Party of Four

Not one of our rental cars, but about the size of several of the rooms we’ve shared

BC (before children) when work compelled me to travel almost every day of the week, hotels had a certain charm. 

“We were able to upgrade your room, Mr. Cobb, and we’ll try to do the same when you return in two weeks.”

I was greeted as a captain, ok, second lieutenant of industry as I made my circuit through the same states, staying at the same hotels, continuously using the alarm on the key fob to find the Oldsma-Buick rental car of the day that had already faded from memory.

A full reckoning of this time of my life would acknowledge that many of the hotels were actually rather dingy motels as much of my travel involved small towns. There were also nights lost listening to the person in the room above get their ten miles of pacing in before they finally turned in at 4:00 a.m. So, no, it wasn’t all roses but there was a certain sense of freedom, entitlement. I was entrusted with a corporate credit card, rental cars and the good name of the firm that I represented.

Children began to arrive a few years after I threw off the shackles of corporate life. I entered a whole new world where my days and nights were dictated not by one boss but by the myriad of bosses I had to please—bosses known as clients.

The pace of my travel dropped a bit, which allowed me to spend a little time at home with our boys, and my laptop. Now that I was paying for 100 percent of my travel I spent most of my nights in the downmarket hotels of the major brands (the ones with large dispensers of cereal and the treadmill-style toaster in the small, overcrowded room devoted to breakfast). 

One of my largest clients was in the oil exploration industry and I routinely visited their locations in the field. That term was never more appropriate as their rigs were located in the middle of large fields that were awfully close to nowhere (which was located over the next rise). There was one shabby motel in the greater area and the priority was to park in front of your window lest the oilfield workers kept you up all night drinking beer and bar-b-queuing in the back of their truck (before they returned to work the next day to operate heavy machinery).

My wife, back home with Thing #1, had a very different, rose-colored vision of my trips to the oilfield. I must, she thought, be enjoying myself in this exotic location. I was, apparently, selfishly hoarding this experience. The only way to convince her otherwise was to bring her and Thing #1 on my next trip.

Unable to talk her out of it, I returned to the sad motel about a month later with my wide-eyed bride and Thing #1 (who cried when he saw the accommodations, or because he was hungry, or just because that’s what he did). It was one of the first times I’d entered a lobby with a crying child in tow, and the reaction from the person working the desk, a lady I had met many times before, was my first real take on AC (after children) travel. 

The lady’s look was a combination of confusion and disappointment. Why, her eyes pleaded, would you bring your family to this place? And, when, if ever, will your kid stop crying so that I don’t end up with a bunch of complaints from the oilfield workers trying to finish their 12-packs and $3 steaks in peace?

All involved kept their opinions to themselves. My family shared a tiny room that smelled of old split-pea soup, and cigarettes, and my wife discovered that I wasn’t lying when I said there was nothing to do in the greater area. 

She never asked to go on one of my work trips again. Instead, she did something more assiduous. She began planning family trips.

Now, many years into the AC travel experience, and with the addition of Thing #2, I no longer book rooms in down market hotels of the major brands. No one greets me with an upgrade. Instead, we seek out accommodations via Booking.com and related sites that provide us with a kitchen so we can eat cereal and toast bread (vertically). Most importantly, we try to find places where it is physically possible to have the ability to close a door and be alone if only for a few minutes. 

AC travel is about sharing everything: time, experiences, space and smells. It is, of course, a privilege to be able to take a long trip with your family. It is also an event that showcases everyone’s habits, good or bad, in great, repetitive detail. Have a nose-picker in your family? Sit back and settle in with a box of Kleenex. Is there anyone in your crew who lacks patience? Good luck.

AC travel also means that the gloves are off in terms of decorum. There is no security on the premises and no one on duty at the front desk to officiate. True, at 1:00 a.m. on Christmas Eve I did finally convince the couple in the next cabin to shut down the party they’d decided to have outside our bedroom window. They took the request with the same grace displayed a few nights earlier at another spot when, at midnight, I had to ask the grandmothers screaming at each other across the hot tub located outside our room to knock it off.

Both of those groups responded more positively than the stray, dirty dog that entered a small house we’d rented. The dog marched past Thing #1, jumped on the bed and snarled and bit anyone attempting to dislodge him. Even the dog was more agreeable than the smell that awaited us in one refrigerator. I don’t know what organism chose that fridge as its final resting place, but the stench permeated all of our food (even the sealed items) and I had to toss most of it when we left the next day. 

As a veteran of several thousand nights of stays in hotels and the equivalent, it might just be that I now suffer from a lack of tolerance. I am fully, painfully aware of the amount of noise and destruction my group creates. I feel a large pang of guilt every time I see the debris Thing #2 has scattered, impacted around his seat in every single car he inhabits. I cringe when I see a couple trying to have a romantic dinner when we’re seated at the next table (perhaps, if nothing else, they’ll take the experience as a warning of serious potential side-effects). 

I hope we offset our anguish footprint to some degree by the fact that we’re in bed by 9:00. We may be rude, loud and flatulent, but we don’t stay up late. 

Sometimes, when one of the boys is kicking me in the ribs in the bed we’re sharing because there’s not enough room for my bride and me to cohabitate, I lie awake and look at the ceiling. I wonder if all of the AC travel challenges are our karma payback for the time we went to Disney—when I had a stomach bug and Thing #2 began vomiting at the airport. I, transparently eager to bail on the whole trip, suggested we return home and spare passing this pandemic to everyone else in the airport.

My bride, fearing I would never again agree to go see Icky the Mouse (which was how he was known by our children) insisted we press on. And so, we went. Thing #2 filled up three barf bags on the plane. He ralphed in the rental car and again in the bed we shared that night. As I carried his lifeless body around Disney the following day on my still wobbly legs, I wondered if we had just committed a selfish act for which we would continue to pay until the end of our days. I still do…