Texas, Arkansas By Irene Butler
Arkansas conjures up visions of hillbillies in the Ozark Mountains cooking up homebrew; probably due to Jed Clampet and family hailing from “dem der hills” before striking black gold in the Beverley Hillbillies T.V. series. The banjo and guitar pick’in music and folklore of the Ozarks is still alive, especially along northern routes.
Twisting through forested areas along secondary Route 70 was wonderfully scenic, but sluggish vehicles doing 45 in 55 MPH zones were even too slow for us. After by-passing Little Rock, where Past President Bill Clinton was governor, we bee-lined it down Interstate 30 for Hot Springs, enticed by an advertised 143 degree warm welcome from 47 sources of therapeutic water, gushing 850,000 gallons a day.
We stepped out of Emili into a virtual sauna; 35 degrees Celsius, with sticky, heavy, still air. Something was brewing. The temperature dropped 20 degrees within the next few hours. While walking down the main street looking for a dining spot, the black clouds we are mysteriously dragging along with us, started to spill their contents. With clothes and hair plastered to our skin, we raced into Granny’s Kitchen, in the knick of time. A wicked electrical storm flashed and rumbled; the streets were like rivers. Supper was extended by several cups of coffee and the restaurant’s specialty, hot blackberry cobbler and ice-cream, as we waited out the worst of the storm.
Still under cloud cover the duration of our stay in this little resort town, we strolled the very colourful downtown area; filled with souvenir shops, wax museum, magic shows, and neat cafes in which we indulged in such tasty morsels as fried pickles. Dill pickles, breaded in a special coating are deep fried until golden brown and hot throughout without loosing their crunch.
At regular intervals, a quirky boat with wheels drives by along Central Street. The “Duck Tour”, in this amphibious vehicle, first scoots past historical sights, floats around St. John’s Island on Lake Hamilton, then drives back to the starting point.
The famed “Bathhouse Row” is an impressive sight, with six sizable bathhouses side-by-side. How would we ever decide which one to soak-till-shrivelled in? The answer is – none of them. We learned only one of these architectural beauties was open, The Buckstaff, and further to the wisdom of paying attention to semantics, the “bath” in bathhouse means a “bath” in a tub of mineral water, along with spa treatments; such as, hot packs and loofah rubs. All six bathhouses, plus many more that have since been torn down, were the rage in the 1920’s and 30’s. Such notables as Babe Ruth, F. W. Woolworth, Harry Truman and Al Capone (that guy sure got around) took to the waters to ease their ailments. The only common mineral water pool in town, which we were soon luxuriating in, is in a new complex, several blocks away from Bathhouse Row.
Billy Clinton was a Hot Springs baby. We saw his childhood home, the Baptist church where he was christened and other old haunts. We could see this artsy town shaping his personality and love of jazz. Johnny Cash, who chose to be “The Man-In-Black” for poverty, discrimination and all the injustices in the world, haled from Arkansas; also author John Grisham and Actor Billy Bob Thornton, the latter from the Ozarks if I had to hazard a guess.
“Looking for a Sign, Here it is” read a neon marquee in front of a church. “Don’t give up. After all Moses was once a basket case.” The many houses of worship seemed to be in competition for smiles brought forth by their witticisms.
Our ritual singing of Willie Nelson’s, “On the road again…Goin’ places that I’ve never been, Seein’ things that I may never see again… ” started us off down the highway – to Texas – President George W. Bush’s old stomping grounds, being former Governor of the State. I expected to see cattle grazing between oil derricks, but saw neither as we wheeled along the trails of the Lone-Star State, the name bestowed with fervent pride for the fact that between the 1821 revolt against the Spanish, the Republic of Texas stood alone until 1845 when it became the 28th State of the Union. The countryside sure is “purdy”; verdant rolling hills and lush foliage, under azure skies and a broiling sun, I might add. Looks like we finally out ran the clouds.
Over forty years has passed, but I distinctly remember being curled up cat-like on the living room rug in the sun, very pregnant with my first child, the stereo tuned to CBC radio. The announcer broke into my reverie with the horrific newsflash: President John F. Kennedy, assassinated in a motorcade in Dallas. I stuck by the radio for hours in grief listening for details. Rick remembers being at his locker at school, picking up books after the lunch break. It is the event, where if you ask 10 people who were adults in 1963, nine will remember exactly what they were doing when they heard the shocking news.
It was surreal looking up at the corner window on the 6th floor of the old Texas School Book Depository, from where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly shot the President. We entered the Depository, now the Sixth Floor Museum. The infamous window is enclosed in glass, with boxes stacked up in a fashion so as to conceal Oswald from another worker who by chance might pass by. Next to the window a box was placed as if for a seat, while another two were stacked in a perfect position to steady his high-powered riffle – the scene as it was when discovered by investigators. The opposite corner of the 6th floor is also glassed-off, showing the area where Oswald’s rifle was found stashed, and the staircase he escaped down to the lunchroom as the police arrived. He was let go because he was an employee (hired a month before). He was later arrested at a Texas theatre, but as we know the truth died with him at the hands of Jack Ruby. Rick stood on the X’s in the street where JFK was fatally wounded and had a clear view of the window from which the shots were fired. The museum documents the macabre, chaotic moments after Kennedy was hit and how the immediate investigation by the Warren Commission, as well as reopening the case 25 years later, ruled out conspiracy.
