Life’s Little Vacancies

Wichita, Kansas

Somewhere between Ness City and Hugoton, it occurred to me: most of the aging, slightly down at the heels motels still clinging to life along the business routes of small Kansas towns had “(No) Vacancy” signs somewhere on their property. A few signs had been modernized with neon. Others were more traditional: wooden, with an adjustable covering for the dreaded “No” that, when visible, sent discouraged and already weary travelers father on down the road.

By the time I reached Satanta, I was a little weary myself, and ready to stop, so I paused to ask a convenience store clerk if the town had a motel. It did. She gave me directions, and I found it easily enough. Unfortunately, I hadn’t found it soon enough. It had a sign, too, and the sign said, “No Vacancy.” Forty minutes later, I had a room in Hugoton.

While I’d made reservations at two bed-and-breakfasts and at Matfield Station’s renovated railroad bunkhouse before leaving home, I’ve never been reluctant to travel without reservations. My traveling habits developed in the days when reading printed maps and asking directions was common: an era when scribbled notes, supplemented by the Rand-McNally Road Atlas, were enough to get you there — wherever “there” happened to be.

Part of the fun was the uncertainty attached to stopping. On family vacations, no one knew where we would land, or when. All we knew was that, about four o’clock, someone would begin asking, “Well, do you think we ought to start looking for a room?”

Today, even in smaller towns served by secondary highways, no one needs to “look for a room.” It’s no longer necessary to spot a motel, judge the exterior, and consult the vacancy sign before making a commitment. It’s easier to consult TripAdvisor or Travelocity, make the reservation, double check the map, and arrive.

Recently, journalist Paul Lukas noted the phenomenon in an article for Bloomberg:

The “(No) Vacancy” sign, a beacon of hospitality and/or disappointment, has greeted road-weary American travelers for generations. But just as paper maps and toll booth clerks increasingly seem quaint relics of the analog age, the classic “(No) Vacancy” sign may soon become another victim of shifting travel habits and market forces.
“We don’t really have any customers who want that type of sign anymore,” said Alex Lauretano of the Lauretano Sign Group, a leading sign manufacturer for the hospitality industry. “At one point they were useful—but not anymore, with online booking.” Julie Hall, a spokesperson for AAA, which inspects and rates motels, confirmed that vacancy indicators are on the wane and also cited online booking as a key factor.
What about the freewheeling road trippers who don’t book days in advance and simply follow their wanderlust? Even that type of traveler can now use smartphone apps, or simply Google lodging options in the next town down the highway and call ahead to check on availability, rendering the “(No) Vacancy” sign somewhat moot.

The times, they certainly are a-changing, even on the road: but with those changes, the pleasures or pain of the unexpected has significantly diminished.

Ironically, the “No Vacancy” signs disappearing from American motels continue to hang, at least metaphorically, over vacations as a whole. A vacation — literally, a “vacating” of life as usual — is meant to provide freedom from daily concerns: a time away from life’s responsibilities and routines that allows for refreshment and renewal.

Even so, many vacations seem as overbooked as the airlines, as packed with things to do and places to be as an overstuffed, five-piece set of luggage.

I do my own share of reading, researching, and planning before I travel, but I’ve learned that unexpected possibilities always present themselves, and complications or disappointments are inevitable. Given those realities, I’ve come to prefer a schedule with built-in flexibility. Unplanned days and unscheduled time can function almost as vacations-within-a-vacation, and sometimes provide remarkable experiences.

In Arkansas, I found just such a “vacancy” after three days of persistent fog and low-level frustration.  Since the mountains barely were visible, I decided to travel south from Mena to DeQueen and Nashville, in order to visit their post offices. (Arkansas has nineteen Depression-era WPA murals in its post offices, and I was interested.)

After visiting DeQueen, I was on my way to Nashville when I noticed a small sign at the highway’s edge. I passed too quickly to read the words, but its brown slats reminded me of other signs I’d seen for state natural areas. Returning for a second look, I discovered the sign pointed the way to Pond Creek Wildlife Management Area. The Nashville post office would have to wait.

pond_roadNobles Mound Road at rush hour (click any photo to enlarge)

Although I never saw another sign, I guessed my way across country for several miles, and eventually found a Pond Creek entrance. Utterly deserted, Nobles Mound Road led into the heart of the natural area; its beauty was apparent, even in the fog.

pond1One side of the pond…
pond2…and the other

At the edge of one road-divided pond, I stopped to watch uncounted butterflies mingle and play: swallowtails, buckeyes, pearl crescents, and viceroys. Astonished by their numbers, I sat to watch their antics. Perhaps emboldened by my stillness, the creatures fluttered closer, then closer still, until I could hear the sound of their passing.  I may never again hear that impossibly slight sound: the fluttering of a hundred wings echoing in the same fog-drenched silence that had frustrated me only hours before.

pond_viceroyA friendly Viceroy 

Eventually, as the butterflies moved on, I began exploring the ditches and bottomlands surrounding me. I was astonished to find a single spiderwort still blooming. I can’t be certain, but it may have been Tradescantia ozarkana, an uncommon species native to the area surrounding Pond Creek.

pond_tradescantia_ozarkanaClearly a spiderwort, but which one?

