Thursday, July 24, 2014

Plan On Peaches: Johnson County's Perfect Pick.

Kat Robinson takes a look back at Arkansas's oldest festival and the history of peaches in The Natural State... plus a preview of what's happening this weekend at the Johnson County Peach Festival.

Can you imagine Arkansas summers without peaches? The fuzzy fruit with its almost syrup-sweet flavor is scrumptious to the pit… but it wasn’t always available in The Natural State. Peaches weren’t cultivated until after the Civil War, as farmers looked to diversify crops to avoid the treacheries of a single crop economy. Orchards popped up all over central and western Arkansas and along Crowley’s Ridge.

The introduction of the Elberta peach, cultivated by Samuel Rumph of Georgia (and named for his wife) in 1879 made the fruit more viable as a commodity. His yellow-fleshed orb was firmer and ripened more slowly than other varieties, allowing pecks and bushels to be shipped away from the immediate area. The introduction of refrigerated rail shipping expanded the market, and peach farming took firm hold.

For Johnson County, peaches have been big business for over a century. Johnson Taylor and James Tolbert began growing Elberta peaches in 1893, and others followed suit. In 1897, the Missouri Pacific Railroad partnered with the area’s peach farmers, and soon those peaches were dispersed over several states. Ten boxcar loads of peaches left the western Arkansas county each year by 1901… and a couple hundred thousand bushels were produced throughout the state by the 1910s. Though disasters would take their toll in the 1950s and other states such as Texas and California would start their own orchards, the peach is still recognized as an Arkansas favorite.

The velvet-skinned globes deserved their own festival, and the first Johnson County Peach Festival took place in 1938 in Ludwig, about four miles from Clarksville. Governor Carl Bailey attended – and he autographed peaches and took home a basket of his own. The first Miss Elberta was crowned, and a community-wide picnic commenced.

Today’s Johnson County Peach Festival has blossomed into something marvelous… something more than just the peaches. Each year, vendors and craftspeople set up on the courthouse lawn to share every manner of merchandise and homemade item. There’s a frog jumping contest, a terrapin derby and every manner of possible activity for the kids. For cooks, there are cook-offs to compete in, where participants try out against each other for best jelly, jam and cobbler.

(*I’ve been privy to that cobbler competition a couple of times now. The first time, there weren’t all that many entries – but the second time, in July 2012, BOY I had my work cut out for me. I was set up to judge, along with the winners of the five pageants. That’s right, I judged along with five young, tiny beauty queens! And there were 16 or 17 entries to judge. And, worst of all, there was a five way tie the first time around. I’ve never eaten so much cobbler in my life!*)

There’s also a peach eating contest… and you’d be surprised how fast a child can eat a peach.

Seriously, they can gobble that flesh off the pit quick!

This year, festival organizers have added a new competition – a peach pie eating contest. There will also be a four mile run, a fishing derby and a greased pig chase. And if that wasn’t enough, a diaper derby, a talent show, a scavenger hunt and helicopter tours are also on the schedule.

Make plans now to head up there July 24th through 26th… and if you need more information, call (479) 754-9152 or check out the event’s Facebook page.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Chatty Place: Mylo Coffee Company

They say you can't go home again.  I suppose whoever "they" are understands that better than I do.  I still think you can.  However, in the case of Guillermo's, my local coffee shop -- I found the doors closed and the lights off on a Sunday afternoon. Though the website says they're open 9am to 6pm on Sundays, at 12:30 in the afternoon there was not a soul in sight.

My former places to enjoy a good cuppa and write a bit have evaporated these past two and a half years. Sufficient Grounds, which became The House, is now The Pantry and no longer a coffee shop -- and Gellattes has just evaporated. Guillermo's, where I wrote most of my work in 2011, had been steady but with Hans Oliver no longer running the show I suspected things have changed.

So that one particular Sunday I headed to Hillcrest to spend a little time at River City Coffee Company -- only to find its dark wood interiors were whitewashed. Moreso, that place isn't there now -- it's been replaced by Mylo Coffee Company.

If I were the sort not to try new things, I would have been quite disappointed and maybe have made my way back home, since most the other local places where I might consume coffee would be closed on a Sunday. But I was undaunted -- and moreso, I was looking for a place to write.

So I walked through the door and into a business with dark stained floors, whitewashed ceilings, exposed brick and white tile... and waited for a smattering of hipster smarm. After all, this place has been a major magnet for the uppity foodie types, right?

Then I saw the sign saying that War Eagle Mill flour was used in baked goods, and let my mind be persuaded. After all, if I'm trying something new, I should expect some new ideas, too.

The first really big new idea came in the coffee itself. I'm a black coffee drinker. I might drop in a cube or two of natural sugar if it's available, but if I am seriously working I want it black and strong. And yes, there are espressos and cappuccinos and mochas available -- but what entranced me was the idea of pour-over coffee. I mean, what does that mean?

It means, dear friends, that instead of brewing a whole pot at a time, percolating an entire eight servings of hot coffee that can go bitter before the last cup is served, that each cup is made right then. That's not to say other places get it wrong -- my friends at Guillermo's would almost always have a fresh cup in my hand before I wrote my first word of the day -- but it does make for a very individualized experience.

