November 20, 2011
In the 1970s, higher education lured my husband from his high country origins to Wichita, Kan. While he was working on a degree, I ran into a stairway to new cultural and horizons that probably outstripped higher education. I got an opportunity to start and manage an independent bookstore (thanks again, Bruce). Mixing the new friends and interesting acquaintances I made at the bookstore in with my husband's grad school connections, we missed out on the loneliness and social awkwardness that gives rise to homesickness.
But spending holidays with 1,200 miles between us and our families and old friends in western North Carolina was a different matter. We got our financial planning and vacation request forms lined up for a junket home for a week or two at Christmas, which left Thanksgiving as the lonely one.
Fortunately - very fortunately - we weren't alone. Wichita was such a Mecca for employment as well as higher education there were herds and herds of stray dogs thousands of miles from home at Thanksgiving. There were so many that a friend of ours on the faculty at Wichita State was hosting an annual "Stray Dog Dinner" long before we arrived in town. Once we made the guest list, stray dogging it at Thanksgiving gave the holiday new slants that reinvigorated it. Once we got out of the turkey, pumpkin pie and football rut for a few years, we were able to return to it with renewed appreciation for traditional Thanksgiving celebrations. But we've also found it's a good tradition to break with tradition and climb out of the rut when opportunities present themselves.
My tips for making a Stray Dog Thanksgiving out of the backroads tour of the Hot Springs area begin with a destination — The Hot Springs Resort & Spa — that's got the diversions you may need if you can’t get the feeling of guilt about passing on a traditional Thanksgiving out of your mind by focusing on some of the drudge work (celery chopping, potato peeling, cleaning cobwebs out of the ceiling corners for in-law inspections, etc.) that make the celebration exhausting.
The Hot Springs Resort & Spa is within walking distance of downtown Hot Springs and two motels and has eight cabins of its own available for nightly rentals [See "Resources" for contact information]. Hot water from the mineral springs is fed into open air Jacuzzis and there are hourly rates for solitary soaks, two- and three-seaters and a bath house that will accommodate the entire band and a few of the roadies.
The springs for which Hot Springs is named qualify as truly "hot" on NOAA's map of U.S. springs while the only other springs this side of the Mississippi, in Virginia and Georgia, are still in need of additional global warming if they're to hike their official status up from merely "warm."
My next suggestion for a Stray Dog Thanksgiving stems from recollections of one of the pleasures of Stray Dog Thanksgivings in Wichita that lingers most memorably. I have fond recollections of eating a wondrous huge meal that rivaled anything else hitting a table in north Wichita without chopping a single celery stalk in preparation or scraping a single spoonful of cranberry sauce to get it dishwasher ready afterwards. One of my many sweet memories of Stray Dog Thanksgivings is the dismissive waves of the hands — second time as I was putting on my coat — as the host and hostess reassured me that the dinnerware was mostly paper and plastic; they could take care of kitchen cleanup without assistance.
To sashay down the drive to your car with a gourmet Thanksgiving feast under your belt without feeling obliged to file an offer to assist with prep work or cleanup, try the Mountain Magnolia Inn in Hot Springs. The extensive assortment of favorable reviews available online indicate the Mountain Magnolia Inn has pleased young, old, vegetarians, Southern Living and even the travel editor at a newspaper in Vancouver, British Columbia.
While scraping cranberry sauce and gravy residue off used-twice-a-year family china that you're going to break is a major post-Thanksgiving-feast downer, a relaxing stroll is the perfect thing to do. Toss some walking shoes and maybe a pair of shorts or sweatpants in the backseat, and following the feast at the Mountain Magnolia Inn you can stroll down a gravel path and get one of the tamer segments of the otherwise serious business Appalachian Trail.
There’s a hike of 45 to 90 minutes that encompasses the Appalachian Trail’s spin right through the middle of Hot Springs. After the trail gets outside town, it runs along the French Broad River and then takes in a hamstring stretching gain of a 1,000 feet up to a Lovers' Leap cliff overlooking the river.
The Lover’s Leap near Hot Springs is one of at least 872 lovers' leaps in the country (even four in mostly too flat for suicide Nebraska), but there doesn't seem to have been any serious scholarship on the topic since the 1950s and surely the grand total has been increased by strip mines, gravel pits and 50th floor motel room balconies where unrequited love and love denied became too much to bear.
For those intending to throw out the feast along with the football as they take advantage of a breakdown in family obligations that have obliterated the traditional Thanksgiving get-together, there’s a wonderful hiking opportunity just a few miles from Hot Springs that will be all the more wonderful on a balmy November day when they chances of bumping into an untrained dog or noisy Boy Scout troop are minimal.
Max Patch is one of the famous southern Appalachian balds that affords a 360-degree view, from an altitude of more than 4,600 feet, of miles and mountains and forests. There are options for an ascent to the summit of Max Patch for the entire fitness gamut, and time-on-the-trail demands from a 9.5 mile round-tripper that requires 5.5 hours, down to two fairly easy loop trails of less than three miles each.