The Ozarks, Arkansas

Out of all of the different days on my trip, this was the one day where I had the most trouble figuring out where I was going to go. I knew that I would be heading east from Oklahoma City, and I still wanted to explore more parts of the United States that I hadn't seen before while also making progress back towards home. However, eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas aren't exactly major tourist draws and this required some careful planning. After a little bit of time spent looking at the map, I decided that I would devote this day of travel to exploring the region known as the Ozarks. This is a hilly area in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas known for having its own distinctive backwoods culture. The Ozarks are home to traditional folk festivals, arts and crafts, and the like. This is a place where people come to relax and take in the local hot springs, or spend their time hiking, hunting, and fishing in the dense forests blanketing the hills. I decided that I would pass through Fayetteville and Bentonville in the northwest corner of Arkansas, and then head east through the unofficial capital of the Ozarks in Eureka Springs before doing some hiking in the late afternoon. I considered stopping to visit Branson, Missouri before ultimately having to pass it up, as it would take me too far in the wrong direction. I would be heading to Little Rock, Arkansas next and Branson would only put me further away from the state capital.

This would end up being one of those days where I kept moving from place to place, as opposed to having a single drive to a large city. The longest drive took place in the early morning, and I woke up at 5:30 AM again to get an early start and make it past Tulsa before hitting rush hour traffic. (Tulsa is another city that would have been fun to see if I'd had more time available.) As I headed back towards the east, the rising sun was now in my eyes as it came up each morning. There was little of note that I came across as I spent three hours crossing the plains of eastern Oklahoma. The landscape became more rugged after I crossed the border into western Arkansas, with less in the way of open plains and more in the way of forested hill country. I was passing into the Ozarks now, both geographically and culturally.

My first stop of the day took place in Fayetteville, home to the University of Arkansas. I arrived a little after 9:00 AM and parked a few blocks away in one of the residential neighborhoods located near the campus. It was quiet on this Friday morning in early August, with the students still away on their summer vacation. These pictures were taken on Dickson Street near the Walton Arts center, in what looked to be the main bar crawl area for the university. I was amused to see the "Hog Haus" brewing company, with the play on words off of the university's Razorbacks (wild boar) mascot. I imagine that this area gets pretty rowdy on a big football game day.

I reached the main campus a few blocks to the west, and immediately came across something I wasn't expecting: hundreds and hundreds of names etched into the pavement of the walking paths. Given that the names were listed alongside various different past years, it was obvious that this was a list of everyone who had graduated from the University of Arkansas. I was able to follow the list all the way back to its starting point on the steps of Old Main, the oldest and most distinctive building on campus. The names began there with the graduating class of 1876, the very first one in the university's history, which included less than a dozen people. This list of names is known as the "Senior Walk", and it winds across campus for more than three miles (five kilometers) as it lists tens of thousands of graduates. This is a distinct tradition of the University of Arkansas that no other university seems to follow, and it helped the place stand out in my mind. I love this idea and I always enjoy seeing the individual traditions that different schools have come up with over their long histories.

I continued walking to the west through the heart of the Arkansas campus, passing the library and soon finding myself at the admissions building and the student union. The campus at Arkansas was a bit smaller than I'd been expecting, clustered together into a relatively compact space. This may be due to the fact that the terrain at the university is quite hilly, with Old Main constructed on top of a hill, making it harder for the campus to sprawl out in every direction. The student enrollment at the time of my visit was a little over 25,000 people, making it about the same size as the University of Nebraska and noticeably smaller than schools like Illinois or Michigan. The student union was open for business and this was where I saw the most activity on campus. Razorbacks branding seemed to be everywhere in the union, including on this novelty promotion car:

It was called the "Razorbug" since it was made from a Volkswagen beetle. That's just awesome - I would love to drive that car!

Arkansas was another university where the sporting facilities were located right in among the rest of the campus buildings, which as I've said before I prefer to the setups where the athletics are off in their own separate area. The football team plays its games in Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, which the team has called home since 1938. Like many of the other college stadiums I had visited on this trip, Razorback Stadium has been significantly expanded over the years and can now host up to 75,000 people on a big game day. The football also plays one home game per year in Little Rock, a tradition which the university has been trying to end for the last decade since they make more money from games played on campus. Arkansas has been a successful football program in their history, if not a true powerhouse, with one national championship won back in 1964 and 13 conference championships, although Arkansas hasn't won a conference championship since 1989. This is partly due to the fact that Arkansas spent most of its history in the same conference as the elite Texas schools, in the now-defunct Southwestern conference, and now competes in the powerhouse Southeastern conference (SEC). It's hard to win too many conference championships when going up against the likes of Texas and Alabama and LSU all the time.

