Steven and I were driving our daughter to upstate New
York for a college recruiting weekend, and decided to
travel with our two big dogs. Online I’d located a
dog-friendly inn whose name promised a rustic idyll. The
innkeeper breeds Labrador retrievers, and by phone
sounded Lab-ish himself, bouncy and eager to please.
“The bed’s king size, so your dogs can sleep with you!
And bring your sweeties to breakfast,’’ he exclaimed.
“Just no kids under 16 because we have antiques.’’
Note: Pack short leashes.
“We’re going to have an adventure with the dogs,’’ I
“Adventure’’ had become our buzzword since we started
an Empty Nest Adventure List. It helped us look beyond
our youngest child’s senior year in high school, fraught
with emotions and challenges for the three of us. Rather
than anticipate autumn melancholy, Steven and I imagined
lectures around town, the Badlands in South Dakota, and
“macarons’’ in Paris.
Here was our first foray. I envisioned Lassie and the
L.L. Bean catalog; Steven pictured Clifford the Big Red
Dog doubled, a pair of well-meaning Fidos who are a lot
to manage. I was so excited about our new foursome and
free of angst about sleep-deprived teens with cars and
spotty judgment that Steven figured, “Why not?’’
Whenever we mentioned the trip, one of us scratched the
nearest dog’s belly and crooned, “Who’s gonna have
I wedged our overnight bags in the car amid dog
provisions, opened the cargo hatch, and called, “Want to
go for a ride?’’ The dogs bounded right in — the front
seats. “Buddy, Chief! Back here!’’ From the front they
stared at me, grinning goofily. Steven, standing beside
his now-occupied seat, stared too.
Later, at a rest stop, Buddy squeezed past the cargo
net and out the open passenger door. Steven returned
with snacks to find my daughter and me racing to
retrieve the highway-bound retriever. I snagged the
mutt’s collar and moseyed past Steven. Later, Buddy
jammed through again and sprawled across our daughter’s
After 5 1/2 hours we delivered our daughter to the
university and at nightfall arrived at the inn. Our kids
would have grumped about the isolation, but we were
eager to relax fireside.
The innkeeper had been sawing wood out front. He was
cordial but not as warm or effusive as I expected. This
wasn’t the tail-wagger from my phone call. He offered
his hand, advertising a big black handgun tattoo on his
forearm. When we shook hands, he aimed straight at me.
He ushered us through a filthy bunkroom jammed with
disheveled beds topped with mud-caked boots. (The mud
was the only antique here.) Adjacent to a storage area
crammed with broken bunks was our room, with a gaping
hole in the wall, no lock, and crust-stained bedsheets.
Our private bath didn’t exist. I recoiled when I opened
the door to the grimy bathroom downstairs with soiled
towels heaped on the floor.
“We’re not used to having people here,’’ the innkeeper
mumbled. “We live here.’’
This place was really
Steven and I simultaneously drew our
cellphones to hunt new lodgings. No cell service. Our
Disney adventure was turning Deliverance. We bolted out
of there. We tried hotels, bed and breakfasts — no dogs
allowed. Finally, we found a Howard Johnson’s. “Dogs
weighing up to 20 pounds are welcome,’’ said the smiling
clerk. We had 160 pounds’ worth. “We’re desperate,’’ I
whimpered puppy-eyed. “They’re practically lap dogs!’’
We herded the dogs inside. Amazingly, they had
splendid manners, the long day notwithstanding. Our
children might not have been so easygoing.
This hotel was sufficient but not the retreat we had
planned. Steven didn’t blame me, but I felt responsible.
On the university’s website I located another
dog-friendly inn seemingly with charm and real antiques.
A late-night call confirmed our room the following
The new inn offered old-time elegance in a historic
lakeside village. We strolled, holding hands and
leashes, in a nearby park and enjoyed a delicious hotel
restaurant dinner. The receptionist carried it up two
flights and dodged our drooling pooches. “I love dogs,’’
she said, laughing. Then Steven and I relaxed, dogs
This resembled life before kids; together, bonding
with pets, blanketed with fur and unconditional love.
But this catalog-perfect dog scene turned out to be more
about who wasn’t there. The reprieve from 24/7 parenting
felt great, but the impending permanence of our
children’s absence was unshakeable. Our adventure
brought home the deeper truths of being empty nesters.
The kids will be gone and we’ll be left with emptiness
and worries, with joy and memories . . . and with the
We can’t escape that reality by packing suitcases or
kibble. But we’re game to explore, especially since our
trip affirmed that we’re still good together. And thanks
to our adventure, we sniffed out a perfect hotel for