Sometimes the most memorable part of a vacation is the journey. I took the kids to Rocky Mountain National Park a few years back. Rather than cramming seven kids and one son-in-law into one vehicle and hearing “she’s touching me” before leaving the driveway, I thought it best to save my sanity and take two vehicles. This allowed for creative carpooling, rotating kids from one vehicle to another, and creating combinations to maximize peace through the hours across Nebraska.

Arriving the first night in Sterling, we grabbed supper before heading to our hotel. The internet really enhanced the whole process of reserving hotel rooms. Years ago, persons with foresight ordered a book for their destination which included hotel options and local restaurants. For those lacking organizational skills, they scrounged for a room, driving from hotel to hotel as the hour got later and later, eventually considering sleeping in the car. Super fun when you are tired and have seriously considered leaving one of the kids at a roadside stop. Now, many websites provide an extensive list of hotels and their amenities. Knowing that we were arriving late in eastern Colorado, and needing a place just to sleep, I used a site where the hotel name isn’t identified until after the purchase. A kind of “what’s behind door number two process” of selecting a hotel. We didn’t need anything fancy, so I went on the cheap. Lesson learned. Carefully consider your two-star hotels.

We pulled up to the hotel, and not to judge a book by its cover, but it didn’t immediately impress. It did not exactly have the “wow” factor. The parking lot was a disaster. Perhaps management spent their time and money on the interior. Perhaps not. I checked in, and we headed to our rooms. There were beer bottles and cigarettes scattered on the sidewalk. The room wasn’t one you would find in a lodging magazine. It was rough looking. The wallpaper was peeling; there were brown stains on the walls; the carpet was very worn, and everything was from a few decades ago. In fact, the whole room was like stepping into the 1970s, in a room that likely hadn’t been thoroughly cleaned since then either. I wondered if I stayed there in the ‘70s as a kid. I have stayed in a few crappy hotels in my time, and you know you are in a low-level hotel when the shower is in such poor condition that you question if you will actually feel cleaner not using it.

I can’t say the kids were overjoyed at my choosing.

“Are we actually staying here?”

“Why not?” I said with more bravado than I felt.

“Well, for one our room is a petri dish of communicable diseases.”

“Is that all?” I said, wondering who taught these kids the word “communicable” anyways?

“There might be a break-in, and we’ll be robbed,” they lamented.

Like I always say, “they probably need our stuff more than we do.”

I assured them we would be fine. Mothers frequently assure their children that everything will be fine when they really have no business doing so.

It was too late, and I was too tired to look elsewhere. Plus, I had pre-paid for our rooms so wasn’t about to throw away good money. Some of the kids seriously considered sleeping in the car. A couple of them slept fully clothed on top of the bedspread. Someone slept on the floor which was pretty grimy. I thought I would probably have to delouse them. In the morning, I awoke early to learn that our “continental breakfast” was being served at the neighboring hotel which was under renovation. This seemed ironic given the condition of our luxurious accommodations. The breakfast consisted of a box of gas station donuts, options plain or double plain. On a morning walk, I found myself arriving at a chain-link fence. Turns out we spent our first night of vacation near the Sterling Correctional Facility, which explained the condition of our inn.

We spent five wonderful days in the mountains before heading back home. Driving through Denver, I struggled to navigate our way and assure that the other vehicle was right behind us. Suddenly, I saw a deer in the road and ran over it. When I say ran over it, that is literal. The deer was dead on the road. Could I have swerved to avoid it? Probably, but it happened so fast, and I didn’t want to slam on the brakes during rush hour. I drove our bigger vehicle with the lion’s share of the family, so it seemed like a speed bump. My son, driving behind me, also drove over the animal. That was more concerning because he was in a car, lower to the ground.

Stopping for breakfast on the east side of Denver, my son was incredulous.

“Really, Mom, why didn’t you drive around the deer?”

“Well, it wasn’t going to get any deader!”

We then noticed liquid leaking from the car. Great! Only 12 hours left to drive. We don’t have time to stop, because a son is taking his driver’s license test the following day, and I can’t wait another six months, so he can drive himself to basketball practice. We look at the liquid. It could be anything: anti-freeze, gas, lime Jell-o, Kool-Aid. Is it bad if Kool-Aid is leaking from your car? With the hood open, our faces are blank. Our collective knowledge about vehicle mechanics could fill a thimble…halfway. I call my local mechanic who encourages me to have someone look at it. It’s Sunday, and we are now in no man’s land. My son thinks the car is running “weird.”

We pull into a village. It’s quiet. Too quiet. But I see a guy working on a semi in a garage. When it comes to desperation, I really have no shame. I will ask anyone for help. After telling the man my sob story, he says he will take a look. He notices the fluid seeping. He puts some on his finger and then, and I am not kidding, he tastes it. He tests the liquid coming out of my car with his mouth.

“Is it Kool-Aid?”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

He assures me that the juice flowing from my vehicle is windshield washer fluid. His scientific analysis befuddles me. Is that how mechanics determine all car problems? Is this guy legit? He seemed sure of himself, so we packed back into the cars and drove onward. Fortunately, we didn’t need windshield fluid to arrive home safely. I recently reminisced with my mechanic about that story, and he confirmed that tasting car fluid can be a diagnostic technique. Who knew?

My kids recall that trip with great fondness. Every kid should have a great story about a crappy hotel and driving over a deer!

Ruth Boubin has a degree in counseling and seems to find humor in the daily challenges of being a parent.

Jeffrey Jackson is the managing editor of the Owatonna People's Press. He can be reached at 507-444-2371 or via email at jjackson@owatonna.com

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