There's more to the world of college sports than just football, however, even if it doesn't seem like it on many of these college campuses. One thing that I learned when visiting Arkansas is that the university is historically dominant in track and field, to an almost absurd degree. The program has won a total of 41 national titles (19 Indoor Championships, 11 Outdoor Championships, and 11 Cross Country Championships), with the last national title coming in 2013. There was a sign on campus specifically tracking the number of "triple crowns" won by Arkansas track; that is, the years where the university won ALL THREE national titles in the track events in the same year. At the more local level, Arkansas has won 38 of its last 40 conference championships in track and field. This is a historically powerful track and field program, and the university had some beautiful outdoor facilities for their runners.

There's another small attraction on the Arkansas campus in the form of this home known as the Clinton House Museum. This humble dwelling was briefly owned by Bill and Hillary Clinton when they both taught at the University of Arkansas School of Law. It's also the house where they were married (in the living room of this building) in a 1975 civil ceremony. The house has been turned into a small museum with lots of Clinton memorabilia from their various political campaigns, dating back to Bill Cinton's first runs for state office in Arkansas in the late 1970s. It was hard to avoid a sense of 90s nostalgia when walking through the Clinton House Museum, between the Clinton/Gore campaign buttons and several little figures of Bill Clinton playing the saxophone. I remembered all of that stuff from when I was growing up, and it's hard to believe how much time has passed since then. The Clinton House was quite small on the inside and looked like a fairly typical middle-class house. It wouldn't have been out of place in most neighborhoods around the country, and nothing would have given the impression that a future president was living inside. Of course, the Clintons only lived here for a brief period of less than two years before they moved on to bigger and better digs, first in Little Rock and then in Washington. It was fun to see where they started out before becoming famous and powerful.

After finishing up visiting the University of Arkansas, I walked back to my car and drove the short distance north to Bentonville. This town is strongly associated with the Walton family, the creators of the Walmart retail chain, and they basically put Bentonville on the map. If not for them, Bentonville would be indistinguishable from hundreds of other small towns in the American south. When I visited, the town was setting up for a festival that would take place over the weekend, with carnival booths going up in the town square and a stage (the Walton Arts Center Main Stage, naturally) preparing to host musical acts. The main street looked like classic small-town America, with stores lining the brick intersection at the center of Bentonville. I also couldn't help but notice that the town square still prominently featured a monument to Confederate veterans, which were portrayed here in heroic fashion. I had the feeling that Bentonville was a place that would be happy to go back in time to the 1950s, with everything that that would entail.

The biggest tourist draw in Bentonville is the Walmart Museum. Located in the original Walton's Five and Dime Store, this small museum traces the birth and growth of the gigantic Walmart retail company. Sam Walton was the founder of the company and he put the original store here in Bentonville in 1950. Walton was a savvy businessman and a master at controlling supply chains, allowing his company to undercut its competitors on prices and begin to expand throughout the region, then the nation, and eventually around the world. The museum puts a positive spin on this, with lots of folksy anecdotes from the Walton family, and it includes a recreation of Sam Walton's office as well as one of his prized pickup trucks. The entrance to the museum is a full recreation of a soda pop joint from the 1950s, and it was buzzing with visitors when I passed through. I'm afraid that I don't have a lot to say positively about Walmart as a company, and visiting the Walmart Museum didn't do anything to change my opinion. Walmart's logistics of scale drove thousands of local business into bankruptcy, and their labor practices have been nothing short of awful throughout the company's history. Walmart has fought tooth and nail to prevent its workers from unionizing, to deny them health insurance, and to pay them the absolute minimum wage required by law. If there's any karmic justice to this, it's that online retailers have been squeezing Walmart in recent years in the same way that Walmart pushed local competitors out of business in earlier decades.

From Bentonsville, I had a drive of roughly an hour to my next destination for the day, the town of Eureka Springs. This was a drive along true backcountry roads, as I twisted and turned through the hills of northern Arkansas just south of the Missouri border. Shortly before reaching Eureka Springs, I came across a sign for something called Thorncrown Chapel, which I had vaguely recalled reading about in one of the tourist materials that I had seen online. I stopped to check it out, and this was the impressive structure that I found. Thorncrown Chapel was a small church built into the side of a wooded hill, looking as if it were part of the surrounding forest. The chapel was constructed mostly of wood and other materials indigenous to northwestern Arkansas, and all of the building materials were deliberately created small enough to be carried by hand. Aside from the wooden beams, the rest of the chapel was made entirely out of panes of glass, allowing visitors to look outside in every direction including up through the skylights in the ceiling. This was an inspired design for a church and one of the most novel that I'd come across. If I were someone who went to church regularly, Thorncrown Chapel is the sort of place where I'd like to go.

