us, yet we still paid for it. I wouldn’t have minded paying a bit extra if our hotel—the Ashland Motel—was actually nice, but it was an absolute shit hole. Don’t believe me? Get a load of this.

No bathtub, just an abattoir-like shower stall. Note the chipped enamel and the mildewy grout.
Ashland Motel, Ashland, OR

Faucet installed by wantonly bashing a hole into the mustard-hued tile with, presumably, a sledgehammer.

Ashland Motel, Ashland, OR

Wonky toilet seated on a rotting floor. Every time I sat on it, it sank about half an inch lower. It’s a wonder I didn’t plunge into the room below mid-pee!

Ashland Motel, Ashland, OR

10-cent art from a garage sale, hung at a height of 3.5 feet from the floor.

Ashland Motel, Ashland, OR

One example of the assorted smudges, scuffs, and chipping plaster to be found in numerous places in the room.

Ashland Motel, Ashland, OR

It was depressing, dreary, and dilapidated—and they charged $75 a night. Outrageous. I’ve stayed in cheap-ass Motel 6s that were much better and 30 bucks less. B and I arrived late in the evening and, bad as the Ashland Motel was, were in no mood to attempt to find another room in ever-popular Ashland. Somehow we talked ourselves into thinking it wasn’t that bad. We went out to dinner. Then we came back and I tried to take a shower in the abattoir. No hot water. Fuck!!!!!!!!!! Figuring that the faucet had probably been installed backwards, I turned it all the way in the cold direction. More frigid water.

It was about 9:30 PM. I got on the phone to the front desk and demanded that we be given another room. The woman at the desk said she wasn’t allowed to do that (load o’ crap), but that what she could do is come up and “check.” What kind of ‘tude is that? Like she thinks I’m lying. Can you imagine that happening at a Super 8 or even a Motel 6? Anyway, fuming, I threw on some clothes and up she came. She was half my size and half my age, which, nevertheless, did not stop her from incessantly referring to me as “dear.” She was also notable for being the only person I’ve ever seen with a French pedicure. It looked weird and incongruous with her platform flip-flops.

With her was some sort of hapless “handyman.” They marched into the bathroom and turned the water in the abattoir on full blast. For some reason, Frenchie Feet turned on the water in the sink, which hit the edge of the sink with such force that it splashed out onto the floor.

About five splashy minutes later they had gotten the ancient plumbing to cough up some hot water. Frenchie Feet scoldingly told me that it was an old motel and I should have known to let the water run for “five, six minutes” before assuming there was no hot water. C’mon.

They left. The bathroom floor was absolutely awash, and the skimpy allotment of rough and no-longer-absorbent fourth-hand towels was totally inadequate to sop up all the water. I took the record-breaking navy shower (less than a minute) in the icky shower. Who wants to spend time in an abattoir? B followed suit.

We resolved to leave the next morning even though we were booked in for a few days there, and Frenchie Feet had hinted that there might be some difficulties about canceling the booking. The nerve! Well, fuck that. The next morning as were packing up, the phone rang. “Hello, dear.” It was Frenchie Feet. Yeah, even though B and I had both quarreled with her she was still calling me dear. A girl who looked to be about 20—WTF?

Anyway, she told me the owner was there, if I wanted to talk to him, but I’d better hop to it, and get my ass down there because he had an important meeting (yeah, right) soon. Defiant to the end, that Frenchie Feet. Somehow, I didn’t feel like arguing or complaining—too shagged out from the ordeal with Frenchie Feet the night before. I just told the owner we were leaving and wanted a refund for the nights we weren’t staying. I didn’t even tell him how much his motel sucked. He gave me the refund, and asked no questions. I gather he may be rather used to cancellations, once people get a look at his motel’s substandard rooms.

It was foggy and drizzling as we peeled out of the Ashland Motel’s, parking lot, tires squealing (figuratively if not literally). We couldn’t get out of Ashland fast enough. Our experience at the motel had soured us on the town. And it really wasn’t such a great base for hiking either, as it turned out. We barreled down I-5, headed south toward sunny California, armed only with a map of California and a copy of the Moon Travel Handbook: Northern California, which I presciently had brought with me. (Later, I was to discover that it was hopelessly out of date.)

