Sunday, October 7, 2007

Day 35 -- Follow the dotted line

Since I spent last night at a Motel 6, I had to find my own breakfast this morning. (I've been getting spoiled with the Super 8 and Days Inn breakfasts.) Wasn't very successful. Strangely, there were no coffee shops to be found in the miles between the motel and the zoo. I thought it was a university area, but maybe it's just the location of the stadium and isn't home to mobs of students except when there's a game. I ended up going to the Little Rock Zoo cafe and had some mocha-colored hot water and a packaged danish.

I had an hour or so to tour the zoo before meeting great ape keepers Daphne and Kristen. It's a pretty old looking zoo with lots of old-fashioned, grotto-like exhibits. The great ape area, however, looks inviting. You look down at the gorillas, orangutans and chimps when they're not on their climbing structures, but they have a decent amount of room. And each area is nicely overgrown with shrubs and weeds, giving them shady spots where they can lounge and hide.

Daphne and Kristen spent an hour with me discussing their apes. For much of the time we stood at one of the two gorilla areas where the resident male Brutus came out to see us. Unlike most adult male gorillas, Brutus is quite interested in people and looks you right in the eye. He stayed there pretty much the whole time we were there, posing and giving us various looks. Strange (in a nice way) to spend so much time looking into the eyes of a gorilla.

I mentioned that I planned to stop at the Oklahoma City Zoo on my way to Wichita, KS. They suggested that I also visit the Tulsa Zoo for its great chimp area. I did some quick calculations in my head and figured that I could work that into my itinerary. Funny how my three extra days have been so easily filled. They gave me some contact information for keepers at the two zoos, and then we parted. It was really nice of them to spend so much time with me.

After visiting a few more exhibits I had to hit the road. I figured I could still manage a scenic drive on my way toward Oklahoma, but I would need to do the shorter version in order to get far enough west to make Tulsa do-able. AAA maps and some of the state maps mark scenic routes with a line of dots, but different maps don't always reflect exactly the same routes. I decided to follow the AAA route, which is a combination of back roads and interstate. I backtracked to the south of Little Rock and then started heading west and north through Hot Springs ("Boyhood Home of President Bill Clinton"), the Hot Springs National Forest and the Ouachita (WASH-i-ta) Mountains. It was a fun drive on the twisty, up-and-down road. Covered a lot of miles, but not so much as-the-crow-flies distance.

It was almost 5PM by the time I arrived at I-40 with 76 miles to go to Fort Smith/Van Buren. I usually try to wind down the day and find a motel by about 5PM, but sometimes I push it until 6PM. I decided to go for it. At 70-ish MPH I could be there in an hour, and I already had some budget motels picked out.

About 40 miles from my goal I reached Ozark, which I had considered as a landing spot. The tiny town has a couple of AAA-recommended motels with low rates. The scenery was nice. What the hell. I would only need to make up half an hour, and it would be nice to stay someplace that was not in the usual off-ramp universe. I left the interstate and drove the three miles to Ozark and picked out one of the motels: The Ozark Inn. It's a very 1950s-looking motel, but not as in the movie Psycho. One story, with a parking spot in front of each door. The lady at the reception desk was so friendly, I didn't even ask to see the room before registering. (I usually do with off-brand motels.) Wasn't sure what to expect, but it was even nicer than I could have imagined. Clean and bright. Hand-made (in China, but hand-made) quilt on the king bed. An arm chair. A little fridge and a microwave. Real coffee mugs (not the cheesy styrofoam cups). Wireless internet access that works! Great TV reception. And the shower? Hot and strong. Lucked out again. Note to self: be spontaneous more often.

So, I figure it will be under three hours to Tulsa. The map shows turnpike most of the way. After the zoo I'll head toward Oklahoma City and find a place to spend the night near town. I need to be in Wichita on Tuesday evening, but it's only about two hours to the north. I actually have a room reserved for my stay in Kansas.

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