Other flowers were as familiar as the spiderwort, like this sneezeweed.

pond_sneezeweedBitter sneezeweed (Helenium amarum)

Although I’ve learned to recognize button bush, I never had seen its fruit. Perhaps because of the rain, it bore a strange resemblance to gummy bears.

pond_cephalanthus_occidentalisButtonbush fruit (Ce phalanthus occidentalis)

The banana-like stamens of horsenettle recalled other Texas natives, like the silver-leaf nightshade.

pond_nightshadeCarolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense) 

On the other hand, the Maryland meadow beauty fooled me. I thought, because of its stamens, it might be part of the large and varied genus known as Solanum, but I found that not to be true. On the other hand, it is present in the eastern part of Texas, so I may find it again sooner rather than later.

pond_rhexia_marianaMaryland meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana)

The smartweeds were everywhere: in graveyards, vacant lots, and highway ditches, as well as in the refuge. The same species live in Texas, with their toes in the water and their beautiful little flowers begging for attention.

pond_polygonum_sppPennsylvania smartweed (Persicaria pensylvanica)
pond_polygonum_lapathifolium3Dotted smartweed (Persicaria punctata)
pond_polygonum_lapathifolium2Possibly swamp smartweed (Persicaria hydropiperoides) ~ or perhaps not

Glorious yellow sunflowers and some mysterious yellow “Whatevers,” complemented by late-blooming, purple asters, brightened the foggy afternoon.

pond_helianthus_angustifoliusSwamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
pond_yellowThis one’s still a mystery ~ can you solve it?
pond_asterLate purple aster (Symphyotrichum patens)

But the best was yet to come.

Over the course of several years, I’ve found, one by one, deeply appealing wildflowers that had seemed determined to elude me: white prickly poppies; purple, pineapple-shaped eryngo; scarlet leatherflower. Still, I held little hope of finding one of our most beautiful and elusive wildflowers: the slender, shapely, ladies’ tresses orchid.

Then, as I wandered along the road, not looking for anything in particular, I glanced toward the edge of the woods and thought, “Whatever that is, it sure is white.”  Crossing the road and picking my way through the rain-filled ditch, I suddenly realized what I’d found. “Oh, my gosh!” I said, mostly to the flower. “Look at you!”

pond_tressesNodding ladies’ tresses orchid (Spiranthes cernua)

So excited I barely could hold my camera steady, I plunked myself down in the ditch, and started taking photos. Eventually, I realized there were more orchids around me: not in groups, but singly, tucked among the leaves and grass.

pond_tresses3

Some were fading; others had only begun to bloom. Each contained at least a few insects: feeding, apparently resting, or playing the role of unwitting particpant in small dramas of their own.

pond_tresses4Hunter and hunted?  Or something else?

By the time I found the spider and the bug, hours had passed, and I wasn’t eager to drive unfamiliar, isolated forest roads after dark. As I prepared to retrace my route, I noticed one last gift: a beautiful stand of sumac entwined with loblolly pine and hardwoods on the far edge of the pond. It was, I thought, an embarassment of riches: as unexpected as the orchids, and as beautiful as any fall mountainside.

pond3Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra)

Remembering Pond Creek today, I’m more inclined toward gratitude than misanthropy. I’d not be willing to trade my place in the world for those woods alone, or human companionship for constant solitude.

Still, in seeking out silence and cherishing the empty places that surround us, we open ourselves to extraordinary experiences. In silence and emptiness, we hear the sound of fog condensing onto a leaf; the soft, thrilling beat of butterfly wings; the hush of leaves pulled earthward by invisible, inexorable forces; and even the sound of our own souls, stirring back to life.

The world, it seems, always is looking for a room. We’d do well to hold one vacant.


Unless otherwise noted, all photos are mine, and can be clicked to enlarge.
As always, comments are welcome.

105 thoughts on “Life’s Little Vacancies

  1. This is too rich! ;-) There’s so much here, I’m going to have to come back, but a few things…the way you tied the “No Vacancy” theme into the importance of leaving room for solitude is brilliant – but you’re a born story teller, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

    The Ladies tresses – how well I understand your excitement! I’ve seen them too, and bent way down to study them, and enjoyed the surprise of finding more. They do hide. Lucky you (I think I first saw them in western NC).

    The other flowers…I love the smartweeds, how impressive to make an attempt to sort them out. Meadowbeauty is a sweet, sweet memory – I don’t think it grows here, but I used to see it in NY, and I loved it so much – always special, aptly named.
    Gorgeous Spiderwort shot –
    Buttonbush – such a cool plant – I found it in NYC on Staten Island, an urban wonderland of surprises.
    And no, you will hear the butterflies’ wings again. If anyone will, you will.

    Speaking of hearing…Pauline Oliveros died a few days ago.

    1. One thing I’ve learned about travel writing is that I can’t do the writing while traveling. The experience comes first, then reflection, then writing. The vacancy-solitude connection didn’t become apparent until I’d been home for some time, thinking things over. In an interview with the “Paris Review,” Faulkner once said, ““A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination.” I think they generally need to be in that order, too.

      Arkansas has nine species of ladies’ tresses, and the ones I found bloom in October. Lucky me! I went looking for autumn color, and found orchids: a wonderful example of serendipitous discovery.

      As for the smartweeds, they were amazingly thick where they appeared. Here’s one snapshot of dotted smartweed in a ditch. I thought it was interesting that the pink and white never overlapped. The colonies always were separate.

      I never imagined butterflies could be heard with the human ear, but so it is. I wonder what else we could hear, if we took time to listen? I’d heard that Oliveros died. Thanks for adding the link.

      1. Sweet photo of more smartweed – smart weed grows in a ditch – plenty of water! :-)
        I know what you mean by time allowing new insights to form, sometimes, even while you’re in the act of writing, yes?

        1. Yes, indeed. There are posts that have begun by heading due east, and by the time they’re finished, they’ve reversed course and headed west. Of course, some go back to the barn, and some only go in circles — but I keep them out of sight, and hope to train them better.

  2. You make me so eager to be on the road again. My last such road trip was from Omaha to California on smallish back roads and then back again in the fast lanes. The former was by far the more memorable. I hope to be able to do another one in the foreseeable future.

    1. I hope you can, too. Of course, “smallish” can apply to more than road size. With a certain attentiveness and openness to experience, a three hour trip can provide the same sort of surprises as a three-week trip. I like to think of those near-to-home, short excursions as “practice travel.” They help to develop the qualities that make long trips more than endurance tests.

  3. No one can ever say that you don’t take the time to smell the flowers along the way when you travel. Beautiful photos, as always on your blog.

