On the road to Toad Suck

A string of convertibles – all with tops down — left last Saturday morning for a leisurely road trip from Hot Springs Village to Toad Suck, a little town in Arkansas with a name that invariably makes people laugh or shake their heads in disbelief. The excursion was a fall event for members of the loosely organized convertible-owners group “Escape the Gate.”

There may be a few “wannabe convertible owners” among the 190 names on the email list of this group, but on this day 52 people gathered in a parking lot just outside this planned, gated community. We departed in 26 shiny automobiles on an hour-long drive through scenic byways and fall foliage.

The planned destination was lunch at Toad Suck Bucks, a riverfront steakhouse with its own unique story, situated on a bluff overlooking the Arkansas River not far from the lock and dam that share the name.

The eatery is a lively place from Thursday through Sunday, featuring comfort food and good service, cold beer and good bourbon, as well as pool tables and shuffleboard inside and live music on the patio Friday and Saturday evenings. It’s lively and informal, and everyone there seems to know their neighbors.

Toad Suck Bucks has been drawing a crowd for 23 years. Except for a few more dollar bills stapled to the walls and columns today, it probably hasn’t changed much since it first opened. Toads – what else? – are a décor element.

The owner doesn’t normally fire up the grill until 2 p.m. on Saturday and at 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

However, owner Ted Buck agreed to be there early to accommodate the convertible crowd on this Saturday. He was in the kitchen turning out burgers and fries, catfish sandwiches and fried bologna sliders, grilled shrimp and pork tamale bites, assisted by his wife and regular crew who pitched in to assure that the people-pleasing quality of this country-favorite diner was intact. Buck still found time to shake hands and explain the history of this quirky Arkansas treasure.

It’s a unique find, but it’s not at all unknown. Toad Suck Bucks boasts a Facebook following of 7.4K, with nearly as many likes! The interior is as quirky as the name, filled with mismatched tables and chairs that can be reconfigured at will to fill any need. There is a sign that proclaims: “No profanity, please,” and another hand-lettered sign hangs from the ceiling near the kitchen as the dessert menu. I’ll bet it changes often, based on what’s in season, or maybe just at the whim of the baker.

Parking isn’t a problem, and it’s obvious that when the weather allows, the “party” naturally spills onto a patio that’s filled with picnic tables and comfortable lawn chairs! Open bulbs are strung for evening illumination and there are no posted closing hours!

Buck returned to his native Arkansas following military service in both the U.S. Navy and Air Force – he laughingly agrees that’s unusual, and he eventually settled on this quiet spot in this peaceful part of the state. A couple of homes and several outbuildings exist on the property today, and a single sign at the head of a long driveway leads newcomers to the site.

He says he operated a flea market in the building that now houses the restaurant, then he bought a pool table to pass the time with friends. One pool table wasn’t enough, so he bought several more, and more friends arrived. Buck once served simple snacks, with BYOB get-togethers the norm. Then, he adds, “Someone suggested we grill some steaks.”

Toad Suck Bucks was born.

Getting there isn’t always easy. No billboards proclaim its existence. There was a several-mile stretch of dirt road that had drivers wondering if we had all taken a wrong turn. Our colorful convoy prompted other drivers to stop, wave, and let us pass as we made our way through small towns and turned across lanes of traffic. I’ll wager we could have asked directions from any one of the residents had we actually thought to do so. Despite the dust, our group arrived intact, and later Buck shared the “easy way” to keep us all on pavement on the way home.

All in all, it was a perfect autumn day for a top-down drive along country roads, an excursion that makes for fond memories. Ken Buck has surely been doing something right for the past couple of decades, and many of our group vowed to return. Add 52 more “likes” to the total!

Big Brutus

It sits today on the Kansas prairie like a kind of mechanical orange dinosaur, but this giant electric shovel was once an operating mining machine used to extract coal from shallow veins that run through surrounding farmland.  In 1963, the parts were shipped on 150 rail cars to be assembled on the site. The behemoth stands 16 stories tall and weighs in at 11 million pounds. Its boom alone is 150 feet long, and each dip of its shovel could hold enough material to fill three rail cars – the equivalent of 90 cubic yards or 150 tons.

Sadly, Big Brutus performed its duties only for 11 years. It was used to unearth shallow veins of coal at depths down to about 65 feet. Smaller equipment was then used to fully extract and move the coal. By 1974, the process was no longer economical, but Big Brutus was left in place, deemed too expensive to move.

