Actually there was plenty of room at the Holiday Inn in central Missouri, but Lana and I decided we wanted something different.
For years, when traveling, we have not eaten at a restaurant if we recognized its name. No McDonalds, no Kentucky Fried Chicken, no Pizza Hut. As a result, we get many mediocre meals, and occasional fantastic ones. Most memorable are the four-star meal in Jefferson, Texas (the chef quit the Dallas restaurant rat race and opened a tiny gourmet spot in this town of 2,000 souls), and the great deal for good country cooking (home of the Mountain Burger, where low fat is seldom heard) in the Quad Cities area where Moline and Davenport gaze at each other across the upper Mississippi River.
Driving to Rockford, Illinois, from Dallas is nearly a thousand miles so, being middle-age prudent, we decided to take two days for the trip. As usual, we made reservations at a Holiday Inn for the nights we were going and, a week later, returning.
At a rest stop we gathered pamphlets describing the wonders of Missouri. A glossy, four-color magazine listed all of the Bed and Breakfasts in the state. We've stayed in B&Bs before, always in resort areas, and have had very good luck with them. So we decided to call one of them that was along the way.
A child answered. "Mom's at the store." He gave Lana the number.
"This is Kathy." Lana explained what we wanted. "Oh, my. I guess so. The bed isn't made. Oh, it's stripped, but I'll have to make it. And do some cleaning." She hesitated. "Oh, sure. Come on. Where are you?"
I shrugged to Lana. "Eighty miles?" What do I know? I just drive.
Lana and I decided that, since it was about the same price as the Holiday Inn, and included breakfast, it was a good deal.
We drove on. It was only fifty miles. Kathy's directions had been idiosyncratic, but after a while we found the house perched on top of a large hill. It was a quaint building, built in 1944, walls of white mortar between large irregular blocks of stone, almost like a Swiss chalet. We knocked on the door and a young boy tried to open it for us, then shouted, "I can't find the key!" Ten years old, short blond hair; a normal kid.
He disappeared and then came out a door down the hill and to the right. I shouted to him, "We'll come with you that way! It's cold out here!" He hesitated, then led us on.
The first room was clearly basement, warmer than outside but still chilly. A door to the left led to the second room, which looked like a storeroom, with boxes everywhere, rags hung from odd places on the wall, the floor dusty. But it also contained a sink (full of paint cans, their sides identifying the color of the paint now congealing within) and a stove. The kitchen?
The next room was pleasant, games set out invitingly. (Why are we willing to play checkers on vacation when we'd never consider it at home?) Up some stairs we came to the living room. Antique furniture, framed letters from the civil war, an army helmet, brightly colored old bottles. Walls and every surface covered with knickknacks and the other detritus of past days that we have come to associate with the prissiness of the people who run B&Bs. And, presumably, that the guests expect.
We sat and waited for Kathy who, the boy assured us, was on her way.
Kathy had to enter the house by the same route we had. She greeted us with, "Oh, God, you saw downstairs. Is that how you came in?" We nodded. "Well I'll get it cleaned up. This has not been a good day. My husband is gone hunting and won't be back until Monday." She turned to her son and shrieked, "You find those keys, Ken."
"It was Keith."
"Well find them anyway!"
Back to us. Normal tone, like the interruption had never taken place. "Would you like to see the room? It's the honeymoon suite."
Back to her son. Shriek. "Where are those keys? I've had a bad day."
Calmly the son gazed at her. "I can see that. We'll find them."
Kathy smiled at us. "I think you'll like this room."
She led us up three stairs to an enchanting room sitting higher than all the others. It was warmer than the rest of the house, almost comfortable. Kathy pointed to a picture hanging beside the bed. "That's my grandmother. See the dress she's wearing?" The black dress was indistinct, but we nodded. "Look there." She indicated a dress dummy in a corner of the room. "That's the same dress. Grandma was changing the collar on it when she died. See, the pins are still in it!"
One wall was a gigantic shadow box containing a wedding dress. The belt was hanging askew. "Don't ever trust Velcro," Kathy confided to us.
Her son came in and handed her the keys. She took them and turned to us. "This has been a bad day." She led us back to the living room. "Oh, I have so much cleaning to do." She grabbed a broom and started sweeping. Her son held a dustpan for her.
