It was Clorox wipe-time at the Wigwam Motel.
Each week on Friday, before the weekend "rush," Sheryl pulled out the lemon-scented tube of wipes and cleaned the desert dust off the "artifacts" - giant hunks of petrified wood, their tops shiny from the asses of a thousand tourists posing on them for snapshots, the "ancient" Navajo kachinas - bought at the gas station down the road two for twenty bucks, the collection of classic cars in miniature - tiny red convertibles and aqua-colored roadsters, chrome fenders shining in the light that poured from the plate glass windows by the road. So many things collecting dust here.
Artifacts. That's what her boss had called them when she took the job, but really, they were "memorabilia" at best, or maybe even "relics," if you were being honest. Relics, like this old motel on Route 66, relics just like her.
They'd been lying in bed, in a purple haze of afterglow and pot smoke when he slid his arm across her chest and ruined her life.
"Let's go out West," he'd said, blue eyes sparkling the way they always did when he got one of his big ideas. "We'll be explorers, you know, like Lois and Clark!"
"You mean Lewisand Clark?" she'd laughed, shaking her head and passing him the joint.
"Whatever, you know what I mean." His eyes flashed annoyance. He hated when she corrected him.
"We'll take Route 66, "The Mother Road," all the way to the Grand Canyon, - I've always wanted to see they Grand Canyon! - and then we'll go to Vegas, baby! Strike it rich at the slots! Vivaaaa Las Vegas!" he crowed, Elvis-style, grabbing her hips and wiggling them on the bed.
She giggled but raised an eyebrow. "You know those things are rigged right? My uncle Donny lost his car out there thinking if he just put in 'one more dollar' he'd hit the jackpot. What do they say? 'The house always wins?' It's no lie!"
"Sooo, we'll workat the casinos instead!" He always had an answer for everything. "I'll deal blackjack at Ceasars Palace, and girl, with those legs, you could be a dancer in any show on The Strip!" He cut his eyes at her slyly. "Speaking of legs...why don't you come wrap those things around me one more time, baby?"
He'd pulled her on top of him and kissed her hard. As he pressed deep inside her, all her arguments disappeared in the smoky air. She'd always wanted to drive Route 66.
They hit the road and made it to the Painted Desert before it all fell apart. Truth be told, the beginning of the end was back in Nebraska, or maybe Kansas - one of those flat states with nothing to look at and nothing to do for miles but talk.
First, they got lost. Route 66 wasn't marked as well as it used to be and somewhere around Lincoln they made a wrong turn and wound up in the center of corn fields that went on for miles. He blamed it on her and she blamed it on him and his eyes went hard and he hadn't spoken to her for hours.
Then, she corrected him one too many times. They were talking about movies, and he'd mentioned Star Wars, and then held up his hand, fingers spread in a V and said solemnly "Live long and prosper."
Couldn't he get anything right?
"That's Spock! Star TREK!" she'd said with irritation.
His brow furrowed in anger. "You think you're so damn smart don't you?"
He'd raised his palm to her like he might slap her face, then dropped it heavily back to the steering wheel. She felt a small shock of fear tingle down her spine. Maybe this had been a mistake, but they were a hundred miles from nowhere. It was too late to turn back now.
They were cruising through the Petrified Forest in Arizona when the car overheated. It was 110 in the shade - if you could find any shade - and they rolled, steam rising from beneath the hood, into the visitor's center parking lot. They were getting low on cash but headed in to the old Fred Harvey luncheonette to make a plan, eat some diner food, the chrome shining around the red leather booths.
They ate their lunches in silence, each wondering what next. When she finished her sandwich, Sheryl noticed the pie display twirling beside the counter. "Do you think I could get a slice of pie?" she asked him. "That chocolate cream looks so good! We can share it..." she offered, batting her eyes sweetly at him.
He looked at her face, at the pies swirling in their case and then out at the parking lot. A van had just pulled in and some guys piled out, slapping shoulders and stretching. VEGAS OR BUST! was written in the dirt across the windows.
"Sure baby, get yourself some pie," he'd said, and tossed a twenty on the table. "I gotta go." He gestured toward the bathroom and walked away.
She called a waitress over and ordered her pie. When it came, fork tinkling on the diner dish, she sat contentedly staring out the window at the endless desert, slowly savoring each silky sweet bite.
She was thinking she needed to save a some for her boyfriend - what was taking him so long? - when she saw him walking across the parking lot toward the guys in the van. Was he going to ask them for help with their car?
He talked to them, gesturing animatedly to their broken car, the Vegas sign on their window. At first they looked wary of this stranger, but as usual, he charmed them and when they slid open the big van door, he climbed right in, a smile on his face, backpack slung over his shoulder. Wait. What the hell was he doing?
She rose to rush out the door after him but the waitress hurried over, afraid she was skipping out on her bill. She pushed the twenty he'd left into the server's hands and ran to the parking lot. The van zoomed off, tires skidding in a scatter of pebbles as the bros inside whooped and laughed.
She was alone, and he'd never even looked back.
What should she do? She couldn't go home. Her mama had been so pissed when she'd left, furious that she was "gonna go live in sin with that dreamer in the Temple of Sodom and Gomorrah." Her mother had warned her that this would happen and she'd be damned if she was going to prove her right. She was 21 years old and she could make it on her own.
