ELY, Nev. — Maude Flanders was not pleased. The plain-looking woman who was sitting two tables over from me in the breakfast room of the La Quinta Inn reminded me of Ned Flanders’ wife from The Simpsons. So as a breakfast activity, I named her Maude.
Maude, who looked like she recently became eligible for AARP discounts, was finishing the remainder of whatever up-and-at-em morning liquid was inside the diminutive disposable cup positioned next to her half-eaten muffin. Was it coffee or orange juice? I couldn’t tell. It didn’t really matter because more importantly Maude was irked.
The stocky mustachioed man sitting next to her — I assumed that was her husband — looked like one of Bill Swerkski’s Chicago Superfans from the classic 1990s-era “Saturday Night Live” skit. He had just used his finger to spoon up the last of the grayish-white country gravy from his now-devoured biscuits. He seemed quite satisfied as he sucked his index finger clean and finished breakfast with a clean plate.
But the finger sucking by Maude’s gravy-loving companion didn’t seem to bother her. I don’t think she even noticed since something on the flat-screen television across the way had captured her undivided attention.
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By the time Moos had found a reason to resurrect and recycle Joanna Rohrback’s strange exercise routine for CNN’s infotainment purposes, prancercise was weeks-old news. It had gone viral back in May. As Maude stared at the television in the neutral-toned breakfast room off the lobby, it was now June 20.
“We live in such a weird country but I love it,” Costello expressively declared as she wrapped up the segment, according to CNN’s transcript.
Maude shook her head in a most decidedly sour manner. But I doubt that she was reacting to CNN’s lame attempt to extend the shelf life of the stupid and stale prancercise story. Perhaps it was Maude’s way of lamenting the current state of CNN or the cable news industry as a whole. Did Maude find Carol Costello particularly abrasive to the ears and eyes? Maybe Maude was completely sheltered and prancercise was just too much to handle. Or perhaps Maude just saw a little of herself in the quirky prancercise lady. They did share a strange resemblance to one another.
Like Joanna Rohrback, Maude Flanders was wearing a similarly citrusy-colored top — in this case, a pink-lemonade-colored sleeveless golf polo — white pants and white tennis shoes. Their hairstyles were both big and wavy. But I got the sense that Maude would be horrified to see herself on YouTube flailing her arms and prancercising her way through a local park. Maude was a wonderful mystery best observed from a few tables away and not to be disturbed in this mundane setting.
As I pressed west along the Lincoln Highway, I never knew quite who, or what, to expect in the hotel breakfast room morning after morning. It was always a surprise. Prancercised-shocked Maude was an absolute gem, but there were other random hotel guests along my trip who were just as delightful to observe. I found the breakfast room at the La Quinta Inn — or Holiday Inn Express or Courtyard by Marriott — always a strange spectacle even if nothing truly notable happened.
But there were also bizarre and peculiar moments.
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In Evanston, Wyo., there were the three barely awake — or likely hungover and/or wake-and-baked — twentysomething white dudes with surfer mop tops and bro tanks having trouble with the tongs needed to complete their eventually successful endeavor to clasp onto some greasy sausage links.
“Do you think they have any spinach and egg whites?” one of them asked their buddies.
“Nah dude. This may be a Holiday Inn Express, but this is Wyoming,” another in the trio answered.
Across the room, gray-haired retirees with Wyoming guidebooks and tourist pamphlets laid out on the table were taking their time with their coffee silently judging the clowns, just like I was. (How could you not?)
In Merrillville, Ind., where the La Quinta Inn breakfast room was more like a compact nook off the lobby, some Asian tourists accompanied by their very bulky suitcases were having trouble with the toaster. Apparently, it wasn’t working. That made me regret grabbing a bagel, which without toasting would surely be chewy. Too late.
As I grabbed a packet of cream cheese, a heavy-set African-American woman next to me asked: “Don’t you just love cream cheese?”
I wasn’t in much of a mood to converse that morning so I kept my response brief and to the point: “Yep. Cream cheese is great.”
“I use cream cheese in everything! I make the best brownies with cream cheese,” she continued, emphasizing every instance of the letter “e” in “cream cheese.”
