Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Monday, June 27, 2005

Gore to Euless, TX

After a nice breakfast, we started preparing Homer for the final leg home. As one of the last little chores, I added to our U. S. map on Homer's door the states of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. This is a cool way to chronicle visually our travels in Homer, and it was thoughtful of the Barkers to purchase it for us as a gift after I had admired the one on their trailer.
Sandy Adding Oklahoma to Homer's 'States Visited' Map

The leg home was uneventful, except it was depressing to see the outside temp gauge in the Hornet slowly climb to 99 degrees as we neared Texas. I'm not sure we'll be going anywhere else this summer; it's just too darned hot! Sandy and I have always wondered what a fall or spring vacation would be like. She could never take one at those times of year when she was teaching. Now that she's retired, I'm sure we'll be trying it. Summer travel from now on will likely be to places where we can find some cool weather. I guess that pretty much limits us to the very northernmost states or the mountains or Canada. We're already talking about going to Maine next summer.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Eureka Springs to Gore, OK

We slept late this day and drove around Eureka Springs some more, learning a little more about the town. We found that the springs around which the town was formed—much like Hot Springs—were famed for their medicinal qualities toward those who drank and bathed in the water. There were even a couple of old bath house/hotels still there, which we would have loved to see. A shopkeeper told us that the water in the springs had become contaminated around 35 years ago, and the flow of water was stopped for public use. She said she remembered what a traumatic event that was for the community. It would be interesting to take a look at the newspaper stories from that era. That Eureka Springs snapped back so strongly is a tribute, I suppose, to those who promoted the Passion Play and the town's image as a honeymoon getaway. Whatever they did seems to have worked; there is certainly a lively tourist trade, with seemingly endless hotel/motel accommodations along route 62. There are also many, many beautiful Victorian bed and breakfast places, as well as a couple of country music theaters.

Before leaving town, we stopped at a joint that advertised the best Ozark fried chicken and barbeque and had a cool-looking barbeque pit outside, fashioned in the shape of a cannon. It was enough to hook me, so we went inside to see what the best Ozark fried chicken tasted like. Because of the effectiveness of the outside appearance of the place, I ignored several other warning signs that were obvious: It was nearly noon and we were the only patrons, and there were only two employees present, which means they had not planned to be overrun with customers. One of the employees was a cranky little woman who was only visible from her eyebrows upward as she barked orders to the harried middle-aged blonde lady who manned the counter. The fact that customers were present didn't dissuade her from continuing to badger the order-taker over whether she had mopped the restrooms. The place was also uncomfortably warm inside, which prompted me to ask if they had air conditioning. The blonde lady, wiping her forehead, replied that she had been working hard at mopping the whole place and hadn't turned on the air conditioner. This was certainly more than I needed to know. Since she herself was obviously uncomfortably warm, I assumed the little Nazi lady in the kitchen was the owner and did not wish to waste electricity for air conditioning on mere employees. I was even a little surprised when the blonde lady turned it on for just us two customers. These were all very bad signs. Mean cooks do not make for happy meals. My instinct told me to just turn around and leave, but I was now intrigued; I wanted to validate this latest bit of insight. Very wary of what I was likely to be served, I ordered only one chicken dinner, which consisted of three pieces of chicken, a scoop of mashed potatoes and gravy and baked beans. Within three minutes, the blonde lady called me up to the counter, where she handed me the meal on a Styrofoam plate with plastic utensils. I knew right away that, unless some new frying technique had been discovered, the chicken had been cooked for some time. It had indeed but, actually, it wasn't too awful. Perhaps my hunger was affecting my taste buds. Sandy and I shared the chicken, and I tried the potatoes and beans. The potatoes had no taste at all. I was curious as to how they could possibly have prepared these in such a way that any element that contributed to a potato taste could have been removed. They must have really worked at it. The "baked" beans were out of a can and were barely warm. I really wanted to give the little Nazi lady a piece of my mind, but she had disappeared into the bowels of the kitchen and her head was not visible at all. Besides, it was getting late in the day for departing with Homer. So we left, marveling at the vast number of restaurant owners who don't seem to care that they serve slop and the equally vast number of diners who eat it without protest.