She went back to the car and grabbed her suitcase, her sunglasses, and headed out to hitch a ride to Vegas.
The first car she hopped, a minivan with the all-American family that talked too much and sang along with oldies on the radio, got her as far as Sun Valley.
The next was a quiet and kindly-looking man in a beat up truck. When he pulled off the road by the railroad tracks in Holbrook, unzipped his faded jeans and grabbed her by the back of her neck, he said it all when he demanded "a down payment on the rest of the ride."
She struggled fiercly, clawed at his face, and managed to slide out of the truck as he sped away, tearing up her knee when she hit the shoulder. She limped into town and almost laughed when she saw the goofy concrete dinosaurs of the Rock Shop, the flashing neon warrior of the Apache Motel. She was at the heart of Route 66 now.
She took her chances at the Wigwam Motel. The white tipis with bright red doors set back from the highway, where roadtripping families spent the night back in the 50's, had always conjured the perfect image of a simpler era for her, a more innocent time.
The elderly owner took one look at her dusty, tear-streaked face and took pity on her. He gave her Lidocaine and Bandaids for her knee and set her up in Wigwam #5.
"I've been looking for a night manager," he mentioned casually as she left the lobby. "Maybe we can talk about getting you a job in the morning."
She nodded, grateful, and walked across the parking lot to her tipi. Inside the angled walls she found a double bed, Navajo blanket folded neatly on top, a tiny table with a mini fridge below, a tube tv mounted to the wall and a bathroom so small she had to hunch over to take a shower. Home sweet home.
That's exactly what it had been for the past two years.
She took the night manager job. She was on duty from Noon to nine o'clock when the reception desk closed. From twelve to three she changed bed sheets, scrubbed toilets and swept floors in the 15 little tipis they rented by the night to adventure seekers and idealists.
From three to eight thirty she worked in the office, checking folks into their rooms, giving out keys and wifi passwords. Yes folks, these days even wigwams have wireless. And, once a week she was on Clorox duty, keeping the artifacts free of dust, shining like the day they were made in China.
Don't get her wrong, she loved Route 66. Loved the kitsch and silliness and the glow of neon at night. But she'd seen it from the inside out now, lived it from the inside out and now she could see the difference in fool's gold and fourteen karat.
That Friday she checked in a family of four...
"But WHY is it called the Wigwam Motel when these are TIPIS, mom?"
"Well, honey, people just weren't as culturally aware back then...but aren't they cool?!"
And a couple roadtripping their honeymoon cross country....
"I always thought staying in a wigwam on Route 66 would be SO romantic!"
"I sure hope the beds in those tipis have good springs!"
And a man on a motorcycle in dusty leather chaps...
"Where can a guy get a cold beer around here? I'm parched."
And one guy, who pulled up in a real classic Chevy, fenders gleaming, the car a midnight blue that matched his eyes...
"I know it's silly, but I just love Route 66. There's something timeless about it..."
She gave him his room key and when his hand lingered over hers she met his eyes and found a question there.
"I get off at 8:30," she said simply.
"You know where to find me," he replied.
A few hours later she hit the lights, her day at its end, and the neon Wigwam Motel sign went dark.
It was Friday and there were still five vacant tipis on the lot. The heyday of the Mother Road had long since passed this cracked blacktop by. Sometimes the loneliness of it was too much to bear.
She filled a bucket with ice from cooler, tucked in a few beers and headed to Wigwam #11.
When she knocked on the door he opened it quickly, those dark denim eyes opening in surprise.
"I didn't know if you'd come," he stammered.
"What's that they say?" she asked shyly. "Get your kicks on Route 66?" She waved the bottles at him invitingly.
They sat together in a companionable silence on a green iron bench beside his cement tipi, drinking beer and watching cars pass on the highway as the last rays of the sun disappeared.
When the bottles were empty he leaned toward her in the gathering dark and kissed her full on the mouth, the bite of beer both bitter and sweet on his tongue. Rising, he took her hand, opened the red door and led her inside.
In the haze of the afterglow they lay facing each other on the twin bed, feet tangled in the Indian blanket. He rubbed his fingers over her knuckles and kissed them.
"You know, I was thinking of driving on to Vegas," he told her. "Maybe stop by the Grand Canyon? You could come with me..."
She rolled onto her back and smiled a bittersweet smile. What was it with her and these damned dreamers?
"Thank you, but no," she said, kissing his chest as she rose. She slipped back into her jeans and shirt.
"I'm afraid this is where the road ends for me. But, why don't you send me a postcard from the Strip?" She knew she'd never hear from him again.
With a last kiss, she walked out the door, into the cool desert night.
He watched her go, through the tiny window of his tipi, watched her unlock the door to Wigwam #5 and step inside.
As the light clicked on in her tipi, her home, he wondered how she got here. Her story was just one of many left by the wayside on Route 66.
The front of the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook where we slept this Friday night. Two classic cars for effect.
A variety of "wigwams" for rent. At 8:30 the young woman who checked us in turned off the neon and walked back to where she lived - Wigwam #5.
My family in the tipi on our roadtrip - not a lot of space, lol!
Cement dinos at the Rock Shop on Route 66 in Holbrook.
Sunset on Route 66 at "the corner" in Winslow, Arizona from the Eagles song "Take It Easy."
Same corner. That's me, fan-girling it up!