Strangers said “hi.” Mini-mart workers asked about our day. Bible salesmen smiled and waved to us from the side of the road. While I found the residents of Utah suspiciously friendly, Margie trolled a path down the main streets saluting and smiling like the self-appointed Grand Marshal of a parade. Not one single person had ever heard of a bathroom keychain. That didn’t dampen her enthusiasm. The fact that we had planned a trip documenting an artifact that appeared not to exist didn’t affect her mood. What broke her spirit was that I didn’t want to leave the car. For a trip designed around human interaction, my introversion was a costly albatross.
When I heard the irritating logic, “Why would you need a key? If the door is locked, it means someone is in there.” That was the indicator for me to return to the passenger seat and eat a sandwich. Eventually, I began to bypass my camera and just began to reach for the cooler at every stop. Margie, on the other hand, saw the comments as the opportunity to gently point out that locking the restrooms when they are not in use was not a phenomenon specific to the hedonistic lifestyle coastal states – it was a tradition the whole country should be proud of.
My chance to work came faster than we both expected. At the eastern border of the Zion National Park, we entered a town center/gas station/gift shop. A bored clerk, standing dazed in the middle of the store, appeared to be the lone representative for all three. Before the car came to a complete stop, Margie turned to me and communicated the game plan, “Stop complaining, get out of the car, and bring your damn camera.”
A layer of dust covered everything from the shopkeeper to the taxidermy rattlesnakes. Business had been slow since September 11th and with the impending war, there appeared to be no break in sight. Inflated gas prices and a dip in tourism were turning the area into a ghost town. The economics of supply and demand affecting the store appeared to have an impact on the restrooms as well. Along a hallway leading to the exit, four bathroom stalls appeared through a gap in the wall. There was no door, no lock and no key. Three of the four stalls had “closed” signs on them. The fourth stall was marked, “Please!! Flip handle hard. It should work. Thanks!” It didn’t explain what to do when, after all the hard work, nothing happened.
Seven hours into our second day on the road, we found our first keychain in Manti, Utah. Margie tried to explain the basis of our project, but the woman still seemed to have trouble comprehending our exhilaration over a locked toilet. Her confusion only deepened when we grabbed the key, ran out to the car, photographed the ax handle tied to the key, returned it, and drove off without ever visiting the restroom. Without irony, Margie and I exchanged high-fives.
Fifteen stops, fourteen conversations with strangers, one photograph for the project was enough to justify stopping for the night. The problem was, in towns only a block long, the options for lodging were limited. I suggested we stop and ask someone to recommend a hotel. Margie suggested I switch the “ho” to a “mo” and come to terms with the fact our budget did not allow for the prestige and comfort of hotels. We were motel people. As such, there was no need to stop and ask someone where to stay. Our lodging would be situated along the road, in clear sight of all passing vehicles. When her speech was finished, faster than you could say “dirty bedspread,” we found the Skyline Motel.
The Skyline had little to offer. Being conveniently located across from the Home Plate Cafe did nothing to change that. Unless we wanted to sit by ourselves in our motel room for the evening, the Home Plate was our only option. We could only hope the food was better than the décor and the alcohol-free menu suggested. We ordered the fried chicken strips and sipped water for thirty minutes before the waitress returned to inform us she could only find one order of the chicken. Hoping a meal “turned up soon” was not a good sign. Margie changed her order to a salad and unwittingly saved herself a very traumatic night sleep.
I spent the hours until sunrise tossing and turning with an upset stomach. My chilly sweat from the food was accentuated by the alternating extremes of the heater/air conditioning unit. In trying to adjust the intensity of the air, the knob broke off in my hand. So, I unplugged it. Without the clanking and humming of the fan, the room was eerily quiet. I was finally on the cusp of sleep when, outside my window, two men started discussing the severity of their wounds and whether a trip to the hospital was necessary. My neighborhood in Los Angeles may not have been the safest, but in no way was I used to strange men bleeding outside my window. Terror-provoked trembling replaced tossing and turning. I re-plugged the unit to drown out the voices and hoped to sweat, and/or freeze myself to sleep.