The barista working offered me choices -- a house blend, a medium roast and the option to have either made stronger. He also grinned when I asked for my black coffee. Other places people have smirked when I ordered -- thinking I might load it up on the other end with add-ins. I don't think that was the case here.

Speaking of cases -- there was a case below the coffee area full of bottles of Loblolly strawberry lemonade. Now, what rock have I been under that I haven't known about such a thing? Don't answer that -- it's for another post.

But to the right of the register (is that what it is? It looks like a tablet on a chopping block!) there were all sorts of pastries, and I spotted a chocolate croissant and had to have it. It was huge. It was bigger than my fist and fluffy and crispy looking and I had to have it. So I did.

Mind you, it wasn't cheap. Though pour-over coffee's $3, the pastry was $3.50, and all I had planned to do was plant myself in a comfy chair and write away the afternoon. And after I finished, that was the other thing.

There are no couches, no easy chairs at Mylo. Just reclaimed wood tables, benches and outdoor seating, which was disappointing. There were also few outlets -- which told me that there was little concern for my sort of coffeeshop patron. See, for me, the coffeeshop is the ideal engine to get my mind going for writing. Caffeine in the air, others working, good lighting, outlets and understanding baristas do a good coffeehouse make.

I watched my coffee being made -- filter being placed in a ceramic filter cup, a tablespoon of fresh grounds dropped in, a young woman slowly pouring water over the grounds and watching the water flow through to the cup below. It was very modern and fresh and clean and bright, almost like a commercial. This was certainly not my usual coffee experience.

Briefly I considered consuming the edibles I had procured and heading downtown to Andina's, if they were open, or heading next doorish to Rosalia's -- but I stayed instead. I found an out-of-the-way spot at a long table next to the wall and got to writing.

And... people watching. Yes, there were a lot of people coming through. Families with small children. Older folks with books, younger folks with computers, couples digging their way through newspapers.

And... eating. I pulled apart the impossibly fluffy chocolate croissant and ate it with my fingers, wiping them on a napkin before each time I tackled the keyboard. It was so very light, and the chocolate inside suitably dark and scrumptious -- oh golly, did I really just use that word? What is wrong with me? -- sipping on my sufficiently bold and robust blend with just the right amount of roundness to the flavor like a slowly roasting fire's heat,

And I felt like some weird pretender. Indeed, when I looked away from my wide laptop I noticed there were just as many eyes on me in my old tie dye blouse with my hair swept back as there were people for me to quietly ponder. These folks seem so urban, so hip... I'm just not in that class, am I?

Still, no one hurried me along or encouraged me to finish my beverage. They left me to write, and write I did, sitting in a patio chair with my back to an exposed brick wall, pretty much unable to concentrate on stitching together tales of the Arkansas Delta thanks to the pure modern-ness of it all.

Don't get me wrong... it's a very nice, very clean coffeehouse with good products. But it may be too much -- I mean, it's perfect for someone wanting to meet another someone for quiet conversation or to go through the paper, but it's about as far away as gumbo soil and highway miles as I could get.

That's not a problem. If I were writing a novella about life in a coffeeshop, it has potential. Those rustic-bread paninis also have potential. LOTS of potential. In fact, enough that I almost considered getting one. But by that point my back was achy and my resolve to write about barbecue joints and hot summer afternoons had faded, and I had to go get it back. So I fled.

Well, sorta. I planned to flee. And then I wrote this piece instead. And then I stayed -- despite the gradually frustrating patio chair and all the eyes. I stayed, because though it might not be what I'm used to in a coffeeshop, it did offer fabulous coffee and a really remarkable chocolate croissant.

See, a lot of my personal choices for a coffeeshop are about comfort -- physical comfort. When I can find a good pairing of coffee, available electricity, a place where I can sit where I won't be bothered and a nice selection of edibles, I've hit the jackpot. Mylo is a little short on those electrical outlets and comfy chairs... but it does have a comfortable vibe -- which I witnesses as individuals kept coming through the door, sitting and talking with each other.

Frankly, Mylo is a crossroads. And if you're looking for a good place for a conversation and a great cuppa, give it a shot. Also, the pastries are wonderful.

Even this end-of-day oatmeal raisin cookie... which was delivered to me... close to closing time. Yeah.

Mylo Coffee Company is located at 2715 Kavanaugh in the Heights in Little Rock.  You can call them if you wish at (501) 747-1880 or check out the Facebook page.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

McCain Mall Needs An Ice Cream Saloon Like Farrell's Again.

When I broach the subject of long-gone restaurants, invariably one chain comes up -- Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour. It's become ingrained in the memories of folks my age as a magical place. And with the reintroduction of Mr. Dunderbak's at North Little Rock's McCain Mall, it would bring us another step closer to true nostalgia-ville.

But Farrell's wasn't our only sweet treat delight back in those heady days of the 1980s. I'll elaborate in a moment.