It’s not the biggest shovel ever built; the record-holder was three times its size, but Big Brutus is the largest to survive. Donated by the Pittsburg & Midway Coal Mining Company, it forms the core of the mining museum that was established in 1985. In 2018, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, visitors to the site marvel not only at the size of Big Brutus, but also at its story. One could spend several hours to view all the exhibits and actual machinery displayed at the non-profit center. It tells the story of mining in this part of the world, and it is fascinating. It also provides a glimpse into what life was like in Kansas in times past.

It is awesome to stand next to the metal tracks that tower over my head, and know that those gears once moved this machine across the landscape, albeit at a snail’s pace. Visitors may climb up to sit in the cab of Big Brutus, pose for photos on its platforms or in its shovel, and see small-scale models of other mining equipment in action in the Visitor Center. The Visitor Center in West Mineral, Kansas, is open seven days a week, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  

It may be an unlikely destination for a family vacation, but it’s captivating, to say the least! The truth is that Big Brutus is equally impressive for adults as for children!

Big Brutus was only one of the destinations that I visited recently on a three-day press trip through southeast Kansas. Read more of my stories and impressions in the coming days. As those of us on the trip agreed, “There’s a lot of Kansas in Kansas.”

Goats — and fun — galore!

The population of Perryville, AR, swelled by several thousand October 1 for the first Arkansas Goat Festival held since the Coronavirus pandemic was declared in 2020. The quirky event, a long-standing tradition in this tiny central Arkansas community located only about an hour from the state capital of Little Rock, was expected to attract up to 8,000 visitors, according to organizers.

Seemingly, there is something for everyone at the Goat Festival — goat parades, of course — with animals “au natural, in costume, baby goats, and “big guys” — milking booths, goat playgrounds, and petting pens. A “Nannies at Night” lingerie show was also on the schedule! Goats are required to be leashed or tethered, but “mingling” is encouraged.

It was a perfect day for an outing. With scores of vendor booths, live music, and dozens of food trucks, it’s the kind of local folk festival that we love, one of the great American traditions that we hope never disappears from America. You can bet we’ll have it on our calendar for next year! There are other events like this, in Arkansas and elsewhere around the country, and they’re all worth visiting! Check out other Arkansas festivals planned for the rest of 2022.

There’s nothing like a day trip to a unique local celebration to add flavor to life and open your mind and your heart to new fun and adventure!

Living History

On a recent trip to coastal Norway and the Arctic Circle, my husband and I spent some time in Southampton before embarking on our cruise. The port city on England’s southern coast is delightful and welcoming, well worth a visit. As we discovered, it is full of history that we knew little about. It was the departure port for the ill-fated inaugural sailing of the Titanic, and it was also the port from which the Mayflower sailed in 1620 with its 102 passengers and 30 crew members.

It is a charming city, and there was a distinctive air of festivity when we were there, buildings festooned with the Union Jack and banners in the streets. Smiling likenesses of Queen Elizabeth II greeted us everywhere we went, and the mood was distinctively celebratory. The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee was officially proclaimed for the long weekend of June 2 through 5, with special events planned to continue for at least a month. We arrived in Southampton on Sunday, June 12.

When we returned to Southampton 17 days later, we found that little had changed. England was still celebrating the queen’s 70 years on the throne. We found that to be true as we journeyed north to Suffolk and spent a few days in London before boarding our return flight to the United States on July 5.

Little did we expect that only about two months later, we would hear the news of the queen’s death. And we could not imagine, at the time, the outpouring of grief from around the world that would greet that news. As I watched news coverage from around the world in the days before the state funeral on September 19, I was pleased that we had been fortunate enough to visit Elizabeth’s England while she was still queen. Sadly, we did not take a tour of Windsor while we were there. But, watching the funeral procession make its way through London, I recognized many of the streets we had so recently traversed.

I felt, oddly enough, that I had been witness to history simply by being there. Forty years or so have passed since a previous trip to London. But, like Rome, Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and other world capitals, London is an eternal treasure. Much of it remains the same, but it is more diverse and infinitely more crowded than when I was last there. Modern steel and glass buildings, whimsical modern art, the London Eye and the London Shard, and both the cable cars that whisk passengers above the Thames and the RIB boats that carry passengers at high speed on the river somehow complement rather than compete with slow-moving river taxis. They have become nearly as iconic as double-decker buses and traditional black cabs.

London may be unique in the world. For one, it is the home of a monarchy that, by all accounts, seems alive and well, especially today after its record-setting ruling queen has passed the crown, along with the orb and sceptre of the title, to her son, King Charles III.

I watched the ceremonial events of the past week in awe, with an awareness that an event of this magnitude will not happen again in my lifetime, perhaps never again. I was up early to watch the funeral on my large-screen TV, along with an estimated four billion viewers worldwide, deemed to be the largest global television audience in history.