    I was just thinking last week that I would not know how to travel in this decade. When we quit traveling in 2000 we were still using paper maps and taking our chances on finding motels when we needed them. We often didn’t know in the morning where we’d end up in the evening. I’d have to learn what kind of apps they have for that.

    1. Of course you’d know how to travel, Jean. I don’t have a smart phone, and don’t make use of apps. I don’t even make my reservations online. I prefer to call places and talk to people, so I can figure out who’s knowledgeable about the sorts of things that interest me.

      However, I did invest in some new “technology” before this trip. I’m the proud possessor of a large size, spiral bound 2017 Rand-McNally Road atlas. That thing is a gem. It’s readable, and detailed, and it’s printed on some sort of paper that doesn’t tear when it gets tossed around in the car. I like to trace my route on it with a yellow marker; it’s a helpful way to keep track of my sometimes impulsive decisions.

      Not only that, it’s a great conversation starter. Step out of your car with a paper map in your hand, and eventually you’ll hear someone say, “Well, dang! I ain’t seen one of those in forever.”

  4. Linda, this post was marvelous and I stress marvelous. The photos are beautiful and I so envy you for finding that jewel- the nature preserve with the pond that held the key for seeing the migrating butterflies. The Viceroy is beautiful and I’ve only seen it once in my yard and that one was road or flight weary and a bit faded but I was able to see that it was not a Monarch.

    You were so fortunate to find the Lady Tresses. I’ve never seen them and I wish that I could someday. For some reason you have the greatest unexpected experiences and treasures.

    I really enjoyed this post. You are correct about leaving some vacancies for special times in our lives.

    1. I thought of you when I posted the butterfly’s photo, Yvonne. I was going to add another species or two, but there will be a chance for that in other posts. I didn’t want to add too many photos, and I felt I was pushing it a bit as it was.

      Arkansas was an absolute delight. There are 138 Wildlife Management Areas scattered around the state. Some of the names make me laugh: Frog Bayou, Slippery Flats, Poison Spring. I explored another one somewhere in the Ozark National Forest. It had a little more traffic, but it was all hunters in four-wheelers. I’d taken my orange vest and jacket, and I’m glad I did.

      I’ll say this — I’ve never met such friendly people as those hunters. Many stopped to offer water, or just to make sure I wasn’t in any trouble. Of course, even on regular county roads, people often stopped — including a school bus driver. Most of them figured it out once they saw the hiking boots and camera.

      Once I got home, I started wondering if Texas has the same sort of WMAs. How I’ve missed them, I don’t know, but have them we do. You can read about the ones in your area here. I discovered there’s one less than two hours from me. I’ll be visiting, for sure.

  5. Beautiful post and I like the contrast between the motel’s ‘welcome’ signage and that expressed by Pond Creek.
    Australia and the US definitely have in common their manner of attracting customers by so much overwhelming and in your face advertising.
    The wildflowers are stunning and so is the photography.Let’s hope nature’s shy vacancies will continue to be there and welcome us without neon or GPS devices.

    1. On the other hand, in the days before the internet and all of our gadgets, those motel signs were welcome additions to the landscape. After a long day on the road, there was nothing more comforting than seeing a vacancy sign shining in the dark.

      Of course, motels were smaller then, and the advertising less obtrusive. And, it often was Mom or Pop at the front desk. The huge, impersonal chains were yet to come. I suspect that the appeal of bed-and-breakfasts is, in part, a desire for that more personal touch.

      I was delighted to find such a variety of flowers. Some still lingered from summer, but some were autumn bloomers. They more than made up for the relative lack of autumn color. As for those shy vacancies, as you so beautifully put it, they will continue to be there: assuming wise management and pro-active citizens.

  6. Truly a beautiful post–the segue from human need for control (or not…) to the fortuitous discovery of the wild, though not vacant, place. Thanks for taking us along.

    1. Thanks, Tina. And isn’t it true that most places we call vacant, aren’t? Vacant lots aren’t empty: neither are vacant buildings. Even a vacant stare isn’t necessarily a sign of an empty mind — although that can be a little harder to explore.

      I’m glad you enjoyed my little foray into the woods.

  7. I well remember those small motels and their signs. Those were relaxed and comfortable times and thinking about it now, we had a lot of confidence that sooner or later we would find a presentable-looking place with a vacancy.

    As winter is setting in here I have been looking forward to it and now the beautiful wildflowers you encountered and photographed have made me think of spring and the new color it will bring. It’s nice to have pleasant expectations lined up for two seasons rather than one.

    1. “Relaxed and comfortable” is a good description. Even when things didn’t work out perfectly, there were options. I’ve heard stories of my parents’ travels before I was born. If there wasn’t a room available when they headed to exotic destinations like Kentucky, they’d just park on some courthouse square and sleep in the car. I’m told it was a common practice, like the hitchhiking my dad did when he was courting Mom. After I came along, they apparently gave up their wild ways.

      I hope your winter’s a good one, with a nice, deep snow pack. You’ll not only be able to get those gorgeous winter photos we love, all that moisture should give you a marvelous spring. it is fun to think of what’s to come.

  8. Excellent photographs. Your (presumed) use of the macro lens is paying off.

    Of the two pond pictures, the second has an air of serenity and mystery for me. Maybe I discount the first pond picture because it includes patches of white sky, the same thing I had to contend with all three times I went to redwood preserves in California. I hate shooting up into trees with white skies behind them.

    When I found my first ladies’ tresses orchid about a decade ago I had the same sort of reaction as you. I’d seen that wildflower in Marshall Enquist’s book years earlier and wondered whether I’d ever actually see one. When I finally did, there was exactly one flower stalk, but one was enough. I still haven’t come across a single one in Austin this year, and time is running out.

    1. You presume correctly. I used my 18-135mm lens for the road, the two pond photos, and the sumac. For the rest, I used the macro.

