Retirement travel . . . use it or lose it or you’ll get lost in Arkansas



What’s the first thing people assume you’ll be doing when you retire? The unisex answer is traveling (as opposed to fishing for guys and reading novels all day for women).

Actually, traveling has been on our bucket list since 2003 . . . the last time we attempted a road trip. Business, acreage and dog ownership had always intervened to confine our trips to overnight business excursions.

When fall ushered in retirement, after we’d already sold our labor-intensive acreage, it was time to finally take a trip. However, we hadn’t become dog-less. We have two spoiled rotten Lhasa-Apsos that we wouldn’t foist on any dog boarding facility or relative, so we almost abandoned plans to go visit my brothers in Southeast Texas for the first time in eight years. Upon calling Brother #2, whose home was to be our hotel for the trip, he urged us to bring them with us. Reluctantly, we agreed.

Do you remember what a chore it was to pack for a road trip with an infant? Double that, then mix in food preparations for animals that are used to nutritional, whole-food cooking that does not resemble commercial dog food, and you’ll get the idea how much work it was just to get ready to drive halfway down the continent.

And now that we’re old fogeys with night driving challenges, we knew we couldn’t make the 13 hour trip in one stint. We researched hotels that would allow pets, made one reservation, and packed for ourselves. In addition, my brother had put in a request for my mom’s mayonnaise cake, a recipe that didn’t do well in the lower altitudes of Texas, so that was a last-minute preparation, following cleanup from a family birthday party the day before we left.

We thought we were pretty smart, setting up a doggie playpen in the back of the Chevy Impala, folding down the seats and installing a 3″ memory foam mattress, adding a blanket and pillows and a few doggie toys. Of course, the large plug-in cooler took up half the space, already crowded with luggage, photo albums for sharing with family, a bag full of the electronic media that seem permanent extensions of our hands, and my sleep apnea machine. Oh, and don’t forget the mayonnaise cake.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that things have changed in the travel world since we last hit the highways and byways. For God’s sake, they’ve even renamed the first highway we took out of town to I-49! When we looked at the Trip-Tik handed to us at the AAA office, we were lost from the first moment. And it didn’t end there. Lemonade Man, being Indian and all, tried to be my navigator but I was too stubborn to listen to his directions. Once in Arkansas and finally reaching Fort Smith, I had the bright idea to take a loop around the city and avoid all the stop-and-go traffic. I was headed south, by golly, and could not get it through my thick skull that loops on your named route sometimes will have you going east or west. Well, somewhere along that loop I looked to the right and saw a sign for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. That was not on the trip route.

Managed to make it back into Arkansas just in time to hit the Ozark Mountain portion of the highway that goes along a ridge with switchbacks and hairpin turns and slower traffic lanes. By that time, Lemonade Man was in the back seat with the dogs and getting pretty impatient with my oohs and ahhhs over the beautiful scenery. It was getting dark, he was tired and cranky and our overnight destination was pegged at another three hours away. He kept repeating ‘Mena” in my ear like a sickening mantra. That’s Mena, Arkansas, instead of our intended Texarkana, and we finally arrived there a little after dark.

The first hotel had a large “No Pets” sign. The second looked like it rented rooms by the hour. The third was not a major chain but would have to do. They only charged $8 a doggie head extra, plus they had a great supper buffet. The only negatives by then were dogs that barked at every passing truck and a too-hard hotel mattress.

The second morning found us determined to get to Texas in record time. We just hadn’t figured on getting lost in Texarkana. I tried to follow the signs that would have put us on I-30/59, but Lemonade Man was determined to keep us on 71 . . . until we reached the dead end downtown. He got behind the wheel when I lost my cool completely after listening to his directions and getting even more lost in a residential area. In two minutes, he stopped to ask directions and we got back on track on I-30. 

But it was me who took us off track through two more cities, ultimately adding 200 extra miles to an already long trip. Ultimately, we had Thanksgiving with my brothers and extended family, sipping on gumbo and saltines in what they told us was a traditional Coon A– feast. The mayonnaise cake was a total disaster and inedible. Maybe they’ve changed the formulation for the white stuff since my mother made it 30 years ago. More likely, I’m just not the cook my mother was.

The dogs got along well with my brother’s aging canine and caused their feline to be confined to quarters. They enjoyed the run of a large fenced yard, with one of them finding a nest of fire ants and getting an unplanned shower, while the other found the cat litter box and helped herself to the contents, then got sick.

On the way home, we took a route that didn’t go through mountains. That shaved off several miles and a few hours. The only mishaps on the return voyage were frequent bathroom stops brought on by the gumbo and being charged $10 a doggie head at the Paris, TX hotel. Once home, we discovered a really neat invention. It’s called MapQuest and it lines out your route and even talks you through it. Once we find a dog sitter, we may be ready for another road trip.