I cleared my throat. "Maybe we should go eat."
She straightened and got a key ring out of the cash register that sat beside the front door. "Here's your key. This one opens the front door, and this one opens your room. All this work to do! You have a good dinner!" She went back to work.
After an agreeable German dinner (we found the restaurant by trying to follow Kathy's directions, then stopping and asking), we returned to find the house toasty and Kathy and her son just finishing up. "I turned on the gas furnace, but I couldn't remember how to set it, so it's too warm. Jack always does that. I'll turn it down. Then I'll put some wood in the wood furnace and you'll be fine all night."
She finally left, son in tow, to feed him at their house a couple of miles away. Lana and I looked through some books and then turned in. It was warm up in our room. After an hour or so, it was hot. I checked the register and found hot air streaming out of it. I went down to the basement, where it was cooler. The thermostat was set on 65, and the thermometer reported the temperature as 78. I turned the thermostat to Off. Hot air kept pouring out.
After some discussion, I called Kathy and told her what I had done. She suggested turning on the air conditioner in the room, turning on the ceiling fan in the room, opening a window to the frigid outside air, and turning off the register in our room. I thanked her and went to turn on the fan. The register could not be closed (it was dusty and old). Kathy called back while I was down gazing at the thermostat and told Lana she was going to get dressed and come over. It was 11:00 at night.
As she entered, she exclaimed, "It's hot in here!"
She led me to the basement, fiddled with the controls, and then went out a side door. I followed her outside and down some steps. Then she turned down the steep side of the hill the house rested on. "You don't have to come down here!" I followed her anyway, holding tightly to a nearby tree while navigating the sharp turn down the hill. At the bottom, two planks extended in the darkness to the slab of cement that the house rested on. I watched Kathy cross, then followed her, taking baby steps as the planks bent under my weight. Kathy went through an open doorway and I followed her into the bowels of the house.
The cellar was festooned with old spider webs. Dust partcles reflected light from the bare bulb, reminding me of the stars in the cold night sky outside. I wondered if there was a B&B in Bethlehem.
Just inside the door was a large shiny box. "That's the gas furnace." Next to it, heat radiating, was a stumpy black box, a grill in front. "That's the wood furnace." She opened the grill. "Wow! It's not supposed to be like that! But I put in wood like Jack always does. It's supposed to last all night! The house could have burned down!!"
We went back up, found a bucket, filled it with water from a shower stall, and carried it down the precarious trek to the cellar. There we took turns scooping water into the wood furnace. After three or four buckets of water (each trip to the cold air outside a blessing), the heat started to subside.
In the house, heat was still roaring out of the register. We turned on the air conditioner for a while, then turned it off. Kathy was about to call her husband, somewhere in Kansas, when the blower stopped. Silence.
"Thank God. This has been a very bad day! The house could have burned down!" Yes, I thought, not to mention your two guests.
The next morning, at the appointed hour, Kathy served us delicious, heart-shaped waffles, with sweet baked apple sections to put on them. We helped ourselves to the large piles of bacon and sausage, and enjoyed the fresh fruits, including a pineapple Kathy had found somewhere.
"You'll be calling this the Bed and Breakfast from Hell!" she said as we ate our breakfast. In a quiet voice she added, "I guess I can't charge you."
We packed and loaded the car, then thanked Kathy. We left her twenty dollars as a tip. That would at least pay for the breakfast and all the wood she had burned. She told us that she had ordered wood for the season, which her husband usually did, and had not specified what kind of wood. They must have delivered old, dry wood instead of the new green wood that should be burned in the wood furnace. Have you ever burned an old Christmas tree that has served its time bringing light and aroma and color to your house? Whoosh!! That's how that wood was burning.
Lana and I went on to Rockford and had a good time. We met family and friends, made new ones, and thoroughly enjoyed our stay. We told the story of the Bed and Breakfast from Hell. Near the end of our stay, Lana observed that staying with your parents as an adult is not unlike staying at a particularly cozy B&B. And with good companionship, besides.
We agreed that our experience would not put us off trying new things, eating at strange restaurants, and trying different sleeping accommodations.
But on the way home we stayed at the Holiday Inn.