      I’m not fond of white skies myself, but when there’s fog, low cloud, and mist, there’s not much to be done. I do like the vertical lines of the pine trees in the first pond photo. I thought they were a nice complement to the heaped-up mix of growth in the foreground.

      I was so happy to find a few ladies’ tresses to choose from. I hadn’t realized that October is prime time for them, so I was surprised by how fresh-looking they were. And I remembered what you said about photographing dragonflies: that you can keep the entire insect sharp by keeping the sensor parallel to its body. It’s a transferable skill! I thought it worked nicely for the orchid, too.

    2. I just discovered there’s an endemic ladies’ tresses orchid here: the Navasota ladies’ tresses, or “Spiranthes parksii.” Here’s some information from the State of Texas.

      As so often happens, the reasons for it being on the endangered list have more to do with us than with its world in general:

      “This species has a limited range and low population numbers. It has been impacted by habitat loss and degradation due to urban development (primarily in the Bryan/College Station area), road construction, lignite mining, and oil and gas development. Collection by hobbyists and unscrupulous commercial operators remains a threat, especially since orchids tend to attract wide and intense interest.”

  9. Lovely words and images. What a wonderful ability you have to find beauty in the free room, in free roaming.
    ‘Ah! wonderful it is
    with no room on the earth
    the stable is our heart.” (Into the darkest hour ~ Madeleine L’Engle )

    1. I’m reading Annie Dillard’s “An American Childhood.” We’re age-mates — she was born in 1945, I was born in 1946 — and I laughed when I came to this: “My mother had given me the freedom of the streets as soon as I could say our telephone number,” That’s exactly how it was for me (our number was 1906), and there’s still a good bit of that barefoot child in me.

      So, there’s the freedom to run, to roam: but there’s also the freedom to stop, to receive the freely-given gifts streaming into our lives. I suspect L’Engle had that in mind as she pondered that much earlier “No Vacancy” sign.

    1. And your comment brought to mind L’Engle’s poem, “After Annunciation”:

      “This is the irrational season
      when love blooms bright and wild.
      Had Mary been filled with reason
      there’d have been no room for the child.”

  10. What an adventure and what beautiful photos to show for it. You described it perfectly. It isn’t easy to find a truly quiet place around here. We sometimes have to go looking for it. We’re not likely to stumble upon it. That’s what vacations are for. Sometimes a body needs a little solitude. I have to mention your photos again. They are extraordinary. And how many people get to hear the sound of butterfly wings?

    1. I’m sure other people have heard butterfly wings: especially people who study them. But to be honest? It never had occurred to me that such a thing could be possible. Live and learn.

      It amused me to find that the places I’d expected to be the most impressive were only so-so, and I never found the grave that lured me to Arkansas in the first place. But in the end, there were stories associated even with the disappointments — and you know how I love a good story!

      I’m really glad you like the photos. There were a lot of bad ones taken on this trip, but in the end, I had decent ones of the things that really were important to me, like that orchid. All in all, I was satisfied.

    1. You’re welcome, eremophila. I hope you’re spreading your wings and fluttering around a bit, too. Now that you’re moving into summer, there ought to be opportunities galore to enjoy the outdoors.

    1. Thanks so much, Lorrie. I see we share affection for the serendipitous in life — it certainly was serendipity that brought me to my ladies’ tresses orchid.

      I’m glad you stopped by, and I appreciate your comment. You’re always welcome. ~ Linda

  11. “No Vacancy” signs were very evident on our vacation this past summer. At least they were in Estes Park. But, thinking on it now, they are probably a holdover from the past. There was a yesteryear feel to the whole area. We made it a game each day to note the change from “No” to “Vacancy” as some guests would arrive and other guests would leave.

    Linda, your ability to stumble across the little gems of nature is astounding. And your photos are beautiful. I thought of you this weekend as we put up our Christmas decorations. Hanging the photo I took of the Christmas Miracle from 2004 made me think of your blog post about the snow we had. It was my first introduction to your writing…

    1. I love your game. What could be better than sitting around, feet up, watching the comings and goings of guests in a place like that?

      It’s interesting that you mention a feeling of “yesteryear.” That’s what I sensed at the Queen Wilhemina Lodge. Even though it’s been renovated and is modern as can be, there just was something about it: the rocking chairs, the attitude of the staff, the sense of tradition. Too bad the fog had checked in for a visit, too. No matter. I managed photos of the fire tower, one sunset, and a couple of interesting plants. I was glad to have more opportunities at Pond Creek, and I’m really happy you like the photos.

      It’s funny that you mention that snow. I recently posted the locally famous photo of the Galveston snowman with a surfboard for someone else to see. That was such a wonderful experience: another of those gifts from nature that no one expected. If someone had asked, “What do you think are the odds that we’ll have measureable snow on Christmas Eve on the Texas coast?” most people would have said, “Zero.” But there it was.

      Perhaps it’s our certainty about what’s possible — or not — that blinds us to what is.

      1. Back in 2010 on our way to St. Louis to see both the Eagles and the Dixie Chicks we stayed in the Queen. We even had the pleasure of staying in one of the two suites with the huge stone fireplaces. Since it was summer they had all of the hummingbird feeders filled and the never-ending stream of little jewels flying to and from was amazing. I spent a lot of my stay in those rocking chairs you mention.

        1. What fun! The whole trip sounds like fun — who wouldn’t want to see the Eagles? — but sitting out there watching the hummingbirds would rank right up there for me.

  12. Linda, now that you’ve described the sound of butterfly wings, I’m eager to hear it for myself! That’s the beauty of travel, you know. The idea that you can go off some place new by yourself and experience sights and sounds you’ve never before had.

    I hadn’t thought of it, but yes, travel is certainly one of those areas where technology is trying to take over. You can hardly turn on the TV nowadays without seeing an ad for Travelocity or some such. I still keep paper maps in my car, but Domer relies on his smartphone. To each, his own.