Some of us around the world watched the queen’s coronation on early black and white television; many more have tuned in to watch royal weddings and funerals of world leaders in real time and full color. But this was different, somehow.

More than one million Britons lined the procession routes to pay tribute as the cortege bearing the queen’s flag-draped coffin made its way from Balmoral, Scotland, to Edinburgh, and later from Buckingham Palace through London to Westminster and back, and, finally, to Windsor

There were poignant moments amidst the traditions and prescribed ceremony. The outpouring of public love and respect was acknowledged by the royal family as they greeted well-wishers who laid flowers outside various palaces. They endured public scrutiny and performed their prescribed roles tirelessly and flawlessly for 11 days. The military, church leaders, government officials, and representatives of other nations, rose to the demands of duty and tradition.

And now we will all move into a future that is still to be written, by a monarch who has waited a lifetime to become king surrounded by family members who have demonstrated that they are, in a very real sense, as human as the rest of us.

That’s something to be remembered, within and beyond the United Kingdom.  

Serendipity: Making Music, Standing Together

Magic sometimes happens when one is in the right place at the right time. In this case it was slightly before 9:30 a.m. Friday, March 25, when three local musicians set up to play a brief concert at a tiny post office in a shopping center adjacent to Hot Springs Village, Arkansas.

There was no advance notice given, the musicians weren’t collecting for a cause, and they didn’t pass the hat. Nor did they attract a large audience. Their reward was simply a smile or two, from those who came to mail packages, buy stamps, or check their postal boxes. The trio did it for the joy of making music together and to express, through that music, the concern they and many others feel right now for what is happening half a world away.

Dr. Millie Gore Lancaster, an accomplished clarinet player, published author and retired teacher, and her long-time clarinet-playing friend, Sharon Daughters, both of Hot Springs Village, were joined by Phillip Wilson, also a retired teacher and published author, of Tucumcari, New Mexico, on the baritone horn, for a performance that both began and ended with the Ukraine National Anthem. Wilson, known as “Papa,” is a lifelong friend of Mrs. Lancaster, in Hot Springs Village for an extended visit. While here, he also serves as guest conductor of the Village Strings.

The Totally Unauthorized Fully Vaccinated Post Office Pop-Up Band: from left, Phillip “Papa” Wilson, Dr. Millie Gore Lancaster, and Sharon Daughters.

It was the kind of serendipity that doesn’t often occur, and this small community with a large population of retirees is not really a place where the unexpected regularly happens. However, the Post Office Pop-Up Band is not a one-time phenomenon. According to Lancaster, it was an idea that sprung out of an incident three days before Christmas in 2018. Some people waiting in a long line for service were irritable, and a few at the postal service windows became abusive when they learned their packages would not arrive at destinations on time.

Lancaster spoke up: “I’m going to bring my clarinet and play music to remind everyone to be kind to each other,” she announced. She didn’t do it that season, but when spring arrived, she and Daughters, who is a fellow clarinetist, began playing happy music like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “Bare Necessities,” just for the fun of it, outside the same post office.

That was in 2019.

They sat out 2020 due to the pandemic, she notes, but began playing again in the spring of 2021. It was time for good friends to “get out and play,” making music together once again. They became the “Totally Unauthorized, Fully Vaccinated Post Office Pop-Up Band.” However, the wind blew their sign down and their sheet music away one too many times, so by Christmas they were popping up once again inside the postal office. When “Papa” Wilson came to visit, they were a trio.

Why the miniscule U.S Post Office as a venue? Because, says Lancaster, she still remembers that Christmas when it was not pleasant to be there.  

In addition to the Ukrainian National Anthem, which is said to be the most popular piece of music in that nation, the trio played “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” from Toy Story, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” from The Lion King, and a poignant Bob Dylan “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The concert could have been longer, but the musicians had another agenda. They were moving on to the main post office in Hot Springs, some 13 miles away, hoping to delight postal patrons there.

A simple sign, in Ukraine’s flag colors of blue and yellow, proclaimed simply, “Stand with Ukraine.”

Lancaster said, “We were inspired this time by the musicians in Ukraine whom we saw playing alone amidst the rubble, a cellist once, and a pianist another time. We thought we would join with our brother and sister musicians in solidarity a half world away.”

When it was adopted by the citizens of the independent Ukrainian National Republic following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the anthem had three verses, and slightly different words. It was adopted in its present form, a single stanza with a repeating chorus, in 2003. The opening line proclaims: “Ukraine’s glory and freedom which haven’t perished . . .” Today, the emphasis is “on vanquishing the country’s enemies and the fresh breath of freedom that citizens so cherish, as they now seek to defend it.”

