Overlooking the Rockfish Valley, this establishment had once been part of the Holiday Inn chain of hotels. In 1985 my first wife and I had spent our honeymoon here, before that it had been a good place to take a date or girlfriend if the nearby Colony House Motel was booked up. After Holiday Inn pulled out the hotel changed hands a couple of times and had began go down hill. Now known as The Inn at Afton it still offered a panoramic view of the Blue Ridge and Valley, but this cold evening we couldn't see 10’ in front of us.
What had started as a late Winter day trip to the mountains had turned bad putting Flip and I into desperate straits. Just when we were about to leave the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway that Saturday afternoon in February of 2004 a Winter storm suddenly came in from the north and west. Earlier while hiking near the Wintergreen exit we felt a change in winds and it became much colder. At first a fair amount of wind driven snow fell followed by frozen rain. We barely made it to Afton when the wind and sleet ceased changing over to a weird frozen fog thus making the already ice slick roads more dangerous. A precarious drive we were glad to barely see the Afton exit. Since traveling in such conditions was almost impossible, Flip pulled into what was left of the Afton Mountain tourist area. The visitors center, Howard Johnson Motel and Afton Gift Shop were now closed and falling into ruin. All that remained was a small store/gas station along with the Inn a little further up atop the mountain. A bit unnerved and rattled from our drive, we both wanted a beer from the store, but settled on coffee instead. Our plan was to wait this weather out in the parking lot, but after talking with the clerk we discovered this frozen fog would be with us until early morning. There were other people coming off the road as well, in fact the store and it’s large parking lot was somewhat crowded with refugees. Sticking a large wad of chewing tobacco in his maw the clerk announced to the customers - “Roads are getting real bad, both interstate and parkway,, so I suggest if y’all want lodging, y’all better get on up to the Inn quick, cause The Colony House ain’t got no more vacancy and the Inn probably has only has a few rooms left. Purposely holding up the line I shouted - “Flip, hurry up and get enough beer and snacks!” Grabbing an arm load of provisions the Birdman ran it all up to the counter. Taking the clerk’s advice, we traveled up the small winding road to The Inn.
Luck was on our side as we managed to get one of the few remaining rooms, in fact the desk clerk had to turn others away.
And what accommodations we had. Below the window a heater/air conditioner unit did provide us with heat, but also enhanced the scent of decades of blissful wanton carrying on, smoke, booze and vomit that had permeated our room. No worse than any Ocean View motel I had partied in. All in all we felt quite fortunate to be off the roads and thankful for the free HBO. Guzzling skunky Dutch beer at least soothed the image of the frozen puke outside we had to step over in getting through our door. Flip had correctly identified the mess as surf and turf on a bed of amber hued lager. One good thing it was to cold for green flies. “Man, what a fucking dump!” The Birdman hissed as he put on his coat and headed for the door.
“Where are you off to?”
“Gotta get some stuff out of my truck”
Always prepared, Flip no doubt carried emergency gear, where I had but the clothes on my back, a large Gerber folding knife, my beaver felt Stetson, thick Buckskin coat, walking stick and cash. Good enough for one night, but minus a tooth brush and other essentials. Popping the top on another bottle, I felt confident enough to endure.
With a blast of freezing air and tiny ice crystals Flip reentered the room with a zippered travel bag. “Jammies and a tooth brush?” I asked as The Birdman sat his bag upon our small round motel table. Unzipping it he revealed a 44 magnum, tooth paste, two new tooth brushes, a change of underwear and socks, deodorant, and a large bottle of Crown Royal, unopened and still in it’s blue cloth bag.
“A big-ass pistol, whisky and a change of drawers. Ready for adventure are ye?”
“Nothing compared to calling Nicole here in a bit” He returned grimly. Flip’s live-in girlfriend seemed to be quite the distrustful type and had already called him eight times on his cell phone earlier until I demanded it be turned off an hour ago due to dangerous driving conditions. She kept asking him at what time should he be expected back home. Calling her from the motel phone the conversation seemed rather pleasant ending with - “I love you too”
“Is she pissed?”
“Not at all, she’s just glad I’m safe for the night”
Calling home for me was a different story. Oddly enough my wife wanted to talk to Flip for verification of our stranded condition, after that all went well - “I love you too”
“Strange creatures are they not?” Flip chuckled.
