As reported in Part 1 of this solo road trip journey, the weather had been sunny and calm until mid-afternoon, when I spotted black clouds gathering ahead. I had recently been welcomed by the State of Pennsylvania sign, with a solid three hours left to drive. Knowing that strong storms were typical for summer afternoons, I still dreaded the next several miles, and prayed aloud for a brief shower.
No such luck. In the next five minutes, the sky went dark and a pall fell on the turnpike. I sat up rigidly, my forehead an inch from the wind shield and my fingers cemented to the steering wheel as the rain came down in proverbial sheets, diminishing visibility to near zero. After hydroplaning once, I slipped into the right lane, trying to follow the tail lights of the driver in front of me, to monitor my position. For a hot second I considered pulling over and waiting out the torrents, but instead I kept my eyes locked on the two red lights ahead of me.
Then … “WHAP! WHAP! WHAP, WHAP, WHAP! ” Something was hitting the hood and the wind shield of the car. I leaned forward and saw a pile of green-eyed yellow eels slithering all over the wind shield, and heard more hitting the roof of the car. A passing thought of “Isn’t this the wrong amphibian for these weather conditions?” flickered through my brain before some of them some locked eyes sadly with me, before slipping off onto the flooded roadway. One of them held a up a sign up that read “Newark” before careening off the front of the car. They were gone just as quickly as they came. I swear I am not making this up.
The rain ebbed and the thunder slowed to a dull rumble. The worst was over, and had lasted about ten minutes. It may as well have been ten hours. A steady rain continued for the rest of the drive, until I reached the hotel.
I arrived as expected, right around 7pm, feeling accomplished but fatigued. The hotel did not resemble the drawing from the website. It appeared smaller, run-down. Note to readers: practice healthy skepticism about websites with hand-sketched renditions of buildings. Have a boatload of same when the emporium is described as “quaint” or “historic.”
The main entrance led directly into the hotel restaurant and adjacent bar, requiring guests to walk between these two areas to access the registration desk in the next hallway. The registration desk was unoccupied, and I soon learned the receptionist was doubling as the bar tender. My effort to make friendly conversation about the challenges of double-duty work was greeted with a stony stare.
I slunk away after receiving my room key, heading for the car to retrieve my bags. The rain came down steadily, and since I had no umbrella, it soak through my clothes and plastered my hair to my head. Dragging everything to a side entrance in the hopes of circumventing the restaurant, I grabbed the doorknob, only to find it locked. I returned to the front entrance, pushing open the heavy door with enough momentum to make it slam against the wall, two feet away from a table of dinner guests. “Hello! How are you?” I said as rain flew from my hair onto their twice-baked potatoes. I dragged my bag across the floor to the staircase, leaving a trail of wheel marks behind me.
My room was on the second floor. I bumped my way up each step, momentarily wondering who the historic male figure was in the life-sized painting hanging above the landing. Locating my room near the end of the hallway, I opened the door to a dark, dinghy high-ceilinged space as a feeling of dread swelled in my chest. Two windows overlooked the public park across the street. The window unit air conditioner deafened all other sounds, so I watched CNN reporters mostly mouth the news of the day. No Internet connection was to be had, though the hotel brochure boasted of “super high speed” access. I was glad my phone worked. The bathroom was minimally hygienic, given the occasional hairs in the sink and tub. I called the front desk to request a clean-up, but the phone just rang. I figured the receptionist was mixing drinks. I concluded I would stick this out, as I was too exhausted to look for another place to stay.
The floor slanted sharply enough to reveal a four-inch gap between the bottom of the door and the floor. I shoved my suitcase against the door for the night. I walked with my arms out for balance and to avoid falls. Again, I swear I am not making this up.
Upon a friend’s suggestions during a later phone call, I decided to change my plans for the return trip. Rather than spend a second night in this hotel and make another 12-hour drive home, I chose instead to cancel my reservation and split the drive into two days, staying overnight in Youngstown, Ohio.
The next morning, as I left my room to check out, I dropped the room key. Searching everywhere for it, I dropped to my hands and knees, crawling up and down the hallway and rifling through my tote bag. Nothing. I confessed my loss to the receptionist, who appeared to be feeling civil this day, and she assured me this happened all the time and asked me to mail the key back if I found it.
At the workshop orientation later that afternoon, the leader asked us where we were from and if we’d stayed nearby the night before. When I shared the name of my hotel, she smiled wryly and revealed that the place had a reputation for being haunted. “Now you tell me,” I thought. This explained both the mysterious key loss and the ever-so-slight smirk on the face of the historic guy in the life-sized painting on the staircase landing as I left to check out. It was not there the day before.
The workshop was one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had, with seasoned and supportive presenters, excellent materials, beautiful surroundings, cozy accommodations, and delicious food.
The hotel room on the return trip felt like a spa.
After arriving home, I found the key in the bottom of my tote bag. I can’t be sure, but it burned a little in my hand when I pulled it out. I let it drop to the floor. I picked it up with a pair of tweezers, slipping it into a small manila envelope addressed to the hotel. After dropping it through the slot of a public mail box down the street, the box shuddered violently. I ran like a banshee all the way home.
So, I can say that I survived a brief solo driving trip. Many people do much more, and quite often. While it may not be an earth-shattering accomplishment, it was significant enough for me.
Life is a highway. I want to ride it all night long. If you’re going my way, I want to drive it all night long.*
*Tom Cochrane, “Life is a Highway, ” 1991