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Inns and Outs

Jeffrey K. Actor

MOST READERS HAVE likely graduated from the vacations of their youth, where they saved a few dollars by sleeping on a friend’s hand-me-down couch. Still, some of my fondest travel memories were shaped by such frugal accommodation.

I once traveled cross-country on a summer camp trip with 48 other teens, touring the greater U.S. in a converted Greyhound bus. It was an eye-opener, visiting such heralded landmarks as the Statue of Liberty and the St. Louis Gateway Arch, as well as must-see kitsch like the Cadillac Ranch and the world’s largest ball of twine.

We stayed in a different motel every night. The trip’s operator held down costs by favoring motels in the cheaper part of town, with four teens to a room, where they shared two double beds. Such sleeping arrangements never bothered me.

I especially loved the motel rooms with vibrating beds. Twenty-five cents went a long way back then. Now, any room with a coin-operated bedframe is a warning sign. Same for any suite that has a coin-operated dispenser in the bathroom.

From there, my taste in overnight stays evolved. Shortly after marrying my bride of now 36 years, I vividly remember taking her to Bar Harbor, Maine, to visit Acadia National Park. We stopped at lighthouses and cider houses along the way, and—for one night—found a cheap roadside motel with a partly shorted-out neon vacancy sign.

It felt reminiscent of the Bates Motel, with an off-beat, standalone cabin office complete with a wraparound colonial porch. The sleeping quarters were located upwind in a heavily wooded area located 100 paces behind the office. The entire complex felt like the Hitchcock movie, creepy with a sense of unresolved mystery. I didn’t realize that we’d need to upgrade our stay if we wanted a room with windows. We slept with the lights on.

Eerier still was a relatively elegant 15-story hotel in Philadelphia. Upon exiting the elevator, we were greeted by a Joan Miró painting, exactly like the reprint my family had on the kitchen wall when I was a child. Gee, I always thought ours was an original.

Unbeknownst to us, my son hit the wrong elevator button and we exited one story above our room. The same Miró greeted us as we left the lift. We walked to where our assigned room should have been, only to find our key unable to open the lock. We took the lift back to the main lobby to obtain a new key from the front desk.

As people entered and exited the elevator, we saw the same Miró positioned on every floor. It shattered my view of fine art. I still have Shining-type nightmares about that stay, plus it skewered my view of my father’s fine art collection.

On a trip to visit our son in Scotland, we spent a night in an inn just outside of London. To say the room was tiny would be an overstatement. We had to use a shoehorn to squeeze between the door and the bed frame. Indeed, there had been more square feet in the airplane lavatory than in our hotel room’s bathroom. I think we used the bidet as the shower, not realizing there was a communal wash area down the hall. The stupid things we Americans do.

I was once invited by a former student to give a talk in the Netherlands. She was kind enough to take care of all the details for the trip, including reservations for an overnight stay. Much to my chagrin, the room was located in Amsterdam’s red-light district. I slept fully clothed on top of the sheets, not daring to look at what I might find beneath the covers.

To this day, I still don’t know what I did to deserve that accommodation. I would like to think it was because my former student was working with a shoestring budget. More likely: She was still upset that our published scientific article didn’t appear in a higher-quality journal.

Now that I’m retired, it’s belatedly dawned on me that a good night’s sleep is worth paying for. My past frugal lodgings may have made for better memories, but today’s better accommodation leaves me a little less cranky in the morning.

Jeffrey K. Actor, PhD, was a professor at a major medical school in Houston for more than 25 years, serving as an academic researcher with interests in how immune responses function to fight pathogenic diseases. Jeff’s retirement goals are to write short science fiction stories, volunteer in the community and spend time in his garden. Check out his earlier articles.

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