Having to hole-up here atop Afton we would make the best of this situation and Flip was already on top of matters. Producing a small Deerskin pouch, he pulled out a small steatite pipe and a plastic film canister full of the same top shelf weed we had enjoyed earlier near Wintergreen. Aside from times such as these, I really didn't partake of the weed all that much any more, but what a time this was, having to lodge-up here in the citadel of the damned. As long as we stayed in our room there would be scant chance of trouble, but sooner or later Flip and I had to amble over to the hotel restaurant for supper.
Flip loaded a bowl and passed it to me for the first draw. Taking in the pungent smoke, I did my best to hold it down. Several months had passed since I last smoked the weed and after about four good hits, backed off Flip’s bowl. I had swiftly ascended but regarded the nicotine stained ceiling rather restricting. Pretty much caught up with the elevation and less troubled by my surroundings, I laughed while watching a cockroach scurry across the low dresser top. “For a mountain top inn, this place has slipped down hill” Flip said as he whacked our small six legged roommate with a rolled up tourist publication.
From the cigarette burns in the worn green carpet and nightstand to the piece of broken glass crack pipe I found underneath our small round table, this hole would inspire stories and poems, but no future visits.
“Look at this!” Flip hissed as he pulled down the bed spread. Although the covers smelled of industrial strength laundry detergent there were stains on the sheets. The mattresses of both beds were old and sunken in like salad bowls.
“Well at least we’re warm and safe” I said in attempt to boost a bit a sense of comfort.
Flip sneered and returned - “I don’t know about safe. I've heard this is a known hangout for crack heads, hookers, speed freaks, flak-ups, fruitcakes and other weirdos. Sooner or later I expect we’ll encounter some of them when we go for supper”
“I don’t think they’ll be hanging out at the restaurant, Flippy”
“We could call for pizza” The Birdman suggested.
“Have you looked outside? Ain’t no pizza man traveling in this shit, Flip, besides there’s a lounge here too” The Birdman’s dark beady eyes darted about - “Hope we don’t get sick eating any tainted vittles”
“Well then, crack open that Crown, Flippy and let’s get some antiseptic in our bellies before scarfing down”
Drinking out of clear plastic motel courtesy cups, we toasted each other and cheered on the night.
“This don’t even look like the place I took my ex at for our honeymoon” Flip said following a good slug of whisky.
“You too, eh?”
“Oh yeah” The Birdman sighed as if reflecting upon a bad memory - “Yep, sure was a fucked up night,, I ended up hitting the lounge by myself, cause she was pregnant, sick and moody all at the same time”
“Knocked up after the first date, you unlucky bastard” I laughed - “Sounds like y’all had a lovely wedding night”
“Bad medicine” Flip returned, adding - “Everyone I know who had their honeymoon here is divorced now”
“Yeah that’s why I had my last one up at Hot Springs" I said all the while wondering if this mountaintop was indeed cursed.
“Still a fucking dump” He hissed and went on about the room rate - “I guess the roaches are part of the seasonal package”
“Well Fippy, at least there’s a mini-fridge, microwave. coffee maker and radio alarm clock. Thank goodness you brought some booze and smoke along”
“Well my friend” He said - “We’ll probably need more than that to fall out on those beds”
Downing another cup, we wrapped up against the cold.
All in all, dinner was not bad, Flip had the chicken fingers and fries, while I enjoyed a steak, baked potato and salad washed down with a particularly good local micro-brewed ale. Looking out the huge dining room windows I could see the frozen white mist swirling around. Many miles away from home, sitting high in an aging mountain retreat lent a bit of vigor to my middle age malady madness. With a bottle of good whisky, weed and a lounge next door came the urge to have a throw down.
Picking chicken out of his teeth, Flip asked - “So what do you want to do now? It’s still early”
“Well I rekkin we can head back to the room, get our heads primed and hit the bar”
“Sounds like a plan to me”
Paying for our meals, we exited the dining room, passing an odd couple who were making for the lounge. The man was freakishly tall and thin, black clad in a long leather coat, topped off with a high crowned fedora. He looked like a undertaker. The woman was of medium height, but most of her features and form were hidden under black hooded cloak-like wrap. Under that hood I caught the glimpse of pale green eyes which froze my blood until figuring they were some weird contact lenses. Leaning forward Flip unlocked our door and we leaped in over the frozen puke. Safe inside I poured us another as Flip packed a bowl - “What about those ghouls we passed in the restaurant lobby?”
