Monday, May 3, 2010

Sleeping Around

Sleeping Around: One Woman’s Quest to Find Lodging in Wonderful, Bizarre, and Unexpected Places

Chapter One: Entryway

I am not a comfortable person. I would like to be. I strive to be relaxed. I imagine I am relaxed and easy-going. I pretend others see me as a mellow person, but that is not the reality. Once I said to my parents and sisters, “I don’t know why anyone has a problem with me. I am quite easy-going.” They all burst into laughter--and my family isn’t the bursting into laughter kind of family. Travel is better for people who are easy-going.

Despite my general discomfort and my intensity, I love to travel. I like to see new places--and I like to experience old places again. Travel has not always been easy for me. I’ve had to be careful where I stayed because for a long time I had allergies and bouts of vertigo and asthma which didn’t always make travel fun or easy. Of course, all of life is not easy, nor should it be. I am not an armchair traveller. I wanted to be out in the world. I saw each trip I took as a kind of pilgrimage, a sauntering, a wandering through the landscape in search of treasure: good health and easy times.

The word "easy" comes from the word “ease.” Dis-ease then is the opposite of ease--or at least it is contrary to ease. I was (and am) often ill at ease in my world. But I am striving, relaxing, easing toward being at ease. And sleeping around the country (and world) helped me do that.

When I was a girl, I was a wild child. I was most at home outdoors with the creatures and flora of nature. I was also very sensitive, in tears when animals or trees died. We lived out in the country. I spent all day outside in the woods and a good part of the night looking up at the stars and dancing with lightning bugs.

When it was time to sleep, I went inside the house. One summer, I begged my father to get us a tent or one of the little cardboard tipis I had seen. Eventually he got the cardboard tipi and set it up for me. I went outside with my sleeping bag and some treats. One of my four sisters may have come with me, but I don’t remember. I do remember it was very tiny inside the tipi and not very comfortable. I did eventually fall to sleep, but when I woke up the next morning, I was inside our house, in my bed.

I was furious with my father. How could he have brought me inside when he knew how much I wanted to sleep outdoors with the creatures of the night?

My pops hadn’t had anything to do with it.

We figured out that I had walked in my sleep. Walked out of my little cardboard hut and into the house. I remembered vaguely half-waking up in the night, standing up, banging on the cardboard. I had thought it was a dream. That was the last time I tried to sleep outside for a while.

I didn’t go on sleepovers like other girls. Not for a long time. I wet the bed. Yes, I was one of those poor dear children who were cursed with over-active bladders. Or under-active bladders. Whatever it was, I wet the bed. I knew I’d be mortified if I slept over to a friend’s house and wet the bed. I’d never be able to show my face in my small town again. So I didn't sleep over.

When I was ten or eleven years old a friend asked me to spend the night. I hadn’t wet the bed for a long time, but I was still afraid I might. My parents encouraged me to go. It was time to get out in the world. So I went. My friend and I lay in bed talking for a long time, facing each other in the bed we shared.

Yes, we were sleeping in the same bed! Please, please, please bladder don’t fail me now. I watched her fall to sleep. I remember thinking what a wonderful sweet girl she was. Even if I did wet the bed, she would understand. I tried to stay awake, but eventually I was off to dream land.

All was dry in the morning.

My days of adventure away from home had begun.

I became a Girl Scout a year or two later. Our troop rarely actually camped outside. We usually went to places where we could stay overnight inside a lodge with a roaring fire. Most of us were already country girls, so we liked a little comfort when we camped. Inside, we could make s’mores and tell ghost stories. After everyone fell to sleep, I was always awake, looking around the room and wondering what mischief I could get into.

Every once in a while, though, we pitched our tents and slept in the great outdoor.

I loved the smell of the old canvas tents. I loved being inside giggling with my friends, eating junk food and telling stories. Naturally, I always told the best and spookiest stories. (Most girls just retold movies or TV shows they had seen. Come on. No imagination. I made stuff up.) One year I told the story of Green Eyes. When we were hiking, I looked into the woods and thought I saw something with green eyes, so I told the girls about Green Eyes, the creature who was following us, waiting for us, sizing us up for dinner. Green Eyes was not a person. Wasn’t even an animal. He was a pair of green eyes. Big green eyes.

We found the idea of green eyes hanging around in the woods very scary.

We were twelve.

On this particular camping trip, we stayed up late--mostly because I had scared all the girls and they couldn’t sleep. But finally, one by one, the girls inside the various tents settled down and went to sleep, including the girls in my tent.

Everyone fell to sleep except me.

I could not sleep. I was so cold. I lay shivering in my flimsy sleeping bag. I put on all my clothes and still I shivered and my teeth chattered. I was so cold it was painful.

And boring. It was so boring to be awake in the dark of the night cold and freezing and feeling as though the night would ever end. I finally got up, put on my shoes, and stumbled around in the dark until I found the Girl Scout leader’s tent. I woke her up and told her I was cold.

“It’s your own fault for keeping everyone up,” she said.

I was only a girl, not even a teen, but I thought that was a pretty strange thing to say. What did that have to do with the fact that I was freezing to death?

“Put on all your clothes and see if that helps,” she said.

I don’t think I was ever so disappointed in an adult in my life. To this day.

