Somewhere between Ness City and Hugoton, it occurred to me: most of the aging, slightly down at the heels motels still clinging to life along the business routes of small Kansas towns had “(No) Vacancy” signs somewhere on their property. A few signs had been modernized with neon. Others were more traditional: wooden, with an adjustable covering for the dreaded “No” that, when visible, sent discouraged and already weary travelers father on down the road.
By the time I reached Satanta, I was a little weary myself, and ready to stop, so I paused to ask a convenience store clerk if the town had a motel. It did. She gave me directions, and I found it easily enough. Unfortunately, I hadn’t found it soon enough. It had a sign, too, and the sign said, “No Vacancy.” Forty minutes later, I had a room in Hugoton.
While I’d made reservations at two bed-and-breakfasts and at Matfield Station’s renovated railroad bunkhouse before leaving home, I’ve never been reluctant to travel without reservations. My traveling habits developed in the days when reading printed maps and asking directions was common: an era when scribbled notes, supplemented by the Rand-McNally Road Atlas, were enough to get you there — wherever “there” happened to be.
Part of the fun was the uncertainty attached to stopping. On family vacations, no one knew where we would land, or when. All we knew was that, about four o’clock, someone would begin asking, “Well, do you think we ought to start looking for a room?”
Today, even in smaller towns served by secondary highways, no one needs to “look for a room.” It’s no longer necessary to spot a motel, judge the exterior, and consult the vacancy sign before making a commitment. It’s easier to consult TripAdvisor or Travelocity, make the reservation, double check the map, and arrive.
Recently, journalist Paul Lukas noted the phenomenon in an article for Bloomberg:
The “(No) Vacancy” sign, a beacon of hospitality and/or disappointment, has greeted road-weary American travelers for generations. But just as paper maps and toll booth clerks increasingly seem quaint relics of the analog age, the classic “(No) Vacancy” sign may soon become another victim of shifting travel habits and market forces.
“We don’t really have any customers who want that type of sign anymore,” said Alex Lauretano of the Lauretano Sign Group, a leading sign manufacturer for the hospitality industry. “At one point they were useful—but not anymore, with online booking.” Julie Hall, a spokesperson for AAA, which inspects and rates motels, confirmed that vacancy indicators are on the wane and also cited online booking as a key factor.
What about the freewheeling road trippers who don’t book days in advance and simply follow their wanderlust? Even that type of traveler can now use smartphone apps, or simply Google lodging options in the next town down the highway and call ahead to check on availability, rendering the “(No) Vacancy” sign somewhat moot.
The times, they certainly are a-changing, even on the road: but with those changes, the pleasures or pain of the unexpected has significantly diminished.
Ironically, the “No Vacancy” signs disappearing from American motels continue to hang, at least metaphorically, over vacations as a whole. A vacation — literally, a “vacating” of life as usual — is meant to provide freedom from daily concerns: a time away from life’s responsibilities and routines that allows for refreshment and renewal.
Even so, many vacations seem as overbooked as the airlines, as packed with things to do and places to be as an overstuffed, five-piece set of luggage.
I do my own share of reading, researching, and planning before I travel, but I’ve learned that unexpected possibilities always present themselves, and complications or disappointments are inevitable. Given those realities, I’ve come to prefer a schedule with built-in flexibility. Unplanned days and unscheduled time can function almost as vacations-within-a-vacation, and sometimes provide remarkable experiences.
In Arkansas, I found just such a “vacancy” after three days of persistent fog and low-level frustration. Since the mountains barely were visible, I decided to travel south from Mena to DeQueen and Nashville, in order to visit their post offices. (Arkansas has nineteen Depression-era WPA murals in its post offices, and I was interested.)
After visiting DeQueen, I was on my way to Nashville when I noticed a small sign at the highway’s edge. I passed too quickly to read the words, but its brown slats reminded me of other signs I’d seen for state natural areas. Returning for a second look, I discovered the sign pointed the way to Pond Creek Wildlife Management Area. The Nashville post office would have to wait.
Although I never saw another sign, I guessed my way across country for several miles, and eventually found a Pond Creek entrance. Utterly deserted, Nobles Mound Road led into the heart of the natural area; its beauty was apparent, even in the fog.
At the edge of one road-divided pond, I stopped to watch uncounted butterflies mingle and play: swallowtails, buckeyes, pearl crescents, and viceroys. Astonished by their numbers, I sat to watch their antics. Perhaps emboldened by my stillness, the creatures fluttered closer, then closer still, until I could hear the sound of their passing. I may never again hear that impossibly slight sound: the fluttering of a hundred wings echoing in the same fog-drenched silence that had frustrated me only hours before.
Eventually, as the butterflies moved on, I began exploring the ditches and bottomlands surrounding me. I was astonished to find a single spiderwort still blooming. I can’t be certain, but it may have been Tradescantia ozarkana, an uncommon species native to the area surrounding Pond Creek.
Other flowers were as familiar as the spiderwort, like this sneezeweed.
Although I’ve learned to recognize button bush, I never had seen its fruit. Perhaps because of the rain, it bore a strange resemblance to gummy bears.
The banana-like stamens of horsenettle recalled other Texas natives, like the silver-leaf nightshade.
On the other hand, the Maryland meadow beauty fooled me. I thought, because of its stamens, it might be part of the large and varied genus known as Solanum, but I found that not to be true. On the other hand, it is present in the eastern part of Texas, so I may find it again sooner rather than later.
The smartweeds were everywhere: in graveyards, vacant lots, and highway ditches, as well as in the refuge. The same species live in Texas, with their toes in the water and their beautiful little flowers begging for attention.
Glorious yellow sunflowers and some mysterious yellow “Whatevers,” complemented by late-blooming, purple asters, brightened the foggy afternoon.
But the best was yet to come.
Over the course of several years, I’ve found, one by one, deeply appealing wildflowers that had seemed determined to elude me: white prickly poppies; purple, pineapple-shaped eryngo; scarlet leatherflower. Still, I held little hope of finding one of our most beautiful and elusive wildflowers: the slender, shapely, ladies’ tresses orchid.
Then, as I wandered along the road, not looking for anything in particular, I glanced toward the edge of the woods and thought, “Whatever that is, it sure is white.” Crossing the road and picking my way through the rain-filled ditch, I suddenly realized what I’d found. “Oh, my gosh!” I said, mostly to the flower. “Look at you!”
So excited I barely could hold my camera steady, I plunked myself down in the ditch, and started taking photos. Eventually, I realized there were more orchids around me: not in groups, but singly, tucked among the leaves and grass.
Some were fading; others had only begun to bloom. Each contained at least a few insects: feeding, apparently resting, or playing the role of unwitting particpant in small dramas of their own.
By the time I found the spider and the bug, hours had passed, and I wasn’t eager to drive unfamiliar, isolated forest roads after dark. As I prepared to retrace my route, I noticed one last gift: a beautiful stand of sumac entwined with loblolly pine and hardwoods on the far edge of the pond. It was, I thought, an embarassment of riches: as unexpected as the orchids, and as beautiful as any fall mountainside.
Remembering Pond Creek today, I’m more inclined toward gratitude than misanthropy. I’d not be willing to trade my place in the world for those woods alone, or human companionship for constant solitude.
Still, in seeking out silence and cherishing the empty places that surround us, we open ourselves to extraordinary experiences. In silence and emptiness, we hear the sound of fog condensing onto a leaf; the soft, thrilling beat of butterfly wings; the hush of leaves pulled earthward by invisible, inexorable forces; and even the sound of our own souls, stirring back to life.
The world, it seems, always is looking for a room. We’d do well to hold one vacant.