Indeed, it’s good to make music, to listen to that music, and to stand together.

Why Travel — Take Two

Today I’m sharing, with a bit of nostalgia, some of my favorite photos from the past three years; 2019 took us to Bermuda, Alaska, Maine, Cuba, on a Mediterranean cruise, and then on to a delightful road trip through Croatia, with a final couple of days in rainy, flooded Venice before flying home on Thanksgiving Day. We were thankful to be home, sharing turkey and reheated stuffing with family after a long journey.

This past November we spent a few brief hours on Thanksgiving Day with dear friends on Florida’s Gulf Coast. We met them years ago on Cabbage Key — but, that’s another story. What is pertinent and what seems fitting is that just as one chapter in our book of travel stories ended on Thanskgiving, the next began to take shape with a similar celebration. For us, it was another reason to be thankful, despite the somewhat complicated travel timing and logistics.

We are hungry for new experiences since the world shut down in March of 2020, and we have no fear of becoming satiated. This year, our travel plans — yes, we’ve made tentative plans through early 2023 — will take us to both familiar destinations and entirely new places.

Had previous plans jelled the way we hoped, we would now be packing for a voyage from Buenos Aires to Antarctica, followed by calls at Rio de Janeiro and several other Brazilian ports, before a trans-Atlantic crossing to Barcelona by way of Cabo Verde, off the coast of West Africa. But plans do not always work out the way we envision them. Sadly, that entire itinerary was scrapped more or less at the last minute because South American tourism has not yet fully rebounded from the global pandemic. As you know if you follow my blog, bookings were changed multiple times during the past two years, as (at last count) 16 cruises were canceled or altered so drastically that we decided to forgo them.

If we have learned anything through it all, it has been to embrace possibilities, to grab at every chance to be with family and friends, to not put off trips for no good reason, and to never give up on dreams. Opportunities to travel are sometimes fleeting, and there is no journey not to be savored.

I look forward to what is to come. But, during the past 20 months, I have also looked backward, back to past journeys as well as at some of the trips not taken. My husband and I are now reconsidering some of those itineraries. Our trips closer to home have been interesting and fulfilling, and we are happy to have had an opportunity to explore our new home state and its neighbors. We plan to do more of that!

It has been interesting. Not in any cosmic, earth-shattering way, but from a personal perspective. I came across a tattered, aging journal as I was sorting travel memorabilia, with notes from a driving trip through France and Spain many, many years ago. I was in Tarragona, a medieval Mediterranean port city in northern Spain. I was living in France at the time, and had not long before returned from a trip through the Middle East.

The entry is dated May 31, 1966. I read the words with wonder:

“I passed through Andorra, one of the smallest countries on earth, and thought, ‘I could be happy here.’ This happens often — the feeling passes in time, and even more quickly if I stay to try to shape reality from the dream. . . .”

It was just a brief entry, and it surprised me.

My younger self had not yet become a storyteller. I like to believe that the intervening years have taught me. Reading what I wrote then, I wondered about the circumstances. I cannot now recall them, except to say that I had hoped to return to Andorra briefly this spring, when a planned road trip through the Basque country of France and Spain would have put us close enough for a side trip to that intriguing small nation in the Pyrenees. That trip is one of those that has not yet materialized.

For many reasons, I am eager to be on the move again. Time seems to move faster today than it once did, and 24 months, for me at least, seems far too long to be essentially “at home.” My realization is that I am at least partially defined by the places I travel. Getting gone seems even more essential now. The road trips, brief flights and short cruises have simply been teases.

I have changed in the years since I first visited Andorra. I wonder if it has. Would I still be happy there, or was that the illusion of a younger me, a dream now withered and unimportant?

What about you? Are you ready to travel again? Do you yearn to meet new people, savor new sights, taste new foods and make new friends? I hope so, and I wish you safe travels and lasting memories, no matter where you choose to roam.

But, I hope you’ll continue to come along with me as I pack my bags for distant destinations.

Hungry for the tastes of travel . . .

More than the rush of excitement that greets us when we near a port, more than the thrill of sitting in a winged torpedo on the tarmac waiting for clearance, more than a sunrise on the horizon that signals another day in another place — what surpasses all of that, in my mind, is the variety of food that traveling allows us to experience.

