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This must be the place: ‘When the trees are bare and the barns are white with frost’

Lexington's Chevy Chase Inn opened in 1933. Garret K. Woodward photo Lexington's Chevy Chase Inn opened in 1933. Garret K. Woodward photo

Hello from Room 211 at the Red Roof Inn just off Interstate 64 in Lexington, Kentucky. Bright, warm rays of sunshine stream into the east-facing window of the $43.95 per night cheap motel room. Crisp morning air rolls across the city and nearby horse country. 

You know, looking back into the dusty memories of my ramblin’, I’ve spent five nights in this exact lodging establishment over the years. Six nights if you count the evening I illegally parked in the lot next door and slept in the back of my old 2001 GMC Sonoma.

That illegal parking slumber was back in late September 2015. I was on assignment for The Smoky Mountain News. The gig was to head from our office in Waynesville to Bean Blossom, Indiana, to cover the induction of Haywood County banjo great Raymond Fairchild into Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame. Fairchild passed away in 2019.

In those days, I had no problem sleeping in the back of my truck to save a few bucks towards gas and food. Still don’t, truth be told. Less is more. Snug like a bug in a rug in my trusty sleeping bag under the camper shell of the truck bed, under the stars above and fluorescent parking lot floodlights. More pocket change for Waffle House in the morning, anyhow.

Following the completion of the assignment up in Bean Blossom, I was somewhat in a hurry to get back to Western North Carolina, seeing as I’d already camped out a couple days in the truck to capture the music festival and induction. I was also aiming to return to Waynesville to salvage some of my Sunday Funday with friends.

So, I pulled off I-64 and found a dive bar attached to a Days Inn, the Red Roof Inn Lexington North situated directly behind it. Road weary and in the last of my clean clothes, I was in search of cold suds and a hearty meal, perhaps even some live music if I was lucky enough to walk in on the right night. Park in the back of the lot and saunter in the bar.  

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Entering the room, the glowing light of neon beer signs on the walls illuminated the space. A band was in the corner rockin’ out some Tom Petty and Lynyrd Skynyrd numbers. After consuming a chicken Philly cheesesteak and some almost-frozen Budweisers and watching the band for a full set, it was getting late and I decided to take a snooze in the truck.  

Several hours later, I awoke. The bar was now closed. Everyone was already home. Sunrise was quickly approaching. Get up. Rub your eyes. Start the truck and go. Coffee and eggs at the nearby Waffle House. Before leaving, I glanced across the lot and small back field to the Red Roof Inn. So long Lexington — until next time.

A couple years later, while on assignment for our sister publication, Smoky Mountain Living magazine, I found myself again in Lexington. This time it was doing a “36 hours in Lexington” travel piece, which included the likes of The Burl music venue, a couple restaurants in downtown and an overdue stop into the legendary Chevy Chase Inn — the oldest bar in the city, a place that only time itself could replicate.

Check into the Red Roof Inn and away we went. At $43.95 a night, it was a damn good deal. Besides, I don’t need much, just clean sheets, Wi-Fi, a working television and good shower pressure. The Red Roof Inn Lexington North had it all. Wander the city and try to write it all down. Blurry scenes in elaborate bourbon lounges and wild conversation with strangers that became fast friends (still friends to this day).

The last two junctures of my existence that have brought me back to this Red Roof Inn involved my ongoing work with Rolling Stone. First was the fall of 2022, on assignment documenting popular Los Angeles rock act Dawes on a nationwide tour for its latest album, the show on the outdoor stage at The Burl. Two nights of melodic debauchery and Kentucky spirits in glasses with one ice cube. 

Onward to this past week. Another Rolling Stone gig. This go-round in Bardstown, Kentucky, interviewing and doing a feature piece on a bourbon distillery and its push to bring more attention to its modern take on a beloved tradition. I had to be at the distillery by 1 p.m. Sold. Head up the night before and cruise into the Red Roof Inn Lexington North, just an hour down the road from Bardstown.

Bright, warm rays of sunshine stream into the east-facing window of the $43.95 per night cheap motel room. Crisp morning air rolls across the city and nearby horse country. It’s funny when one reflects on these exact moments, these random spots on this planet of ours where we continually find ourselves from time to time.

Sure, on the surface, these cheap motels are incredibly basic and mostly forgettable to the passerby. But, maybe it’s the sentimentalist in me when I think about how this random building and property is a dot on the map of my wanderings and ponderings, my trials and tribulations of a life hopefully well-lived — the ever-unfolding trajectory of time and space at $43.95 a night.

That same sentimental state of self and of the unrelenting, restless open road, of inexpensive respite and sandpaper towels, of strangers pulling into the parking lot from seemingly every direction, from destinations unknown, remains as fascinating to me now as it did when I took my first solo road trip from my native Upstate New York to East Tennessee in the summer of 2005.

Nothing was ever the same after that. The adventure remains, so do cheap motels. For an old road dog like myself usually on a strict budget, I remain thankful for such establishments. Red Roof Inn Lexington North. Super 8 (Christiansburg, Virginia). Ranger Motel (Cheyenne, Wyoming). Dunes Inn & Suites (Tybee Island, Georgia). Dude Rancher Lodge (Billings, Montana). And so forth. 

 Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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