It was a short drive from the chapel to Eureka Springs itself, where I had some difficulty finding parking due to the crowded nature of the streets. Eureka Springs is a very small town with a population of only about 2000 residents, but it's become a tourist destination due to its historic nature as a Victorian-era resort destination. Many of the buildings here date back to the late 19th century when Eureka Springs first began drawing visitors due to the hot springs located nearby. These buildings are located along a series of winding streets, which curve up and down the hills in the town and never meet at a right angle. Eureka Springs oozes old-fashioned small town charm, and it's easy to see why it's become popular as a tourist destination. On a beautiful sunny afternoon like this one, it was more than pleasant to walk along the narrow lanes and check out the small shops and cafes populating the town.

I spent a little over an hour walking through the streets of Eureka Springs taking these pictures. It was quite busy on this Friday afternoon and the little stores along the town's main street were bustling with visitors. This is a great place to stay for a weekend while relaxing in the local hot springs, or to use as a base camp for exploring the surrounding wilderness. Liz and I would have loved to stay here at one of the bed and breakfasts for a weekend trip. There's a series of festivals that take place here throughout the year that draw even more visitors, such as an arts festival in the spring and a wine festival in the fall. If there's one real downside to Eureka Springs, it's the difficulty of driving through it; there are no traffic lights and the winding narrow roads cause some serious traffic backups. It's very much a place where walking is preferable to driving.

Just in case I'd forgotten that I was in Arkansas, the shirts on sale at this store were there to remind me that I was visiting a place where hunting and gun culture are never far from sight. I'll limit myself to saying that I'm not a big fan of guns.

After I finished up in Eureka Springs, I drove further east into the Ozark backcountry. I was heading for something named the Whitaker Point trailhead, which would take me out to a local attraction named Hawksbill Crag. This hiking trail was relatively close as the crow flies, but took about 90 minutes to reach by car as I found myself driving around a series of winding mountain roads. The last five miles to reach the trailhead required me to drive on a dirt road where I had to be careful to limit my speed. The trailhead itself had about a dozen other cars parked at the entrance, which was the only way that I knew I was in the correct place. The Whitaker Point trail started out looking like most other forest trails, leading the way on a gentle slope downwards through a dense canopy of trees. The first thing out of the ordinary was a series of signs warning visitors of an upcoming high cliff area, and to stay away from the cliff edges. I knew that I was on the right track when a series of large rocks began to appear, with the land dropping off beyond them down to the forests below. It looked like I had reached the cliff's edge.

These views looking out at the forested hills off in the distance were the attraction that drew me to the Whitaker Point Trail. The open views gazing across at the hills presented an unbroken carpet of green, a sea of trees that swallowed up the landscape. Whitaker Creek was somewhere down below, but the forest hid it from view underneath its canopy of branches. I wondered what this place would look like in the fall with all of the leaves changing color, or when blanked with snow in the the winter. It does get cold enough to snow here in the winters, if not that frequently.

At the end of the roughly 2 mile trail was Hawksbill Crag itself. This promontory of rock juts out above the sea of trees below and makes for some dramatic photo opportunities. Apparently the best time to see Hawksbill Crag takes place in the early morning, when the sun is beginning to rise and the valley below is often swathed in a concealing fog. It was still quite impressive here in late afternoon, as I took a series of pictures both from a distance and then from atop the crag itself. I was able to get the best sense of perspective by capturing Hawksbill Crag while some of the other hikers were out on the exposed rocks, as this was the most popular section of the hiking trail. It almost looks like I was the photographer for an Intragram shoot of that young women in pink, heh. I should point out that there were no guardrails or barriers to protect visitors from falling off the cliff's edge to their likely demise, which I suppose did make the pictures look more dramatic at the cost of potentially grave danger. Those earlier warning signs about watching out for the cliff's edge hadn't been kidding around. Hawksbill Crag was very much worth the hike down the path to reach it, and this was easily my favorite place that I visited on this day of the trip.

My stopping point for the night was another small town located another 90 minute drive further to the east, in a place known as Mountain View. This town bills itself as the "Folk Music Capital of the World" and it was advertised as being another tourist destination along the lines of Eureka Springs. I arrived in the early evening at a time when the sun was setting, and outside of a small festival taking place on the green lawn outside of the Stone County Courthouse, there didn't seem to be much action taking place in Mountain View. Most of the stores were closed for the evening and this town didn't seem to have the same Victorian-era charm as I had seen in Eureka Springs. A fair number of the stores seemed to be struggling, for that matter, and I noticed that several of the buildings looked like they were up for sale. Mountain View was therefore a bit of a disappointment. Maybe it's simply due to the fact that I don't have any particular interest in folk music, but I didn't find Mountain View to be very interesting. This was a place worth skipping.

That brought an end to my wanderings through the Ozarks. This had been a bit of a grab bag day in terms of visiting different locations, and I had ended up covering a lot of ground as I traveled from central Oklahoma to central Arkansas. The next day's itinerary would be more straightforward, as I would be heading south to the state capital in Little Rock to visit the sights there. I still had one more day to spend in Arkansas before crossing the Mississippi and heading for home.