The colors and flavors of foreign treats — whether a great meal, an after dinner “digestif,” or a perfect little chocolate on the pillow — these are the pieces of the travel experience that are hard to duplicate at home. The thrill of a new taste in an unfamiliar place is hard to describe. If you’re traveling close to home, it’s really no different. Keep your eyes open for the unexpected — we have discovered some of the best food in the unlikeliest of places — sublime fried catfish at a general store in back road Arkansas, for instance, an unforgettable steak dinner at an aging saloon in Ingomar, Montana, for instance, and the best fried green tomatoes ever at a ramshackle marina in the Florida Keys.

And, one lucky summer, an absolutely wonderful lobster roll at, believe it or not, a McDonald’s in a small Maine village. The only thing better than the taste was the price!

Traveling lifts us out of our ordinary existence into a realm of wonder that we want to repeat again and again. The cities, the food, the people, the monuments and the history, the natural beauty of different locales, the promise that no matter how many times we return to the same place, each experience will be different — that’s why we travel.

But, when we travel, the simple acts of sampling unique foods and sharing distinctive experiences with fellow travelers and with strangers destined to become newfound friends is an immense pleasure. Yes, we enjoy visiting renowned restaurants and seeking out special taste treats from unique cultures. “Peasant food,” however, the everyday fare of real people in diverse destinations, is what truly draws us, as do street fairs, farmers markets, food trucks. and Ma and Pa eateries.

People, of course, are always a part of the best food experiences, whether we’re ordering something from a food cart or a market stall, or struggling to make sense of a menu in a foreign language. We have perfected the art of pointing with a questioning expression — it always works! Being just a bit unsure of what it is we have ordered is truly part of the fun. And we have found locals typically quick to help translate and interpret.

Another aspect of the fun, for me at least, is my attempt to recreate some of the dishes we have enjoyed on our journeys once we return home. On a trip through Portugal in 2019, I was enamored of that country’s tomato soup in all its regional variations. I discovered an infinite variety of great tomato-based broth during our three weeks there. From the coasts to the cork forests, and from north to south, Soup de Tomate is a Portuguese staple on nearly every menu. It can be a hearty, filling stew with sausage and beans or a richly-flavored broth topped with poached eggs.

Other versions range from a nicely-spicy dish of seafood and rice to a simple, creamed tomato puree served as a starter course for a family dinner. Made with fresh, flavorful tomatoes, the various tomato soups were always tasty, filling and uniquely satisfying. Accompanied by crusty bread, cheese and olives, those meals were often “write home about” memorable. I asked for recipes whenever it was possible, and I am still trying to decide which is my personal favorite!

Global versions of “fast food” have their own kind of appeal — not the golden arches sameness or “choose your own filling” sandwich shops that Americans seem to favor — but the traditional, quick and easy street foods that sustain busy people throughout the world. One can get a slice of pizza, an empanada, a taco, a burrito, an egg roll, or a gyro in great cities around the globe; roasted corn, hot roasted chestnuts or fries with unique dipping sauces in European capitals and isolated villages. Ice cream, gelato and fruit smoothies are staples at casual stands and walk-up windows in warm climates, and open-face sandwiches and pastries are almost magically available from a world-class airport to an isolated beach along the Mediterranean. Food is a universal need, as well as a treat that brings people together to experience the joys of life.

So, I hope to lure you into the habit of sampling local fare wherever you may roam. It takes little effort to seek out distinctive food experiences, whether you’re in a world capital, visiting a charming small town, or traveling a country lane. Usually, these delightful destinations have no neon signs. Instead, a hand-written menu on a chalkboard may offer the only clue to treasures that lie within. Put aside the guidebooks and pay little heed to online reviews.

Peek through the windows of a diner, or step inside a tiny bistro. If seats are full, and people are smiling, join the crowd. On a road trip, we often pull into the parking lot of a local diner filled with local pickups and a smattering of 18-wheelers. Eagerly embrace your personal spirit of adventure, and you’ll likely reap the rewards of good, wholesome food served with a smile.

In the same way, wherever you may live, pay special attention to the push-cart vendors, the food trucks and the out-of-the-way lunch counters and snack bars. You may not always be delighted. There’s no guarantee.

But, if nothing else, you’re likely to have great stories to tell. And the best travel souvenirs, by far, are the stories you can repeat over and over again.

Traditions . . .

This has been a year — or at least a few months — for examining past traditions. When the future seems uncertain, there is something comforting about remembering the past, getting lost in nostalgia, and returning to happier days full of memories of family, friends, fun and tradition.

It has been especially true during all the holidays of the year: Valentines Day, Mardi Gras, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Years — many of those special times normally full of family celebrations and traditions have passed us by since 2020.