We headed south toward Fayetteville, stopping there early in the afternoon to finish lunch. I chose La Huerta, a Mexican restaurant on highway 71 that still had a parking lot full of cars at 2:30 in the afternoon. This was a good sign. We ordered two combination dinners, which included a taco, an enchilada and a chalupa with chili con queso. When our meals arrived, all three items were exactly alike. All contained the same serving of finely ground hamburger meat, poorly seasoned. Only the tortillas were differently formed so as to make a taco, and enchilada and a chalupa. The chili con queso, a tasteless emulsion that had the consistency of milk, had been poured over the hamburger meat on the chalupa and had quickly disappeared, except for a thin, filmy residue. We ate a bit and left, but not without pausing to look at the many other customers, chomping away at this mess as though they thought it was good. Note to self: Don't bother eating tex-mex outside of Texas ever again. We've tried it everywhere, and it just doesn't measure up. (London, England was the worst.)

We could have jumped on I-540 from Fayetteville at this point, but U. S. 71 paralleled it all the way to its intersection with I-40 south of Fayetteville. I opted to take U. S. 71, because it obviously was the old route that I-540 replaced, so I knew it would not be heavily traveled. The road atlas I was using also showed highway 71 to be a scenic route (you know, the little green dots alongside the route). We weren't disappointed. The road was excellent, and there was so little traffic that we were able to slow to a crawl in many places to enjoy the magnificent vistas out over the Boston Mountains. We also went through wonderful sleepy little towns like Mountainburg, where there was an old-time drive-in called the Dairy Cream. I was sure it would be a great joint for foodies like us to stop, but we were still gagging from the previous two food debacles that day. We just waved, forlornly, as we went by.

As we neared I-40, we noticed a roadside vegetable stand just outside Alma, Arkansas. We did a quick u-turn and pulled into a church parking lot next door. We loaded up on cucumbers, squash, new potatoes and sweet corn, all of which looked as though it had just been brought in from the field. It was ridiculously cheap, too. We got four big bags of veggies for about eight bucks. I knew we had some steaks in the fridge, so I was planning to have a good meal that day, even if we had to fix it ourselves.

We got on I-40 and droned on into Oklahoma, stopping at the Marval resort in Gore, a tiny burg that billed itself as the "trout fishing capital of Oklahoma." Bubba, who was now preceding us by a day, called to say that they had stayed there and recommended the place, so we were looking forward to another good overnight spot. This was, indeed, a nice park, situated on the bank of the river formed by the water released from the Tenkiller Reservoir. The river was a fast-flowing, sparkling clear stream, cold as ice. One couldn't possibly swim in it without a wet suit, but it was certainly appealing, as it was 95 degrees this afternoon.

We set up in a shady spot and I began assembling my portable charcoal grill that I had bought for ten bucks as we were stocking Homer for its maiden voyage last May. I was astonished at the amount of assembly required for so small a device. I suppose there is no getting around this, but it took about an hour, using the dreaded "bolt A, washer B, locknut C" instruction diagram and dropping every other one of the infernal little parts through the cracks in the picnic table. This little grill was made in China for Sunbeam Corporation. They seem to have gone to a lot of trouble to arrange all the parts in such a way that the grill would barely fit, glovelike, into the box, which I utterly destroyed in the throes of birthing the grill from its cardboard womb. The Chinese obviously went to a lot of trouble to manufacture, sort and package the myriad of little parts and their packaging, not to mention printing the extensive instructions in three languages. Surely it wouldn't have been too much more trouble for the Chinese just to have put the grill together in the first place. I really don't know where we poor consumers are headed from here. I think pretty soon they're going to just send us some iron ore, a tiny blast furnace and some engineering drawings and have us make the danged product ourselves!

After the stupid and frustrating grill assembly process, I discovered that my charcoal starter fluid was missing. Then I remembered that I had loaned it to Bubba in Hot Springs. He obviously failed to return it when our hamburger cookout was finished. I shall have to punish him for this omission, as I had to jump into the Hornet and drive back into Gore for another can of lighter fluid.

