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Coming August 26th – SCOF 52 Ascofalypse Now

I was bouncing from trout stream to trout stream in the Smoky Mountains one April when I visited a childhood friend at his mountain-side retirement home outside of Asheville. We sat on his balcony, occasionally reminiscing about the old days but mainly sipping premium whiskey while gazing at late afternoon sunbeams slanting through tall oaks that black bears sometimes climb.

My friend’s wife, Lucy, broke our reverie by asking where I planned to sleep that night. 

“I really haven’t thought about it, but I think I’m gonna head into Asheville and check out the Mountaineer Inn,” I told Lucy, a revelation that brought a puzzled look to her face.

The next day rolled around, and I’m with my friend and Lucy again, this time eating dinner at an upscale restaurant. As we awaited a round of crab cake appetizers, Lucy gave me a sympathetic look and said, “Mike, I looked up the Mountaineer Inn and you can’t possibly stay there. It’s not nice.”

I allayed her worries by confirming that I spent the previous night at another motel. The Mountaineer Inn is, as Lucy’s internet search confirmed, a hostelry that is both old and tired—a polite way of saying its best days are behind it. Its most redeeming feature is a giant neon sign depicting a barefooted hillbilly in a straw hat clutching a muzzle-loader, a classic survivor of 1950s roadside kitsch. Regardless of the age and condition of the Mountaineer Inn, I stayed there on another trip without serious complaint and chose an alternative this time only because it was cheaper.

Lucy meant well but she failed to understand a fundamental principle of my annual, solo, month-long fly fishing getaways. One that goes to the core of how I see myself as an angler. I nurture the fiction that I’m a “trout bum,” an amorphous species of anglers generally characterized as shiftless vagabonds who forsake responsible behavior and adopt a roguish, carefree persona. Their goal: The freedom to pursue trout unfettered by the constraints of family and career.

A true trout bum crashes in a tent or car. I’m not a purist and most likely a poseur because I choose to sleep inside. If a trout bum—one of questionable fidelity to the rules of conduct governing his calling—does check into a motel, it damn well better be a cheap one. Accordingly, I confine myself to Days Inns, Comfort Inns, or similar discount chain motels. Or even better, locally owned, independent inns that the better heeled avoid. How could I look at myself in the mirror if I drove past a Red Roof Inn and turned into a Radisson? I’d be ashamed.

Imagine this scenario: I’m sharing beers with the guys at the combination fly shop/bar at Pleasure Park, the home base for an outfitter on the trout-rich Gunnison River that flows through sagebrush plains outside Hotchkiss, CO. In reply to the query from the bearded guy lifting a long neck to my left, I tell him I’m staying at a Ritz-Carlton or some other stylish resort.

That wouldn’t be good.  

The anglers at Pleasure Park are hardcore. My answer would betray me as a “fly fishing dilettante,” my rather stuffy name for the most odious tribe of anglers and the antithesis of the trout bum. Dilettantes are wealthy anglers who fly to exotic fishing destinations to be pampered by guides but don’t fish the waters near their hometowns and couldn’t tell a double clinch knot from a Windsor knot. They come back home from Patagonia and brag about the fight put up by a 27-inch brown to their clueless buddies at the country club. These faux anglers also sleep in luxurious accommodations on their expeditions, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t.

It’s not that I begrudge the dilettantes their fine lodging. No, what chafes me is that too many of their breed didn’t earn the right to drift elk hair caddis flies in fabled waters for giant trout under the watchful eye of a guide who does everything for them but cast the fly and pull in the fish. How many introduced themselves to fly fishing by participating in the least glamorous iteration of the sport, namely chunking popping bugs into weedy bluegill beds deep in the coves of farm ponds? Were they forced to learn, by trial and error, how to mend a line to achieve that drag-free drift necessary to entice a wary mountain trout to sip a dry fly? The answer to both is “no.” They skipped those frustrating years in which we novices sought to master the rudiments of fishing and went straight to the finest angling waters.

And that violates my sense of justice.

My quest for the coveted trout bum status has turned me into something of an aficionado of cheap motels, preferably those with nightly rates of less than $100. All share a few characteristics: A single overhead light fixture that bathes the motel room in a yellow light too dim for reading; thin bath towels sans nubs incapable of absorbing water; cheap press-board dressers and bedsteads; framed cardboard prints of mountain scenes above the bed; plastic shower curtains; and a parking lot full of pickup trucks with the names of construction companies on the door panels.  

I’ve accumulated more than a few stories about cheap inns, some good and some bad.