In the days leading up to fall holidays, few of us would have believed that the “norm” in 2021 would once again be another scaled-down version of Thanksgiving dinner. It may not have been potluck shared by extended family at socially distanced outdoor picnic tables in a state park, (yes, that happened the previous year), but for most it was, once again, a small table not heavily laden.

Many of our holiday celebrations, those that actually were held, have been accompanied by masks and elbow bumps, but no hugs. Who would have predicted that we would spend last Christmas alone, despite the hopeful news in 2020 that two effective vaccines were ready to be delivered nationwide? Who then would have believed that “the abundance of caution” against large family gatherings would continue for a second Christmas? Who could have imagined yet another mutated virus wreaking havoc with family get-togethers and travel plans now and for the foreseeable future? Yet, that is exactly what has occurred.

May you live in interesting times . . .

Depending on your upbringing and mindset, that phrase has alternately been considered a blessing or a curse. Although there is little evidence that it originated with the Chinese, and even less that it stems from a Yiddish expression or a rabbinical interpretation, it persists in the minds of many of us as a warning that we should never get too comfortable. Life is not to be taken for granted.

Our times — this past year and three quarters, and still today — are nothing if not interesting.

Many of us are still hopeful that we will once again be free to travel freely. But, with the return to mandated masking in many places, extensive travel disruption attributed to ill employees, and persistent warnings about travel, gatherings and testing, we are again uncertain. We hope that we will continue to care for others, by being mindful about where we go, what we do and how we act. But, as this last year has taught us, life is fragile. I am now even more convinced that we must savor the traditions that have brought us here.

For me, that means being with friends, not via face time, Skype or Zoom meetings, but up close and personal. It means sharing good times, welcoming the births of new babies and celebrating graduations and promotions. More importantly, it means being together to comfort one another during sadness and hard times. Working remotely may not be a great hardship. But, being continually remote — from family, friends and business associates — is devastating.

This past year, I lost several acquaintances to COVID. Many others in my circle of friends and family have been ill with the virus. Others, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, have tested positive recently, with varied symptoms and severity, with — presumably — the Omicron variant. I am learning more than I ever wanted to know about the SARS-CoV-2, commonly known as COVID-19.

Humans were not meant to be solitary animals. That is only too evident today, with increasing concerns about not only mental health, but the economy.

The path forward seems clear. We must not forget these past months, nor the shutdowns, the fear, the toll it has taken on lives and livelihoods. But, we also must not give up hope. Let’s don’t ever forget what makes life worth living. Let’s all honor those traditions that we missed so much in 2020 and were hesitant to resume in 2021. Let’s not return to the place of isolation and alarm. Let’s be smart rather than complacent, but let’s go on living our lives with confidence

Yes, COVID-19 is a scary disease. But all diseases are scary. And those who are sick need to be comforted, not left alone. No matter what or how you celebrate the special days that are to come this year, may holidays that are meant to bring us together in the coming months continue to bless you, uplift your spirits and prepare you for what lies ahead.

That is my wish this second day of the new year.

Out in the world again . . .

Once again, each day dawns with new reports about Coronavirus mutations, infections and restrictions. Just a few weeks ago it seemed as if all that was in our past. Today, once again, COVID-19 is big news, at the top of the list of concerns for those of us who delight in travel and for others with holiday travel plans. COVID has had a personal impact for me and my family this year as well. Our holiday travel plans were altered because a member of our family tested positive. We experienced some anxious moments about his health and, although his symptoms were relatively mild, quarantine was the order of the day — or, more precisely, quarantine for 10 days, tests for members of his immediate family and, of course, no guests for the holidays.

Flexibility is today’s reality, for sure!

Still, it’s time to think about past and future destinations, and the differences we can expect.

In late September, we had the opportunity to “dip our toes in the water,” literally and figuratively, on a four-night cruise out of Galveston. We were more than eager to experience new travel protocols, and this seemed the perfect opportunity, with a single port call at popular Cozumel on the Mexican coast. Passengers were free to disembark and to explore freely. Shops and restaurants were open and taxis were abundant, but masks were required of all citizens and visitors.

Our Royal Caribbean ship, Independence of the Seas, sailed at less than 30% capacity: 1,260 passengers, with probably close to the same number of crew. It was quiet, but it was a wonderful experience. It whet our appetites for more and longer itineraries, held so long in check by the pandemic.

