“A box without hinges, key, or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid.” –J. R. R. Tolkien
Worship. The Landing. Natural Differences. Camouflage. Hot Springs. Gems. Antiques. A High Place. Wine Post. Paradise. Crystal. Fire. Riches. Arkansas Reading. Recipe. Gratitude.
“Y’all c’mon now, let’s go outside and get a picture with his truck.” I had to tilt my head for a moment and sift through the thick syllables to understand him. Unlike other parts of the South, where the accent draws out slowly like an unhurried, unwinding ball of string, the accent in South Eastern Arkansas snapped like a rubber-band. Instead of a drawl, it had a definite twang; traditional one-syllable words whipped into two, sometimes bouncing vertiginously into three. “That” became “They-at”. “There” could contort into “They-ar-r.” Steve, the well-lubricated and jolly owner of Sportsman’s Drive-in Café, had waved us in out of the storm and adopted us as his rainy time buddies.
We entered Arkansas that morning, crouching as gray skies sank lower and lower, until they brushed wetly against the top of the van. Once we crossed over the Mississippi River, I was interested in getting a leg-stretching first-hand glimpse of the State. So we made a quick pit-stop in downtown Helena, mostly closed or boarded up, with a few musty antique stores. Known as the buckle on the Blues belt due to a long running radio show called King Biscuit Time, it was also home to a famous Blues Festival. A thrift store clerk informed me there were no hotels, so people either fought for rooms in the stately hillside Bed and Breakfasts, or found lodging outside of town.
As the skies opened, we escaped back into my van the Chief, whose decrepit windshield wipers and failing headlights did nothing to improve my vision or driving proficiency. It was a cold winter rain. Miles streamed by as we limped over bridges girded by bare trees and shallow water-courses, traveling through unvaryied landscape, until out of the forest appeared a sign, a billboard. As we drew closer, I slowed down, the forest parting to reveal the image of a sparkling diamond ring, an advertisement targeting men, who aimed women. It read: “She’ll worship the ground you hunt on.”
I was hungry, and desired to worship some food if I could find it. My iPhone navigation led us into the small town of Stuttgart, studded by huge refineries and monster-sized farm equipment. Our first encounter was with a camouflaged man who waved earnestly into a Cafe parking lot. His name was Steve; he said he owned the place. Inside was a comfy two-room building with painted cinder block walls hued a faint yellow by the lights. It was around 1pm on a Monday and the small bar was full of men in camouflage drinking beer, and waitresses in camouflage serving them. “They’re farmers, “Steve said in his heavy accent, “They can’t work today cuz a the rain. They’re all my buddies. I know everybody in this town, everybody knows me.”
And so we entered a wonderful lair of recently emptied American beer bottles and giant burgers. Steve turned a chair around and sat down with us, sipping on the neck of his beer. When he spoke he gurgled affably and swayed, telling us about the town, his life, the weather, the food, sometimes leaning in conspiratorially, sometimes inviting the rest of the room to join in on the conversation, eyes always glinting with an indelible smile.
He immediately began filling us in on important regional facts. Stuttgart was founded by Germans; it was the biggest rice producer in the U.S. and the biggest rice processor on Earth. He stated proudly that it was the Duck-hunting Capital of the World, home of the world-famous Duck Calling Competition, where the Queen of the event fulfilled her duties dressed entirely in camouflage.
At the confluence of three rivers, with all the marshy fields for food, and on the migration path to the Mississippi, it was no wonder the ducks flocked here in droves. Steve moved his chair closer to Jenny, who was traveling with me for another week. While chatting her up about the jewelry he made from spoons, I labored over a 1 pound double cheeseburger, “The Best in the State,” he yelled, pushing me his bud light to wash it back with, while he carefully whispered, “Beer made from rice…”
When Steve suggested the men head out for a picture, barely any of them moved, until they realized, with Steve’s insistence, that Jenny would be joining them. This news ejected them from their stools and thrust them all enthusiastically out into the wet, splashing through the puddles to assemble before my van. Steve offered proposals to Jenny and angled to be next to her. I took the picture.
