Read on as our intrepid adventurers ford the mighty Mississippi River, befriend some natives, and get some much-needed car repair.
Day 6: Memphis, Little Rock, Fort Smith
- States: Arkansas, Oklahoma
- Distance: 380 miles
- Breakfast: Memphis Brew
- Lunch: River Market, Little Rock
- Dinner: Landrys, Fort Smith
We awoke in our newly-christened tent better rested than we’d anticipated. ‘Dem buuuuugs’ hadn’t bothered much over the night, and the heat had abated a bit. Before traveling further, though, we needed to have the car looked at. It had developed a pretty nasty front-end wobble and we were nervous about driving it further. Off to Car Talk! We found a mechanic with good reviews and set out.
Memphis is a city of wide, inviting boulevards. Molly was traveling along, doing about 45, when we got pulled over. It seems the speed limit was only 40. Our Massachusetts-honed driving skills taught us that we should drive as fast as the road could possibly handled, not whatever speed limit some bureaucrat had posted. The cop was very nice - admitting pretty much instantly that if we took it to court, the ticket would be thrown out.
The auto shop was a busy place, but they managed to find a lift and take a look at the car. We all decided that the wheel needed to be balanced, and they sent us to a front-end shop that was “just around the corner. Take a left, then stop where you see the stacks of tires.” These directions, while well-intentioned, were so inaccurate as to be almost comical. True, there was a left turn involved, and the tire shop did have stacks of tires, but several other turns were definitely omitted. And the stacks of tires were completely hidden behind bushes. The iPhones saved the day, though, and the front-end guy happily balanced the tire. Car geeks: it needed an ounce and a quarter. The automotive guys implied this was a very large amount.
Then it was off to breakfast. We’d spotted a nice looking coffee shop next to the first mechanic’s, so we headed back. Memphis Brew was a great find. The owner shared the secrets of her amazing sausage, egg, and cheese biscuits (though I promised I wouldn’t tell!), while in the back, a few guys in very thick southern accents talked about the details of coffee production and roasting.
Memphis also has the National Civil Rights Museum, located in the motel where M.L.K. was shot. A protester outside tried to convince us that the exhibits were too focused on the actual assassination, and the introductory video had us worried she was right. The rest of the museum, though, was fantastic. The exhibits were tasteful and moving, and covered many aspects of the civil rights struggle that haven’t been included in the average high-school history textbook. There was also a decent section on the struggle against apartheid.
After the museum, it was time to ford the Mississippi river and head west! Onwards to Little Rock!
That’s right, there is a Little Rock in downtown Little Rock, AK. And that’s Molly climbing on it. That is the only thing of interest in the whole city. Westward we go! We went through the Ozarks, which had little of interest except some big box stores. These were small mountains - foretelling the vast expanse of flat terrain we were about to encounter. At one stop for gas, a sudden and violent summer thunderstorm left us unable to leave the roof of the station for about 20 minutes.
After a whole day of driving, we wound up in Fort Smith, AK - the second largest city in Arkansas. This was an old cowboy town, well-maintained but clearly shrinking in population. The main streets were cute but empty. The city is famous for two Old West establishments a hanging judge' - one man sentenced 160 convicts to their death - and a particularly well-run brothel. We re-fueled at a New Orleans-themed restaurant, then headed west to Lake Eufaula State Park in the eastern end of Oklahoma. Since it was Monday night, the campsite was completely empty. Goodnight!
Day Seven: Oklahoma, Texas
- States: Oklahoma, Texas
- Miles: 370
- Lunch: Cafe Do Brazil, Oklahoma City
- Dinner: Dyer's Bar-B-Que, Amarillo
The next morning, it was off to drive most of Oklahoma. There really isn’t much to record. We stopped at Oklahoma City for lunch. It was a decent-looking Brazilian place, and the food was quite good. Our waiter, eerily enough, had lived for years in Inman Square, Cambridge. We couldn’t get through Oklahoma fast enough.
We eventually made it to the panhandle of Texas, which surprised me by looking exactly what I expected it to look like. The landscape was almost entirely wide-open, gently rolling scrubby grasslands. Occasional oil pumps dotted the hills, and extremely large pickup trucks were very much the norm.
I looked up a list of Texas ghost towns, so we jumped off the freeway to see what was once Lela, Texas. To our surprise, there was the remains of a middle school!
Until the 1970s, Lela, Texas was a commercial center for Wheeler County. However, eventually most of the business moved about 12 miles away to Shamrock, Texas, and the town lost its post office designation. It was completely flabbergasting to see that a town could simply fail and fade away.
Most of the drive from Oklahoma City to Amarillo paralleled Route 66. In fact, the original road that the Okies drove to escape the dust bowl was usually about 40 feet off the highway, at most. The interstate is lined, then, with abandoned and semi-abandoned businesses that catered to the highway travelers of yore. Often, it would be difficult to tell which gas stations were in business and which ones weren’t. Human civilization seemed to have a much weaker grasp out here.
The city of Amarillo is, then, just lucky that it survived the constant pressure of entropy that seems to be stronger in Texas than most places. Fortunately for us, it also meant dinnertime. We chose Dyer’s Bar-b-que, since this seemed like proper place to get some steak. Good choice. The meat was supremely juicy, and the Texas Tea was amazing. We brought the harp in to protect it from the heat, and I tried to convince Molly to tell the hostess it was a “Texas-sized guitar,” to no avail.
Ultmately, we made it to Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the US, which was to be our campsite. “Watch out,” warned the helpful camp ranger, “It’s tarantula migration season down in the canyon.” Great.
We didn’t see any tarantulas, but Molly spied a black widow just inches from the toilet seat on which she was sitting at the time…