How could I have guessed that, traveling to Arkansas and Texas during the Christmas holidays, I’d come face to face with mammoths? Or having hinted I’d rather not get gifts that would increase the weight of my luggage, I’d in response get a great gift card to my favorite restaurant? Or, in my never-ending chess game with the Transportation Security Administration, I’d be checked again?
In my sunset years, I’m finding more pleasure than ever before in my kids and grandchildren. Just as Kiki is my daily surrogate forest-bounder during our walks, they’re my surrogate life-livers. Successes and travails, happiness and unhappiness, are pretty much things of my past, but I can relive those through them. Weirdly, I’m already planning my duds for a granddaughter’s wedding at the end of May in Texas: penny loafers, pale tan chinos, blue seersucker blazer, short-sleeved shirt in case it’s hot, and my old school tie. Might even get a new cane for the occasion; my sectional one clicks when I use it, like a set of loose false teeth. Another daughter and a son-in-law will be there, too. I’m really looking forward to it. Which, when I think about it, is what I admire most about all these kids — their constant looking forward.
A week ago, I expressed anxiety about possible problems during my travels. All eight flights took off on time or nearly so, and got to their destinations early. And my luggage arrived with me. The toughest part of the trip was fuming I’d carelessly lost my pen knife at Security in Waco, and fretting my duffel might not arrive with me (the car key was in it), and then driving home in sleet and slush in the dark.
The scenery below the planes wasn’t all that spectacular; there’s a reason middle America’s called a flyover zone. But, just before landing in Arkansas, we flew over Bull Shoals Lake, a huge impoundment of the White River on its way to the Mississippi — spectacular, spidery shoreline and protected from development by a buffer zone owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. What a place to explore in a canoe! But not so hot for camping, I suspect; the lake level fluctuates by about 50 feet.
We went to church on Christmas Eve (forgot my hearing aid, so like Garrison Keillor when he was married to a Dane, smiled a lot as if I knew what was going on), a peaceful Christmas Day with granddaughters present. And the next morning it was off to Dallas, where I changed for a 26-minute flight to Waco. I’d spend a couple of nights there visiting an old sweetheart (1951-55) and dear friend.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” Mark Twain once wrote. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I couldn’t help but think of that in Waco, best known these days for the fiery, fatal standoff with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, and possibly not something folks want to talk about now. So I didn’t.
But I did leap at the chance to visit the Waco Mammoth National Monument. Mammoths in Texas? Yep. Back in 1978, a couple of fellows hunting arrowheads and fossils in a creek bed found a big bone sticking out of the bank. They took it to the museum at Baylor and within days, a major dig had begun. It was apparently the site of a catastrophic extinction of a “nurse herd” of Columbian mammoths, who were not a lot unlike the woolly mammoths of our northern imaginations. To date, diggers have found 22 mammoths, a camel, an alligator, giant tortoise and a saber-toothed tiger tooth. For a few bucks (senior tickets), my friend and I took the docent-led tour through a new building erected over the dig. Even though the critters unearthed here died about 70,000 years ago, probably in flash floods, it was sad to think of their desperate struggles in the rising water. The monument was dedicated by President Obama in 2015.
Next day, it was good-bye at the airport and a couple more short hops to Tyler for a wedding shower. I did the Garrison Keillor thing there again, smiling, getting my picture taken with Texans, sipping a Stella and making major inroads at the buffet table on the best venison sausage I’ve ever tasted.
In the morning, the kids and I were off on a six-hour drive north through the Ouachita Mountains and Indian Nation of Eastern Oklahoma. I scored a culinary victory again along the way, with a brisket sandwich at an Arby’s, served by reserved Choctaw boys. Toto and I weren’t in Kansas anymore. Crossed the booming Arkansas at Fort Smith, home of Rooster Cogburn (remember John Wayne in “True Grit?”), and by mid-afternoon were “home” in Springdale. My flight next morning was a luxurious 11 a.m. departure, but even with the one-hour time change and a transfer in Charlotte, I was safe by 6 in the slippery arms of Boreas and the Vermont winter. My daughter, Martha, had brought Kiki to meet me when I pulled in at last — glad to be here and deeply grateful to everybody who helped the ancient traveler along the way.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.