“Everyone at church loves my cream-cheese-swirl brownies,” she said. “They just love them!”
“I can only imagine,” I replied, trying to be cordial but also hoping to end the cream cheese conversation.
Since I’m somewhat introverted, I find the ability of strangers to dish out random details from their lives in random places with ease to be fascinating. Did I really need to know that everyone at her church loved her cream-cheese brownies? No. Some people just like to talk about anything at any time.
My encounter with Cream Cheese Lady did have an impact. As I sat down in the corner, I closely examined the list of ingredients on the cream cheese packet as I tried to spread it across the gummy bagel. “Whey protein concentrate … Xanthan gum,” I quietly muttered under my breath. I imagined that Cream Cheese Lady’s internal organs to be clogged with cream cheese.
It was not a pretty picture. I didn’t finish my mediocre bagel.
At a La Quinta Inn in North Canton, Ohio, the breakfast room was jammed with severe-looking business travelers looking at their smartphones and sports pilgrims heading to the nearby Pro-Football Hall of Fame.
One family wearing matching Miami Dolphins jerseys entered the congested breakfast area, which, like every other hotel, was just off the lobby.
“Yum! A whole tray of scrambled eggs!” one of the teenage sons said.
His eyes were drawn to the deep yellow color of the eggs just as if he was Winnie the Pooh mesmerized by honey. The kid was built like a linebacker. I’m sure he could have shoveled down the whole tray without too much trouble.
Scrambled eggs are a mainstay in these breakfast rooms. Sometimes, there are individual half-moon-folded cheese omelets instead. Regardless of their form, egg products are a must for any worthwhile complimentary hot breakfast. It’s easy for a hotel offer an assortment of muffins and pastries in the morning. Eggs, even if their original form was powdered, are a sign that a national budget hotel chain is taking an extra step get please their guests.
At Holiday Inn Express, the standard two-tiered “Express Start” countertop warming breakfast console has trays of biscuits and gravy on one level and eggs paired with some sort of meat — usually bacon or sausage — on the other.
At Holiday Inn Express, La Quinta and their clones, there’ll be a selection of coffee, tea, orange juice, cereal, milk, single-serve yogurt cups and a limited assortment of bread and pastries. There’s also some fruit, depending on availability, but nothing too exciting. Just oranges, bananas and apples.
These breakfasts come in a standard package and utilize cost-effective portions and lowest-common denominator options. It’s triumphantly middlebrow. It’s not too fancy. Plastic silverware and disposable bowls and plates are the norm. And the cost is factored into the room price.
Then there are the complimentary newspapers. USA Today, which keeps its high circulation numbers through aggressive hotel distribution, is usually available and is just as exciting to read as the complimentary breakfast is to eat. Even if you don’t want to read USA Today, you’re inevitably going to pay for it.
Sometimes, there’s something more local to read.
In Ely, I picked up a copy of the weekly newspaper, The Ely Times, at the front desk. The top story involved City Clerk Jim Alworth refusing to swear-in newly elected City Councilman Sam Hanson “because of concerns over Hanson’s curb and gutter situation at his property.”
Apparently, the local city council here is just as ridiculous as any other municipal body in the United States:
“I just think [Jim is] being ridiculous,” [City Councilman Bruce] Setterstom said. “He was told to swear us in and refused to. I thought if anybody else can swear me in, then I’ll go to get sworn in by somebody else other than Jim to show him he’s not as powerful as he thinks he is.”
On Page 6A, there was a story about the upcoming Lincoln Highway 100th Anniversary celebration. The Nevada Pony Express Territory tourism promotions group planned to give out free collectible coffee mugs to participants in the centennial car caravan that would be heading through town on U.S. 50, aka “The Loneliest Highway in America,” in a few days.
“I don’t think they’ll find it quite as lonely as they think it is,” Rick Gray, executive director of Pony Express Territory, told The Ely Times.
Since I was on my own cross-country trip and not affiliated with the official Lincoln Highway festivities, I would not be getting a special coffee mug. A disposable cup from La Quinta Inn from the breakfast room would have to do instead.