So, in mid-November, we flew to Fort Lauderdale to embark on three distinctive bookings on two different cruise lines. First, we visited the Caribbean ports of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Phillipsburg, Sint Maarten, and the beautiful island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. We sailed on the impressive Celebrity Edge, a modern ship designed to carry 2,908 passengers, but during our seven days on board, there were not quite 1,300 passengers. Then, after a few days in Florida, we set sail again on Emerald Princess, bound for the cruise line’s private beach resort on the island of Eleuthera. We sailed with fewer than 900 passengers. It was quiet and restful. That three-day excursion ended once again in Fort Lauderdale where, following a negative result to yet another COVID test administered by the ship’s medical team, we were authorized to remain aboard for another 10 days.

Our itinerary included passage through the Aqua Clara Locks of the Panama Canal, and our ship, designed for 3,080 passengers and more than 1,200 crew members, sailed with 1,374 passengers. Following an initial stop in Nassau where three other ships were in port, our captain set a course for Cartagena, Columbia, on the way to the Canal. Following our day spent traversing the locks and once again being awed by the marvel of the century-old engineering feat that changed the face of global commerce, our final port calls were in Costa Rica, and Jamaica, prior to returning to Fort Lauderdale to disembark.

It was quite an experience! We had previously visited five years ago, entering Gatun Lake through the old two-chamber locks which still operate perfectly, as they have since 1914. The new locks can accommodate much larger ships, of course, more than doubling the ability of the canal to facilitate shipping. It’s fascinating and impressive. Panama has changed during the intervening years, but despite the economic boost from the new locks, Panama and other Central American countries have suffered during the pandemic.

We agreed with other passengers that, as much as we have missed traveling, our disappointments do not compare with the hardships of crew members, some of whom were literally stranded at sea for up to four months prior to being transported back to their home countries. Nor did our “stay at home” time compare to the economic hardships faced by residents of these port cities that depend on tourism for their livelihoods.

Sharing pandemic experiences and future dreams with the staff and crew, and with residents of the countries we visited, became the most important takeaway from these trips. Each ship sailed at far less than full capacity, making it easy to get to know bartenders, cabin stewards and dining room servers. To a person, we found all crew members, including senior officers and maintenance personnel, more than accommmodating, and eager to interact with passengers. To be sure, everyone we met was happy to be back at sea. And those we met on shore during our excursions were delighted to once again welcome us to their countries.

If you’re planning a trip — sooner or later — we would urge you to go. But be smart about it: Get your vaccinations, submit willingly to the tests, abide by the rules (and know that the rules can change quickly), talk to the people you encounter, and enjoy every moment.

The world is different, but it’s still welcoming, and there are good reasons to get out and experience it!

We found that talk about our collective pandemic experiences, our fears and our heartaches, brought us together. Ask people about their families, about how the pandemic affected them and about their hopes for the future. Connect on a personal level. We have always found that to be the best part about traveling. It’s especially true now.  

At the same time, however, I cannot help but be disturbed by the news that European countries are again closing borders and that more stringent rules are in effect for travelers arriving in the U.S. from foreign cities. I am appalled — and worried — by the rising numbers of positive tests throughout our country and around the world, and by daily reports of rising numbers of positive tests on cruise ships, and of cruise ships and passengers being turned away from world ports.

If you have recently been on a cruise or taken a trip abroad, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, not only about your experiences, but about any future plans you may be considering.

We felt perfectly safe as vaccinated travelers; we fell naturally into the routine of masks in public places, limited passengers in an elevator, social distancing and constant handwashing and sanitizing, although we sometimes did it all with wry smiles and perfunctory observance. We also appreciated (and took advantage of) every opportunity to shed our masks, even if only for a few breaths of fresh outdoor air, or when nursing a cool drink in the company of others.

One final thought: I have to hope that none of us will easily abandon our travel plans. Travel is the single most valuable step we can take to learn about this world we all inhabit, the best way to forge understanding of different cultures and ideas, and the only way to become truly educated citizens of the world we all share. Travel enriches us all.

Let’s don’t give up on that idea. If you’re thinking of a cruise, a guided tour, a flight to an exotic destination, even a cozy stay at a B&B across the state line, go for it. Plan it, do it, enjoy every moment and return home safe, refreshed and full of the wonder of it all.

I do not know what the future holds. Perhaps, as 2022 dawns, what we must all hold onto is hope. May the new year be better for all.

To echo the words of Rick Steves: “Keep on travelin’.”

Eureka: What an experience

I don’t quite know what to say about Eureka Springs. It’s equal parts history, natural beauty and distinctive character. And for a quick weekend getaway, it’s a delight! There’s a lot to like about this small town (population only about 2,100) in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. It’s unique, and in some ways it feels stuck in time. That, too, is part of its mystique. It has charm, for sure.