Two of the farmers asked me if I knew why the roof of the Cafe was curved like a circle. I admitted I didn’t. “It’s to attract aliens in their flying saucers….It’s round so they can land on it.” I smiled and nodded, not knowing if they were kidding.
Certainly, we’d landed and we’d met our first Arkansans.
The differences between each State so far had been very noticeable. Human borders and natural borders had created distinct enclaves, all with their own identities. It seems human nature that once a group forms it tends to turn towards the center, thus creating an environment that naturally becomes more homogenized and like itself. This is what happened in the small territory of Europe, with extremely noticeable differences over relatively small areas. This had also happened, to a certain extent and on a smaller scale, between the states here in the U.S. Each, though containing many similarities, was invariably different. New Mexico from Texas from Oklahoma from Louisiana from Mississippi from Arkansas; linked by highways, media, and communication lines that served as an important counter-weights to our centristic inclinations.
I had no idea what to expect of Arkansas. I knew it was the Clinton’s home state. I’d heard of the Little Rock High School incidents, and how the National Guard was called out to protect a handful of African-American students entering school. The Ozark Mountains were reputedly beautiful. And I had a vague idea of some connection to Walmart and Billy Bob Thornton. It turns out John Grisham and Johnny Cash were also born here, as well as Mary Steenburgen.
Over 11,000 years before these illustrious celebrities were on the scene, Native Americans occupied the land, followed long after by the indefatigable Spaniard Hernando de Soto. The area eventually came under the control of France, before being turned over to the Americans with the Louisiana Purchase. Arkansas subsequently became a territory, and was admitted as the 25th State in 1836.
The source of Arkansas’ name is disputed, possibly derived from a Sioux word meaning “downstream place”, but may also come from another Native American word referring to the “south wind”. Apparently, there was also quarreling over its pronunciation, until the legislature settled the matter and resolved that the last syllable should be pronounced, “saw”. Arkan”saw” was then proclaimed The Natural State, due to a high concentration of what much of the country used to have, Nature. Arkansas contains over 600,000 acres of lakes and 9,700 miles of streams and rivers. At nearly 1500 miles, the Arkansas River is the longest tributary to flow into the Mississippi-Missouri river system. The state contains old and beautiful mountains, and forests still cover a significant part of the land area.
Leaving Stuttgart, we drove into the chill discomfort of a light rain, eager to make it to camp before dark. I prefer a storm with the unanticipated slap of thunder and lightning, but this was a silent icy mist that clawed through the gaps of the van. The Chief’s headlights were on the blink, so driving at night wasn’t an option. We stopped for gas, for groceries at a Piggly-Wiggly, for directions. Not a single person was without an article of camouflage clothing. We were strangers in a strange land. And as the night encroached my heart beat faster knowing that we would be blind, dangerous and endangered in the storm without adequate headlights. It was not the exhilaration of adventure, but dread. Our destination was Cane Creek, which we barely made it to in the deepened dusk. There we inserted our fee into the park entry envelope, and curled into the cocoon of the van.
Trilling birds woke us the next morning. We stepped out of the Chief to open our wings and peer over a broad brown lake. Its shores were strewn with logs and a lush carpet of sodden leaves, which formed a thick spongy layer over the soft earth. Just across the lake was one of the world’s longest bayous and I imagined a great place to fish and kayak.
When we began our drive that morning, after a gas-station-donut breakfast in Star City, I was already beginning to collate recurring motifs, like the camouflage I noticed. As the days and the rest of the week progressed, these initial glimmers coalesced into lambent trends that gave me an overall impression of the land and its people.