I can't remember what law it is when, faced with two ways to turn to look for something in a store, you will always find that it is in the other direction. Such was the case in the Harp market in Gore. Spotting sporting goods in the far north end of the store after entering, I headed for that area to look for the charcoal starter. Every other thing imaginable for a picnic was there, except for charcoal and charcoal starter. I turned around and ambled back toward the south end of the store and found the charcoal starter where I'm sure every Goreian would have looked for it—near the pickles! Go figure. I wasn't very happy with Bubba right then, but I got over it pretty quickly.

Hungry, hot and exasperated, I finally got the steaks going about 8:00 p.m., while Sandy cooked some corn on the cob, baked potatoes and a salad made with the fresh cucumbers. It was all delicious and more than made up for our restaurant debacles of the day.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Branson to Eureka Springs, AR

Today we said goodbye to Branson and moved Homer to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where we met our good friends John and Myrna Fields, who have a lake home in nearby Shell Knob, Missouri. They were accompanied by their son, Steve, and a couple from Weatherford, Texas, John and Myrna's home town. We drew on the good nature of the Barkers and asked to break out of our caravan at this point, allowing us—and them—maximum flexibility to make the homeward leg as needed to allow for our visit with the Fieldses. LouAnn determined that she would, indeed, visit Dick's five and dime store before leaving, based on our fervent recommendation. She did a lot of looking, but seemed far more restrained in her purchases than we had expected. Perhaps she was just exhausted from previous shopping adventures. In order to accommodate this shopping trip, we arranged with Cooper Creek to drop the trailers in an unoccupied spot while we drove into old Branson. We returned around 1:00 p.m. and noticed that the Barkers still hadn't pulled out for their leg to Gore, Oklahoma. Now having some insight into their traveling habits, we were not terribly surprised or concerned.

Our short drive to Eureka Springs was through very hilly terrain, which slowed us down considerably, as did some fairly heavy rain showers during the last 20 miles or so. The rain really cooled things down, though, and the Hornet's outside air temp gauge read 75 degrees at Eureka Springs! What a welcome relief from the mid-nineties every day in Branson.

We had a really good dinner with our friends at the Catfish Cabin restaurant in Eureka Springs, after which, we gave them a tour of Homer and the Wanderlust campground. This is a nice, clean park, moderately priced, but with no cable TV. There are scenic hills all around, but not enough shady spots, unfortunately. After our guests left, we drove around Eureka Springs and marveled at the quaintness of its European-style setting, perched almost impossibly in the steep, heavily wooded hills. There was way too much too see—and for Sandy, way too much shopping opportunity—in the brief time we were here, so we made a pact to return soon. We did manage, however, to buy some stunning baubles for Sandy from Zark's, whose jewelry and decorative art pieces were unique and marvelous to behold. John and Myrna had turned us on to this place, and Zark's should be sending them a royalty check, based on the coin we left behind there.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

