For motel owners, business has been a gas
RIFLE – On gray, rainy days, James Miller feels like a “lion stuck in a cage” because he can’t work. “You go from the window to the door and from the door to the window,” Miller said with a deep southern drawl. “But living in a hotel ain’t that bad.”For now, Miller calls the Red River Inn in Rifle home. He’s been there for two months, and he’s not sure how much longer he’ll stay, but he figures it will be a while.He lays pipeline and travels to the places where he can find the best-paying work. Right now he works for Sterling Pipeline Construction in Garfield County. Since he never knows how long he’ll stay in one place, the week-to-week commitment to a hotel is the biggest one he’s willing to risk.The room is equipped with a mini-fridge and a microwave. Miller brought in a DVD player and a bunch of movies. His clothes are stuffed out of sight in drawers. A Tupperware container in the bathroom holds the used silverware he needs to wash in the sink later.Miller is from a town near Mena, Ark. “They call us hillbillies down there,” Miller said with a smile.He grew up on his grandfather’s farm in Arkansas. He has an ex-wife, a 13-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son who still live near the town where he grew up. He made the 13-hour drive back to Arkansas recently. He spent more time on the road than he did with his family.It’s hard on him, not seeing his kids. But he talks with them on the phone all the time, he said.Miller, 35, doesn’t normally bother with weekends. He works seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day laying pipeline to connect all of the gas wells in the area. He’s worked just about every day since he started with Sterling two months ago minus his trip home and a few unfortunate rain days. The only time he has a chance to notice that he lives in a motel is when it rains and his employers send him home because the narrow winding dirt road to his work site is too dangerous to drive.”It’s a place to sleep and take a shower,” Miller said of his room as he sipped a Budweiser at the breakfast nook in the main lobby. “But it can be fun. There are pluses and minuses.”Sure he’s confined to a small space, but if Miller lived alone in an apartment he wouldn’t have anyone to socialize with. Some nights, he gets together with some of the other guests and the women who work at the front desk. They play poker or get a group together for dinner or a trip to a bar.Most of the other guests at the Red River work for the gas industry, too.In fact, about 80 percent of the rooms are full every night with gas industry workers, said Kris Swallow, who owns the motel. That’s a big change from the way things used to be.”You could hear the wind whistle through these halls during the winter,” said Debbie Brooks, who has managed the front desk at the Red River Inn for seven years. “There were nights when there wasn’t a single room filled.”Swallow said business started improving about three years ago, and the hotel first started filling up like it is now about two years ago.Until that happened, hunting season was the only good season for the Red River, Brooks said.This time of year, the Red River Inn is actually faced with the financially pleasant dilemma of finding space for the hunters who reserved rooms a year ago.”I’m completely full right now,” Swallow said. “With the hunters, I had to move some of the workers out and tell them they can come back in a week.”With so many people coming and going, Brooks jokes that she has to make new rules all the time.”I tell them all – no going to the ice machine in your underwear,” Brooks said, laughing. “One man said, ‘I don’t wear underwear.’ I said, ‘Alright. No going to the ice machine naked.’ I was so surprised when I first started working here, they told me to tell all of the hunters not to bring animal carcasses into their rooms. Some guy hung a deer in his shower to bleed it out. It’s crazy, all the weird rules.”Brooks said she doesn’t usually have too many problems with the guests – gas workers or otherwise.Rose Kendter-Cose, who manages the Super 8 in Parachute, said many of the gas workers who stay there regularly keep to themselves. Sometimes they have parties in their rooms. And things can get a little rowdy from time to time.”Sometimes we have to call the police,” Kendter-Cose said. “Not often.” All of the area hotels have a few gas workers who breeze in and out of town and others who practically live in their rooms, like Miller.Some guys get per-diem, some pay for the rooms themselves and sometimes a company will block out some rooms for their workers.Across the street from the Red River at the Rusty Cannon Motel, Bunny Rohrig is grateful for the growth. She’s part owner and manager at the motel. They built the place about 25 years ago, when the oil shale industry was booming. With the oil shale workers, she said they filled the motel’s 90 rooms almost every night.”I’ve learned,” Rohrig said. “You never count on anything energy-related lasting. We went from thinking everything would be wonderful for forever to renting two to four rooms a night. It was a pretty dry 15 years.” The motel is usually about 75 percent full every night nowadays. It needs to be about 60 percent full in order for the business to break even with expenses.During hunting season, she’s packed. She makes room for the hunters who made reservations a year ago and sends travelers on to Glenwood Springs. “I don’t move any of the workers out for the hunters, except the reservations,” Rohrig said. “The workers are our bread and butter.”The Winchester Motel in Rifle is also completely full during hunting season, but Elizabeth Kudasik, who owns the business, said about 50 percent of her rooms are filled regularly with gas industry workers.”They come and go,” Kudasik said. “None of them stay very long, but they’re always coming through.”The motels in Parachute don’t have any room for travelers during hunting season either. Kendter-Cose said the Super 8 is about 80 percent full with gas industry workers on a regular basis, and hunting season has left her without a single room to rent for the last few weeks.Kendter-Cose said the Super 8 came out of its dry spell about eight years ago, when she first started working there. Workers who laid pipeline stayed, people involved with American Soda Ash stayed and now the gas industry workers are filling the rooms. Different people stay for different lengths of time, Kendter-Cose said. Some workers stay 10 days and go home for 10 days. Others never leave, she said.Miller, like most of the workers, seems to embody the very sense of impermanence Rohrig is mindful of in the industry.”We’re kind of a different breed of people,” Miller said of gas workers and most specifically pipeline operators like him. “They call us road whores because we’re always picking up and moving. We’re always on the road.”Miller is not new to living out of a suitcase or duffel bag. He’s worked on pipelines before, and at oil refineries around the country. He’s lived in hotels and motels in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Louisiana, New York City and Kansas, to name a few.The longest he’s been in one place was six months – Baton Rouge, La.”I was in the same hotel room the whole time,” Miller said.The way it works, Miller said, is that he exchanges numbers with the other guys on the work site every place he goes. If he gets a call from someone working a job that pays better than the one he’s working at the time, he pulls up and moves on.It’s a nomadic lifestyle that he’s comfortable with, but dropping the occasional anchor is good, too.”I think I’ll be here a while,” Miller said. “Sterling pays pretty well. (The work) is going to be here a while. They’re drilling more wells than we can get pipeline to.”Miller’s job is to connect the gas wells with pipeline. He has been in this sort of business for more than five years. For a half a decade, he’s rarely been home for any length of time. He’s never been closer to home than 500 miles.”That was pretty much the cause of my divorce,” he said.But the money is good. “I could probably retire in four or five years,” said Miller, who said he makes about $2,000 a week.Miller uses his per-diem allowance to pay for his $250-a-week hotel room and meals out at McDonald’s, Sonic and other Rifle eateries. He tries to make two or three meals a week at the motel on his electric skillet or the motel’s grill to save a little money.Why try to save money when he makes so much of it?”We’re tightwads, I guess,” Miller laughed. “No. I’m going to buy a ranch, and the farthest drive I’ll make is to the store.”Miller’s travels have allowed him to see all the places in the country where he might want a ranch. He would most like to retire to his own patch of property in Montana.”I grew up on my granddad’s farm. I loved that. I always said I’d have something bigger than that,” Miller said.Laying pipeline and living in a motel is a good way to get what he wants.”It’s a fast way,” Miller said. “You figure, two grand a week. It’s a fast way to get there. So for now, I’ll just chill it in my room, in my cage.”Contact Amanda Holt Miller at 625-3245 ext. email@example.com
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