I stumbled back to my tent. I slipped into my sleeping bag fully clothed like Heidi on her way to live with her grandfather--only I had no grandfather to put me by the fire and feed me hot soup, just the cranky mother of my best friend who seemed very happy, thank you, that Nature was punishing me because the scout leader could not herself slap me around. I cocooned myself inside my bag, nibbled on graham crackers, and waited for dawn.

To my annoyance and great shame--because I was, after all, Nature Girl--I never did become a good camper. I was always cold and could never sleep. Not a fun time. Even years later when I had a down sleeping bag and my husband’s body for a heater, I could not fall to sleep in a tent.

But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Although I was not a good camper, I did love to travel. I saved up money for more than a year to backpack around Europe after I graduated from high school. In the years to come, I returned to Europe many times. I loved to travel. I loved to fly. Then, on my last trip to Europe, the plane took a dive. Or a giant came out of the sky and tried to shake the plane to pieces.

At least that’s what it felt like.

I remember the screams. I remember a stewardess flying through the air. I remember the toupee flying off the guy sitting next to me.

When it was over and we weren’t all dead, the stewardess came by to see if everyone was all right. She leaned over the now-bald guy next to me and said to us, “I thought we were goners for sure.”

Thus my fear of flying was born.

Other things were born, too. My general unease increased. I still loved traveling. Just because I didn’t want to fly didn’t mean I couldn’t still enjoy going places. Yet some health problems popped up, and I needed (and wanted) to stay places that were healthy and safe. I discovered that nearly every motel and hotel uses pesticides inside their buildings. I didn’t want to breathe pesticides or sleep places where pesticides were used. We always had to call ahead to whatever town we were driving through to make certain we could a hotel that didn’t use pesticides.

And the telephone conversations were always fun. Most of the time the person on the other end of the phone had no idea whether the hotel used pesticides or not. We learned we had to ask just the right question at the right time to get an accurate answer.

“Does your hotel use pesticides?” I’d ask.

“Pesticides? What’s that?” Them.

“Do you spray for bugs?” Me.

“No, no, we don’t do that.” Them.

“Someone doesn’t come in once a month and spray?” Me.

“Oh, yeah, sure, someone does that.” Them.

It was not an easy task to find pesticide-free lodging. What this meant was that we often stayed in out-of-the-way places or in towns I had never heard of before.

Sometimes it meant we wandered around without having a place to sleep. Once Mario and I were traveling across country, and we decided to stop at Yellowstone. (We were young and foolish.) It was late and the lodge was full. We were going to pitch a tent, but every few feet we saw signs about bears. Beware of bears. Bears are gonna eatcha. If they don’t eat you, they’ll steal your food--and then eat ya.

I remembered the story of the two women getting eaten by bears when I was a teen. (Not that many years before our trip to Yellowstone.) I was spooked. When I went to the campground bathroom, I saw a huge "beware of bears" sign. In the bathroom? (That answered the question about whether a bear goes in the woods or not.)

Mario and I decided to sleep in our car and then get out of Dodge as soon as we got some rest. Mario slept relatively soundly. I fell to sleep for a little while only to have a very realistic dream where Mario and I were sleeping in our car in Yellowstone Park and a bear came and ripped our car apart. I woke up in a sweat and was glad to find our little hotel on wheels was still in tact. As were we.

One time we found a motel in some small town in Idaho. They didn’t use pesticides, but the whole place looked like a psychopath rest stop. It was dark and dreary. Inside spiders hung from the ceiling.

As I waved to the spiders, I said to Mario, “At least we know they weren’t lying about using pesticides.”

I didn’t examine the sheets too carefully. Mario got into bed and fell right to sleep. I could not sleep. The room shook, just slightly, constantly. I looked outside and discovered about ten semi-trucks were in the tiny motel parking lot, with their motors idling. The fumes were terrible. I got one of the worst headaches of my life. I was miserable and tired after a twelve hour car ride, sucking in diesel fumes, and enduring a headache. I went out and sat in the our car and cried. (I didn’t want to wake up Mario.) Eventually I went back into the motel room and got a couple hours of sleep.

And so our adventures continued.

When I had the idea for this book, I thought about finding all kinds of strange places to go sleep in. Then I realized I had already visited and slept in quite a few strange and wonderful places.

I’m glad I have. I’m not a fan of monoculture. I love differences. I don’t want to have the same comfortable experience again and again. Yet some of the places where I’ve slept have pushed beyond the envelope of my general unease: Like the house we stayed in the middle of a cornfield with a man and his invisible wife; or the bed and breakfast where a drunk pounded on our door in the middle of the night and tried to get inside; or the train ride that was so rough I wished I was on that airplane hurtling to the ground.

You may want to visit some of the places we’ve stayed; other place you’ll want to get the address so you can avoid them. I’ve changed the occasional name and place to protect the...bizarre. Otherwise, everything I've written about here is the truth as I saw and remembered it. This isn’t a travel guide, at least not in the traditional sense. I won’t tell you where to eat, what to see, where to sleep. I will show you some of the trails I took and who I was then and how each place changed me, shaped me. Maybe my words will help you think about your travels differently.

Traveling is not so much about seeing places where George Washington slept, where Napoleon Bonaparte is buried, or where the last Civil War battle was fought. At the heart of all our journeys is the search for the truth about ourselves and who we are, what we bring to a place, and what we carry home with us.

All in all, sleeping around was good for me.

I hope it’s good for you, too.

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All work copyright © Kim Antieau 2008-.