In Branson

These days were spent doing some shopping and seeing shows at Branson. Since the Barkers had BreAnn and Jeff along, they spent one of the days at Silver Dollar City, an especially nice amusement park nearby. When our Mindy was younger, we made several trips to this park and many others, and by far, Silver Dollar City was our favorite. As for the shows, we saw the Haygoods, the Hughes Brothers, 50s at the Hop, Pierce Arrow, Broadway and Ray Stevens. Of these, only Ray Stevens disappointed. Ray seemed a bit off his timing and didn't have much to offer beyond his old silliness, which by now is a bit worn. The other shows were well worth the price of admission and are definitely recommended. As for dining, we have not found much that is impressive in Branson. We ate at the only Thai restaurant in town, which was too expensive and so unremarkable that we're not even going to mention the name; in fact, we've already forgotten it! A definite T.A.G.L. (Take a Good Look, cause we ain't coming back!) We also tried the Dockers buffet, which was absolutely insipid. Same for the Cannery, whose only saving grace was an old gentleman playing the guitar and singing some wonderful old tunes while we dined. We also ate at Casa Fuentes, a small Mexican food place that wasn't too bad by Missouri standards but would surely have been burned to the ground by the tex-mex aficionados in Dallas/Ft. Worth if it had opened there. We actually found two bright spots: Billy Bob's Dairy Mart, a tiny mom-and-pop hamburger joint that advertised old fashioned hamburgers. These were cooked to perfection, with large hand-formed patties and properly grilled buns. The frozen French fries disappointed, however; next time, we'll order potato chips. We also tried Smack's, a little deli across the street from Dick's Five and Dime store. It had been recommended to us because of their homemade bread used to make sandwiches. While the bread was good, the sandwich was nothing but cold cuts and cheese, and we could have done that ourselves. Their biggest gaffe of all, however, was the iced tea, of which Sandy is a world-class judge. She proclaimed their swill to be much too old and strong and, when she asked for a glass of ice, they served her—no kidding—a mouthwash-sized Dixie cup with a few cubes of ice in it! Now Sandy is nothing, if not particular about her iced tea. It must be fresh, not too strong, and served over a washtub full of ice. When the owner set the little Dixie cup of ice on the table, I thought she was going to pop a vein right there on the spot. I ushered her out before she garroted the guy, who deserved at least a good dressing-down, but we were running a little short on time before the next show. I knew that the ensuing felony proceedings would delay things entirely too long.

Speaking of Dick's Five and Dime, this is a must-see store for Branson visitors. It is faithful to its hype as a last-of-its-kind dime store. The place is huge and, although we have visited it several times, we still haven't managed to see everything. It is truly a throwback to a bygone era when ladies selected their undergarments from shelved stacks of various sizes along one side of an aisle. You could buy paper dolls and hairnets, sprinkler tops for soda bottles (used for sprinkling clothes while you ironed them), bubble gum in the shape of a cigar, oldtime planks of taffy and hundreds of other things you just don't see anymore. Of most fascination to me were the one-of-a-kind gadgets. We weren't able to leave the store without buying corn ear butterers and a lemon squeezer, of all things. We also bought a small broom and a picnic tablecloth (complete with corner grippers for windy weather) for Homer. What a place! We tried to impress on the Barkers that they need to visit this unique store before they leave Branson, but I wasn't sure they would be able to work it in. Perhaps it's just as well; LouAnn, like Sandy, is a shopaholic and, if she ever sees the place, she will likely never leave. They'll just have to bury her in the back parking lot when she goes to her reward!

Bubba suggested Landry's for our meal on the last night in Branson. Now Landry's is a chain restaurant, and all who know me are aware of my aversion to most chain store food emporia. There are a few exceptions, however, especially when one is desperate, as we were in Branson. Landry's is one of those exceptions, as is P. F. Chang's, now that I think about it. Landry's serves reliable seafood and, amidst Branson's vast collection of mediocre country buffets, it stands out as a rose among the thorns. Sandy and I shared a very nice broiled seafood platter, and it proved to be plenty for both of us. This was definitely the best meal found in Branson this trip.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Hot Springs to Branson, MO

We were sorry to have to leave Hot Springs, because there is so much that we were unable to see in such a short visit. We broke camp and headed for McClard's Barbeque which, to my complete devastation, I found to be closed on Mondays. McClard's is an institution in Hot Springs, having resided unchanged on Albert Pike Road since time began. They do barbeque very, very, very well. After several minutes staring at the empty restaurant in utter denial, I was finally able to move on, stopping at an alternative BBQ joint, Stubby's, on Central Avenue, which was sufficiently good that it took away a little of the sting of disappointment over missing the McClard's adventure. Sandy and I shared the Ultimate Combo Plate for $13.95, and it was way more than we could possibly eat. We gave the excess to Bubba, who is always a reliable disposal unit. We topped off the meal with a homemade peach fried pie, which was wonderful.
Homer on the Left, Bubba's rig on the right