    By the way, is that beautiful yellow posey a Yellow Wood Sorrel? I can’t tell by the leaves, of course, or the height, but it kind of reminded me of sorrel.

    Lovely post!!

    1. Speaking of technology, Debbie, I discovered after I came home that Google has a new free app called Google Trips.” It not only helps with hotel reservations and other standard concerns, it offers suggestions for places to see. Of course, it tracks your every step and uses your Google history in order to make its personalized recommendations, but we don’t care about that. Do we? Well, perhaps we do.

      I may give it a try, using my recent trip as a destination point. It would be interesting to see what it comes up with.

      In the process of reading about it, I did notice that I was bumping into the word “tourist” more than I was “traveler.” I started thinking about the difference, and checked the Ngram viewer in the process. There’s been an interesting shift in language over the years.

      The flower I photographed does look a bit like sorrel, doesn’t it? It’s much larger, though, and bushy, while sorrel is small and close to the ground. But thanks to you, I learned that the yellow sorrel also is a fall bloomer. I’m used to seeing the pink in spring, and had assumed both bloomed early. Not so!

    1. Thanks, Bee. Sometime in the medium future, I’ll tell the story of the photos that could have ended with me being killed — a story so mundane it’s almost embarrassing!

  13. Did you get a macro lens, or is that the regular zoom which does a great macro also? What a wonderful post Linda, I’m bookmarking it since I might also be going to Florida for a long time now.

    I love the Nodding ladies’ tresses orchid and the Bitter sneezeweed. All of them show how beautiful is Arkansas, and North America is pristine with beauty. Thanks so much for such a delightful post, and the analysis of the word “vacation”. “No vacancies” is also what I used to hear.

    1. I do have a macro lens now, Maria. It’s a Canon 100mm, and I’m really fond of it. I was happy to have time to practice with it in such lovely surroundings.

      Are you planning a move to Florida, or travel? I know you’re fond of the state, and familiar with so many of its plants. I can only imagine how much fun you could have there with your camera.

      Arkansas as a whole was far more interesting, and more beautiful, than I’d imagined it would be. I’d been to the far northwest corner and the Ouachita Mountains before, but I didn’t realize that it’s also a state of beautiful rivers and waterfalls. I didn’t have time for those this time — in fact, I didn’t know about most of them — but it’s a good reason to go back.

      1. Most likely a move. It’s hard to believe, but my mother is planning on retiring in Florida, so that will take me there for quite some time also. My father’s death left her no option, because P.R. is literally bankrupt and quality of life for seniors is much better for in the States. We’ve gone through a very rough time selling our property here, and having made that decision was actually very painful. However, my mother decided to close that chapter of her life.

        1. Moving is hard. When my mother moved from her home of nearly 50 years to Kansas City and then to Texas, it was quite an emotional time. She mostly adjusted, but it still was hard. I’ve wondered how things were for you there, given some of the news I’ve read. I hope all works out, and goes smoothly.

          1. Thank you Linda. I was basically a caregiver. Here in P.R. it’s a custom to take care of your parents. There are no nursing homes, as P.R. is only a territory and Medicare reimbursement is different here, so the elderly have fewer options. My father was very disabled from an old stroke, so he died in his home, and I happened to be available to help. Before that I took contracts in FL where I was paid pretty well. After that I went back to P.R. when my father died.

  14. Beautiful post. My husband is stuck like Velcro to me. I’ve never traveled like this but would love to. My husband is a destination traveler, and cares nothing about what’s in between.

    1. Thanks, Linda. My mother was the same way. When it came to travel, she had two questions: “What time do I have to be ready?” and “How long will it take us to get there?” Pure point A to point B, she was.

      My dad was the wanderer. He had two weeks for vacation every year, and we often set a general goal (Minnesota lakes, Colorado) and filled in the details as we went. It drove my poor mother crazy.

  15. Your mystery flower may be A Texas Yellow Star (Lindheimera texana). To me, the silver leaf nightshade will always be a Martian plant. There used to be a strip mall a block from where we lived. It was razed and the ground leveled and prepared for building, but it set totally vacant for about a year. My BFF and I were 14, and we would take long walks and talk, and I would spin SciFi stories. This would have been in the early 1960’s, when the original Star Trek was first broadcast. This one huge vacant lot with it’s red dirt became Mars. As any vacant ground left unattended for a year will do, it developed scattered silver leaf nightshades which, when they had fruited, died, and were nothing but stalks and orange berries fit perfectly in our Martian landscape.

    I remember motels from childhood vacations — later, all our vacations became camping vacations for budgetary reasons, but this one time we stayed in a motel in New Mexico. . . .

    1. That’s an interesting suggestion, WOL. I’ve been using Arkansas plant lists for identification purposes, and when I went back for a second look, I found that not a single one has Lindheimera texana listed.

      But here’s something fascinating. When I checked out the USDA site, it shows the plant in exactly one Arkansas county: Sevier, the home of Pond Creek. And BONAP (the Biota of North America Program) also shows it in-state on their map.

      The plants I found were taller and bushier than I’d expect yellow star to be (easily three feet) and the flowers had as many as seven rays. I’ve read that Texas yellow star always has five rays, but wildflower.org says “Each flower head has (3)-5-(6) bright yellow ray flowers, each with 2 prominent veins and indented at the tip.” That looks like wiggle room to me, and the veins and indentations certainly are there.

      I’ve sent off a couple of inquiries to Arkansans. You may have nailed it. I’ll let you know.

      Your Martian landscape is great. When I first encountered silverleaf nightshade, it was late in the fall, so only the fruits were left. It took me some time to figure out what I’d found, and even longer to finally find it blooming. Now, I see it everywhere. A trained eye is a seeing eye!

  16. How fortunate you were to find that place. And, how fortunate we are. Thank you.

    Places like that deserve to be visited often in every kind of weather, season, and over the years. They present variety. They show the cycles of nature.

    1. Fortunate, indeed, Jim. And, speaking of the cycles of nature, after I returned home and started learning about some of the places I stumbled across, I discovered that the Pond Creek area is in the process of restoration.

