It was late evening in the middle of summer. Warm. The day had been sunny, a sky filled with those white puffy clouds that are often thought of as cotton balls. Patches of blue peeking through. Thankfully there had been air conditioning for the vehicle. And music. And conversation. It was a road trip. The source was the dry prairie. The destination was the wet ocean. This was always a bit too far to drive in one stretch. Had it been an eastward trip, it could have been done in one fell swoop. However, the mountains of British Columbia forbid a straight line, nor is it flat. Speed requires a certain consistent horizontalness to reality.
Speed and the horizontal. Before I understood this, I spent a night in a motel in Weyburn Saskatchewan. It was unnecessary and restless and tinged with a bit of paranoia, but that’s a tale for another time. Today we are approaching Grand Forks, British Columbia. Halfway to Vancouver. Everywhere is halfway to somewhere else, but Grand Forks was halfway on this journey, both by time and by distance.
Now if we found ourselves in Weyburn and were asked, as many motel proprietors often do, “where ya headed today?” and we said “Grand Forks”, they would naturally assume we were southbound and down, headed to the Dakotas to commune with the bikers in Sturgis (although our lack of a bike would’ve been a giveaway). But here we are, in a small, sleepy corner of BC, just far enough above the border that cell phones don’t confuse the signal, leaving you with roaming charges that are a lie, suggesting that you’ve travelled where you haven’t.
Imagine a life where you always asked “where ya headed?”, yourself only travelling through the words of response from the many guests who grace your clean sheets, cable television and fridge in every room. It could be lonely. It could be wistful – having to put on the face of interest and care as we listen to each story. I’m sure there’s a pattern to it.
“Where ya headed?”
“Going north to the lakes.”
“Sounds nice. Watch out for construction. Had some folks here last night who said it took ‘em two hours longer when they went by the highway.”
“Thanks! I’ll keep that in mind.”
Or perhaps its calm and settling. You are the rock. The touchstone for the weary traveller and you relish sharing those small pieces of updated reality, passed on by human voice to human ear – as no Google Maps or GPS could ever say as eloquently. The map is never the territory, and the territory can only be travelled to be known. (But isn’t this what we do as therapists? “Where ya headed?” “I don’t know… I just know I don’t want to be here.” “Then let me tell you about a route I heard about from someone… maybe it will tickle your fancy/heal your damage… and put you on a new path.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
Johnny was a tall friendly Englishman, or so his accent betrayed. That and the Red Box telephone booth sitting outside his office. How much did it cost to get that transported to Grand Middle of Nowhere Forks? But it was clearly needed. Every motel has its thing. In Brooks, Alberta there is the Telstar Motel. The Telstar satellite went up in 1962. It was designed to carry television signals amongst other things. The motel has a stylised replica of the satellite sitting on a tall pole, announcing that you have reached the correct destination. You can’t miss a big spherical globe that says “Telstar”. The television reception better be good there or else it too is just a façade of faded mint green, promising comfort, rest and clean sheets along your way.
The Telstar. 54 years old this year. Recently, some Great Mind was asked “what will the future look like?” In 1962, apparently, we hoped for communication. The first commercial satellites were all telecommunications. What does that say about us? We need the connection. We need to hear one another. We need to share where we are headed, in hopes that the lonely journey of being human can include the company of others. We need to rage against the existential loneliness. It is only human to fight this. We must never agree to be alone. To hell with Camus and Sartre. They were wrong. We are all in this together, and as Jim Morrison once said, “no one here gets out alive.” So, we must never agree to be alone. There is nothing lonelier than a single bed in a motel. It must never be that. You must never accept that as your destination.
What will the future look like? That Great Mind’s answer was interesting. He said “it’s not going to look very different from today.” Think about it. Buildings last. The New York skyline, for those of us who can remember it, is forever changed. And yet it remains familiar. The time traveller from the 1930s would still recognize it. That’s almost 90 years. As long as many a life span. The 747 first flew in 1969. Not so long after the Telstar. We still see them flying today (or we did when I wrote this in 2016). The time traveller from 1970 would be disappointed. We still see the Telstar when we drive the strip in Brooks. We don’t even blink. We still come to someone to talk to, to share, to have our pain relieved.
What will the future look like? It will look like you and me. Sitting. Listening. Extending our care to each other with all our might.
“How long do we have for our session today?”
“For the next hour, we have all the time in the world. Tell me about your journey. Let me help you unpack.”
Johnny’s Motel. Yes, he named it after himself – perhaps because he was the motel – the host, the man who would ensure your comfort, your safety. You were staying at Johnny’s. Not some cheap motel. We arrived late. He said, “I’ll leave your key in an envelope in the mailbox. You’re number 4. There’s some other people arriving late. They’re number 8.” For years in the USA, Motel Six ended every ad with “We’ll leave the light on.” Here, they leave the light on and your keys in the mailbox. Welcome home. We’ll see you in the morning. Sleep well.
Of course, Johnny was still up. Master of his domain, he couldn’t close the gates to the keep until all the stragglers were accounted for. Friendly, happy to see us again even though we’ve never been there. There is a pool. We ask if we can swim. He looks at the clock. It’s past closing. He says “that would be fine, as long as you’re quiet. I shooed some kids out of there earlier.”
The room was clean. The promise of all motels. Simple. A bed with a flowery comforter. Something you’d never buy for your own home, but somehow it is the only comforter that could be on this bed. Or any bed in a motel.
A dresser balancing a new flat screen TV. Cable of course. The legacy of the Telstar. A small fridge, and the usual bathroom. But most of all, there was the promised sliding door that opened on a patio, with a view of the river (or so said the website…). Time for a post-driving drink on the patio. By the river. Only, it’s a creek. And when the winter snows melted, swelling its banks, your river view patio would be the shallow end of a flood**.