Sandy & Mike in the Ozarks

Mike at RV Park on Lake Taneycomo

The drive to Branson took us through more beautiful Ozark mountain scenery, and we arrived at the Cooper's Landing RV park to find a nice shady back-in spot; well, actually, all of the spots are shady; this is a very nice park situated on the shore of Lake Taneycomo. Several of the parking spots back right up to the steep lakeshore, but these always seem to be full, as one might imagine. This lake is just downstream from Table Rock Dam, which impounds the gorgeous Table Rock Lake, known far and wide for its clear, clean and deep water. Taneycomo, renowned for good trout fishing, is just downstream from a trout fish hatchery, where the young trout thrive until they are released into Taneycomo, fed by cold water discharged from Table Rock Lake. Cooper's Landing is average priced, with good TV cable, and would be especially attractive to fishermen.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Texarkana to Hot Springs, AR

Today, we headed for Hot Springs, Arkansas, another of our favorite towns. Luckily, the distance was short, for all of us were dragging our feet again today. We decided to visit Bryce's again for lunch today, as the Barkers arrived too late to enjoy the food there last night. They seemed to echo our affection for Bryce's, so we waddled out to our rigs and headed for Hot Springs.

We arrived at the KOA in Hot Springs after a very scenic drive through the Ozarks, culminating in the unfolding before us of beautiful Lake Hamilton and Lake Ouachita near our destination. The campground is in a very hilly area with plenty of shade. It was reasonably priced, and we had a back-in spot as did Bubba, a couple of spots down the road. Bubba decided to cook burgers on the grill, and we joined our food resources to have a nice cookout. Afterward, LouAnn, Sandy and I toured downtown Hot Springs and bath house row, enjoying immensely the beautiful old buildings, exuding their rich history at every corner. We also drew a number of gallons of the delicious water from the natural hot springs fountain to use on our trip. The mineral-rich water has been flowing from this spring for thousands of years at a constant 143 degrees and is, of course, the nucleus of the attraction for settlers who acclaimed far and wide the health benefits of drinking and bathing in water from the spring.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Euless to Texarkana

Our good friends, Brent (Bubba) and LouAnn Barker, have had a fifth wheel for some time and are veteran RVers. When we bought Homer (as the fifth wheel is affectionately known), we talked about taking a trip together and decided on Branson, Missouri. Sandy and I have visited Branson several times, and we always enjoyed ourselves immensely. The Barkers hadn't made the trip before, and LouAnn allowed how she would really like to go. Two of the Barker children—Jeff, 18, and BreAnn, 6, would be going, and we assured them they would have a wonderful time because of all the family-friendly things to do around Branson. LouAnn was worried that, at the time we were going, there were no big-name entertainers appearing in Branson. We assured her that most of the shows would have very talented performers and besides, most of the stars we grew up with are either dead or retired! After some vacillation, she decided to go anyway.

We knew that for the trip to click, we would need a few common attributes among the two families: 1) flexibility; 2) an easygoing nature; and 3) rejection of the notion that one has to get on the road early in the day. So far, we think we have aced all three of these. If we had any doubt, it dissolved when the Barkers departed their home in Keller SIX HOURS later than Bubba had advertised on this, the first day of the caravan. Friends, we're talking 4:00 p.m. off the launch pad! I don't think we'll ever feel sheepish again about our noon departure on our first day of our RV travel last month.

One of the things we learned from our first trip was that we don't want to try to retrieve Homer from storage and get it stocked for the trip on the day of departure. So, on the Friday before our departure for Branson on Saturday, I got off work early, intending to go get Homer and do at least some of the trip prep that evening. Unfortunately, a tragic illness had struck Elvis, our beloved old cat, and we had to say goodbye to him. It was not a very good start of our vacation. By the time it was all over, no one was in the mood to do anything with Homer, so we decided to wait until Saturday morning to get started on getting started.

