A Year On The Ground: Motel 0

by Sallie Bingham

In Ajo, Arizona, the $49 motel, nameless and windowless—containers for uneasy sleep—nearly disabuses the Roommate and me of the notion of traveling on the ground.


The $15 dinner, the worst yet—thick red sauce on leathery enchiladas with pasty cheese—causes indignation as well as indigestion, and it becomes difficult to put the romanticized image of the local tribe—the Papagos—together with the enormous people at every eat stop.


The US is now in more ways than one the land of giants; speculation about the sexual behavior of these behemoths only proves us hopelessly out of place. The bubble that is Santa Fe excludes us, as well as protecting us, from experiencing this country; air travel provided another layer of protection. Now we know the behemoths will win if only because there are more of them. On the airplanes, these same travelers overflow their seats, apparently with equanimity, but there are a lot more of them on the ground.


Ajo is a Phelps-Dodge mining town, abandoned when the ore ran out. Here the manager’s wife created, as though to justify the hideous open pit nearby, a graceful and now deserted Spanish plaza, with sad signs to show where stores once existed.


Noodling around the plaza in the dark, we ask guidance of a young man standing in the roadway; his fiercely clipped military haircut sets off a face without any expression except the willingness to assist, leading me to speculate that the military must teach something like old-fashioned good manners. Flight attendants own another version, more mechanical because less crucial: this young man could probably throttle us both if he had not been taught to be helpful instead. Like the border patrol officers we encountered at four checkpoints in the southern part of this state, his kindliness masks, at least partly, something a good deal worse.


He makes several cell phone calls to help us find lodging, then leads us, in his car, to a neat bungalow on a hill; a hand-lettered sign—NO VACANCY—does not deter our guide who, softly hallooing, leads us through the unlocked front door into a long beige living room. It is empty, as is, apparently the rest of the bungalow, until an annoyed head pokes out of a door and informs us that the place was full.


Nothing daunted, our guide then takes us to the no name motel where the night is long in a windowless room. I’ve slept a lot on airplanes, particularly crossing oceans; there’s an unwilled companionship in the presence of sleepers in the next seats, which I miss in the silence of this empty motel.

 

to be continued...

 

Sallie Bingham is a short story writer, novelist and playwright whose most recent book, a collection of short stories called "Red Car", was published in 2008 by Sarabande Books. Founder of the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Sallie Bingham Archive for Women's Papers and History at Duke University, she is an avid skier, horseback rider and ballroom dancer; she lives in Santa Fe with the Roommate, her eldest son, his wife and their two daughters and travels only when absolutely necessary.

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