Our spirits began to lift almost immediately as we emerged from the rain and fog surrounding Mt. Ashland and descended into dry chaparral. “Look there’s the Klamath River! There’s Mt. Shasta—snowy and huge!” We felt a million times better. In the motel room that morning, we’d decided that we’d head for Lassen Volcanic National Park and spend a few days hiking trails that explore boiling hot springs and gurgling mudpots. It was one of the few areas in Northern California not affected by forest fires, and it wasn’t so very far away. We were stoked. On the map Redding, California looked to be reasonably close and looked like it would be a good place to base ourselves. The Moon guide assured us it had a range of motels and hotels and surely it would have some decent restaurants as well. And microbrew.

We rolled into Redding in the early afternoon. Temperatures were in the 90s.

This is my impression of Redding, California. Pawn shop, tattoo parlor, exit to freeway, pawn shop, tattoo parlor, exit to freeway, pawn shop, tattoo parlor, exit to freeway. We finally found the Redding Visitor Center but by that time B was completely fed up and ready to get back on I-5 and drive all the way back to Portland. He sat in the car and broiled, while I tried to extract some information from the Visitor Center lady, who was really nice, but had absolutely no idea how to help us. It seems the Visitor Center’s primary raison d’etre is to sell tickets to the various performances given by various third-rate performers at the nearby Win River Casino. And since I wasn’t there to buy tickets to see Lisa Marie Presley (bound to be horrifying), she just didn’t know what to do with me. Hiking? What’s that?

I went back to the car and consulted the Moon guide. We’d driven all that way and were clearly in the midst of a beautiful area (the blot on the landscape that is Redding, notwithstanding), so there had be some way to salvage our trip. The Moon guide suggested Chester, California, near the southern boundary of Lassen Volcanic Park. It claimed it was good place to stay if you wanted to explore Lassen; it had midrange motels and a couple of decent restaurants. It meant more driving—I hate driving—but there was nothing for it.

B napped and I drove another 50 miles of winding road lined with somewhat monotonous ponderosa pines. Every once in a while I’d get a glimpse of glaciated Lassen Peak, the southernmost mountain in the Cascades, and take courage.

An hour or more later, we entered the park. It was like we’d miraculously been transported to the Alps. It was staggeringly beautiful, but worry over whether or not Chester would have motel rooms and anger and frustration about simply driving through the park and whizzing past all the beckoning trailhead signs kept me from fully enjoying it. I found myself wishing we’d get the hell to the end of the park (which turned out to be 22 miles long) and that is just so wrong. Once out of the park, it was another 20 or more miles to Chester, which translates to about 50 minutes of driving on winding mountain roads.

We arrived in Chester around 5:00 PM and what did I see but a freshly minted Best Western! We were saved! Best Westerns rock—they have standards and policies. Standards that require that the shower faucet be installed with something other than a sledgehammer. Policies that state that they will not insinuate that their guests are idiots when they can’t supply hot water in a timely fashion. And it was a Thursday in late September. Not a weekend. Not the high season. Surely they’d have plenty of rooms.

No dice. The Best Western was all booked up. How could that be? There’d hardly been anyone else at Lassen Park. It was the emptiest national park I’ve ever seen. “Hunting season, I guess,” the girl at the desk hazarded. I guess that would explain it, but don’t hunters do the RV thing? The town of Chester was certainly a nothing town otherwise. Lassen seemed to me to be the only real draw but no one had been there. A mystery. Even more of a mystery was the fact that we drove past two fairly scuzzy looking motels that had the “Sorry No Vacancy” sign blazing. More hunters? I began to feel desperate and panicky. There wasn’t another town within an hour’s drive and I was oh so sick of being in the car. Plus, the next town was described by the Moon guide as “redneck” and was, as far as I was concerned, not viable as a base for Lassen—much too faraway and, for all I knew, chock-a-block with hunters.

We pulled into a place called the Seneca Motel. It looked fairly marginal. There was one room left, $65 plus tax. I asked to see it. The woman at the desk seemed a little nonplussed by my request but reluctantly handed over the key. No more than 30 seconds had passed before the woman popped her head in the door and demanded to know if we were going to take the room or not. I hadn’t properly had a chance to look around, but I could tell that the room wasn’t great. But the thought of getting in the car and driving to Redneckville didn’t appeal. I said we’d take it.

