Are You Sleepless in a Glitzy Hotel Room?

It was 2:00 am and I was still tossing and trying to sleep in my sparkling clean hotel room in Richmond in Virginia in May 2010. At 5:00 am I finally sat up in exasperation. My heart was racing. My whole body was so wired up it’s as if I had drank fifty cups of strong coffee and a jolt of horse tranquilizer. I was peeing every half hour. I bolted out of my room as soon as there was light. I sat in the hotel garden in my robe pretending to enjoy the morning fresh air in the flower garden.

I had spent a retreat there three years before and I had enjoyed my stay. What could be wrong? I lied to my generous hosts that I had an emergency at home. I did not want to disappoint them. I was feeling so unwell that I cut short my retreat and went home. I dismissed the whole thing as a fluke.

In early June, members of my wife’s family from out of state were staying at a glitzy high-end hotel in Gettysburg Pennsylvania. They booked us a room and invited us to join them touring the famous Civil War historic sites. We could not pass up the occasion. After tossing for a couple of hours again, I got up at 3:00 am. My heart was racing. I told my sleepy wife that I would spend the rest of the night in the car in the parking lot. At 7:00 am I called my wife on the cell phone to wish her a good morning. We discussed our next course of action while I was sitting in the car.

We broke the disappointing news to the two family relatives that we would be driving back at the end of that day. We enjoyed ourselves as much as possible. But I felt bad to be a party spoiler although everyone said they understood. But I also know that people are very skeptical that a clean sparkling hotel room can cause any discomfort in anyone who is a normal human being.

I did some research on the internet. What I found out alarmed me. There are people who develop chemical sensitivity to hotel rooms. I was doomed. After spending so many years traveling and spending numerous nights in all kinds of hotels, I would now be confined to one-day trips to anywhere.

Two weeks ago, an unexpected rare opportunity came up to attend the Clarksville Writers Conference in Tennessee. It would be a 9-hour drive and I did not know any uncle there at whose house I could crash on a couch. I booked a room at the Riverview Inn. A few hours later, I called the hotel manager Leslie Capp and said: “By the way I have a problem”. The response by e-mail stunned me. They would give me a room which the housekeepers would vacuum, clean with no chemicals, no fragrances and no air fresheners. My bed linens would be washed in special hypo-allergenic detergent. I was so ecstatic that they understood. I did not want to take any chances though. I asked them to put a cot in my room just in case. I brought with me blankets, sheets, and a pillow from home.

When I opened my hotel room, it was air-conditioned and it smelt very clean which means there were no obvious chemicals or none at all in the air. Later that night, I apprehensively crawled into the bed between the fresh hotel sheets. I woke up at 6:30am after the most restful sleep I had had in a while. The tiredness from my previous day 9-hour drive was gone. I drew the curtains open and there was the beautiful Cumberland River in the fresh morning sun. My conference started at 8:00am.

I was so excited I went downstairs and profusely thanked everyone of the hotel lobby clerks and sang the praises to the manager. I thanked the housekeepers when I saw them in the elevator.

I had such a wonderful time attending the conference meeting wonderful people and learning more about Southern history and hospitality. As I was driving back through the wonderful State of Tennessee, I couldn’t help but think that many civilizations have perished in the past due to something catastrophic happening to them. May be what will kill our civilization are the toxic chemicals we eat and breathe every day which we have convinced ourselves are necessary, safe and harmless.