Motel California

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“Wrong Turns Write Life”

Welcome to the Motel California

We left Redwood National Park for a lesser-traveled wonder called Lava Beds National Monument. It was one of those Herculean driving days.

For a bit, we left California and were in Oregon. I stopped to gas up. When I popped out and pumped my gas, an attendant rushed over to me in a fuss and exclaimed, “You can’t do that!”


“$15,000 fine for pumping your own gas in Oregon!” he said seriously.


It didn’t seem like he was pulling my leg, so I could only take him at his word. It turns out it’s true not only there but also in New Jersey.

Once we were back in the land of self-serve, I noticed a peculiar topography. It looked like the hillside all along the roadway was lava rock.

Eventually, we were in no man’s land. And when I say no man’s land, that means only one place to stay (that we could find), and it wasn’t in any brochure, on GPS, on any travel website, or in the Triple-A database. The Triple-A advisor even advised against it. But I wanted to be close to the gate by opening because our itinerary had a full day drive to and from this geological wonder. There was only one such place. Their basic website described it as an old hunting lodge dating back to the Great Depression. I booked it. It was the closest (and by closest, I mean only) place I could find near the entrance to Lava Beds National Monument.

On a desolate road, the sun finally handing the sky over to the moon, we closed in on our destination.

I saw the lodge on a hill as we passed a strip of about six rooms encased in cinder block walls just off the roadway.

I joked to the kids, “Hey, wanna stay there?”

They laughed uncomfortably, looking at the site, creepy-perfect for a horror movie.

I went to check in while the family stayed in the vehicle. Up at the house, a.k.a. lodge, hanging on from the 1930s, I entered a long and dimly lit hallway.

I found the “office” inside an old bedroom. I was relieved that the manager’s name wasn’t Norman Bates. The live-in lady manager said she didn’t think we’d make it. I thought to myself, the night is still young.

“Follow me to your room.”

And by room, I mean out of the lodge house and down the hill to the strip of about six rooms encased in drab cinder block walls on the side of the road.

She carried an old, metal, square floor fan. That was our “air conditioning.”

Had I known of any other accommodations or thought we could get away with sleeping under the stars without fear of ever being seen again, I would have run back to the car and high-tailed it out of there.

Inside were two beds (single and double), old carpet, and drab cinder block walls on the inside as well. The bathroom came with a huge wolf spider. The back window was unlocked. I promptly locked it and set a booby trap consisting of things that would fall over and make lots of noise if anyone came through it that night.

“Can you help me with your son’s cot?” the manager asked.

I followed her to a nearby shed to retrieve the cot. This was after she offered the alternative: a mattress on the floor.

We were so doggone tired; I asked my wife if we should sleep in the car.

“For all this place has going against it, I will say it’s clean,” my wife whispered as we set up the cot.

The manager exited the front slab of cement when I called from behind, “We still need a room key.”

She laughed over her shoulder as her gait quickened.

“A room key? I mean, where ya gonna go!”

I stood dumbfounded.

A vision of Norman Bates to the sound of Hotel California danced in my head.

“Maybe we should sleep in the car,” I said.

“Oh my, this bed is so comfortable,” were my wife’s last words just before snoring in chorus with the kids.

I decided to take the first watch in my mind, thinking back to my Army days. I sat on a plastic chair on the concrete slab outside our door. Leaning back, I took note of the seven holes that had been filled in the door. What were they if they weren’t bullet holes?

Dead silence.

That night was the soundest sleep I had had in years.

With the cinder block in the rear-view mirror, we entered Lava Beds National Monument and enjoyed the time of our lives spelunking on our own.

The park was like nothing we’d ever seen. On the surface, it was nothing more than endless high desert nothingness all the way to the base of the mountains, which were way in the distance. But beneath the desert floor were over 700 caves, and dozens waited for explorers like us – completely unprepared and raring to get lost. Well, we had a map, flashlights, extra batteries, as suggested by a ranger, and water.

We could drive up to and enter a wide array of lava-carved caves. They had names like Blue Grotto, Golden Dome, Catacombs, Labyrinth, and Skull Cave. No guides, no lights, no nothing, just you and a pitch-black subterranean adventure. We hadn’t seen another soul anywhere for a long time.


I became brazen in my quest for excitement and pried my body through tight crevices or slid down lava tubes that were sure to lead to the bowels of a monster’s lair. The caves began to echo with, “Don’t go in there, Dad!”, “You’re on your own!”, “Let’s get out of this one!”, “What’s that sound?”, “BATS!”, “I’m scared!” and “Wow! Check that out!”

When we left, I felt like a kid protesting, “Do we have to go?” I wanted to keep exploring. It was the most fun I’d had in a long time.

This wasn’t your ordinary national park or monument. It had hardly any visitors and was in the middle of nowhere. The southbound road we took, leaving the park, was listed as unpaved. But its surface was ancient, crumbly blacktop. It looked like a thin airstrip that had been bombed. And I mean carpet bombed! We went under 10 miles per hour, snaking around depressions and mounds of loose, pulverized blacktop chunks.

There had to be a better way to go! I kept thinking about the time this was costing us and the power drive ahead of us to get to Yosemite. We had stayed well beyond our plans, exploring the lava tubes. Briefly, I thought of turning back to stay another night at the Motel California. Instead, I sped up to 15 miles per hour to hightail it out of there.

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, Your Tour Guide to Fun! 

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“Wrong Turns Write Life”

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