Sometimes we sit with someone, being their motel, being their brief refuge as they pause on their journey to somewhere else. Sometimes we have to help them imagine the river view, the patio, and the warm-ish beer from the car’s cooler as though it was a grand balcony, overlooking the ocean, champagne in hand, breeze tussling hair as we rest our weary souls. And for a moment, it is so. And then the mosquitos remind us. Remind us of the little annoyances in our lives, that culminate in the sometimes desperate and unheard cry for travel:
“I want to get away.”
“I hate my life.”
“I hurt. I don’t want to hurt anymore.”
“Well, then, where ya headed? Can I help you find a route that avoids the construction? Or at least helps you weave through it with just enough time to arrive at the next motel in one piece?”
“Same time next week?”
The sleep was fine. The sex was fair. Sometimes that’s just how it goes. The river gurgled and flowed and eventually the sleepy night air laid your troubled mind to rest. There is peace in heaven for a brief time. The refuge serves its purpose. We hold those for whom we care. We make space for them. Like Johnny does for countless travellers, seemingly 24/7, 365 days of the year. Because we are always travelling. And a traveller needs rest.
Morning. Time to roll. The daylight reminds us that a motel in the morning is not the same place as a motel in the evening. When you arrive, there’s a tired hope. Hope that you will rest your weary feet. There’s a kind of magic to the night – moths flutter around the porch light in front of every unit. The cool breeze soothes you. It’s dark enough that you never quite get the measure of the place. How long is the building? What colour is the roof? How many units have cars in front? You enter your room, lit, inviting. And then you shut the door.
In the morning, you see it for what it is. Every motel is the same. A longhouse of individual units. The motor hotel…. Drive up to your door. Walk right in. Welcome home. In the morning, you see the row of cars, evidence that others seek refuge from the night as well. We are all in this together. We all travel roads that may or may not be smooth. Horizontal. Winding. But we all travel just the same. We might say hello or good morning to our compatriots who have also felt the crisp cool clean sheets that were promised and delivered. And why? If we are all in this together, why do we not stop and spend more time commiserating about the crazy journey that this life is?
But one person does. Johnny. Or Bill. Or Marge. Or Beverly. Motel owners must have bland mid-west names. Except for Johnny, whose accent suggests that he is here because he wants to be, not because he had nowhere else to go. We want this work. We want to be the refuge for others. We want to be Johnny. You, me, every therapist, sits in the office, giving keys, taking keys, processing payments, “was everything okay?”
“Good morning! Did you sleep well?”
“Thank you for coming! Hope to see you again.”
We are the refuge for the traveller. We provide the clean sheets and the cable TV. And we gather stories and information about the road ahead. And we hope that in our brief time together, we can make some difference. Make the vertical horizontal. Make the darkness lighter. Clear a path. Hold a space.
You pack it all up. Amazed at how much of a mess you made the night before. Not because of the sex. Or the sleep that was at once restless and restful. You just have a lot of baggage and it gets strewn about when you stop to rest, when someone takes an interest. When someone lets you unpack.
“Where ya headed?”
“Well, we hope to reach the coast today… but I have all this stuff, I don’t know if I can get it all back into the car.” Chuckles all round. Of course you could get it all back in! You brought it all here, didn’t you? But the question is… do you want to? Do you want to stuff yourself full of all the crap that you came to rest with? Or can you leave a bit behind for Johnny to dispose of?
As you stuff things in the trunk you watch the woman make her way down the walkway with her cleaning cart. It’s not Johnny but maybe it’s his wife. Or daughter. Or someone they hired who is good with sheets. As the cart moves from one abandoned unit to the next – evidenced by the lack of car parked in front – you notice that the garbage bag grows in size. It was a good night. Many a traveller left something behind, unneeded baggage, extra crap that accumulates with us as life wears at us, like that river out back wears at its banks. Maybe you feel a bit guilty leaving so much flotsam in your wake, but you are a bit lighter. Your trunk not so full. You hit the road with hope. (And we don’t think to notice that hard working woman. Even Johnny doesn’t go it alone. And by the way, neither should we.)
Johnny, us, we have all done our job. For ever so brief a moment, we have provided shelter to those who travel a rough road. We can’t promise much, but we can provide clean sheets, cable TV and a fridge, and if you imagine hard enough, a balcony overlooking the ocean, even though it’s just a river and a patio made of broken concrete slabs. It’s not an illusion because things are always what we want them to be. But perhaps in the short time we provide someone with a room – the room – to explore their perception, we can suggest a slightly different map for their territory:
“I heard there’s construction if you go that way. Here’s a route I usually take. It’s a bit longer, but the views are fantastic.”
“Thanks! Maybe we’ll go that way instead.”
Always listen to the locals. But we may never know if we are heard. We can only hope that the path they travel when they leave us is a little clearer than the one they came to us by.
Mary Catherine Bateson once asked “What’s a Meta For?” It’s a catchy title for an interesting essay. As she edited her father’s final manuscript posthumously, she noted his words thus:
“it becomes evident that metaphor is not just pretty poetry, it is not either good or bad logic, but is in fact the logic upon which the biological world has been built, the main characteristic and organizing glue of this world of mental process.”
The motel. The therapist. A metaphor.
“Where ya headed?”
“Well, I’m trying to get home.”
“My friend, maybe you’re already here.”
Meanwhile, I’ll leave the light on….
** A couple of years after this trip, Johnny’s was under water when Grand Forks flooded. We drove through in the summer of 2019 and the place was still closed. I hope that Johnny and his family are doing well, and if they re-open, please stay there!