      Years ago, timber companies were granted leases, and they planted pine trees. Now, some of those pines are being removed in order to give hardwoods native to the bottomlands a chance to repopulate. Look at this Google Earth image. You can see the pond where I took the photos at the top. The trees on either side of the road below it are pines, and from above, the planted rows seem obvious.

      Then, in the lower right quadrant, there’s a cleared area. The line of demarcation between the pines and the clearing is so obviously man-made, I’m sure that’s one of the areas they’re restoring. I found the phone number for the headquarters, and hope to talk to someone about it in coming days. I’ve only gotten the answering machine at this point.

      1. That account sounds familiar. While in the highlands of Scotland, we noticed many wooded areas that were not natural but in rows. Some were clear-cut. We were told lumber companies years ago planted species for harvest. The most recent processes involve leaving the clear-cut areas fallow for a few years. They are then planted with native species in hope of returning them to their more native state.

        Replacement of native with a crop species is a world-wide problem. Consider the palm oil plantings in south Asia and Indonesia. And it isn’t limited to trees.

        I hope you get some human response one day.

        1. Down here, it’s the Chinese tallow that causes problems, rather than intentional replacement — except when someone who doesn’t know better decides they want falll color and plants the tallow. At Armand Bayou Nature Center, they recently took out 25 acres of tallow that had moved into prairie land, and eventually that prairie will be restored.

  17. ” I may never again hear that impossibly slight sound: the fluttering of a hundred wings echoing in the same fog-drenched silence that had frustrated me only hours before.”

    One can hope that there will always be a chance gift of an experience like yours. I think that when we hold all Life precious in our hearts, Life rewards us with gifts like your butterfly moment or the ladies’ tresses, as if angels smiled and waited to witness our private viewing pleasure!

    Thank you, Linda, for sharing what’s in your heart!

    1. I’m not sure I believe that life rewards some and not others, but I certainly do believe that a multitude of gifts surrounds us. If we can learn to listen and to see, and are receptive to what is, we’ll never lack for gifts.

      I didn’t specifically plan my trip as a three-week hiatus from tv, radio, music, and social media, but that’s what it turned into. Limiting myself to a little blog and email reading left me even more convinced that we’re being isolated, not connected, by the constant stream of blather that surrounds us. I suspect it erodes creativity, too. Silence is integral to music, and space to painting or photography. Thought is necessary for writing: and not merely repetition of what others have produced. But thought requires time. Time, space, and silence can seem in short supply these days.

      I saw several bumper stickers on my trip that were variations on “Hang Up and Drive” Perhaps an equally good motto could be, “Hang Up and Live.”

      1. ” If we can learn to listen and to see, and are receptive to what is, we’ll never lack for gifts.” That nails it; those same gifts are there for all, but one must be open to those presents!

        In the past there were many times when I was low in spirit, and a walk in the yard/woods/solitude almost always rewarded me with subtle gifts – flower blooming out of season or a unique encounter with a bird or animal, or even a meteor that sizzled across the sky. (Yes, it actually sizzled – amazing actually!) At those moments I realized that I was never alone , but part of an amazing and much-larger picture.

        Hang up and live! that’s great!

        1. I’ll never forget the night we were anchored in a cove in the Bahamas and a brilliant, blue-green, long-lived meteor shot across the sky. It very nearly was horizon to horizon, and was stunning. I suspect I’ll remember the butterfly wing sound less vividly, just because visual memories are so strong for me, but at least I have photos of the butterflies.

          It’s interesting to me that I’ve never felt lonely when traveling alone or when I’m in nature. Of course, I tend to make connections with people pretty easily, and nature? Well, nature is what it is: rich, complex, and beautiful.

  18. This post is a real treat. A “keeper”.
    And excellent photos.
    Except for the darn sumac.
    (kidding! just kidding.)
    Even among all the amazing wildflowers, sumac has a ragtag charm.
    A place and a time where you take the time to hear the flight of butterflies is something to recall over and over. Just plain wonderful.

    1. Oh, we do love our sumac here in Texas. It’s some of the most dependable autumn color we have, apart from the particularly nasty invasive, Chinese tallow. Traveling south to north, most of the sumac either hadn’t started turning (Texas and southern Arkansas) or already had dropped its leaves (Missouri and Kansas). When I found bits and pieces of it with color, I was thrilled.

      One of the reasons I enjoy writing about my travels is that it’s such a good way to sort through the memories, highlighting and keeping the most appealing or interesting, and letting the rest go. It’s not unlike sorting through photos. If I have twenty photos of a flower, and only one is in focus, it’s goodbye to the nineteen. It’s like decluttering vacation, so I can find the things worth remembering when I want them.

      1. I’m still a pretty incompetent photographer, so I take a lot of shots and do a lot of erasing, but try to keep my eyes peeled for the occasional “happy accident” while learning to take better shots.
        Your comment reminded me of a Kate Winslet movie I really liked, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

  19. Such a beautiful account of your time in the “empty room.” Emptied of all you brought into it, just waiting for the new. I’m glad, however, for the talents and knowledge you had within you to let me, even invite me, in for the viewing. Thanks.

    1. You’re a great traveling companion, Oneta. For one thing, we enjoy many of the same things, and you’re certainly not one to be rushing hither and yon. You’ve got time to sit down at the edge of a pond, and I’m glad you enjoyed the view my photos offered.

  20. I love the way you invite some vacancy into vacation! What a great connection. I am interested in how vacation can so quickly become a source of great stress. At one level this is expected, since there are stress related activities associated with many vacations (travel, culture and language differences etc). But the must-see list is, I think, the worst stress inducer of all. How lovely to be able to stumble upon the gifts reserved for those with some spare time in their vacation!

    I loved the photographs. The sumacs around us have just now dropped their fiery leaves. They are a highlight of autumn for me.

