Tuesday, August 14

Travel woes and joys--Draft Dispatch

Since when did paying for anything in cash become a problem for hotels and a huge headache for me?! I’ve now had the misfortune of staying at several hotels, the last of which was in Duluth, that think it makes sense to charge me twice for a room I’ve used only one night. I use a debit card with a Visa or MasterCard logo. Some hotels do some sort of pre-authorization of the amount of the room or a $200 standard fee.

Then when I’m preparing to pay in cash the next morning, the hotel clerk says, “It’ll be several days before the money is returned to your account.” “What? I said I would be paying in cash. I gave you the card to hold the room—I explained that? Why was there any money applied to my account?” They typically say, “Oh, that’s fine but we had to apply a $200 pre-authorization fee—that’s our policy when people use debit cards--just so that people don’t walk off without paying.” When this first happened, I said, “I can pay for the room in cash upon checking in.” Evidently, that’s not enough, I guess, because late in the night, I could go nuts and damage the room and then where would they be? This makes no sense given that they have the imprint of my card. Besides, having one’s credit card does not resolve folks from the walking away after damaging a room. They press me by saying, “Do you have a regular credit card? If you have a regular credit card, then we wouldn’t” have to the pre-authorization? Another truly dumb and lame response. I prefer to pay in cash—why am I being hassled? And one would think the hotels would want the cash.

In one hotel, I said at the very beginning. “I will be paying in cash. Are there penalties for doing so?” I was told, “Oh, no.” I asked, “Do you apply a “down payment or pre-authorization to my debit/credit card” (which I had to give to hold the room. “No—we don’t do that to our customers.” But in several other hotels, using cash has been a pain in the gluts! I just don’t get it, particularly given the fee hotels are charged with each credit card transaction. With the debit/credit card, the cash is there and an easy check confirms that the money is available. This means some letter writing when I return home!

Foreign Currency

When I left Sault Ste Marie, MI on my way to Sault Ste Marie, Ontario I would have to be riding with my eyes closed to miss the number of government run currency exchanges for trading my American bills into Canadian dollars. I asked the clerk there if I would be able to do the reverse when I re-entered the good ole USA. She said, “I think so, since you’ll be doing another border crossing. That was her guess but she wasn’t 100% certain.

When I left Thunder Bay, Ontario and saw that I was preparing to crossover, I pulled out of the lane and into the Canadian customs place. I dismounted and went inside. I said I’m just returning from Canada and don’t know the procedures. I failed to ask him about changing money. Frankly, it wasn’t on my mind and I was thinking I would see the signs soon. I was in the wrong place, he told me, “there’s no reason to stop here unless you’re Canadian. He directed to the American side.

There, I was interrogated by a man with a Canadian accent on where I’d been, the nature of my visit, where I was going, did I have anything dangerous or illegal stuff with me. Cars in front of me were searched. My bike was not. Before leaving, the man said, “I like your hair.” Coming at the end of some serious questioning, the comment threw me off guard. I smiled and motored on, forgetting to ask if the currency exchanges were ahead. Moreover, I didn’t think he could change it from his little tollbooth.

I drove and drove and never saw money-exchanging signs. “Definitely,” I thought, I’ll find something in Duluth. I spent a good part of Monday looking for a place to exchange the money in Duluth. Someone told me that Wells Fargo “should—they’re big around here.” Wells Fargo initially told me that they would. Then while at the counter they found out that I wasn’t a customer. If I open an account, however, they would exchange the money. One of the employees actually told me it might be worth it to open an account to get the money traded, that I could always close the account later. Made no sense to me! Besides, I’d have to use some of the money to start the account. I will never have an account with Wells Fargo. I will say that a wonderfully kind young woman in personal banking at Wells Fargo felt badly –and surprised—that Wells wouldn’t exchange the money. When she went to check more, she returned looking rather embarrassed. She then spent a lot of time calling to hotels, which I needed for the night to see if they would take the Canadian money. Hotels that would take the money, had no rooms; those that had rooms, would not take the foreign currency. A popular weekend blues festival that ended late Sunday night in Duluth made hotel availability slim to none. Primacy was given to room availability, which meant the whole cash/pre-authorization deal.

Before leaving, I made two stops. One, to K-Mart to purchase batteries (forgot to charge the rechargeables last night). Before going into the store, I briefly made eye contact with a young man who was looking at my bike, I guess. Five minute later, he came up to me in the store and said, “You left your keys in your bike. I saw the turn signal flashing and I thought it would go off automatically. But it didn’t, then I saw that you had left your keys in the bike.” I thanked him like crazy. In my head I said, “DANG!! Just give the bike away, why don’t ‘cha!” Stupid mistake that would, I bet, get my gal-pal stolen in many places. I think I’m getting tired. When I’m tired, I’m forgetful.

