“We’re so pretty, oh so pretty, vacant.”
– The Sex Pistols
We had driven past midnight and needed sleep. The last four exits had been Labor Day destinations with each hotel booked through the weekend, a blaze of NO VACANCY neon extinguishing the last star in the sky. “Don’t bother,” a woman told me the moment I entered a Motel 6. She was lounging on the sofa wearing a bathing suit. A television pleaded with a young boy to buy gold bullion before it was too late. An elderly man deployed choice obscenities to win more towels at the reception desk. And here I was: Idiot Pilgrim without a place to stay. My friend and I left the motel and drove past golden arches and palm readers, tour buses with high school athletes, unwieldy buffets, and an intoxicated man wearing some kind of dinosaur for a hat. After numerous failed attempts to find a room, we decided to press on, hoping there would be amenities further north on I-94.
Johnny had flown from Spokane to Milwaukee to ride coach gun as I drove back to Washington after graduate school. I had promised to find reputable haunts and would pay for meals. I had promised to get him home to his wife and child in less than 72 hours. I had promised free ice water at Wall Drug. I had promised efficiency. There would be no Fear and Loathing as we traversed the Great Plains, the Black Hills, Idaho. Such promises and more, and I had forgotten Labor Day.
There were fewer signs for water parks and casinos after The Dells. I imagined the interstate suddenly losing power, the street lights, like the stars, renouncing their glow like a series of cigarettes against the bottom of a black ash tray. This was my sixth road trip across the country. Like all the others, it filled my mind with a Post-America, Post-Facebook, Return of the Mule kind of future. Everything became fine-china fragile and transitory. There would be no frozen custard burger joints until La Crosse, no Wi-Fi “hot spots,” espresso, or factory outlet stores for miles. Johnny’s cell phone would lose bars, find bars, and experience a minute by minute obsolescence. Wisconsin went Paleolithic rural.
“I’m taking the next exit we come to,” I announced.
“Whatever works,” Johnny said.
The next exit belonged in a Tobe Hooper film, but I took it anyway. A blue sign a mile back had promised MOTEL, so I assumed this was the place. Beyond a hedge of trees, a faint glow became stadium glare, a summer Christmas display. Subwoofers accosted the senses before we saw an actual building. Turning the corner, there was a motel, that was also an RV campground, that was also a Laundromat, that was also a bar. You could say it was hopping. Riotous is better.
“You can wait here,” I said. “I’ll check it out.”
I left the car running, got out, and headed for the front entrance. The glass doors pulsed in perfect time with the music coming from the bar. A massive aquarium sustaining algae and little else commanded the lobby, along with a big screen television from the 80s the size of a Mini Cooper. ESPN was running highlights, but you couldn’t hear anything over the music. I had played in an unapologetically loud rock band in college. This was louder.
“Please tell me you have a room,” I said to the guy running night shift.
“One left,” the man said. “Wedding was called off, so there’s the honeymoon suite. I’ll give you fifty off seeing how it’s late.” The big hand on the lobby clock was lazing past the six of 1:30.
“I’ll take it.”
“Bar is open all night, karaoke ends at two,” he continued, handing me an electronic keycard.
“Thanks,” I said, walking out of the lobby and back to the car as Michael Jackson insisted the kid was not his son.
“There’s a room?” Johnny asked hopefully.
“Yeah,” I intoned, “a honeymoon suite.”
“Awesome. Let’s call our wives and cuddle.”
It was then that we heard someone yell “bitch” from the bar and the sound of shattering glass. Three inebriated zombies stumbled out into the parking lot, and a final round of karaoke (a Bon-Jovi finale) commenced beneath the strobe lights. I suddenly wanted to get to our room as quickly as possible. I opened the Corolla trunk and removed our bags. I threw a fleece blanket over a .40 caliber pistol case, and slung it under my arm.
“You brought a gun?” Johnny asked.
“A gift from the English Department when I graduated,” I said, deadpan.
We headed back to the motel lobby, up a flight of stairs, and arrived at room 230. A sign beneath the number read CAUTION: WHIRLPOOL. I had visions of naive lovers being devoured by a hot tub leviathan. I waved the keycard in front of the door handle and waited for a green light. Nothing. A second time. Nada. I was Ali Baba on the fourth try.
The room was Greco-Roman kitsch. Ionic columns stood in each corner with plastic burgundy grapes cascading from each phallic monolith. Faux-silver framed poster prints depicted amorous fauns and wood nymphs. Pan was reproduced in oil as he stared deviantly at a sorority of European virgins bathing. And everywhere else there were mirrors. Mirrors on the ceiling, the bed’s headboard, an entire coffee table of reflective glass, mirrors encircled the Jacuzzi. A bust statue greeted us, perched on the column closest to the door: Marcus Aurelius (120-180 AD). The Stoic himself had been immortalized in designer resin and was now resigned to a vacant suite in the backwoods of Wisconsin. The author of Meditations, and here he was, a tired looking understudy in tasteless decor.
Johnny and I fell into hysterics. We posed heroically for the mirrors. We sent shirtless photographs to our spouses with exaggerated come hither stares from the whirlpool. “Wish you were here,” we texted. We marveled at the four inadequate locks on the door. We laughed until it hurt like sit-ups.
“You must bring Rachel here someday,” I told Johnny.
“Tenth anniversary,” he quipped.
Had we shared the room with some other ghost from antiquity, our expedition would have been vastly different. Marcus Aurelius, however garish his sculpture, haunted us all the way home. His philosophy of dispassion and resolve offered an alternative to the perpetual tragicomedy we witnessed on the roads of America. If human beings are “incurably en route” (Adam Zagajewski), an essential component of our journey is figuring out the stride, the cadence, and the rhythm of whatever we happen to find along the way. I never want to stop attending to this work. Driving west with Johnny and a dead philosopher did immeasurable good for my education.
This side of the Romantics, Stoicism gets a bad rap. Its moderation is a bore, its restraint, the antithesis of children begotten by Oscar Wilde and Lady Gaga. Perhaps it deserves reclamation. As pagan wisdom, it bears an unparalleled elegance. As an ethical creed in the face of adversity and hardship, it exhibits an admirable dignity. It reminds one that there is always a center, a still point, even when this life of cheap hotels and karaoke, fast food and frivolity seems so pretty, oh so pretty, vacant.
* * * *
Meditations / Marcus Aurelius
Trans. Gregory Hays
23. Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone – those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us – a chasm whose depths we cannot see. So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either. As if the things that irritate us lasted.
Matter. How tiny your share of it.
Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it.
Fate. How small a role you play in it.