“Straight out of 1313 Mockingbird Lane” I laughed - “There’s a good chance we’ll see those freakazoids down at the lounge”
“Too bad Bear ain’t here” Flip then inquired if I had heard from our large friend and one time traveling companion - “I ain’t seen him since 97 at the Autumn Dance and Gathering of the Tribes” I believed the big man to be still pissed at Flip and me for talking him into that pagan camping festival fiasco. Downing a gulp of whisky I told the Birdman -
“Not since 1999 for me. Screw him, he hardly returns any phone calls and refuses to go camping anymore” Sad words to say indeed as our once tightly knit band had been reduced to naught. Flip and I and sometimes one or two others were all that remained who would brave the wilds. Now our camping trips were mostly family affairs with wives, girlfriends and children moving about thus sending us into the brush for a bowl or two. Taking a good look at the old Birdman I was indeed happy our friendship had spanned decades, surviving both careers, marriages and moves. We had seen some wild times and got through strange situations that had broke spirits, killed or turned some of our comrades into sober church goers, but those few who remained on the heathen path were always up for a bit of high adventure even if it meant not always knowing what lay around the next shadowy bend. Hopefully tonight we would be protected by the good spirit of fools and revelers. We also had confidence in our personal medicine.
Slugging down another good measure of whisky and taking a large hit off the pipe, I thought it to be an excellent time for rubbing some old soot under Flip’s skin. I baited him by asking - “Ever see Kimberly anymore?” A beautiful young lady from North Hampton, the Birdman and I were after her at the same time back in the late 70s.
Lighting up the bowl again, Flip rolled his eyes and spoke once again of a fond past experience, that I had heard too many times before. Taking another slug of whisky he gave an account - “Yeah I brought her up here once, right after I broke up with Donna. We had a real good time”
“A real good time?” I inquired as a cue to go on.
“Yep, two nights of cocaine, cold ones and hot stuff, man,,,”
This time however, before he could get started I broke in - “Oh yeah, I remember now, Kimberly was suppose to get up with me that weekend, but that’s cool, I’m glad y’all had a good time”
“It was a good time” The Birdman smiled thinking that he was getting my goat.
“Oh I bet it was Flippy, probably almost as good of time as me and Bear had when we brought them here”
Oh yeah, both Kimberly and her good friend Donna, a few months before y’all broke up. It was a cold, like tonight but without the frozen fog. Feisty gals they were wanting to switch off and all”
“You fucking dog!” Flip barked, then howled with laughter before adding - “Wench! Donna stayed with me until she got that management position at Taco Bell” thinking back well over two decades I was dating Donna before she fell for Flip’s cool Mercury Cougar, having about enough of my dad’s Dodge station wagon. Flip went on to tell me how he suspected Donna was also carrying on with Whitey and some young Marine from the Naval Weapons Station. “We’ll we tried to hip you, but I suppose it’s hard to see or hear clearly when,,,”
“Head over heels in love?” Flip broke in.
Shaking my head I continued - “Hard to hear or see clearly when being suckered by a cute two-bit amateur gold digger”
Regarding me with cold dark beady eyes the Birdman hissed - “flak you”
Donning our coats and hats we headed on out to the lofty Afton Lounge.
Quite buzzed and about half snockered we braved the frozen mist. The walkway and hotel parking lot was slick with ice. For a short while we attempted to peer down into the valley but our view was obscured by trillions of tiny ice crystals. Stepping back on the walk sent Flip sliding into room # 109’s door. Bouncing off, he landed hard on his ass with a yelp. While helping him to his feet, the door opened and a warming glow poured out. In the doorway stood a woman wearing what appeared to be a multi-colored rabbit fur coat with not a whole lot underneath. All we could do was gawk at her strange getup which consisted of some very high cut rhinestone encrusted denim shorts, a checkerboard print bra or bikini top and beige high heel cowgirl boots. What struck me odd was the miniature cowboy hat setting atop her big Dolly Parton-like platinum blonde hair or wig. Not a bad looking bird, but I had to quell my mirth.
“John and Bill?” She asked in an exaggerated southern accent.
Flip cackled with laughter and replied - “Afraid not Ms. Parton”
“Y’all ain’t the po-leeeece are y’all?”
Still marveling I returned - “No ma’am”
“Then why y’all knocking on my door?”
“It was more like falling on your door, ma’am?”
Looking beyond this delightful creature, I saw a burgundy suitcase on the bed.
“Well I guess John and Bill ain’t gonna make it “ She sighed while looking us up and down.
“I don’t suspect anybody is traveling in this weather” I said now focusing upon her goose bumped covered thighs. Openly and direct to the point, ‘Dolly’ inquired if we were looking for a date.
“A date!” Flip laughed - “For the both of us?”
