I’ve slept in the United States in just about every legal fashion, and in some that perhaps weren’t precisely so. From 5-Star hotels to convenient back road bridges, the Land of the Free has provided a roof for me whenever I have needed one, and I am grateful. Even to the Highway Departments that constructs those neat concrete flats under the bridges.
I will also never forget the many offers of accommodation that I’ve had. You will find that Americans are seriously helpful and unfailingly kind people.
Camping is a good option in the US. There are several levels of legal camping, starting with wild camping in US national forests and grasslands (unless there are signs that say otherwise) and on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, always providing they’re suitable for camping and not being used for grazing or mining. While national forests and BLM land are the most common places to find free camping, other types of public lands in the United States also provide free campsites, but they differ between states and regions. State parks, city parks, and county parks sometimes come to the party.
The smart thing to do here is to stop at the State’s tourist information offices which you’ll find at most major border crossings between States. They have excellent information leaflets and are terrifically helpful. Some Forestry Service offices provide the same assistance.
BLM and Forestry campsites often provide nothing more than levelled sites, a long drop toilet and possibly water and firewood, and these are the best ones in my experience. I have spent many happy nights chatting with fellow campers or just enjoying the quiet, the night air and possibly a crackling fire.
There are also commercial campsites, which vary in cost and quality. I found a couple which had never been asked for a tent site; in one of them, I was offered a cabin at a discount and in the other I was encouraged to set up my domicile on the caretaker’s lawn.
“That way there won’t be anybody reversing over you in the night,” the lady said.
Major chain campsite, like KOA, will have provision for tent sites and a lot of conveniences including amenity blocks, barbecues and even vehicle washing bays. You do pay for that. And talking of paying, let’s look at hotels and motels.
Five-Star hotels have very little in their favor on a cost/return basis except that the guys who park guests’ cars will be eternally grateful to you for giving them the chance to park a motorcycle, and possibly to howl around the underground car park’s spiral driveway a couple of times. Oh, and the opportunity to steal good soap and other hygiene items. That’s for you, not the car hops. Four-star and three-star hotels are much the same, but the soap is progressively cheaper.
It’s when you get to the two-star (and some alleged three-star) places and motels that the fun starts. The variety is quite staggering, and I suggest you first of all pay attention to the outside of your proposed domicile. A broken neon sign is not a good, er, sign. Likewise, a large motel with no cars in the late afternoon is a warning. I pulled into one of those in Needles CA once, didn’t like what I saw and turned to leave. Once back on the road, I was flagged down by a local carrying his shopping.
“Good thing you changed your mind about that place, buddy,” said my new first-best friend. “They’ve got bedbugs.”
In recent years, the US hotel/motel industry has hit hard times. This is often reflected in poor or absent maintenance; even a motel with a well-known brand on its neon sign may have cracked tiles, jury-rigged showers, leaking taps and internal doors that jam. On the positive side, most of them will still be clean and will have acceptable beds. Fortunately, prices have kept pace with the decline, and they will be relatively cheap. The ‘mom and pop’ style motels, owned by their operators and definitely not flash, are often a better choice because there is a fair bit of love invested in them. You’ll also get an opportunity to chat with the manager and find out cool stuff about your location.
Hostels are pretty much universally good – clean with decent amenities and a chance to wash your clothes, and if you want to save some money you can do that by sleeping in a dormitory. If you want to stay in a hostel, decide on it in the morning and book for that night. They fill up quickly. I don’t like Airbnb, and I don’t really know why. One reason is the uncertainty of parking for the bike.
The places I truly love in the US are mostly old hotels. They aren’t always easy to find, but they’re gems and they range from the Hotel Monte Vista in Flagstaff AZ where you can sleep in a room named after a famous movie star who stayed there (John Wayne for me, on my last visit, and the bed was a bit saggy) to the lovingly maintained Weinhard Hotel in Dayton, Washington. Sometimes they are b&bs, like the Old Schoolhouse in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. They are often hanging on by the skin of their teeth, but they are just wonderful with elegant décor and a genteel air that the big, five-star hotels would kill for.
The best of them all, a few years ago, was the Eola Grand Hotel in Natchez at the foot of the Trace, now sadly boarded up. The name is being used by a guest house. Tch tch. I would have expected better from Mississippi.
I know I haven’t exhausted the possibilities in the US. Further suggestions are welcome below.
(Photos The Bear)