Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Uncle Day Weekend - Part 5

Part 4 primarily concerned itself with finding a place to eat dinner while in Flagstaff over Labor Day weekend.  I still don’t know how I got 5 pages out of that one part of the story.  Part 5 picks up as we leave the restaurant on Sunday evening. 

Uncle’s Day Weekend – Part 5

Dusk was creeping overhead as we left Ni Marco’s Pizza.  “How about we drive up to the Lowell Observatory?”  I suggested once we were back on the road.  There were no objections, so instead of following the curve of Milton/Santa Fe avenues, we turned left and headed up Mars Hill Road.  What a great name:  Mars Hill Road.  I don’t know if it was through pure serendipity, or was something less than a coincidence that an observatory came to be located on Mars Hill, but it is perfectly fitting.  We wound our way up in the strengthening darkness, and parked in the lot at the top.  Being a Sunday night, we weren’t sure if they would even be open, but it turned out that they had a special event as part of the holiday weekend, and were open until eleven.

We wandered around the visitor’s center, looking at the exhibits, and just giving Maria a chance to exhaust herself.  It was now around seven, and as I recall, she had napped for literally no more than ten minutes that afternoon.  But she was showing no ill effects, and seemed to be in no imminent danger of pooping out.  We waited around for some video presentation to start, but Maria wouldn’t stay, pronouncing the dimly-lit hall and spacey interlude music “too scary,” so Elizabeth took her back to the exhibit hall where she could continue trying to pull the display meteors off their stands.  I’m a sucker for anything scientific, or that deals with nature, so I was even able to stomach the Mannheim Steamroller music that introduced the video.  Jessica, however, took all of two minutes to become hopelessly bored and annoyed.  I looked at her several times, vacillating between telling her to suck it up, and giving in to her unspoken request to go.  I flashed forward in my imagination to our retirement days.  Elizabeth and I would do nothing but travel, happily watching long, badly scored nature videos in places just like the Lowell Observatory, and we would have the best time of our lives.  I nudged Jessica, jerked my head slightly towards the exit, and we left quietly.

Reunited in the exhibit hall, we figured it was finally dark enough to go see the main attractions: the telescopes.  We left the visitor’s center, and followed the glowing lights on either side of the path, every one of which Maria had to inspect as we slowly advanced.  There was a tripod-mounted telescope in front of us, with a line of people waiting to look through it.  We immediately got into line, and began waiting our turn.  When it appeared that no one was moving, or actually even looking through the telescope, I looked up at the sky.  The entire firmament was blanketed by clouds.  The light of the moon was barely visible, the moon itself heavily shrouded.  “What are we waiting to do again?” I asked Elizabeth.
“Look through the telescope, tonto.” We’ve already covered tonto, haven’t we? Yes? Good.
“What are we hoping to see?” I continued, tonto-ing it up.
She gave me an irritated look.  “What’s your point?”
“Look up.”
She did, and right around the same moment, we overheard someone saying “it usually clears up by ten-thirty.”  Three hours of standing in line on the off-chance that the sky might clear?  With two children who are already indicating their impatience with an escalating poking match? 
“C’mon,” I said, pulling us out of line.

Image of Lowell Observatory at night...Just kidding!
We continued following the glowing lights, which were really dim, and did very little to actually illuminate the pathway.  Obviously, being an observatory, a premium was placed on minimizing light pollution, even at the expense of the occasional broken-ankle or falling-off-the-side-of-the-hill lawsuit.  We eventually reached the big telescope, the one that was used to find Pluto, that denounced planet whose recent demotion I noticed was not prominently mentioned here at all.  It was open to visitors, so we walked inside, and listened for a few minutes to the guide explaining how, in the old days, they used to have to turn the telescope’s dome, which now rides on at least twenty Goodyear tires, by hand.  Moving forward in time, he began to explain why they had electrical outlets spaced every eight feet.  We excused ourselves silently.  Again, I could have stayed and listened to this stuff for hours, but I graciously bowed to the will of the majority.

Inside the observatory - see the tires?
Outside the telescope, we stood at the railing, looking out over the city’s sparkling lights.  Through a break in the trees, you could see most of the city spreading away from the foot of the hill.  We may have come to see the stars, but this wasn’t a horrible substitute.  The temperature now that the sun was down was comfortable, but not particularly cool.  We were all dressed in t-shirts and shorts, and nobody was complaining that they were cold.  While it may not have been as chilly a respite as we had been hoping for, it was still infinitely better than the weather we had been bearing for the last three months.  We stayed for a few more minutes, soaking it in, and then decided it was time to head back to the motel.

It was about eight-thirty when we returned to our room.  Elizabeth immediately set about getting the girls ready for bed while I retrieved the last essentials from the car.   We cranked the room’s air conditioner way up.  It may have been unfair to expect arctic conditions from Flagstaff in September, but there was no reason why we couldn’t recreate them in our room overnight. 