Accepting her invitation inside out of the cold, she began quoting prices up front. One on one would cost 150 bucks an hour, but she would provide companionship for the both of us for 200. “Ahhh group rates” Flip said, then asked - “Anyone else besides Dolly?”
“I can be a French maid, secretary, school girl, school teacher, nurse or just plain nekkid”
“Hmmmm, nurse, eh?” Flip inquired with a sinister grin - “With the white stockings and little white hat?”
“Anything you want, honey”
Not wanting to mislead this evening entertainer, I informed Dolly that we were only weathered-in travelers and a bit too short of means to employ her services - “If I did, I’d probably go for the school teacher package”
“Nurse” Flip said, his beady black eyes leering at the woman’s boobs.
Not wanting to take up any more of her time, I told Dolly we were off to the lounge for a few drinks and if business became too slow then perhaps she was welcome to join us.
Sashaying over to her single motel window, she pulled apart the curtains, gazed long at the bleak conditions and said - “Maybe I will, that is if business falls off anymore” We said our farewells and upon our departing she warned us about strange folk who frequented the lounge.
“Strange People?” I laughed - “Sounds like your kind of place ,Flip”
“The Inn’s bar was dimly lit and the lounge was a shadowy place of tables chairs and patrons seated here or there, their faces barely illuminated by flickering glass globes. Out of all those stranded here at Afton’s Inn, these were the drinkers. From what I could make out after my eyes adjusted to the dim light, lounged a mixed crowd consisting of a few business people , an array of assorted recreational travelers sporting ski lodge duds, off duty hotel staff, no doubt quaffing at an employee’s discount and far in a even darker corner, the weird looking couple we passed earlier.
Flip and I decided on the bar instead of a table.
From his name tag we learned our bartender’s name was Baxter. Short with a large head, he wore his dark hair in a late 60s or early 70s Elvis like style with long sideburns, trimmed to perfection. He even sported a pair of Elvis-like tinted eye wear. A man of few words, Baxter didn’t skimp on the pour and kept our drinks coming. Feeling rather adventurous Flip and I both ordered triple shots of mescal with lemonade chasers. Paying and generously tipping our bartender, he bestowed a - “Aaaaaah thank ya,,,,, thank you very much”
‘Talent abounds’ I thought while taking a good gander at Baxter. It was quite evident he was an Elvoid ~ Presleypithicus Americanus. To our utter horror we discovered Baxter would later be crooning the crowd with the aid of a karaoke machine. As he walked into the back room, Flip chuckled and said - “Dolly Parton, Elvis and the Addams Family, where the flak have we landed?”
Slugging down my mescal, I told him - “Maybe we crashed and died back on the Parkway and this is wannabe hell”
“Well who you wannabe?” Flip asked.
“Feeling no pain!” I cheered raising my glass.
Signaling to Baxter, we ordered refills. The mescal bit through any remaining outside chill promptly delivering a spreading warmth to my soul.
“Somebody is gonna eat the worm” Flip stated with a twisted grin.
Getting a bit more snockered with each tall triple shot glass, we blathered away, told a few crude jokes and spoke fondly of the call girl in room #109.
But despite our drunken mirth, I was picking up some pretty weird vibes.
Nodding his head towards the lounge‘s darkest corner, Flip whispered “Look over there” It caught my attention immediately, the tall, somber clad man’s eyes reflected the dim bar light like a feral roadside dog as his lady friend, now uncloaked and attired in tight black jeans and turtleneck sweater rose from her seat and proceeded, seemingly in our direction. Thick straight raven-black hair fell about her well rounded shoulders and was cut into a false widow’s peak-like bangs. Just when I thought this exotic creature was going to bump into us, she veered off, making way towards the restrooms instead. It reminded me of a primate’s bluff charge as until she turned away, her strange eyes were locked on us.
While I rattled off a few good words in my native language, Flip hissed - “Something sure is unusual about those two” Not realizing there was someone saying the same thing about us. Turning up my mescal glass again, I took a good look at Flip and said - “At first I thought it was Bear, or even me, but now I can plainly see it’s you”
“What the flak are you going on about?”
“You’re the fucking weirdo magnet”
“Can’t go anywhere with you, where we’re not running into weirdos”
Flip laughed and returned - “Maybe we’re just moving in our own circles”
“Are you trying to say,,”
“Besides” He started then continued after a good measure of mescal - “If I’m a weirdo magnet, what’s that make you?”