My second stop, I headed to the post office where I met a man who reminded me of Paul Bunyon, I don’t know why, really, he just did. Big and tall, hairy (facial and head). His long wild ponytail was the result of riding a motorcycle without a helmet, I later learned. In line to do his own post office business, the clerk pointed him out as someone who might know where to exchange foreign currency. He said what I thought was Paul-America. Later when he looked it up in the phone directory, I saw that it was actually PawnAmerica. He was confident that they would exchange the money. We talked motorcycles a little and he came out to check out Queenie—he approved. He rode a big Honda cruiser—I think an Aero.

After “Paul Bunyon” left, another man whom I recognized from the PO line pulled up in his car. “Do you know where you’re going?” I told him I thought so and was programming my GPS to find the location for me. He said, “Follow me--I’ll take you there?” Hmmm….been there before. I thanked him as profusely as I could, but he kept saying, “I’m going that way, I don’t mind taking you—no problem.” I continued to say I didn’t want to inconvenience him and that the GPS would get me there...”but thanks so much, you’re very kind.” This went on and on before he finally said, “Well, okay then.”
In my brain, I can’t help think that such offers will result in being slaughtered. I tried not to hold it against him that his car’s interior looked like someone had been murdered in it—my car gets out of hand on occasion too. Even if his car were spotless, I would never follow anyone anywhere no matter how lost I am. Then I recalled those lonely moments out on Hwy 17. Had nightfall come, I don’t know what I would have done.

Before heading for the expressway (I-35), I pulled into a gas station to check something on the GPS. I looked up and saw Western Bank, a small branch-like office. I figured, why not try it since I’m here. Went inside, like at Wells Fargo, the personal banking assistant told me that “Sure, we can do that for ya.” I thought, here we go again, another employee not knowing what her bank does. She told me that someone at the counter would help me. Just like at Wells Fargo. A strikingly blond, friendly young man who looked 15 said he’d be happy to exchange the money. I’m thinking this is his summer job and he’s playing bank teller. I asked, “Are you sure—I’m not a customer…” Why I said that is beyond me. “Oh, we do this all the time.” I told him that WF would too but only if I opened an account. He didn’t seem surprised, and said, “Yeah, I know that they have a hard push for getting new accounts.” He also told me that he is a motorcycle rider (my helmet and jacket are hard to miss). We chatted about my trip and I mentioned that I wanted to ride the Scenic Skyline Parkway. He told me that it’s indeed scenic but very bumpy for a motorcycle. He once rolled a car on it, “so be careful.”

Today is the first day in eight days where the weather is a concern. It was sunny for only a short time. By late afternoon, the clouds had rolled in. The winds were strong and riding the bridge to Superior, WI was not fun but manageable—sort of like riding along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago on a blustery day. When the bike starts feeling like you’re riding sideways, you countersteer. Well, today was a day of countersteering.

I never made it to the Scenic Skyline Parkway; I went to The Depot instead and walked around the area along Michigan Street and 5th. By 5pm, the sky was gray and I felt a marked drop in the temperatures. It was downright cold on I-35 heading south to the hotel. Cold!

I went to dinner at Blackwood Grill & Bar in Proctor, MN where I consumed the best meal thus far. My selection, “Jimmy’s coconut shrimp.” By the time I left, it was drizzling. At 10:30p.m., some three hours later, it was lightening and thundering. I’m hoping it ends before morning when I plan to push the riding and begin making my way to Wisconsin and the Apostle Islands. My emphasis is now on riding, not touring. I’m getting tired of strange beds and missing mine.

Think Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio show. It finally hit me that the accents I’ve been hearing in Minnesota from the wait staff, hotel clerks, and friendly strangers, is one I’ve heard many times before and couldn’t put my finger on. It came to me in a restaurant. These are the people made famous (or infamous) by Keillor. I heard a lot of friendly, “Don’t ya know,” and, “Okay then,” and “Be right with ya” “No problem.”

Just when I start believing the world is a rotten place, things start to tip the other way and stuff happens that restores my faith in the basic decency of most humans. Those who really, truly annoy and wear their ignorance like a badge o honor are in the minority. I’ve met a nice bunch of folks along the way and Duluth was right up there with the best...

Tomorrow morning I’m heading for the famous Aerostich, a “wearhouse” catalog of everything motorcycle: gear, gadgets, books, and videos--all related to two wheel travel.