    1. Do I remember sumac as a background for your blog during the fall? I’m sure I remember that you used red leaves, but since you’re blessed with a variety of reds up there, they could have been maple, or something else. At any rate, I’m glad you enjoyed the photos — and I’ll have another sumac photo or six for you, from a prairie in Missouri.

      The must-see list can be a killer, but it goes hand-in-hand with the want-to-see list. By the time I got to far western Kansas, it started becoming clear that there simply wouldn’t be time to go every place I’d hope to go, or to explore as thoroughly as I wanted. So, I started a list of places to see “next time.” I may never get back to see those places, but it’s good to know that they’re there.

      1. A next time list is always a good thing, even if it only serves to allow us to move along! As for the sumac, I don’t think I have had a sumac photo on my blog, but maybe next year.

    1. I’ve been up I-35 a time or two but never have been on Highway 77, and didn’t even know the waterfall was there. I usually travel farther east, up to Paris, and then across the Indian Nation Turnpike.

      I looked at the photos on the park’s page, and it does look like a nice location. There’s a funny coincidence, too. The waterfall, just off Highway 77, is 77′ feet high. What are the odds?

  21. What a lovely selection of flowers and plants. Sumac is gorgeous and romantic to me- even if many consider it nothing more than an aggressive weed. Perfect asters…tradescantia (your identification conclusion seems reasonable to me), orchids, persicaria. Spring and autumn are the most exciting times to discover gems. A treasure hunt.

    1. Treasure hunt, indeed. And while the Wildlife Management Areas and National Forests were wonderful, the entire northwest quadrant of the state was like one big natural area. I learned early on that any railroad tracks I found were likely to have a gravel road running parallel to them, and exploring those was fun, too.

      It was neat to experience the different conditions. What I found in the forests differed significantly from what was along the tracks or in the open fields. Goldenrod? There was goldenrod everywhere. In fact, there was so much I finally stopped trying to photograph it, and just enjoyed it. There’s a time for that, too.

  22. I admire your independence and curiosity as a woman traveling alone. I am not sure I would venture down a rural road, get out, enjoy the solitude and have an opportunity to hear the flight of butterflies.

    Where did you get such “sand” (as Huckleberry Finn said of Mary Jane in an apparent admiration of her grit)?

    Your photography is stunning in this post. I learned something new–had no idea about the Viceroy butterfly.

    Your nostalgic look at a travel time long gone left me a bit sentimental and somewhat melancholy but gee…that’s the mark of a fine writer.

    1. In “Teaching a Stone To Talk,” Annie Dillard wrote, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.”

      And there you have it. Over the years, I learned that if I wanted to see the stars — or the ocean, or Abiquiú, or juke joints, or prairie grasses — sitting on the couch wasn’t going to get me there. So, I started learning how to travel — how to get myself to places where I could see what I wanted to see and, coincidentally, experience the surprises the world has to offer.

      In some interesting ways, learning to travel hasn’t been so different from learning to sail. In both cases, experiences (both good and bad) build confidence. Even on land, of course, it’s possible to run aground on the rocks — as I did on this trip. More about that later.

      Here’s the page that helped me figure out the differences among monarch, viceroy, and queen butterflies. I have photos of the viceroys and queens now, but I don’t think I have any of monarchs. One day!

  23. I am one who has always liked to travel without too much settled beforehand. I like to stop in a town and just find a place to sleep. But, yes, internet booking has certainly made it difficult. I still tend to go with the wind more than TripAdvisor or another app. Anyway, you have captured some gorgeous photos of flowers.

    1. I imagine it’s pure pleasure for you when you can travel with the wind, freed of the time and other constraints of your work. I have a friend who travels a good bit, though not internationally, and she’s mentioned how different work-travel and pleasure-travel can feel.

      I was happy to see so many flowers still blooming. I’m glad you enjoyed them.

    1. You’re right about the strange things fog can do with sound: distorting, muffling, bending. What it couldn’t muffle was the sound of those wings. We talk about learning to see, but apparently learning to listen is a good thing, too!

  24. What a marvelous post, you had me yearning to be in the wilderness! It’s good to have an adventure that isn’t regimented, often the unexpected is the most fulfilling. What a marvelous place, and just look at all those gems you discovered, I love the spiderwort and the horse nettle and am so glad you came across your elusive orchid. Your butterfly experience gave me goosebumps.xxx

    1. The horse nettle isn’t much loved around here, but I think it’s a great plant. I’m fond of the nightshades, too. Their stamens always make me smile.

      I was happy to find some familiar faces among the plants, but there are many I still haven’t identified. It took me nearly as long to ID these flowers as it did to write the post, but it was great fun to find some species that don’t grow here on my home territory.

      I still can’t get over the orchid. It just doesn’t look orchid-like to me. On the other hand, I found a fern that doesn’t look like a fern to me, either, but that’s what it was: living right on top of a mountain.

      I hope a butterfly whispers in your ear — though you may have to wait for spring, now.

  25. I see you’re on the road again. (I’ll be humming Willie Nelson the rest of the afternoon!)

    What lovely flowers you discovered. Isn’t it amazing what you can find, when you take an unplanned trip off the beaten path?

    I’m so glad I stopped by; it made my afternoon break!

    1. I’m glad you stopped by, too. In many ways, taking such a long, expensive trip wasn’t at all smart. On the other hand, you can’t put a price on some experiences — like finding that orchid, or the butterflies.

      I just realized I didn’t know the collective noun for butterflies. I found lists with as many as nine descriptors. “Swarm” doesn’t do it for me, but a “flight” of butterflies seems just right. One list suggested “kaleidoscope,” but that seems like a term invented by someone who was trying just a little too hard.

      Now, it’s time to settle in, and get my internal calendar adjusted. I really do feel like it’s still the beginning of October. Maybe I time-traveled, and didn’t know it!

    1. It’s true: finding Pond Creek was purely by chance, and it was pure delight. I’m glad you enjoyed the flowers I brought back.