The day’s activities had taken enough of the starch out of Maria that she was content to lay in bed, watching a movie on the portable DVD player.  Meanwhile, Jessica watched a show on the motel’s TV, and I pulled the laptop out, checking on the blog, and verifying our route home for tomorrow.  Elizabeth was already starting to doze off.  Maria was the next to go, then I, and then Jessica.  Elizabeth, who’s a light sleeper, must have gotten up and some point and turned off all the electronics. 

I forgot to take a picture!  I'm borrowing this one.
The next morning in Flagstaff was a glory to see.  I stepped outside and looked north.  The mountains, which resembled sand piles in shape, although dark brown in color and covered with trees, glowed golden-green in the early sunlight.  The sky was a pearly blue, with a few bright clouds streaked across. I drew in the mountain air, packed my lungs full of its delightful freshness and thought, Yes, this is why we came to Flagstaff.  For this exact sensation.  It was probably in the low sixties, close to thirty degrees cooler than the Valley would be then.  I let the cool air tickle my bare face, arms, and legs.  Finally, I went back into the room to report on the weather conditions.  No need for jeans or long-sleeved shirts today.    

We all took showers, and then got dressed.  The motel offered a complimentary breakfast, so we packed our stuff back into the Sportage, and walked to the office, which is also where the eating area was located.  The breakfast spread was more than adequate, with bagels, fruit, cereal, juice, fresh coffee, and one of those waffle-making machines.  Best of all, there were maybe five other people eating when we got there, and the waffle-making station was open.  I immediately started pouring the batter into cups and lining them up, which is motel etiquette for “I got next, and next, and next,” a lesson I learned after one particularly bitter breakfast experience at a motel in Winnemucca, Nevada.  Breakfast was perfectly enjoyable, if you don’t count the obligatory cup of spilled orange juice, or Maria’s syrupy face, hair, hands, chair and table, which I don’t, because they were obligatory.    

When we were done, we cleaned up our table and crossed over to the check-out counter.  It took ninety seconds to clear our bill and be on our way.  Now, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve been deciding whether or not to spill the beans on exactly where it was that we stayed on our Uncle Day weekend excursion, but I think the time has come to name names.  Part of my hesitation, I suppose, is because many of us, myself included, don’t like to associate ourselves with what we perceive to be inferior brands.  And some brand names develop personas of inferiority that, once established, are difficult to shake, regardless of current reality.  But I can’t turn away from the truth any longer.  There comes a time when someone has to speak up, and for me that time is now.  I am coming out of the closet to tell the world, or at least the fifty people who read this blog, that I, Kevin Thorson, stayed at a Super 8 motel, and enjoyed it. That’s right, I said enjoyed it. 

Whew! That was not as easy as I thought it would be.  Nevertheless, there it is, in black and white pixels that could be changed the moment I get cold feet.  But why should I be embarrassed to say I stayed at a Super 8?  Yes, I know that Super 8 has acquired an image of being something of a bottom-feeder over the years, whether warranted or not.  I know by that small flinch of shame I experienced when discovering that Hotwire was putting my family in one that it is not a socially acceptable place to be.  I also acknowledge that I subscribed to the same popular notion that Super 8 was down there on the absolute lowest rung of the motel industry ladder, along with maybe Knight’s Inn and Econolodge.  Even at $49 ($65 with taxes and fees) for the night, I’ll admit that I believed we would be hard-pressed to not feel we had been ripped off afterwards. Of course, it was still bound to be a step up from my cousins’ place in Heber. 

Super 8 - Flagstaff, Arizona
But, I have seen the light (sorry, Motel 6, but you can turn your light off), and now, of my own free will, step up to boldly proclaim the virtues of Super 8, at least the one we stayed at in Flagstaff.  First of all, checking in and out were simple and fast.  This is how it should be at any hotel or motel, but we’ve all been stuck in situations where either end (or both) can be tedious, and fraught with sudden problems, like room availability or hidden charges, or incidentals, and God knows what else.  Now I’ll grant that most hotels/motels have made big strides in this area in my traveling lifetime, but none has made it easier than what we experienced over Uncle Day weekend.  The room was adequate, maybe a half-step beyond adequate, bonuses being given for the variety of cable channels available, and the in-room hair dryer and iron, although we didn’t use them.  We had paid for a double queen; the room held both beds, plus a nightstand, a table and chair, an armoire, and dresser in a cozy configuration that never felt cramped, even with two kids running around.  The beds and pillows were comfortable, if not excessively so.  The walls and floors were standard motel-thin, and in terms of construction, the room was showing its age, especially in the bathroom, which featured a really loud toilet flush that, in spite of the roar, wasn’t particularly effective.  But I have to say, the place was full, and we weren’t disturbed at all during the night by the sounds from other rooms, or from outside.  I suppose we were probably lucky there, or just incredibly tired.  And then there are the niceties, the things that I really appreciate, such as free local telephone calls, free wi-fi that was a snap connecting to, and the free breakfast that went substantially beyond the bare requirements.  Most of the places I’ve stayed over the last few years have nickel-and-dimed their ways right out of my heart in these areas.  For instance, I stayed at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas last summer on a business trip (it really was a business trip, and I swear I don’t know anything about the Venus pool), and they charged some ridiculous rate per night for wi-fi access.  Few things in life annoy me more than the appearance of trying to take further advantage of a paying customer.  I did not get that feeling from Super 8, and I think that’s something worth noticing.  Super 8, I salute you.  I don’t care what the others say about you, you’re alright in my book. 

