This essay appeared in slightly
different form in The Seattle Weekly:
Elvis Slept Here
In early September I spent a
few days down on the Kalama River fly-fishing
for steelhead. I had worked hard in the two
days I was there, hooking a couple of fish,
but the fishing had been slow. The most interesting
thing that happened to me didn't have anything
to do with the river. I had been camping out
for a couple of nights, and I felt grungy,
drove fifteen miles down the river road to
Where the Kalama joins the Columbia
is really quite an amazing spot. The big river
is still affected by the tides there, even
though it's so wide as to be featureless,
more like a lake than a river. On the other
side--on an Oregon peninsula--is the enormous
concrete hourglass cooling tower of Portland
Gas and Electric's Trojan Nuclear Power Plant.
What a shock to come down such a remote, beautiful
valley and find that gigantic cement smokestack
tossing off massive clouds of steam. Anyway,
a quick left onto 1-5 south took me one mile
The only motel visible from
the frontage road is the Columbia Inn. Vacancy.
It's a nondescript two-story structure, all
steel and concrete, an unbroken expanse of
fifty identical rooms with doors facing straight
out onto the parking lot and then the Interstate.
When I walked into the office in front, I
heard the sound of the TV back behind a beaded
and thought, "What you see is what you
get. " Before me were a couple of sofas
and a lamp and a small display rack with brochures
advertising what seemed to be every boring
little side trip you'd ever want to make in
Southwest Washington. Case closed. A short,
white-haired lady came out. She seemed surprised
to see me at two in the afternoon. I said,
"Do you have any rooms that don't face
out onto the freeway?"
"No, not really."
"What's the least expensive
room you've got? ',
"They're all around thirty
I had been sleeping in a tent,
so wondered about lamps for reading. "Do
you have a room with a good light?"
She gave me a patient, Man-from-Mars
look before replying. "Most of the rooms
are pretty much the same, but there wouldn't
be anything keeping you from moving the desk
lamp over to the table by the bed. I'll never
tell." She smiled at that.
I must have had a really sour
look on my face when 1 handed her my bankcard.
We were almost done with the paperwork when
I looked up on the wall and saw a picture
of Elvis Presley. That wasn't all, though.
There were several more pictures of other
people standing around in the dark in the
parking lot of the Columbia Inn, pictures
that had that stark, film-noir flash bulb
look that black and white pictures from twenty-five
or more years ago.
"So, what's all this about?"
"Oh, he did stay here once.
These pictures are there to prove it. It was
in 1962. He was driving up in a caravan to
the Seattle World's Fair. He told them he
wanted to stay in some small, out-of-the-way
place, and this was it. That's me standing
there in front, waiting. My little girl is
right there next to me. She was only thirteen
then, and now she looks at
that picture and can't hardly believe it.
Of course. Now her daughter
would be older than the mother had been in
the picture. From what I could tell, in the
photos the mother didn't have a trace of gray.
I looked closely at one of the other pictures.
"Who are those fellows?"
"Oh, his bodyguards. Yeah,
he had a big RV, but he wanted a room."
My mind raced. This was my chance.
"Say, I know this probably
sounds stupid, but seeing as how it's early
in the day, and you may not have rented it,
do you think I could have that room?"
She smiled up at me and brightened
considerably. "Oh, sure. It would be
219 or 220. They're a suite. I'll put you
in 220." She smiled. 1 smiled back, and
bit my tongue to keep from saying, "Did
you know he's alive? His spirit has been talking
to all kinds of people. There's a book for
sale, and it comes with a cassette tape, too."
Anyhow, I was glad to have kept my mouth shut.
I didn't feel like the Man from Mars anymore.
I guess I had just been feeling the way most
people from the city feet when they're strangers
in a small town.
And then? I was tired and ready
for a shower and a short nap. Even through
the closed door and heavy curtains of room
220, the trucks on 1-5 thundered loudly. The
door separating the two rooms had been double-bolted.
I went into the bathroom and opened the window
to let out some of the stale air. A few cars
drove slowly down the street behind the motel.
The bathroom overlooked a yard filled with
old buses and props from the Kalama School
District. A small plywood stand had "Kalama
Spirit Shop" painted across the front
in huge letters. I toweled myself off and
moved one of the lamps over to the table by
the bed, but before reading ten pages I was
When I awoke at 5:30, the sun
was low enough to shine along the edge of
the world through some breaks in the clouds
to the west. Diesel valves were still screaming
out on the Interstate. I got up and thought,
"Sleeping in the bed Elvis slept in?"
Probably not. With my luck, this was the bed
the four bodyguards had slept in. If it had
been Elvis' bed, wouldn't the mattress have
been cut into cubes years ago and shipped
to Graceland to be sold in the souvenir shop?
I wouldn't let those doubts
pull me down, though. I was going up into
the fly-water to fish for steelhead. I got
up, put on some clean clothes, went down to
my car, and drove past the Columbia Inn Restaurant.
A small sign next to the door read, "Famous
People Who Have Eaten Here," or words
to that effect. Below were carved two names,
and there was room for plenty more. One was
Elvis Presley, and the other was Jack Benny.
I bet there's a story there.