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Travel Horrors : Our Second Annual Halloween Collection of Scary Stories About Trip-Ups : Travel Horrors: Utah : Not as Bad as the Bates Motel, but . . . : It wasn't quite up to 'Psycho' standards, but there was no rest for the weary in this last-chance, Salt Lake motel : 'You want the $5 room, or the $7?' the motel owner asked. We blew the extra $2 and opted for the luxury unit.

October 30, 1994|SUSAN DUNLAP | Dunlap is a mystery novelist of 14 books who lives in Albany, Calif. Excerpted by permission from "I Should Have Stayed Home" (Book Passage Press), which is donating a percentage of profits to Oxfam America. and

Driving from San Francisco to New York takes 4 1/2 days if you make it to Salt Lake City the first night. Then your second night is in North Platte, Neb., the third near the Mississippi, the fourth in Cleveland and the fifth finds you tired but smug in the Big Apple. However, if you fool around and sleep in until 5 a.m. instead of 4 that first morning, you reach Wendover, Utah, well beyond the dinner hour, and the Great Salt Desert is too foreboding to attempt before bed.

The last time a friend and I headed east in my old Volkswagen we were determined to reach Salt Lake City. Thursday morning we were each up at 4 a.m. and were on Route 80 by a quarter to five. No breakfast; that we would save for our first rest stop. When we pulled into Roseville we gave ourselves a pat on the back for having waited until we came to a charming town. Charm, food and making good time, that's what travel is all about.

Over the Sierra, through Tahoe, around Reno and on to Winnemucca for the lunch break.

It may have been there, in Winnemucca, that we interrupted the hands on back for the question we should have considered before departure.

"Did you," Mary asked, "make a motel reservation for tonight?"

"No need," I answered. "I've made this trip four or five times. There's no problem finding a motel in Salt Lake City, particularly on a Thursday night."

And so we headed back into the wide tan landscape of Nevada. We reached the border and Wendover, Utah, at the edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert by 6. Hamburger, Coke, bathroom break and a brief return to the motel question. We could call ahead from here for a motel listed in the AAA booklet. But we were more adventurous than that--and cheaper. Besides, it was only 6:30 p.m. as we pulled out of town. We'd be in Salt Lake City before 9:30.

Three hours later we arrived in Salt Lake City, paused for a moment of self-congratulation, then headed along the first main street, looking for a cheap and charming motel. There were three motels in the first block--all with No Vacancy signs. But it was 9:15 p.m.; we had plenty of time. On the next block we passed another full establishment, but were buoyed to note the one after that had no ill-omened sign.

We pulled into the parking lot before we realized that the management here signaled its glut of tourists by turning off all advertising lights. It did, however, have a clock. Ten-thirty p.m., it said. We'd forgotten about the time change.

It was several blocks before we came to a motel office that looked somewhat welcoming. Here, we discovered that not only were they, too, full, but there was a huge Mormon gathering in town and every other decent motel was booked.

It was after midnight when we found it: Bob's Motel. Decent or not, we were too tired to care. We could sleep anywhere, we told each other. Bob himself sat at the desk, a muscular man in his mid-40s.

"You want the $5 room, or the $7 dollar?" he asked.

Having both worked for the welfare department we knew what $5 rooms were like. We blew the extra $2 and opted for the luxury unit. A good decision, we thought, as we made our way around two guys lounging at the edge of the cement walkway by the $5 rooms.

The $7 room was on the second of three floors. The night was hot, and despite all evidence to the contrary, we both hoped for air-conditioning--even one of those ancient rattling window units.

The room contained a lumpy double bed. We put our suitcases on the floor (the only available spot). I was bending over to unzip mine when I noticed the cockroach. I had lived in Manhattan and was no novice to the world of cockroachery. The goal of the roach is to slither into a suitcase, nest among the silks and arrive in Manhattan as a progenitor of a new nation of vermin. Up on the bed came the valises.

There was, of course, no air conditioner. The window overlooked the stairs but at least it would give us air. Mary had started to pull back the drapes when she realized that our predecessors had mistaken them for handkerchiefs. Carefully, she pulled them shut and went into the bathroom to wash her hands. When she returned we shifted the bags to one side and cautiously lifted bedspreads. The sheets were a memoir of our predecessors' joys and accidents.

But there's always a silver lining. Since we had to sleep in our clothes, we wouldn't be opening the suitcases. We allowed ourselves ever so light a pat on the back, before laying ourselves out in pine box fashion atop the bedspread.

We were asleep soon. And awake soon thereafter.

A metallic creaking came from above us. Bed springs. We laughed, not worried. The room above had to be like ours. And in heat like this the greatest passion would have its limits. We gave them 20 minutes.

The rattling peaked and died in 15. It was still only 12:30. We could get six good hours of sleep. With the residue of smugness draped over us like a sheet, we sighed and relaxed. That was when the door upstairs banged shut, as did the door to the hall. They've argued, we hoped.

It was another 20 minutes before the door banged again and the springs started to creak. And another half-hour after that . . .

The next morning we shuffled bleary-eyed to a restaurant, and drank two cups of coffee before we were awake enough to call North Platte, Neb., and reserve a room.

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