May 16, 2023

Space Oddity

Contributing Writer

I would like to fly in space. Absolutely. That would be cool." — Elon Musk

The day before I visited the Don Q Inn, I woke to the news that dangerous levels of "forever chemicals" had been found in Great Lakes fish. Two advocates for veterans with disabilities had accused new congressman George Santos of stealing $3,000 from a dying dog's GoFundMe. A headline in The New York Times proclaimed, "There's nothing woke about a tofu burger." Another asked if we should block the sun to counter climate change. I fired up Spotify. At least there's music, I thought. Then I saw that David Crosby had died.

I needed an escape. The holidays had come and gone, and the dark tunnel of winter still stretched too long before me. Huddled beneath a heated blanket in my 500-square-foot apartment, I stumbled upon the website of Dodgeville's Don Q Inn, which specialized in themed fantasy suites. There was a Jungle Safari suite with a thatched hut and a Northern Lights suite with a massive igloo. Scrolling through the site was like peering through a children's View-Master; it was oddly comforting how whole environments could be flattened into a single tableau. (Though the less said about Geisha Garden, with its reliance on Eastern tropes, and Indian Summer, which promised a "cozy wigwam," the better).

In the end, my eye settled on Tranquility Base No. 1: a kind of groovy moonscape with a large whirlpool tub in the middle of the room and a bed housed inside what appeared to be a Gemini space capsule. I booked it immediately.

How to describe my arrival at the Don Q Inn? Should I tell you about the whiteout conditions that greeted me? Or the Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter, supposedly autographed by Farrah Fawcett, parked on the front lawn? How about the ring of mismatched barber chairs that surrounded a decommissioned steam-engine fireplace in the lobby, or the sign above the breakfast buffet promising "Egg Scrambled, Butter Flavored"? The hotel was a relic of the Reagan ’80s, when a Cambrian explosion of "Fanta-Suite" motels began popping up around the Upper Midwest. A framed 1988 article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune in the hallway detailed then-Don Q owner Roger Dehring's plans to build fantasy-themed suites in hotels all over the region, including an idea for a horse-themed room near Canterbury Downs in Minnesota that he eventually abandoned. "I couldn't [figure it out]," Dehring told the paper. "I mean, what's romantic about a horse, unless you’re another horse?"

When I finally entered my room, the temperature inside the Tranquility Base was approximately 20 degrees. The Gemini capsule, which could be accessed via a set of carpeted stairs, looked more like a circular DJ booth; the bed was, pardon the indulgence, hard as moon rock. A pink comet on the wall bore the telltale signs of a bad graffiti job. On the website, the room had seemed offbeat and charming — a neat bit of retro futurism contained in a B&B. In reality, it was like sleeping in a miniature golf course.

I went to locate the thermostat and was confronted by a life-size spaceman ripped straight from the cover of an Isaac Asimov novel. It hovered over me, its hands bent violently at the wrists as if possessed. I thought of the tagline to the 1979 sci-fi horror film "Alien": In space no one can hear you scream.

I imagined couples fighting over whether to stay or leave. ("You do whatever you want, but I’m not sleeping here!") Hell, I was debating whether to stay or leave. Instead, I decided to venture into downtown Dodgeville, where I sat at the bar of a barbecue restaurant and broke my dry January in an attempt to take the edge off.

When I eventually returned, emboldened by the cold and the drink, I took stock of things. The room, though dated, was reasonably clean and well appointed. The bathroom was, mercifully, updated and unthemed, with a roomy shower and a potpourri of fine-smelling soaps and lotions — ones with nonsensical, mellifluous names like Oasis Bliss and Terra Botanics. After leaving the commode, I turned on the TV — it had cable, one of the great joys of hotel travel — and remembered that in my bag I had a fancy Korean sheet mask a friend had given me. I put it on and felt more … tranquil.

And, for a moment, listing slightly from the alcohol and a knee injury that was giving me fits, wearing slippers from home that resembled astronaut boots, it was possible to believe that I had truly escaped. That I had left one planet and entered another. Then I remembered the tub, made from a 300-gallon cheese vat and covered to look like a moon crater. I cranked the faucet and watched the chemical-free water tumble down fake rocks and fill the basin. Bobbing in the water, I experienced, if not zero-G, then 3G or perhaps 5G.

My point is, the Gs couldn't keep me down. I felt as if I were Buzz Aldrin, taking my first tentative steps onto the moon. (I would say Neil Armstrong, but I was, er, not the first person to occupy the room, let alone the tub.)

But then, just as quickly, the jets belched out something sulfurous and the fantasy turned to stardust.

The next morning, munching glumly on butter-flavored eggs, fantasizing about the delicious $6 coffee I would buy when I got home, I remembered something that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said upon returning from space in 2021. Like fellow oligarch Elon Musk, Bezos had spent a small fraction of his personal fortune in a bid to send average Joes into orbit with his company Blue Origin. At the press conference that followed his first successful voyage, decked out in a blue flight suit, Bezos regaled the audience with stories about the profundity of seeing Earth from space. He gave a shout-out to his mom. Then he got suddenly serious.

"This is the only good planet in the solar system," he told reporters. "We’ve sent robotic probes to all of them. This is the only good one, I promise you. So we have to take care of it. And when you go into space and see how fragile it is, you want to take care of it even more."

So my visit to the Tranquility Base hadn't lived up to my expectations. But maybe it had taught me a bit of a lesson. As often as travel can feel like a window into a more exciting version of our lives, it can also serve as a reminder of how good we already have it.

Jeff Oloizia is a contributing writer at Madison Magazine.

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Jessie Loeb remembers her father digging into his candy stash late at night.

Contributing Writer

Jeff Oloizia is a contributing writer at Madison Magazine. In addition to writing features, he contributes to the magazine's arts and entertainment coverage, including the monthly Go.See.Do. page. He lives in Madison and is a former editor at the New York Times and INTERVIEW, where his journalism also appears.

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Would you like us to publish your essay? Submit your Wisconsin-centric piece for consideration here: