Nirvana—or Hotel Hell

When you travel cross country, every night can become an adventure. That’s how we chose to play it. We set off in the morning with bellies full of those weird waffles all the mid-range hotels let you make for yourself, grateful for the sun in our eyes, with the notion only of Heading East. We had no clue where we would end up, or what else the day would bring.

This worked well for us, usually. We had agreed beforehand that we each got to name one place we had to stop and visit on the trip. This was to eliminate our tendency to become lured by every roadside attraction, which we can be (World’s Largest Rubber Stamp? Cleveland. We did not stop.)

At the last minute, our son changed his mind about his one choice and decided that he would rather go to the zoo in Sioux Falls, S.D., than the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. An odd choice you might think, but the zoo had a brand new baby rhinoceros and a tiger to boot—he identifies with tigers so that pretty much sealed the deal.

The zoo was large enough to be interesting but small enough to be absorbed and appreciated in an afternoon. We told him we could still stop at the Hall of Fame, but then the truth came out: he knew two of his uncles were planning a trip there themselves, and he knew they would be much better company than we would be. We shrugged and decided that this left time for a quick visit to our fave spot, Niagara Falls.

Now here I am getting way off topic, which is supposed to be about evening experiences, believe it or not, and Niagara deserves its own blog, so I’ll write about that someday.

On to evening experiences. Most afternoons, we’d look at the map, add an inch or so, and then start calling the likely hotels in the nearby towns to see which ones accepted dogs (usually for a modest fee). This led directly to an extra hour of too much driving with all three humans bitterly insisting it was someone else who chose such a distant town, not me, and the dog whimpering balefully that she needed to go, leading the three of us to reassure her that it was just a few more minutes really this time for sure.

Finally we would arrive at the distant Nirvana and look over our blindly selected choice with a critical eye. There’s a certain sameness to hotels in this range that can be both satisfying and dismaying, depending on your temperament and mood. I chose to let it suit both for this trip, which was born out of need rather than pleasure (although we were building in lots of pleasure). They all strive for non-offensiveness in a beige kind of way, accented by teal, and, if must be, coral.

They’ve all learned the same corporate lessons, too: welcome the customer, ask them this, ask them that, give them this, tell them that, how else can I help you today, o.k., bye! Before you’ve unfastened your seatbelt, it seems, you’re standing in Room 217, the dog with its tongue lolling out,  your family insistent on dinner now, and enough baggage for The Siege of Leningrad.

It’s tempting to stay at the “name” hotels, where you know exactly what’s going to be teal and coral, and how much batter goes in the waffle maker. But we went off the grid—not far off, but off.

In one case, we didn’t have any choice. There were three hotels still open in Keystone, S.D., and we knew about only two of them. Just one would take dogs. And it wasn’t the Holiday Inn. It was something called Mt. Rushmore’s Washington Inn & Suites. It looked good. Good reviews. We happily booked a room through Expedia. Big mistake.

When we pulled up after an hour of recriminations as described above, said Inn & Suites was Closed For The Season. Confused, we called the Inn directly, and were told in a bored tone to go to the White Hotel, its “sister hotel,” some five blocks distant. There, my partner was simply handed some keys by the bored guy, no paperwork, and we parked the car, heaved our assigned burdens onto our assigned backs, and waddled forth.

She stayed behind to rearrange things in the car while my son and the dog and I went ahead to the room. Just walking down the hallway was creepy, as if old men in shorts and undershirts were going to come out of their rooms complaining about the dog barking at night, when we hadn’t even stayed there yet. When we got to our room, I knew such a man had lived there before. I could still smell him.

I tried hard to put on a good face for my son and the dog. I sat down at the table. I actually let my skin touch the furniture. They were not impressed. I considered asking my son to get the dog some water, but then thought better of it. Wait for the bottled stuff. Who cares if it’s carbonated?

We lasted 10 minutes. My partner and I decided to eat the money on the reservation if we had to, but we weren’t sleeping there. We’d sleep in the car first with the dog. We’d beg Holiday Inn for a room (some take dogs).

This was some “sister” to the much nicer place we thought we had reserved. Step-sister that is, like in Cinderella. Cinderfella. Cinderfang, if you remember your Phyllis Diller, CinderNo-Bang-For-Your-Buck. So we called Holiday Inn.

Holiday Inn wouldn’t take our dog, but then it did us a favor. It told us of the third place in town still open, the Lodge at Mt. Rushmore, and it took dogs. Turns out it was one of the nicest places we stayed the entire trip. No teal or coral: deep green and russet in a Western motif, lots of big round rails for bannisters, antlers, etc. for decorations, you get the idea.

And with only a half dozen or so patient repetitive phone calls and long wait times and monotonous phone trees, we were able to get a complete refund of our reservation, minus a $10 “luxury” tax. Thanks, Expedia, for advertising a hotel that’s closed for the season! (As of this writing, it’s still being advertised as open.)

Moral of the story: if it ain’t a chain, call the local place yourself. If it’s bad weather, call the hotel yourself. Don’t trust technology. This from a techno nerd.




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