Middle-Aged Wanderlust, Part One
During my 40s and early 50s, I had opportunities to explore wonderful places in the world like Guatemala, China, and several European countries. I was teaching English and Speech at a small midwestern university at the time, so I had summers free to roam. I am lucky to have a husband who just said, “Go,” and was willing in the early years to stay home with the kids. But some of the most interesting adventures I had were domestic adventures. Twice in the span of a just a few years, I got in my car with a road atlas (before GPS), had only a few thoughts about where I wanted to go, and let the trail lead me. To keep costs down, I had to set guidelines. Lodging rules dictated one of the ways I scrimped; I set a spending limit on the cost of motels (rarely a hotel), and I brought along a pup tent and sleeping bag to further save. That lead to some intriguing accommodations that in retrospect now seem imprudent, but interesting decisions.
In Gallup, New Mexico, there is a famous hotel which was the destination of many moviemakers and stars called the El Rancho Hotel. Built in 1937, it is and was a tribute to the old West and sheltered such people as Ronald Reagan, Kirk Douglas, and Katherine Hepburn. I truly wanted to stay there, but, alas, it didn’t fit in my parameters (though there was no lower limit to my price specifications). I decided to treat myself to a mouthwatering steak dinner at the hotel restaurant and find a place better suited to my rules. I stayed at the worst hotel there of any on my travels. When staying at motels, it is important to judge the position of a room to the street entry. Every headlight that turned into the motel shined through my flimsy window covering, and the amount of traffic for that motel set my imagination loose. I wasn’t invited to the many raucous parties going on, which wasn’t a big disappointment, but the rumpled bedcovers didn’t invite me to jump between the covers either. Sleep was at a premium that night.
Another interesting place I stayed was in Cimarron, New Mexico. Our daughter was working as summer help for Philmont Scout Ranch near there, and I decided to visit her. In Spanish, Cimarron means “wild and unruly,” which captures the flavor of the history of this old West town. There is a great hotel called the St. James Hotel, built in 1872, which also has a roster of famous guests like the Earp brothers, Jesse James, Buffalo Bill Cody, and the author Zane Grey. Many of the rooms are named after these famous visitors. Not all the rooms have baths, which helped me fit this into my budget, but the charming décor made up for the shared common bathroom. There is a dining room in the hotel decorated in period design that still has a number of bullet holes in the walls and ceiling from past sojourners, and the staff is glad to share stories about the apparitions reportedly seen in the building. Unfortunately, I didn’t experience these midnight visitors.
To balance out some more extravagant lodging choices, I occasionally explored some State and National Parks and took a camping spot. I did not bring copious camping gear; I had a gas lantern, a sleeping bag and pillow, a tent, and a blow-up mattress. I had to hope that somewhere near there was a food source since I only brought a small cooler with some sandwich meat and bread. My biggest problem was blowing up the mattress. I had a device that plugged into my car that would blow up the mattress, but that meant I had to stay in the car with my mattress inflating and filling the space. I’m sure it was an odd sight for other campers, but it meant I slept comfortably in my tiny pup tent. I know I was no match for the more professional campers who worked hard to set up their comfortable camping sites complete with travel trailers, outdoor chairs, and campfires; my meager equipment looked a little ridiculous next to theirs. Talking with other campers in the evenings made me feel a bit more engaged, and that always provided a lot of great material for my trip notes, which unfortunately are lost today.
I visited many interesting places from Oklahoma City to San Francisco to Breckenridge, CO, to Pipestone, MN. There is something ultimately freeing about unplanned travel along such famous routes as old Route 66 or California Route 1 along the Pacific Coast. Stopping at whatever place invites me with its intriguing signage was pure pleasure. I’m glad Wanderlust hit when I was feeling adventurous and more daring than I am today. The experience was well worth taking chances.
Diane Repass is a retired tenured assistant professor
from The University of Dubuque and now a beloved
writer for Plaid Swan Inc. She received her M.A. from
The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.