One day in 2013, when I was still living in Tennessee, I drove up to Clingman’s Dome. I don’t recall what the weather was like in town that day, but the mountaintop was socked in with fog. When I got to the observation deck it was surrounded by a solid wall of gray, only broken up by the pine trees within 50 yards or so of the tower. It was amazing. It was so beautiful up there, nothing to look at but those few layers of trees, no sound but a few birds calling, not a soul in the world knew where I was at that moment. I had nowhere to be and nothing to do. It was an incredibly meditative experience.
I absolutely love fog. It simplifies and softens a bright, loud, overwhelming world, makes everything into calm shades of gray. Not everyone gets that. So many people don’t know what to do with themselves in the dim and quiet realm of fog. While I was up there at Clingman’s Dome other people kept coming up, just one family at a time, when one left another would arrive. And they kept complaining about there being nothing to see. I maintain that they just didn’t know how to look.
I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned my absurd love of fairs. Maybe it’s my Midwest upbringing, but I LOVE FAIRS. All kinds: local, county, state, whatever. I love everything about them. I love baby animals and prize-winning chickens and little kids showing pygmy goats. I love gussied-up llamas and livestock judges waxing poetic about cows and fancy horses with braided manes. I love midways and overpriced rides and smells of awful fried food and obnoxious barkers trying to get people to play their ridiculous games. I love expo halls full of craft booths and tables covered with handouts about bugs. I love handmade quilts with ribbons pinned on them and dioramas with model trains running around the edge and forestry exhibitions of endangered animals. I love ugly but lovable elementary-school art projects and musicians demonstrating mountain dulcimers. I love samples of local honey and displays of exotic fish and barns full of rabbits.
Cracker Country, the only living history museum in Florida.
A tiny, old-timey baseball game.
I have no idea what this is. I just call it the ‘Murica room.
Teeny tiny cows.
Teeny tiny goats.
I just really, really, really love fairs, and the Florida State Fair is one of the best I’ve been to. I saw the Budweiser Clydesdales, fed a butterfly, and watched a woman weave cloth with a wooded loom. I tasted ice cream some guy made as part of a demonstration to get people to buy some contraption or other. I found out that Florida has a special kind of horse called a Cracker that does a funny little trot and saw a kid get hauled over to a hay bale by a goat he was trying to show. I watched people feed carrot sticks to giraffes. I spent seven hours looking at wooden clocks and bonsai trees and recycled yard art. It was great.
Leaving the Fort Smith area I headed east on I-40, with a stop at Petit Jean State Park. Miles of creek side trails and a big lake make Petit Jean a great spot for outdoor adventures. One of the central features is Cedar Falls, which tumbles 90 feet into a gorge. There’s a couple of vantage points above it that are easy to get to, but to see it from below requires a hike down into the canyon. Another interesting spot is Rock House Cave, a petroglyph site. Beautiful Civilian Conservation Corps construction on roads, trails, and picnic areas round out this gorgeous location.
Rock House Cave
Rock House Cave
Rock House Cave. I think this is a fish.
M.A. Richter Memorial Lookout
Petit Jean State Park, Morrilton, Arkansas
Turtle Rocks on the trail to Rock House Cave.
Right smack in the middle of Arkansas is its capital city: Little Rock. Once upon a time this was the place everyone was talking about as nine black teenagers struggled through the integration of all-white Little Rock Central High School. The school itself still operates so you can’t just go wandering around in it (although there are tours occasionally, see the NPS website for info) but the grounds are open and the National Park Service operates a very nice (and free) visitor’s center kitty corner to the school. I was there in the afternoon and watched for a bit as the students were heading out for the day. Black, white, sixty years after the National Guard was used to keep out the Little Rock Nine everybody mingled together and it didn’t seem to matter a bit what color anybody’s skin was.