We went back to the office. Only after my credit card had been processed and approved was I handed the remote for the TV. That’s the kind of place it was. The kind of place where people swipe the remote.

We began unloading our stuff into the room. It soon became clear to me that the room was even worse than the Ashland Motel. I snapped a few photos.

Worthless antique “coffee maker” (nothing more than a hotplate, really), wedged inconveniently under the medicine cabinet over the bathroom sink. A laughable attempt at an “amenity.”

Seneca Motel, Chester, CA

Hideously scorched and filthy heating vent.

Seneca Motel, Chester, CA

“Headboard” made of particleboard superglued to wall and covered with woodgrain-look contact paper, a scrap of which has been peeled away by a bored or angry previous guest.

Seneca Motel, Chester, CA

A constellation of cigarette burns on the vinyl flooring in the bathroom.

Seneca Motel, Chester, CA

Soon after taking possession of the room, I sat down on the sagging mattress and cried for about 20 minutes. Our vacation was in ruins! Everything was going wrong. And we’d driven hundreds of miles for nothing. Guilt, anger, frustration, despair!

I took a shower—another scary quick one—and slowly began to recover my sense of humor. We’d stay here one night and at least get one hike in at Lassen the next day and then maybe just go home or maybe, just maybe, we’d figure something else out.

B took a shower and we headed out to find some dinner. As we walked past the room next door to ours we couldn’t help but notice a hot-pink Post-It attached to the door. “Crystal—Call your parole officer ASAP!”


Actually, things began to look up, starting that evening. Of course, all the nice restaurants listed in the Moon guide were no longer extant, but we managed to find a homey Mexican restaurant outside of which were parked four pickups full of chainsaws.

The place was full of Mexican lumberjacks! We actually had to wait for a table, but the food was really good. I had the best chile relleno I’ve ever had in my life, and they mixed up a pretty darn good (and potent) Margarita too, which we both totally needed. As we were waiting for our table, I happened to notice some real estate brochures. I idly flipped through one only to find that homes in the area go for $1.8 million. Now I’m here to tell you that Chester, California, has nothing to recommend it as far as I can tell. It’s close (sort of) to Lassen Peak, but you can’t see the peak from the town. Except for the Best Western the town is down-at-heel and makeshift. I saw absolutely no signs of affluence in the town proper. Yeah, it’s got a lake, and I guess those $1.8 mil. homes were near the lake, but so what? I saw the lake. It wasn’t anything special. Is it just that it’s California and property is just that outrageously expensive everywhere?

Anyway, we got back to the grungy motel and knew there was only one thing we could do that evening, given our circumstances—and that one thing was: Watch Meet the Fockers on TV. Might as well make use of that remote! The movie was preposterous and not all that funny, but my standards had been so lowered by that point that I quite enjoyed it.

And now I must confess to some really pathetic passive-aggressive behavior. Just before we left the motel, I scribbled, "This is a shitty motel." on a scrap of paper and tucked it inside the front cover of the Gideon Bible. That made me feel better and just a tiny bit vindicated. I wonder if anyone will ever find it?

Sorry for all the irate whinging and the insanely unnecessary length of this post, but I just had to get it all out of my system. The next post will be about the rest of the vacation, which was actually quite nice.

I learned some valuable lessons, though, from the Ashland/Chester debacle.

1. I need to accept partial blame for not adequately researching or planning the trip. I really have been so busy with work this summer, I didn’t have a lot of time to devote to thinking about vacation. I kind of winged it last year on our trip to eastern Oregon and it worked out great. So when this little window of vacation time came up, I felt I had to seize it. I assumed it would be as easy to find decent accommodations in southern Oregon and northern California as it was in eastern Oregon. Never assume!

2. I really, really loathe driving for hours on end. It’s OK to drive a longish distance to get to a destination, but once there I like to stay put and make only short drives to trailheads. It makes me really cranky to have to pack everything up and drive hours and hours to a new place each day. Ideally, I’d like to find a lodge or cabin or something (with a good restaurant) that has hiking trails right outside the door. I’ve stayed at places like that in Italy. It was heavenly.

3. I need to realize that many of the places I’d like to hike are probably more suited to backpacking. Remote wilderness places derive their special qualities from the fact that there aren’t a lot of hotels and restaurants plonked right next to them. Duh!


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