One characteristic we noticed were lots of trailers. Some of course, were rotting hunks of desuetude, but mostly they were well-maintained and joyfully painted, with sculpted yards and gardens; virtually all of them adorned with lawn ornaments. They were everywhere, conspicuously decorating virtually every house-front sward, each adding a personal touch of property flair, like brooches, pins, or buttons on a vest. Middle-Earth faeries and elves dangled from the trees, ceramic gnomes hid in the bushes, bears carved from single hunks of wood guarded the porches. There were bright pink flamingos and palm trees and over-sized butterflies which stood out against the snowless winter landscape. Wind-chimes hung from the branches, wind-mills stuck in the ground, chiming and spinning frivolously with each wayward gust of wind. It was a cornucopia of kitsch…human ornaments to Nature’s naturalness.
Known to some as the childhood home of Bill Clinton, Hot Springs was a beautiful little town nestled in a flurry of hills, the most prominent of which is Hot Springs Mountain. Nearly 50 springs poured from its various outlets, funneling therapeutic water into the grandest collection of 19th century bathhouses in America. Spa comes from the latin words sanus per aquam or “health through water”. Inside these classic spas were tiled rooms full of shiny metal apparatus serviced by a labyrinth of pipes and shower heads. These complicated bath-works delivered thermal waters many believed capable of curing a whole array of illnesses, from arthritis to syphilis. There were also gymnasiums, ornate salons with billiard tables, quaint day-bed rooms, and beautiful stained glass windows.
The town’s rows of galleries and restaurants seemed very quaint, but the past hid a rebellious spirit. Among the vacationing elite, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and Babe Ruth, the Hot Springs also drew the barons of underground crime, servicing clients as notorious as Al Capone. For a while the city was a hotbed of gambling, boot-legging and prostitution. But as medicine caught up with myth, the therapeutic qualities of the bathhouses came into question, and lost popularity. Now only a few actually operate, while the area is protected as Hot Springs National Park.
It was Valentine’s Day, so Jenny and I hiked the trails leading up the mountain, its summit pierced by a 216ft tower with incredible views. On our way down, we happened upon a small wedding in a Gazebo overlooking the town. Since they had no witnesses, they asked us to be the maid of honor and best man; the ceremony was officiated by the young man’s father. The two met at this location some years before, and returned for their betrothal.
Once again the morning brought mists and rain, and we wanted to make it to Mount Magazine before nightfall. We made several stops, one at a road-side rock store where great containers of colorful rocks sat outside in rows. They brimmed with stones: blues, yellows, greens, and reds, with translucent crystals of many shades, some bigger than my head. Arkansas is known for its minerals and precious gems, pulled from Morian mines: agate, amethyst, jasper, garnet, and quartz. Mount Ida is touted as the Quartz Crystal Capital of the World. At Crater of Diamonds State Park one can prospect for diamonds and other precious stones. In fact, Arkansas is home to the only diamond mine open to the public in the world.
But the most impressive site was just up the road in the Ouachita National Forest. An area dotted with lakes amid rolling hills carved by brooks hidden by the forests. Called Iron Springs, it was a natural treasure chest full of gems on its own. We parked and soon stood over a forest reposing on the surface quiet pools, crystal clear waters with stillness unbetrayed by movement. On the surface the muted colors of lichens and surrounding wood were framed by the silver sky. Under the water, there were shades of sapphire and turquoise, followed by cobalt blues that sank deep into their bosoms. When I leaned down for a closer look, my face was mirrored in water that strained to carry me with it, breaking into a shallow white waterfall before regaining its composure and becoming a liquid jewel again.
We leaped up the hillside path above the opalescent pools. The softest breeze breathed through the placid trees, bringing with it the impression of changing seasons. When we descended, I was stunned, the entire forest sparkled with tiny water droplets shining like diamonds, refracting the morning and the mountains, each drop a world in itself, a refuge for all of the beauty around it. Life burgeoned at the end of every tentative branch. The unseasonably warm weather was teasing forth an early spring.