“Caught up in the middle”
Flip chuckled, finished his glass, then mirthfully blathered for awhile in the jargon of our old band. The Birdman was drinking with a bit more gusto than normal.
“So what are you guys?”
The slurring voice came from two stools down Sliding out of her perch, she staggered somewhat approaching Flip and I with a wide smile that did not match her leering eyes. It wasn't a lack of words on our part that delayed an immediate response, we were just caught off guard as anyone would be when suddenly approached by a staggering stranger, who referred to people as ’what’ while establishing initial contact.
They looked to be of a different sort, and aside from the short greeting which was not returned by them, Flip and I paid them no further mind until now.
A somewhat short and plump woman, she was wearing jeans, boots and a bright red sweater sporting a little American flag pin above her left breast. Her strawberry blonde hair was bobbed around the neck in a Doris Day Dutch boy style and held fast with heavily scented spray. One small, pudgy, freckly hand grasped what appeared to be a White Russian, while the other pointed at us with a crimson talon tipped index finger in a jabbing motion. Hopefully this was not someone I had left in a motel room without a morning cuddle, a Waffle House breakfast and ride home. A common aftermath of many past blurry-eyed, late night libation lubed liaisons.
At first she appeared no different from many of the short, corpulent lowland women who inhabit areas east of here between Virginia’s James, York, Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers. Marsh Saxons, we called them as most of them were of old English descent with pale features, especially the women. However her accent bespoke of someone not from Virginia.
“You’re not Americans, are you ?” She slurred as her rather rotund partner looked nervously on, his lips held tightly together as if he wanted to call her back, but wouldn't dare. Flip managed to pull off a pretty good Jerry Mathers-like -“Gee lady, what makes you think that?”
Closing one eye to focus a bit, she stated - “You’re not Mexicans”
“Maybe Basque or Gypsies” I told Baxter, then ordered two more drinks as this was getting rather interesting. Rudely reaching in and tapping the hawk feather hanging off my hat band, she then ruffled the fringe hanging off my coat - “Cherokee, eh? Oh Donald look, they’re Indians” She then slurred an apology - “Sorry, can’t be too sure these days”
“Too sure about what?” I asked.
Instead of answering me she informed me - “I’m part Cherokee on my mother’s side” Flip staring at her pale freckly features said - “Oh I can tell”
Paying the Elvoid for our drinks I told her that we were not Cherokee.
“Lakota, Apache, Navajo?” Apparently her knowledge of the many American Indian tribes was limited to these often spoken of.
Lying, I told her - “We are lower Chickahominy of the Slapaho Band”
"Chickahominies I’ve heard of, but Slapaho Band? I've never heard of them” She slurred.
“You should” I returned prompting Flip to howl with drunken laughter. Not to seem impolite, I vaulted off my bar stool with hand extended - “ We’ll hey there, glad to meet ya, I’m Jim Drowning Otter and this here is Benson Flipping Bird” Taking her hand I knelt and kissed it, then when on to tell her that we were chiefs. Drunkenly impressed with what she took to be Powhatan royalty she told us - “I’m Kate, and this is Don”
“Well howdy” Flip chuckled.
However she wanted to know -“Where are you guys from?”
“Oh near Jamestown?”
“Some ways north and west of” I returned then inquired of their origins.
“We were heading back to Alexandria from Wintergreen, but after Don almost ran off the road, we found accommodations here at this shit hole” Kate was much too intoxicated to take notice of the angry Elvis-like sneer playing upon our bartender’s lips. Don on the other hand regarded us with a haughty squint-eyed stare. Libations loosens lips and in Kate’s current condition, the flood gates were open, pouring out a jumble of jabbering gibberish that seemed to be funneling down into a political poo. One minute Kate was praising pro-liberal motions, then the next she zealously vocalized conservative values, all the while attempting to find out where Flip and I stood. Actually she was beginning to molest my celebration. Preaching and propaganda mixed none too well with my mescal especially when brought up by some uptown gated community type who otherwise would probably have naught to do with two old long haired travelers such as ourselves. I informed her that it was bad manners to talk politics and religion in a bar. With all of the growling about left right, blue state red state here of late, had me trailing far behind in the middle, upon a wake that remotely resembled national unity. I really didn't want to be reminded of it tonight. Oh how being stranded and drunk on a scary night brought people together She showed off her large silver dream catcher shaped earrings and asked if we owned dream catchers to which Flip replied - “How could we hope to catch what has already caught us?”
Just as Flip started talking about the weather a woman walked in and plopped down between us and Kate’s place at the bar...