The next day I was resigned to head east on I-80 for 40 miles until exiting south at U.S. 81. Instead of the old two-lane road, the highway was now a quasi-interstate all the way to Salina, Kansas. The drive was flat and dull with one exception – several fields of maybe three or four acres each had been planted solid with sunflowers as an emphatic gesture to out-of-state motorists that they were indeed in the Sunflower State. The sea of brilliant yellow was absolutely beautiful. It was too early in the day to be checking in at a motel, but I stopped anyway at The Best Western in Salina. They had all the amenities – park-in-front rooms and nearby eateries. Even so, I asked the proprietor to call their affiliate down the road in McPherson to see what was available. Sure enough, there was one ground-floor room left. It seemed they were filling up fast for some inexplicable reason. I instantly made a reservation, knowing it was only 35 miles to McPherson on what was formerly U.S. 81 and now designated as I-135. As I traversed north to south across Kansas, I crossed numerous abandoned railroad tracks – a sad testimony to how the trucking industry had all but obliterated local rail freight.
As I was checking in at the McPherson Best Western, I noticed a plethora of parked autos in front of every ground floor room. After asking about the inordinate saturation of guests, the desk clerk explained that there was a student orientation taking place at the local college which, of course, included a multitude of proud parents. I was relegated to a space across the parking lot from my room – not a satisfactory situation. I had always felt more secure being able to see Ol’ Blue’s front grille staring at me through my motel window. Instead of traipsing to and from my distant parking spot to unload my gear, I decided to temporarily move Ol’ Blue into a no-parking space (the ones with the diagonal orange stripes) just next to my room. There was a yellow convertible partially parked in the striped zone. It was a tight fit. As I was stepping out, the edge of my door slightly nicked the side of the car. As bad luck would have it, the vehicle’s owner just happened to be passing by and noticed the pinhead-size scratch. He started ranting on about the damage I had inflicted on his precious Mustang Belchfire. You would have thought I had put a monstrous dent in his door. My apologies fell on deaf ears. He even went so far as to noting my license plate numbers. I couldn’t believe it! This guy was definitely out of control. To make matters worse, his ladyfriend, or whoever, joined the fracas. I tried to appease them by saying, “Here’s my name, address, and phone number. I’ll be glad to pay for the damages, like a dab of yellow paint.” The two just turned and left in a flurry of disgust. So nice to meet you. I relaxed in a chair watching CNN, figuring it was only a matter of time before a parking space would be available in front of my room. In the meantime, I went next-door to the Pizza Hut for a small pepperoni and cheese takeout. When I returned, my patience had paid off. I jumped on the vacated space like a chicken on a June bug. Now I could relax and enjoy my pizza while watching some baseball, writing in my journal, and putting to rest the absurd confrontation an hour earlier. I was wondering if those two had accepted the fact that it was a freak accident. I fell asleep not caring one way or another.
The next morning, I noticed there was still not an empty parking space in the entire lot. They must be having one heckuva weekend orientation at KAFF, Kansas Academy of Future Farmers. I tried heating the leftover pizza in the microwave, but was having no luck with the foreign object. The motel happened to have a redundant layout, that is, besides having a drive-up front door, there was also an interior corridor — very unusual and not very cost efficient. I looked into the hallway and commandeered the help of a maid. After numerous fruitless attempts, she went down the hall to the nearby laundry room and came back with two more of her co-workers. It was quite a sight watching the three gals hovering over the stubborn machine, pushing every conceivable combination of buttons. Finally, one of them deciphered the code, and the microwave was operational. As I thanked them, one lady cheerfully said, “Enjoy your pizza.” It had been one memorable motel experience, to say the least.
I headed south on I-135 through Wichita on an elevated portion of the Interstate which gave me an overall impression of a very bland city. A few miles south of town, I exited onto U.S. 81, just in time to avoid being sucked onto the toll road. It was a leisurely, pleasant drive through little Kansas towns like Hayesville, Wellington, Rome, and South Haven. Crossing into Oklahoma, I bypassed I-35 and was somehow now on U.S.77. I continued on to Blackwell and across a non-descript Oklahoma prairie until conceding to merge with I-35 at Perry. As I approached Oklahoma City, I tuned in to one of the best stations in the country — KOMA with a great format of golden oldies. It made driving the abdominal Interstate a sheer pleasure. I was hoping to find a room along I-35 somewhere in the OK City area, but nothing acceptable appeared (all but one were of the interior corridor variety). I did spot a La Quinta Inn up ahead, so I pulled off onto the service road, but at close range I could see that there was no room at the inn — the place was boarded up as if a Category 5 hurricane was about to blow through. What a bummer! Well, Norman was just 20 miles down the pike, and being the home of Oklahoma University, I figured there should be a few motels near the campus (to accommodate those fanatical football weekends). Wrong. There was not one motel along the interstate. Where did those Okies spend the night? In the back of their pickups?
I checked my McNally Atlas and saw the good-size town of Pauls Valley was about 50 miles farther south. That had to be the ticket. Besides, I loved the sound of the town’s name. There was still plenty of daylight left, so I was in no hurry. I exited at OK 19 and drove east down motel row. Well, Pauls Valley certainly had their complements of inns available – there was the Days Inn (interior corridor), the Relax Inn and Venture Inn (both kinda ratty-looking), and finally the Sands Inn, which looked like Shangri-la compared to the other inns. A redneck goliath greeted me at the front desk and assured me there was plenty of cable TV, cold air, and cubes in the ice machine. I was in like flint, for only $28.36! Can you believe that? The room was very commodious despite not having all the added amenities such as a microwave, refrigerator, hair dryer, coffee maker, iron and ironing board, and bedside clock. I didn’t miss any of the frills. There was one unique feature to the room – a supplementary glassed-in screen door. I was able to leave the other door open while keeping the refrigerated air in and the flies out. It also let more natural light in. The first thing I always did in a motel room was open the curtains. As I was checking out, I had a nice conversation with the lady proprietor, mainly about how they could charge such low rates and still have such fine accommodations. Her simple reply was, “No frills.” I thanked her for a pleasant stay and was on my way.
I meandered through Pauls Valley and headed south on old U.S. 77. The little towns of Joy, Davis, and Springer all had their railroad depots still intact next to what looked like often-used tracks. I finally merged reluctantly with I-35 at Ardmore, crossing the Red River into “Drive Friendly” Texas. Passing through Denton, the traffic was surprising light, but, as I had anticipated, the flowing traffic had dissolved into a moving parking lot as I neared Dallas. A last minute decision had me exiting onto the new George W. Bush tollway, an elevated swath of concrete with a width of the length of a football field at the toll plazas. As I ramped down to southbound North Central, I was thinking the $1.50 toll was well spent in avoiding the usual congestion on LBJ. My euphoria soon disintegrated into dismay as I was swallowed up in an arteriosclerosis mire of traffic. It was discombobulating to realize that more often than not, one could not enter or exit Dallas without encountering a traffic jam. It’s sheer madness! I negotiated the “High Five”, looking up through the skylight at circular ramp a 100 feet above. The traffic finally lightened and I was home free.
William C. Early © 2005