Super 8, while we’re on the subject, have you ever considered changing your name?  Many times a name change can bring about a fresh start in the consumer’s mind.  It’s something worth considering; after all, Super 8 is a lousy name for a motel to begin with.  It tells us nothing about you, except you have 8 of something that are super, but we never find out what it is.  Is that some kind of industry reference, “super 8?” If so, it’s too inside. Are you trying to let people know you’re two better than Motel 6?  Come on, surely you understand the rule in business that says you never want to let your competitor define who you are.  Your name comes across as completely irrelevant, and it makes you seem irrelevant for choosing it.  You’re better than that.  For instance, “La Quinta,” (“The Fifth? As in the Fifth Amendment maybe? And just what is it with this fetish for number names for motel chains?) also has a nonsensical name, but because it’s in Spanish, people just assume they’re referring to the housekeeping staff, and so it creates the illusion of relevancy.  I like you now, so I want to see you do well.  At least create the illusion of relevancy.  Please, think about what I’ve said.

Thanks for bearing with me there. Who knew there was so much to say about a bargain-brand motel chain with 2,000 locations in North America, and 200 in China?  Really, that’s what their website says. 
Let's face it, a new logo's not enough.
After the ease of checking out, I lingered for a few minutes by the rack of pamphlets and brochures tucked around the corner of the counter.  I have to confess; I love looking at those gaudy tourist brochures.  I love the bright, colorful images, the glossy paper, the thick card stock, the wild enthusiasm they try to ensnare you with, and the slight sense of desperation beneath the surface that leads a destination, no matter how small, to print up millions of these pamphlets and distribute them to every restaurant and place of lodging in a touristy area.  I love the rack they sit in, the way it takes what is always a raucous variety of distractions and orders them into neat rows, evenly spaced, each one confined to its little rectangular slot, each regimented row just able to poke its head above the row beneath it.  It is like a visual choir of commercialism, each one blaring a different melody, and yet somehow the whole produces a strange kind of chaotic harmony. 

I browse through them, the way a professor might fawn over tomes of great literature; I study the designs, the layouts, the graphic elements, the free-wheeling uses of hyperbole, the lack of actual specific information, other than how to get there and why it’s so important to go.  But today I have another reason:  although I know the route we’re taking to go home, I have had little luck in determining where we might stop along the way.  We were about to head west on I-40 through Williams to Ash Fork, but nothing seemed like a good fit for the time we had available.  I thought about stopping at the Williams Grand Canyon Deer Farm and Petting Zoo; I looked in vain for a pamphlet in the rack.  It probably wouldn’t have been a good idea anyway, given my daughter Jessica’s pathological aversion to petting zoos (if you missed it, you need to read this).  My eye was caught, however, by a brochure for an attraction I hadn’t heard of before:  Bearizona.  Hmmm. Hokey name, but . . . 

To be continued . . .


  1. Your comments about the obsession with naming hotels after numbers is valid. I must submit an addition to the whole questional hotel name obsession, why so many hotels/motels named "Flying (insert letter here)?" I have seen Flying J, Flying A, Flying R - was there a conversation like this somewhere "Hey look! that cloud looks like a flying S! Wow! That's a great name for a motel, honey!" I don't get it.

  2. That is such a good question. Where do these names come from? It's like the goal is to have a name that means next to nothing, so they don't inadvertently alienate or offend any potential customer (read: breathes and has a wallet). But what about those of us who are offended by meaningless names? Why should we be the ones to suffer?

  3. It's me Anonymous again! I promise you I will get a google account to reveal my identity ;) We stayed at Super 8 in Flagstaff about 2 weeks before you guys did (and have also frequented Motel 6, La Quinta's and no chain motels across AZ and CA as a family.) We had a great experience too! I think we relived the same mini-vacation you did, but much to my dismay we did not go to see Bearizona (which is still on my bucket list- lofty request, I know) Can't wait to hear part 6!!!!

  4. Thanks for following along, although it sounds like we were unintentionally following you! Bearizona was pretty interesting, and I can't wait to see what I have to say about it either! Your comment leaves me wondering, though, what other lofty goals may be on your bucket list...