Eureka Springs was first settled in 1879, and named on July 4 of that year. There are wonderful old homes — many of them now B&Bs — that rival San Francicsco’s “painted ladies.” Log cabins, imposing stacked stone family homes and simple, single-story cottages exist along steep inclines and winding lanes. There are pizza places galore. There are casual diners and a few fast-food outlets; there are fine dining places with white linen tablecloths and attentive waiters. Old-fashioned bars attract a biker crowd come to ride the high curves and twisting back lanes. A local brewery and plenty of watering holes with more than their share of character and characters attract lively, friendly crowds.

On the labyrinthian streets, you’ll find historic buildings housing trinket and t-shirt shops, underground grottos from which the “healing waters” once flowed freely, an old-time photo parlor that proclaims “Weddings Performed” and distinctive hotels and eateries. Street art and street musicians coexist in the small downtown. Public sculpture and old memorials are much in evidence, as are the public buildings and hotels with historical plaques.

A well-preserved Carnegie Free Library is a commanding presence on one of the main streets, and it’s still in use. The old depot and railroad roundhouse are attractions at the edge of town; a popular excursion takes visitors on a four-and-a-half-hour trip over restored Eureka Springs and North Arkansas track. You can also book a lunch or dinner expedition ride to enjoy a trip into the past in a restored dining car. Along the way are extraordinary scenic vistas.

For a first-time visitor, an orientation ride on the “hop on-hop off” Eureka Springs Transit is a must. Ride the four different routes for an overview of Eureka Springs. It’s as much a local public transportation staple as tourist aid, taking passengers almost anywhere in, and out of, town. Its price is more than reasonable at $6 a day for unlimited time and distance. You’ll rub shoulders with local residents toting grocery bags, and others on their way to work or heading home after a long day.

The varied routes are perfect for exploring at your own pace, and it certainly beats walking up and down steep hills on foot, or trudging long distances in unfamiliar territory.

Drivers are helpful and knowledgeable, even willing to “bend” the schedule a bit so a rider can hop off and grab a free paper, or snap a cell phone photo of a giant sculpture from just the right angle! Stops are plentiful along each route and trams run every 20 to 30 minutes all day long, so there’s ample time to explore a site — or several — should you choose to do so.

We drove to Eureka Springs — it’s a pleasant four hour trip from our home. We traveled through pretty country on curving two-lane state highways. But, once there, we parked the car and rode the tram. It brought us to Thorncrown Chapel, where we were entranced with the architecture and the story of this inspiring place. The soaring wood and glass structure is perfectly integrated with its natural surroundings. The tram also brought us to the famed Passion Play site, with its recreated ancient Jerusalem stageset and other themed attractions. The 65-foot high Christ of the Ozarks statue, reminiscent of similar works in Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon and Havana, towers above the surrounding forest, but is perhaps more impressive from a distance than it is up close.

The downtown trolley station is well-situated for a walk around town. Visitors can enjoy lunch, browse funky shops, visit the historical museum or simply admire wall murals and interesting architecture. Spend as long as you like, knowing that another tram will arrive within just minutes. On a walk about town or in any neighborhood, you’ll find something wonderful around almost every corner: a grotto carved into a hillside, an iron fence dripping with flowering vines, the suggestion of a face in a towering old oak, a lush garden with a bubbling fountain, whimsical yard art decorated with strings of lights, or a house clinging to a cliffside over a massive boulder. There is beautiful statuary and whimsical signage.

We could have disembarked for a visit to the Crescent Hotel, built in 1884 and known for its resident ghosts and always-fully-booked ghost tours. Its site, at the crest of the highest hill in Eureka Springs, is reason enough to want to spend some time there (which we did, later the same day, when we returned for pizza at the fourth-floor Sky Bar. The view was mystical, with a haunting landscape of moving mist that shrouded the mountains all about us. Gleaming white in the distance, the Christ of the Ozarks watched over the setting with outstretched arms.

Although experiencing Eureka Springs can feel a bit like entering a time warp, being thrust into the long-ago culture of a small town is magical, if a bit disorienting. Residents insist that everybody knows everyone else, and that no one bothers to lock their doors. We stayed just two nights at The Bridgeford House, a charming B&B conveniently located on Spring Street. Its location put us only a few steps from the trolley stop, and we were greeted by waves from friendly passengers as we enjoyed breakfast on the front porch, served with a smile by Innkeeper Will Lawlor, who is himself a relative newcomer to Eureka Springs. We enjoyed chatting with him, and sharing our impressions of this interesting historic destination.

Is Eureka Springs worth a visit? Absolutely. It’s nothing if not unique!