It was a good night for a beacon, with fog as thick as the forest all along U.S. Highway 74. And there, in the soft edge of the headlights, a billboard promised that up ahead in the town of Murphy stood a Best Western hotel. “Pet friendly.” “Free Internet.” And, as if on cue, “Free Belgian Waffle Breakfast.”
Here, too, in the mountain music homeland of western North Carolina — a place remote enough that fugitive Eric Rudolph, the so-called Olympic Park bomber, long evaded the FBI in the hills and hollows until arrested early one morning in 2003 in Murphy — a bed for the night comes with make-your-own waffles?
I, an overfed modern-day Meriwether Lewis, having recently driven 7,253 miles on a trip from New Hampshire to Texas and back, can report: At chain hotels alongside interstates in Waterbury, Conn., Meridian, Miss., and Van Horn, Tex., and just about everywhere in between, weary travelers are sure to wander close to the hotel lobby and discover an odd oasis. It’s not quite a restaurant, nor a cozy dining room, but a “breakfast area” in which make-your-own waffles bake alongside plastic packages of syrup, and solitary bites are accompanied by the nonstop narration of a flat-screen TV.
This may not seem worthy of a news flash from the road. But it is true that we as a people are what — and how — we eat. And over the past decade, chain hotel breakfast areas have clogged exits at an astonishing rate along the paved arteries of America. The percentage of chains offering a free breakfast has jumped from only 12 percent in 2004 to nearly 70 percent in 2012, according to a survey by STR Inc., a hotel industry analyst. Nowhere is the trend as strong as at interstate-side locations, where more than 80 percent of all hotels offer a free hot breakfast.
Take, for example, the Shenandoah spine of Interstate 81 in Virginia, where clusters of breakfast-boasting chain hotels buffer one exit after another from Staunton to Cloverdale to Christiansburg. Or make the long haul on Interstate 20 across Texas, where Exit 288 at Abilene looms as a masterpiece of the modern American roadside corral.
Cowhands once set millions of longhorns marching north from Abilene toward America’s dinner tables. Now passing motorists herd into the parking lots outside a Chili’s, a Dairy Queen, a Taco Casa and a Cracker Barrel, to name a few. On the approach to Exit 288, billboards trumpet all kinds of hotel-chain enticements, from tractor-trailer parking to indoor pools to high-speed Internet. (Is there still a low-speed Internet?)
Waffles, though, are king. Frontier Inn & Suites has a “Free, Hot Breakfast.” Elegante Suites: “Free, Hot Breakfast.” America’s Best Value Inn: “Deluxe Breakfast.” Best Western: “Hot Breakfast.” Super 8: “Breakfast.”
Such predictable packaging has benefits for a traveler when quick and easy is the breakfast goal. “If you’re Mr. Road Warrior, you don’t really want a surprise,” said STR’s Jan Freitag.
But it is worth considering the costs of this world of waffles all cooked from the same mold. If the lure is to sleep, eat and move on, we Americans taste less and less of the diverse character of the country we call home. And as individuals, we miss the discovery that can come with the unexpected.
Just 12 hours before our foggy deliverance on that evening in Murphy, my son and I had wandered from our room to the breakfast lounge in a Hampton Inn in Lexington, Va. My son headed straight to the corner of the buffet, poured a cupful of batter onto the hot waffle iron and closed the lid. We sat at a table beneath the vaulted ceiling and waited. A gray-haired man seated nearby talked with a woman as she wiped down a table. The man explained that he used to have a business that made women’s dresses, but that all went to China. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to this country,” he said.
The woman bused a tray and returned. “Well, people will always have to eat,” the man told her. “So you’re okay.”
The waffle iron beeped. My son carried out the rest of the ritual: butter, syrup, big bites. The onetime dress manufacturer moved on to his day. Halfway through his waffle, my son ran out of gas. I took a bite. The waffle, I said, tasted way too sugary. My son thought about it, then added: “And it has a tiny hint of Styrofoam in it.”
There is good to these hotel chain breakfasts. Most often, the waffles are served alongside a basket of apples or bananas. And I agree with those who contend that the country would be better off if we all cooked more of the food we eat; pouring batter into a hot griddle, even if the syrup comes in individual-sized plastic packages, certainly offers some of the comfort of home.
Yet this is comfort without community, as the mood in these hotel breakfast rooms feels neither home nor away. There’s an isolation-among-the-crowd sense in the breakfast area that resembles that of an airline terminal: Everyone alone together while waiting to move on.
On a Monday morning at a Holiday Inn Express in Meridian, Miss., only two of 15 or so tables in the breakfast area were taken, each by a lone man. Despite the promise of a new day, the scene was worthy of an Edward Hopper painting: One man sat at the far left of the room, the other at the far right. A third man, dressed in a construction worker’s coveralls, turned from a plastic case that held trays of bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy, then froze in his tracks to watch a television that had been blaring a mix of breaking news and weather reports. A “Good Morning America” anchor was talking about two guys who had escaped from a prison the day before. They’d hung sheets out a window, hit the ground and run. The construction worker scoffed: “Where’d they get 20 stories worth of sheets? Somebody’s getting paid.”
No one in the room answered, let alone turned to acknowledge the man’s question. He slid into a chair at a third table, tucked into his breakfast, and they sat there, the three, staring at the screen.
A few minutes later, my son set down a glass of orange juice. “The orange juice tastes the same here as all the other places,” he said. It tasted too thin. He made up a name for it: “Not-So-Orange-Juice.”
Our tastes had dulled after that and many more miles, when, on a January night, we turned off Interstate 10 in El Paso and pulled in at a newly renovated Courtyard by Marriott. The clerk checked us into a double room at a rate of $72. A trendy lobby cafe offered an in-house breakfast, but it cost extra. So just after 8 the next morning, as a rare snowfall made El Paso the lead story on the Weather Channel’s national report, we headed onto slick streets, unfed.
We drove west a few exits to East Yandell Drive and parked in front of H&H Car Wash, where you can wash your car but also eat authentic Tex-Mex cooked at an open stovetop in a single small room.
There were open stools at the counter. We sat a few feet from the griddle. A pot of beans bubbled. One woman behind the counter sliced potatoes, chatting in Spanish with two waitresses, who switched to English and back as customers came and went. Some regulars sat alone at the counter, talking at times to others across the room.
My son ordered pancakes. I ordered breakfast tacos: chorizo and egg. I watched as the cook cut the flour tortillas round and then put them on the griddle to warm.
After she turned and set the tacos before me, I spooned salsa verde on top. It was served in a bowl with a spoon, for all to share. The owner, a gray-haired man with a barrel chest and a quick hello (“I only live for right now,” he told me, though I hadn’t asked), moved back and forth from the car wash lot to his spot behind the cash register. A poster featuring this year’s starting basketball squad at the University of Texas at El Paso hung on the wall, as did a hat with a Pittsburgh Steelers logo. There was no TV.
Two women came in, greeted the owner, settled into seats at one of three tight booths behind us and talked over hot cups of coffee.
My son and I sat and ate our breakfast, on the road, and at home.
Haines is a journalist and an assistant professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter at @twhaines.