Standing on the grassy knoll, where controversy remains about a second gunman firing from behind a fence gives rise to an unsettled feeling when looking at the fence in relation to the “X’s” on the pavement; plus the fact spectators ran towards the fence after the shots were heard, and 58 out of the 90 questioned said they felt the shots came from that direction. Many such thought provoking facts are presented in the Conspiracy Museum, on Market Street, including chronicles of various CIA and Mafia plots in detail. It was a weighty piece of history to relive.
“Yessir, for some real Texas flavor, ya’ll head’er out to the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District,” was the advice of our new Texan friends. Of the 125-acre Livestock Exchange and Packing Houses that thrived for more than 60 years as the top market in the southwest, 100,000 square feet is now turned into an effervescent maze of shops selling western duds, boots and all manner of cowperson necessities, restaurants, saloons, and the Cowtown Coliseum where weekend rodeos are held. A whistle sounds to clear the track running across Exchange Ave. as a diesel engine passes (a temporary replacement for a 1896 steam engine being repaired) pulling six turn-of-the-century cars filled with tourists. Cowboys and cowgirls ride through the streets all day, stopping to chew-the-cud with folks. At 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. they congregate at the end of the street to “head’em up and move’em out”; an itty-bitty version of an old time bighorn cattle drive along the main drag.
A small museum is big on interest. Photos of old timers and antique furniture, wagons and carriages show how life was for the early Texans. My favourite was the metal bathtub with “First water 15 cents; Used water 5 cents” inked on a gunny-sack. I would not have believed, had I not seen with my own eyes, over 200 designs and types of barbed-wire exist.
Unable to resist the tantalizing odours wafting through the air any longer, we had the difficult decision of selecting one of many enticing eateries. Riscky’s Seafood Restaurant won out. People smiled our way, and we smiled back as we waited for our catfish and crab cakes. As we got up to leave we saw the sign, hidden by a fisherman’s net while sitting, just above our heads, “Let me catch a fish large enough so that even I will not have to lie about its size”.
Rick was a fan of Dallas, so off to Southfork Ranch we went to see where the T.V. series that ran for thirteen years was shot. After two hours (and getting lost twice) we pulled up to the gates of Southfork. The last garage employee I questioned to get us back on the right course said, “Wha’d you wanna go theer fo? It look’d much bigger on T.V.” I diligently asked the ticket clerk if the inside of the house was part of the tour, as we noted other then that, a picture from the road would have done nicely. Yes, she said, we would go through the famed Ewing Mansion of multi-millionaire J.R. and family. When we got inside the homestead, the guide revealed only the outside of the home was used in the series; all interior filming was done at another location – a Texas-sized rip-off.
Being late in the afternoon when we left Southfork, we decided to Interstate it to Abilene for the night. Using a coupon from our Traveler Discount Guide we booked into Whitten Inn for $35.95 plus tax, which without the discount coupon would have been double. These coupon books are available at most information bureaus or kiosks, and I’ve also seen them in restaurant and mall entrances. They are honoured without question and can bring a more expensive accommodation into the budget realm.
The landscape west of Abilene is flatter than a trucker’s butt. Sixty miles south of Lubbock the scent of oil hung heavy in the air before a multitude of oil derricks appeared; pump heads bobbing like giant blackbirds pecking in the fields. The outskirts of Lubbock were also the location of acres of cattle in feedlots. Now this is the real Texas. Buddy Holly was born in the midst of all this “awl” and “hoof” in Lubbock. Some other famous Lone-Star Staters that had their beginnings here are Janis Joplin and Roy Orbison.
Hanker’n for a steak since we arrived in Texas, we waited until Amarillo to dine at The Big Texan Steak Ranch. The ambiance is delightful, resembling an old time hotel, where rooms open onto a railed hallway above the central saloon/eating area, with cowboy paraphernalia galore hanging from every square inch of wall space. Rick had thoughts of tackling the $50.00 72 oz’er, which if eaten in 1 hour is FREE, until he viewed the pot-roast-sized hunk of beef on display. Since the opening of the restaurant in 1959, 702 have been successful in putting away the hefty steak, and another 7045 that made an attempt were not quite able to stomach it. If you are not into beef, other options are fish and chicken. “Don’t mess with us”, was our attitude after our genuine Diamondback Rattlesnake appetizer. Ha, I’ll bet you thought it was us who were at the other end of a rattler bite. The meat, what little there was on mostly bone, was tough and almost tasteless, but it was one of those things we had to try once. On to the steak; my 7.2 oz and Rick’s 10 oz top sirloin were superb; succulent and swimming in flavourful beef broth, and topped with sautéd mushrooms so big and juicy that biting into one put those nearby at risk of being squirted. Salad with a great honey-mustard dressing, spiced sour cream atop a baked potato, and hot airy dinner rolls summed up to a 9.5 in our “Hobbit-Worthy 1 to 10 Restaurant Rating System.”
After motoring through 7 states thus far, we are continually cognizant of the myriad of flags. Seldom can you look up without the stars and stripes fluttering in the wind on flagpoles in front of businesses and homes, the backdrop of “God Bless America” on billboard signs, bumper stickers, clothing and everywhere imaginable. On one occasion we counted fourteen in an eyeful; expressions of the proud spirit that pervades the country.
And “southern hospitality” are not empty words; we found heaps of it in Arkansas and Texas.