Things went a good deal easier this time, because 1) we had gained some experience from our first trip and sorta knew how everything worked; 2) we had left aboard Homer much of the non-perishable stuff that we stocked it with when it was new, so we didn't have to fret over where to put things in the storage compartments; and 3) Sandy had developed a remarkably simple but practical system of containerizing the items that have to be shuffled between Homer and the house each time we travel. This model trailer is equipped with a queen bed in front, a full bed in the rear, and a twin-sized bunk bed over the full bed. We knew that we would rarely, if ever, have need for the bunk bed, so we bought Homer with the Sandy's idea of removing the mattress and using its tray-like frame for storage. We then bought four large and two small plastic tubs (at Wal-Mart, where else?) and stocked them with the all non-hangup clothing, towels, cosmetics, hygiene products, etc. needed for the trip. Then, when we finish a trip, we carry the tubs—along with the dirty clothes hamper—into the house, where Sandy applies highly secretive laundry techniques and restocks the tubs, at her leisure, for the next trip. When we're ready to go again, we just park Homer in front of the house and load up the tubs. The system works like a charm, and it really cuts down on the guesswork and the number of trips between Homer and the front door of the house.

We also cut back on the amount of foodstuffs that we packed for the trip. We found that breakfast is the only meal we often cook in Homer, so we stock the fridge with food for breakfast meals for several days plus snacks and sandwich makings for other occasions we are in Homer at mealtime. Since we eat out a great deal for entertainment, we've found there is no need to take along a whole pantry and fridge full of food. Besides breakfasts of eggs, bacon and sausage, we often make tuna salad, tacos, chili, soup, hot dogs, hamburgers, steaks, baked potatoes and salads for those times when we don't eat out. We also stop at roadside vegetable and fruit stands along the way, so we have no shortage of stuff to graze on all the time.

One thing I am faithful in doing to prepare Homer and the Hornet (as the pickup is affectionately called) for the trip is adjusting the tire pressures to the correct values which, I'm told, is very important for the proper handling of the rig and the longevity of the expensive tires. All the tires carry high air pressures—70 psi for Homer and 55-65 for the Hornet—and they slowly lose pressure over time and have to be pumped back up. I bought an AC electric compressor that is a little smaller than a shoebox to take care of this chore. It works fine, but it is a bit slow, taking about 45 minutes to do all eight tires. I usually need to do this only at the beginning of a trip, making a cursory pressure check about halfway along to make sure everything is holding up.

We do all the pre-launch preparation while the rig is parked, truck hooked to trailer, at the curb in front of the house. It would be nice to have a yard large enough to park Homer and take care of its servicing at my leisure, but then, I would have to have a big yard, and I don't like big yards—I've been there and done that, and I don't like all the bondage. I'm not at all unhappy with this arrangement.

Around noon, we decided to go ahead and depart on the leg to Texarkana, taking some of the pressure off the Barkers who, undoubtedly, were racing around like crazy. They seemed relieved that we were going ahead. Now I know why Bubba insisted on stopping for the first night at a place that's less than 200 miles from Dallas! The trip went without a hitch, so to speak, and we made a required stop at Mary of Puddin Hill in Greenville, Texas. This is a not-so-little family-run sweet shop that has been around forever, famous for their chocolates and fruitcakes. They have a large mail-order business, and their store is a must for travelers who want a wonderful and tasty snack while taking respite from the road. They have lots of samples of their goodies, and it would be difficult for anyone to leave without buying something. Also don't miss their peach lemonade and iced tea.
Mary of Puddin' Hill in Greenville

KOA Kampground in Texarkana

Our arrival at the KOA on I-30 in Texarkana was uneventful. The park was clean, shady, and average priced, with good cable TV. We had a pull-through spot, so parking was easy. After getting set up for the night, we went to nearby Bryce's cafeteria, a hands-down favorite of ours forever. The place has been in business for 75 years in Texarkana and is one of the few cafeterias anywhere that has been able to translate home cooking quality into the massive quantities required to feed the public at a large restaurant. I won't even go into the details of this heavenly place, but a few examples are in order: Fresh—not frozen—green beans, oozing with bacon grease and chunks of smoked ham for seasoning; real mashed potatoes, with a well full of brown gravy so good, you could drink it; an endless variety of pies—so wonderful, you'd swear your grandmother cooked them herself. Only the Casa Linda Cafeteria in Dallas approaches—but does not quite equal—the tastiness of the food here at Bryce's.