There’s the Green Cove Resort on the Tellico River, a no-frills inn built of concrete blocks just a couple of miles below the mountain ridge separating Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s the kind of place where the absent innkeeper leaves you the room key on the dresser in an unlocked room. No television, no internet and, until recently, no air conditioning. The absence of an air conditioner turned into an unexpected pleasure one July night as I slept soundly to the lullaby of the rushing water from the Tellico a few feet outside my open window.

I found myself without a place to lay my head one late afternoon in Estes Park, CO, and worried I would have to head east on Highway 34 to find a room in another town. As I drove on the outskirts of Estes Park, I noticed a neon sign with pink and green letters announcing: “Loveland Heights Cottages on the River.” It also said: “Vacancy.” Loveland Heights is a charming throwback to the early days of automobile touring, when motorists stayed in roadside cottages called “motor courts.” Its green cottages generally dated back to the 1920s and 1930s with its most venerable built during the pre-automobile era in 1897. How could I resist?

I arose early the next morning, pulled on my waders, assembled a 5-weight rod and walked behind my cabin to test the runs and pools of the Big Thompson River. I netted a nice rainbow that swallowed my nymph before checkout time. “You can fish one more hour,’’ the motel clerk tersely informed me when I asked if I could keep fishing beyond checkout. I caught another rainbow, this time on a stone fly with rubber legs. 

A friend and I heard the inviting melody of mountain music as we signed into the Meadowlark Motel on the eastern side of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Maggie Valley, NC, one Sunday evening. Local guitar, mandolin, fiddle and dulcimer players jam weekly in the motel basement, an inviting discovery after a day pulling in brook trout from the frothy waters of the West Branch of the Pigeon.

For every pleasant surprise at budget inns, there is at least one sketchy encounter that makes me question my lodging choices. I struggled to find a vacancy in a mountain town that will remain nameless until I chanced upon an adobe motel where the rooms were cooled by window air conditioners that rattled like a 1984 Ford pickup. As I pulled into the parking lot, I spied a young woman in a short skirt and heels leaning against the exterior wall near the office. She sensuously smoked a cigarette, blowing smoke upward as she gazed absently at passing motorists. Whether she was a working woman or just another tourist in stilettos, I never found out.   

Back home, my wife, Marsha, occasionally scans the internet for lodgings as I travel to the next destination. Once, I solicited her help after navigating the serpentine highway hugging the steep slopes of the San Juan Mountains following a morning on the Animus River in Colorado. She found no cheap rooms in Silverton, Ouray, Ridgeway or Montrose, and I fretted that I would spend a sleepless night in my car. In my desperation, I considered dropping the trout bum charade so I could expand the search to include fancy hotels. Fortunately, Marsha located a vacancy at a mom-and-pop inn owned by Polish immigrants outside of Delta. I could sleep without endangering my bum status.

On the other side of the continent, Marsha texted me the name and address of a motel with a vacancy in Lake Placid, NY, as I wandered the Adirondacks looking for trout water. I reached the address and pulled up to what appeared to be an abandoned establishment, what with its peeling paint and weeds growing in the cracks in its concrete parking lot. “This can’t be the right place,” I said to myself, convinced that she had directed me to the wrong location. I poked around until I noticed a lobby and checked into a room that was just as dreary as the exterior of the motel. 

My son, John, and I fished the Little Red River one Saturday and then tried to find a motel in nearby Heber Springs, AR, only to discover that a softball tournament had swamped the town’s hospitality industry. We found the only vacancy at a seedy, two-story hotel in the middle of the little town, the rural equivalent of the flop house featured in hard-boiled detective stories from the 1950s. I received a room key attached to a green, plastic oval in exchange for two 20-dollar bills handed to a young man behind the desk, who apparently didn’t bother to collect motel taxes. 

Walking to our lodging on the second floor, we stepped over the legs of boarders lounging on the balcony outside their rooms, each of which had a coffee can filled with sand next to the door for cigarette butts. Our room was appalling. A built-in desk had been wrenched from the wall, leaving a gash in the wood panel. The carpet was dirty and wrinkled.

The door was a cheap, hollow piece of wood that could be kicked in with little trouble by some Ozark Mountains drug dealer mistaking us for deadbeat meth customers. I lay in my clothes on top of the bedspread during a sleepless night in which I bolted upright every time there was a noise outside our door. Being the reckless sort, John never woke up. Fortunately, we made it through the night without incident.

The Heber Springs motel was a wakeup call. I realized that I only wanted to carry this trout bum thing so far. I won’t check into another motel as questionable as this joint even if it means I might be viewed as a hated dilettante.

My friend’s wife, Lucy, was right: Some motels should be avoided.