In the more than forty years Michael and I traveled around finding out-of-the-way places to eat, we realized how adventurous we were. Our travels took us to Gnawbone, Indiana, to Cut and Shoot, Texas, and to Enigma, Georgia. We tackled such regional specialties as Iowa loosemeats and Rocky Mountain Oysters (fried bull testicles). The fun came to an end every night when we faced the most difficult hurdle of life on the road. Where would we sleep?
The American landscape is unrecognizable to us now. No matter where you go there will be a Burger King, a Home Depot, a Michael’s Craft Store, and a T.J. Maxx. These chains and big box stores did not exist when we started our search for Roadfood. You never knew what you would find in the next small town. Sometimes it was little more than a family-run hardware store, a beauty parlor with a goofy name like “Curl Up and Dye,” and the town cafe.
When the sun was out, nothing scared us. We never hesitated to eat at the funkiest BBQs, or dine at places where it would not be a far stretch to imagine Ku Klux Klan robes on the coat rack. Why we were so fearless I have no idea, but on a regular basis we went where few sane out-of-towners ventured.
Thinking back to all the scruffy places we dined at and the oddball characters we met along the way is both nostalgic and fun. Remembering motels along the way still sends shivers up my spine.
Just as there was very little fast food back, then there were precious few chain motels. Big name motels like the Holiday Inn, Howard Johnson’s, and Best Western were mostly close to cities, not on the back roads we traveled. Because we never exactly knew where we would wind up at the end of a long day on the road, we had to take what was around: dumpy lodging that catered to truck drivers and traveling salesmen. These were not the sort of places anyone stayed for leisure.
Some of the motels were half residential, meaning people lived there full time. I can assure you that just about anyone who lives full time in a seedy motel in the middle of nowhere is not someone you want on the other side of a paper-thin wall. We spent many a night covering our ears as men we couldn’t see threw beer bottles against the wall, screamed in ecstasy with local hookers, and a few times emptied their pistols while sobbing loudly. Sometimes we activated the 25-cent Magic Hands vibrating bed just to drown out the noise.
Even if we were lucky enough to have peace and quiet, the horror of first opening the door to a motel room was always a teeth-gritting hurdle. This is a short list of what we came to dread:
- Filthy shag carpeting with detritus that you dare not look at it too closely or you would see things moving between the fibers.
- A polyester bedspread, never changed between guests
- A bathmat that was little more than a paper place mat.
- A square of no-name soap the size of a postage stamp.
- Brown, yellow, or red stains on the mattress
- Someone’s lone pubic hair on the shower floor.
There were more than a few nights when we slept fully clothed on top of the bed spread, placing skimpy bath towels under us as a layer of protection.
We learned what to avoid. Cheap motels near rural army bases were a bad idea. Located on the main drag of town it was non-stop whooping and hollering and cars backfiring all night. We tried to avoid motels with film noir names like The Hollywood, Journey’s End, or The Hide-Away.
A bad motel does not have to be in a bad neighborhood. In fact some of the worst ones were situated in pretty lakeside towns where nice people went on vacation. Once we checked into a little motel in Door County, Wisconsin. The town was having a fish boil at which loads of white fish filets are ceremonially cooked to death in an iron pot as big as a car.
Every out-of-town visitor to the fish boil came not only for the fish but for the socializing. Every motel room had a few chairs in front of the open door, along with ice chests filled with beer and a transistor radio that played loud polka music.
Even now, if we see a motel with a chair placed outside the door we drive on. We stay in our room and so should you.