Another feature along the roads was the prominent display of items for sale off people’s porches. All sorts of curiosities were arranged in various degrees of tastefulness. Some of the more organized porches had signs that read Antique Shop, many seemed more like glorified garage sales, some not so glorified, some really just what residents didn’t know what to do with.. Rusty chairs and wooden tables, lots of jars (sometimes empty, sometimes full of questionable content), old paintings, plenty of rocking chairs, bicycles, baskets (some with ribbons), hand-painted signs with quirky sayings (” Guns Protect People Against People with Smaller Guns”), auto parts, stools, air-conditioning units, rakes, old refrigerators, Coca-cola crates, barrels, and of course lawn ornaments –and the list goes on. These home-bound stores existed mostly along the roads, but when we rose in elevation the items melted away, either consumed by forest, dense clouds, or zoning laws. The late afternoon wore on, and found ourselves winding up into the highest Ozarks.
A High Place
The Ozarks are an ancient range, once surrounded by sea, they have eroded to their present size and are now surrounded instead by forest, over one million acres. At nearly 2800 feet, Mount Magazine is the highest point in Arkansas. The Chief dutifully crawled up its side burrowing a tunnel through the clouds. When we reached the summit, we could see nothing but a dense impenetrable fog. Signs warned of cliffs, but there was no way to tell how far they dropped or what treasures the haze obscured. We stood at the edge of a parapet, wreathed in airborne water and half grey light. Before us the grey held unthinkable vistas, made more resolute and alarming by their absence; it was a vacuum that filled with my imagination. I’d seen pictures, of the rolling limestone outcroppings, and sweeping colors broken by crenelated battlements of granite. Around us, the dense skies muffled all sound, and when we talked, our voices were absorbed, and sounded far away.
We stopped at the Ozark’s Lodge, perched over another unfathomable ocean of cloud. There, we cleaned up and ate, eventually decamping to the lobby couch. The hotel staff accumulated opposite us to play word games while we procrastinated near the fire, delaying the inevitable return to the van and moist chill of a campsite. When we finally pulled in, headlights tremulous, we considered building a fire but it was too cold outside to enjoy. I fell asleep hoping the clouds would clear in the morning so we could see the famous views, but dawn was gray again, and the day stayed so until we descended under the layers to a valley somehow full of sun.
A liquid treasure awaited us on the Southern slopes of the Ozarks, where some of the oldest and largest wineries in mid-America were located, centered around the Germanic wine growing region and Hobbiton-like town of Altus. In the late 19th century, two European families, the Posts and the Wiederkehrs pioneered the wine making industry here, where conditions reminded them of their homelands. Over time, the vineyards expanded, new grape varieties were added, and the region became known for its viticulture.
At the Bethel Winery, the shop was partially buried in the hill like a hobbit hole. Outside, a pair of dogs lay in the sun, while inside we were greeted by a short, stocky woman with a big smile who loved to tell stories. After we tasted a glass of wine, she began to hold forth. She said she liked to stand behind the counter because the slant of the room made her taller. She talked about her grandma Catherine, a tough old bootlegger who got hauled off to prison during prohibition, to be released and later anointed with the 7th wine license issued in Arkansas; although she continued to sell and distill other potions, but that was a family secret. Our host spoke of the rivalry between the Post and the Wiederkehr clans, and how she could spot someone with Post blood immediately. She grew up stomping grapes and was one of the fastest clippers around, displaying scars on her fingers from scissors used to cut the bunches. She laughed at how funny it was when her sister got attacked by a horde of wasps. She said she’s been drinking since she was born, and not only wine, “It’s a little known fact that it takes a lot of beer to make good wine,” she quipped. She’d never leave the valley and believed it was a Post obligation to stay and learn the family business, and be buried here. When we left her, the sun was shining on a gorgeous day, and we drove into a paradise of hill country, our mouths tasting of fermented grapes.
One of the most beautiful areas we encountered was on our way up to Eureka Springs, a true Shire of fields and farms, dells and vales, between the roll and drop of rounded hills. The light was angling low and flared the yellow grasses into a shiny gold, gilding the entire land with afternoon.
