A night at Ramada Inn on the Hill in Hattiesburg MS

I leave Florida at6:00 a.m.; drive thirteen hours. I pass through Mobile, Alabama, and continue toHattiesburg. A sign catches my eye – Ramada Inn on the Hill — $45/night.

I can’t see the hotel from the road, but drive up a zig-zagged driveway to investigate. “How bad can it be?” I think. “It’s a major chain.”

No cars.  It looks closed. But I see lights on in the lobby.

I walk up to the desk; am greeted by a young woman with a nose-ring. She wears jeans and a sparkly T-shirt. I’m handed a key – a non-smoking room in the front of the building.

I walk toward the door and see the window is open. The bathroom light is on, revealing water in the sink running full-blast. There are towels spread beneath the countertop.

So it’s back to the desk. “I’m so sorry,” the clerk says.

An thin, older gentleman approaches the desk – apparently the manager and/or handyman. He explains that he needed to run a hose from the room earlier in the day. He looks at me. “I can clean up the floor if you want.”

No need. The clerk assigns me another room, at the opposite end of the building.

I go to that door. The room is immediately across from the vending machines and next door to the laundry. I go back to the desk.

The clerk sees me coming and growls, “What’s wrong with that one.”

“It’ll be noisy,” I explain.

She starts trying to find me another unit. “That one’s under repair. And that one!” She calls over a colleague. They browse through several more rooms on the computer – all under repair. Finally they find one on the second floor. “Is that all right?”

It’s getting late. I no longer care and she hands me a key.

On the way to the stair, the handyman calls me to a room that he thinks is pretty nice. “Why don’t you take this one?”

“They just gave me this key. They’ll hate me.”

“I’ll switch it.” He takes the key and tells me to wait.

He comes back and hands me the key. I now have a downstairs room. There is the heavy odor of cigarette smoke, but I certainly can’t exchange the key a fifth time.

So I go to unload my car. The handyman sees me and helps me with my bags. That’s nice.

Settling into the room, I have time to look around. There’s a cigarette burn in the blanket covering the bed.

On each side of the room, a door leads to an adjoining unit. One door is barricaded by a nightstand. I decide to barricade the other with an unusually heavy coffee table.

The hotel has WiFi. There’s no problem linking in, but I don’t trust the outlet enough to recharge my laptop or MP3 player. The building is quite old and the one outlet holds an extension cord, into which everything is plugged.

There are two pictures on wall. One is warped and stained, apparently from a hopefully-patched leak.

In the bathroom, a strip of duct tape replaces a baseboard. A stinkbug relaxes inside the tub.

“Oh well. It’s just for one night.”

I check my e-mail and head for bed. The pillowcases are grayish. Stained. They smell of other peoples’ hair. I smell each, and choose the least offensive.

In the morning, I check the tub. The stinkbug is still there – and who knows what might happen once I turn on the water. I opt out of a shower and eagerly head out.

[An additional note, for those traveling with pets. The Ramada charges a non-refundable $25 fee to cover any damage that your pet might do to the room.]

The final leg of my drive is nice. I travel rural Louisiana and Arkansas. Some things I see:

A red-brick church surrounded by crops and a dozen cars.

A cemetery overlooking Lake Providence. Topping a towering monument, a Confederate soldier steps toward the water.

Cotton oozes through the closed doors of a semi. The shoulders of the highway are fringed white.

Shed-sized bales of cotton surround a closed-for-Sunday mill.

Ragged brown stems, covered with burst cotton bolls, stretch toward a distant treeline.

Bulldozers and tractors pack piles of black dirt, repairing a levee.

Cattle graze the slope of a levee. A cow and calf stand at the pinnacle; gazing toward the river.