Wednesday, June 27, 2007

strangely, you don't need a passport

The journey from Colorado to Arkansas is always an interesting one. It is a pilgrimage that takes me, mile marker by mile marker, from my beloved mountain home into the border regions of the Deep South. The landscape shifts dramatically, from the majestic peaks of the Rockies, across the flat farmland of the Texas Panhandle, through the prairies of Oklahoma, and into the green, rolling hills of Arkansas. As we passed through Fort Smith this time, my mom and I drove over the Arkansas River, broad and calm, moving sluggishly across the muggy landscape. I could not help but think of the weekend before, when I had stood near the raging headwaters of that same river a thousand miles away, its waters rugged and wild and swarming with thrill-seeking kayakers.

The landscape is not the only thing that changes as one sojourns across this stretch of country. Rising steadily alongside the odometer reading is the calorie count at any given local restaurant. My whole grain roll is replaced by Texas Toast, an infamous slice of white bread cut about an inch thick and slathered in butter. Waitresses in t-shirts and white aprons become plentiful, and both the server and the served are suddenly speaking with a twang. At Old Sutphens Barbeque in Borger, Texas, a young man in the booth behind me was showing off a picture of his sweetheart: “That’s my girl," he said rather proudly, "She’s got 13 tattoos.” At McClard’s Barbeque in Hot Springs, Arkansas, we were served by a woman who has been working at the family owned restaurant for 47 years. Her eighty year-old hands trembled as she carried plates overflowing with down-home goodness, and we silently wondered if she’d get them to us without dropping them. Later, we learned that our fears were silly: she was recently voted waitress of the year.

Passing through towns, one notices a sharp rise in businesses ending with “barn” or “mart”—places like Pizza Barn or Burger Mart—as well as convenience stores with names like Pick n’ Tote. At a gas station in Siloam Springs, my mother looked up from cleaning the windshield to see a man holding the gas hose, preparing to finish off the pumping and replace her gas cap for her. “Around here,” he told her quite plainly, “we try to pump the gas for the ladies.” A New Yorker might have slapped him. I smiled, knowing that he was just showing the manners his mama taught him. My mom just laughed and said, “Well then, I’ll do my best to act like a lady.”

For all its quirks, the region is beautiful. The sun sinks in a special way, all orange and slow, over the contourless horizon of West Texas. In Oklahoma, roadside meadows are literally blanketed in yellow flowers, and windmills form distant silhouettes in far-off fields. Here in Arkansas, as I kayaked across the calm waters of Lake Hamilton, I paused amid the lush surroundings to watch a baby turtle bob its head above the water, and smiled in awe when a Great Blue Heron looked at me with its stately gaze before lifting off and soaring low over the water. The shores are lined with fancy houses, built by rich southerners who want a summer home on the lake. Of course, I was most intrigued by the ramshackle cabin hidden in the trees, long abandoned but looking as if it must have many childhood stories to tell.

I am writing this from perhaps the first little coffee shop I have ever seen here. It is a place to feel at home, a respite when Arkansas begins to feel like a place I need a passport to visit. But then, I will head outdoors and feel at home in a different sort of way—at home in the sense of exploration, at home in the warm, accented greetings I knew in college, and at home in the okra I’ll eat tonight, fried just after it’s been battered in my grandmother's love.

1 comment:

Katie said...

Girl, I feel you on the fried okra...nobody makes it like grandmas.

Enjoy your time in this part of the country, described it well!