The River Market District is a beautiful section of the city packed with restaurants, shops, and historic buildings. I stopped for lunch at Ottenheimer Market Hall where stalls offer just about any kind of food you can imagine. Pizza, ice cream, Asian, Middle Eastern, soul food, nobody could possibly go hungry in this place. While I was there I saw everybody from bankers to construction workers chowing down. I was basically eating with the Village People. Wandering along the street I came to the Old State House, where Arkansas seceded from the Union on May 6th, 1861. The free museum inside covers every aspect of Arkansas history you can think of. There were big sections on governors, civil rights, the history of bicycles, movies with any sort of tie to Arkansas, there was even a whole room of dresses worn by governor’s wives. When my feet started to hurt I hopped on a trolley; for $1 it meandered through the river district, over the Arkansas River into North Little Rock, and back again while the driver pointed out interesting things along the way. North Little Rock holds T.R. Pugh Memorial Park which contains The Old Mill. This was never actually a mill, it was created purely as a picturesque ruin, but it is pretty enough to have made it into the opening scenes of Gone with the Wind.
Old State House Museum, Little Rock, Arkansas
Old State House Museum
Old State House Museum
Old State House Museum
Old State House Museum
Little Rock, Arkansas
The Arkansas River
T.R. Pugh Memorial Park, North Little Rock, Arkansas
Continuing along I-40 there are three different archaeological parks to visit. These are mound sites, created hundreds of years ago by the ancestors of modern Native American tribes. Some of the mounds have fallen victim to farming over the years but several are still visible. Toltec & Parkin have trails going out to their mounds, but Hampson is just a small museum dedicated to a site that remains privately held and can’t be visited. The ranger at Toltec told me that they had excavated one mound for study and when they rebuilt it they had to bring in 18 dump trucks of dirt. Imagine doing that by hand, carrying the dirt in baskets. Village Creek State Park also resides along this corridor and has some nice trails.
Parkin Archaeological State Park
Toltec Mounds Archaeological State Park, Scott, Arkansas
Village Creek State Park
I really didn’t expect Arkansas to be so incredible, but I’m already scheming to go back.
No road sign can bring a smile to my face quite like that one. It shows up as you head north out of Flint on I-75, which isn’t an especially exciting drive but I love it. Watching as the urban blight of southern Michigan gives way to rolling hills and then to the wooded paradise above the 45th parallel. I ended up taking the interstate all the way instead of US 23 like I’d planned. I had a boat to catch & things to do, plus after two and a half weeks on the road from Arizona I really didn’t feel like another meandering trip. Even a short one.
There’s a little bit of ice still hanging around on Lake Huron. Not so much on the open lake, but enough of it is still clinging to the harbor that the boat actually struggled to shove it out of the way & get out into the open water. All the years I’ve been coming here I’ve never had that happen. At lease the boats are running, so it’s better than last year.
Anyway I made it to Mackinac Island in one piece, and thus ends the journey I started nearly a month ago in Sedona.
I was hoping for some snow and New Year’s Eve didn’t disappoint. It snowed all day long and ended up with a couple of inches on the ground. It’s not very cold so it’s sticking to everything and ever though it’s a little odd to see desert plants covered in snow (I wonder if they get confused?), it’s also very beautiful. I’m used to snow softening everything, rounding out the sharp edges, but somehow it makes the mountains seem sharper. I like winter, for the most part, but I was in Florida last year so I haven’t had it in a while. It’s nice to get a little bit, even if it’ll probably melt tomorrow.
I love museums. Big ones, small ones, ridiculous ones, whatever. As much as I love them, recently I’ve noticed that I do it wrong. I tend to wander through them, glancing at the artifacts in their cases and finding them interesting, but not really taking in their meaning. I come out the other side of the exhibit no more enlightened than I was when I went in. So this is me, making a concerted effort to pay attention, read all the little signs, and maybe actually learn something.
The holiday is supposed to be about honoring the dead, but the art style of Dia de los Muertos is what gets my attention. The intricately painted skulls, the flowers, the makeup, the costumes – all incredibly beautiful in and of themselves. So when I found out there was going to be a festival at the local arts community, I had to go.
A lot of it seemed oddly non-traditional. I read there’d be fire dancers and thought that sounded awesome, I was sadly disappointed. I’m not really up on my Mexican culture but I’m pretty sure slow jazz and stilt-walking jugglers aren’t a big part of Day of the Dead.
But never mind all that. There were plenty of performers, decorations, and costumed visitors to make it interesting. There were dolls and shrines set up around every corner, booths with food and face-painting, and mural panels set up for anyone to paint a tribute to a lost loved one.
The arts mall was beautiful, and it only got better as it got darker and the candles became the main light source.
All in all it was a fun evening, even with the hokey stuff. I still haven’t been to a true Dia de los Muertos celebration, but this was good inspiration to go find one.