When we got to Eureka Springs we explored the quirky little town, its Victorian buildings clinging to the steep valley walls, with sharply twisting narrow streets, and no traffic lights. Founded also as a health resort, it was a magnet for artists. Like something out of Rio de Janiero, a monolithic white statue of Christ presided over the town, arms raised to embrace the sunset. At camp, we made a fire, lit a candle, and strolled through the dark quiet cemetery next door.
The most unexpected treasure of the trip was Crystal Bridges in Bentley. An hometown buddy of mine lived there, offering to show us around. His patient family hosted us for the night. Bentley is known primarily for being the headquarters of Walmart, but may soon be soon eclipsed by this most breathtaking museum. Funded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, and designed by Israeli architect Moshe Safdi, its balanced lines of wood and glass float magnificently over a small lake, complimenting extraordinarily the surrounding forest. It was stunning. The art inside was no less impressive. Franklin D. Roosevelt said that art is not a treasure in the past or an importation from another land, but part of the present life of all living and creating peoples. Alice Walton took this quote literally, and created a building that matched her collection, then merged the two into a vision of harmonious landscapes, streams and walkways, that led into town.
At Little Rock we decided to stay in a hotel for our last night in Arkansas. The fire alarm jolted us awake in the early hours of the morning. We grabbed a few things and walked dutifully down the stairwell to the parking lot where the drowsy crowds accumulated. Hovering there for a while, we were finally told it was a kid’s prank, and asked to return to our rooms. The elevators were down so we climbed the 13 stories. I was surprised to see people just coming down, nearly an hour after the alarm. Corpses, I thought.
An important Civil Rights marker was in Little Rock, the Central High School, where forced desegregation occurred nearly a half century ago. It looked peaceful and pretty in the morning sun. After dropping Jenny off at the airport, I walked through the River Market District, perused the Clinton Library, and drove passed the Capitol Building. It was constructed of marble quarried Arkansas, with massive bronze doors purchased from Tiffany’s in New York, adding yet another layer to the region’s interesting link to minerals and jewels. Looking down at a map, the State certainly resembled a box without hinges or lid, and I was happy to have witnessed some of her riches, many of them, unanticipated; but it was the contrasts that made them so special: ducks and art, camo and hot springs, burgers and wine, museums and forests, cities and rivers, flamingos and faeries, rain and sun, Jesus and Walmart.
And of course, there were the people. Treasures.
“Guard well within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness.” –George Sand
A Painted House by John Grisham; Bald Knobbers: Vigilantes on the Ozarks Frontier by Elmo Ingenthron; Life in the Leatherwoods by John Quincy Wolf; Ozark Magic and Folklore by Vance Randolph; ARKANSAS: A Narrative History by Jeannie M. Whayne, Tom DeBlack, George Sabo and Morris S. Arnold; Arkansas in Modern America, 1930-1999 by Ben F. Johnson; Arkansas Off the Beaten Path, 9th: A Guide to Unique Places by Patti DeLan
Razorback Pork Chops
- 6 pork chops
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon seasoning salt
- 2 egg, beaten
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 cups Italian-style seasoned bread crumbs
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 (10.75 ounce) can condensed cream of mushroom soup
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/3 cup white wine
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
- Rinse pork chops, pat dry, and season with garlic powder and seasoning salt to taste. Place the beaten eggs in a small bowl. Dredge the pork chops lightly in flour, dip in the egg, and coat liberally with bread crumbs.
- Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Fry the pork chops 5 minutes per side, or until the breading appears well browned. Transfer the chops to a 9×13 inch baking dish, and cover with foil.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour. While baking, combine the cream of mushroom soup, milk and white wine in a medium bowl. After the pork chops have baked for an hour, cover them with the soup mixture. Replace foil, and bake for another 30 minutes.
Stuttgart Steve, The Newly Weds, Iron Springs, The Posts, The Friede Family, Crystal Bridges, Jenny Georges
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