      After writing this post, I discovered that “tourist” has far overtaken “traveler” in usage. With that in mind, I smiled at this, from G.K. Chesterton: “The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”

      1. That’s a brilliant quote. We are off soon to Sicily, yet another place to which we’ve never been, and I must try to pay attention to see whether we are travelers or tourists. I suspect the former, but only because we have few preconceptions. Happy holidays to you!

        1. One of my blog friends grew up in Sicily, and still has many family members in Librizzi. She maintained an interesting blog for a time that might be of interest to you. You can find it here. It sounds like a wonderful trip, and a great way to begin a new year. Happy holidays to you!

  26. This beautiful post took me back to my childhood traveling days when with my parents on our way to a new station. There were often “No Vacancy” signs which necessitated a night’s sleep in the car or a continued drive in the dark. Those old motels had a certain charm I suppose if only the collection of gratitude of people who actually made it in time.
    Your butterfly memory is so marvelous. Imagine hearing that soft susserating sound along with the beauty of all those colorful wings. You will treasure it forever.

    1. Not only did the motels have charm, so did the “motor courts.” They were even more fun. The little individual cottages seemed like playhouses to me. If we happened upon one with a swimming pool, we felt as though we were living a very extravagant life, indeed.

      I suspect you had the same experience I did when it came to traveling on through the dark. There was nothing so cozy as curling up with a blanket and drowsing while listening to the tires on the road. Long ago, before everyone started wearing headphones or set the audio system blasting, you could tell one state from another by the sound of the pavement. Iowa preferred square sections with some sort of strip between. Ka-chunk! Ka-chunk! Ka-chunk!

      I certainly do look at butterflies differently now. When I see one passing by, I know that they aren’t as silent as they seem. It’s quite wonderful.

  27. Absolutely superb images of those wild flowers, Linda. My father was a botanist and the plants he loved the most and travelled to see were the wild orchids found in the UK. He photographed them too. It was he who introduced me to hill walking.
    We have a plant over here very much like the yellow Swamp Sunflower. It’s Rudbeckia hirta – otherwise known as Black-Eyed Susan.

    1. Thanks, Andy. It must have been great fun to tramp across the countryside with a father who knew nature so well. And I shouldn’t be surprised that you have wild orchids, too, but I am — just a bit. I’m still coming to terms with the fact that not all orchids look like those for sale in grocery stores, and not all are grown in hothouses.

      I’ve read that Texas has 54 species of native orchids. Even if that’s an over-estimation, it’s pretty amazing.

      We have the black-eyed Susan, too, and I saw it often in Arkansas — sometimes with a pretty butterfly on top!

  28. All those local motels and their neon signs – such welcomed sights when we were little (“Oh, those clouds look like heavy rain. Maybe we should find a place to stay – one with a pool? Baths all at once!”) We usually camped out in a army surplus tent ( no floors or screens)
    I love your flowers – especially the one with fuzzy stem and bugs! What a wonderful spot to stumble upon and enjoy quietly for a while. (and that one did look like gummy bears)

    1. Have you ever seen the TeePee Motel in Wharton? That’s a fine serving of nostalgia, too. There used to be more such places (I vaguely remember one in Minnesota) but the page says there are only four teepee motels left in the country. Believe me, that teepee would be the closest my mother ever would get to camping.

      I love the spider and the bug on the orchid, too. After looking at the photo, I think there might be a third bug inside the flower. See it?

  29. I love everything about this post! Mike & I do like to ramble around – but only if I know there’s going to be a bathroom (or totally secluded forest) every few hours.

    1. “Totally secluded” pretty much describes it, Dana. Even when I’d left the forest behind and was out in far western Kansas — well, this pretty much tells the tale. Doesn’t Princess look lovely? There’s a whole lot of horizon out there, and a lot of interesting history, but there’s room to ramble, too.

    1. Hmmm… I’m thinking that you must have meant the photo showing the road, rather than the motel photo at the top. On the other hand, I have some fond memories of certain family vacations where the motel played quite a role, so perhaps not.

      I am glad that you enjoyed the photos. isn’t it interesting how one will catch our eyes, and be more appealing than the others, though? It happens to me all the time — that’s part of the fun.

  30. I’m so glad I waited to read this until I had the time to really sit back and savor it. The flowers you discovered are amazing (and wonderful photos, nice tight shots!). And like you, I rarely mind going off the beaten path, breaking routine. Rick and I have done this often when we travel and no timetable is involved. A delight to discover that unexpected waterfall or bit of beauty. Sometimes no plan is the best plan.

    I love the old mom-and-pop motels and we often try to stay in them when on the road. Generally less expensive and often kind of kitschy, although I don’t think they were going for that effect! I will be sad to see the no-vacancy signs go as well. To me it also says something — “This hotel is well liked; remember it next time.”

    I’m so glad you got off the road and headed back to this gorgeous area. (Did you ever make it to Nashville — or is that another post?!)

    1. No, I never did make it to Nashville — and by the way, that’s Nashville, Arkansas, not Nashville, Tennessee. I didn’t even know there was a Nashville in Arkansas until I started reading about the post offices. I managed to visit a few of the post offices anyway, and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss Pond Creek.

      I don’t think the motels were going for kitschy, either. The word itself is from the German for gaudy, or ltrashy, and back in the 1950s, they weren’t that. I think it’s so intriguing that people today are spending big bucks for mid-century furniture, houses, and cars. Apparently, there are motel neon signs for sale, too — big ones, with Indian chiefs, and women in 1950s fashion walking poodles. Who wouldn’t want that? Maybe you could get a “no vacancy” sign and put it in front of the mega-mansion up at the lake. (Of course that’s tongue in cheek, sort of, but I’m still irritated about that whole episode with the trees.)

    1. It was amazing to find so many shining beauties on such a dark and gloomy day. It pleased me beyond words to be able to capture their images. I’m so glad you enjoyed them!

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