 See, even Bill Clinton liked Farrell's.
For those who didn't have the pleasure of growing up in the age of neon shoelaces and leg warmers, here's a bit of history. Going to the mall used to be a really big deal -- and there was none bigger than McCain Mall. Opened in 1973, it was the largest mall in the state (it still has more leasable space) until Central Mall in Fort Smith expanded in 1986. It had everything -- shopping, of course, but also a twin theater, restaurants, a great record store, escalators, two book stores, a Spencer Gifts, and Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour. You could spend a full day there!

And many of us did. Sure, some came with our parents but others were dropped off with a $10 and a note to meet back at the entrance at a certain time (we wore watches then; this is before CAR phones, much less cell phones). You could go catch a movie, buy stuff and eat all in one place. Actually, you can do that now -- since MM Cohn's was replaced by a new movie theater complex a few years ago. But I digress.

Down on the first floor at the north entrance, there was an awning that spread out into the hall. If you passed under that awning, you could step down into a land of pure fun, where both waiters and waitresses wore striped shirts, vests and hats and an ice cream extravaganza was waiting for you.

Farrell's Ice Cream Parlours started in Portland, OR in 1963. At its zenith it operated restaurants in 32 states across the United States. The location at McCain Mall in North Little Rock was one of the more successful stores. But after a purchase by the Marriott group in the 1970s, it became an individual franchise; it and two other stores owned by the same person (in Little Rock and Oklahoma City) closed in 1984.

The idea of a happy, fun place to consume ice cream wasn't limited to Farrell's, though. On the south side of the river, we had another chain -- Swensen's. It was sparked in 1948 by a man who learned how to make ice cream while serving in the Army during World War II.
Earle Swensen's initial restaurant was located in San Francisco but after franchising rights were sold the chain spread to more than 400 locations nationwide. For Arkansas, that location was in the Market Street Shopping Center along Rodney Parham Road. Half the size of Farrell's, the location was lined with wooden booths and celebrated a lot of the same tamed Wild West ice cream saloon idea (for those of us who remember, it was a "thing" in the late 70s and early 80s -- Wendy's did it too).

Swensen's didn't have all the bells and whistles of Farrell's, but it did have the Earthquake, which reminded me so much of this scene from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Now, I understand there's the Farrell's Zoo, but I don't have a recollection of that. What I do remember is sharing an Earthquake with a friend... more than once. I preferred the better-equipped Chocolate Earthquake, but if it was a big bowl full of scoops of ice cream, chances are I was going to like it.  Like this girl.

The Little Rock Swensen's location closed in the late 1980s, but the one in Springfield, MO was open until at least 1993... I actually made a pilgrimage there when I was in college. The whole company contracted and shrank nationwide, but it blew up again and hit a worldwide audience with locations in China, India, Columbia, Vietnam, Thailand... in fact, there are far more locations outside the U.S. today than there are inside. The closest drive to get to one today would be to pick up and head to Midland, TX -- the only Texas location for the chain. There are also a handful in California, Nevada and Florida.

Of course, I grew up in Little Rock, and we had our own couple of homegrown sweet treat chains form right here. The first was HUGE... to the point of... well. Frank Hickingbotham started This Can't Be Yogurt here in town back in 1981 in the Market Street Shopping Center on Rodney Parham -- yes, pretty dang close to that Swensen's location. It was just a clean white counter and some soft-serve machines that doled out soft frozen yogurt.
Now, frozen yogurt today is just sort of de rigeur -- we're very used to it. But in 1981 there were no frozen yogurt chains. The idea took off like wildfire. Within a year there were seven locations, and then even more as the restaurant franchised. A tiff with a similar restaurant from Texas forced a name change --
to TCBY -- but that didn't stop the growth. By 1986 there were over 400 stores. By 1987 there were over 800 stores. The company grew so big and so fast, it was a marvelous investment.
It left its mark on Little Rock -- literally -- for a while, the tallest building in the state was the TCBY Tower (which was later the Metropolitan Tower and is now the Simmons Bank Tower).

I can remember the original This Can't Be Yogurt theme song, but I'm not going to sing it for you. I did, however, find a clip of the commercial where they announced another name change, to TCBY Treats.

At one point, there were over 3000 TCBY locations, including spots all over Central Arkansas. But it shrank back. Mrs. Field's bought it in 2000, and it's still all over the place, but not here. There's a single stand-alone location on West Markham, one of the early stores, and today it also serves hand-dipped frozen stuff, too. The white chocolate will probably always be my favorite.

And that brings me to the Purple Cow. There are some folks who look down on the new-fangled dairy diners as unrefined, but Purple Cow's creators were Ed Moore and Paul Bash -- yes, THAT Paul Bash, who started Jacques and Suzanne's. The original location on Cantrell Road filled a gap when Swensen's left, a soda fountain where you could get various types of ice creams. It was such a welcome addition to the area that it's spawned more locations.
Unlike the drive-in sort of dairy diner that serves soft-serve, Purple Cow proudly served Yarnell's ice cream, even commissioning a special purple version from the Arkansas ice cream maker (which lead to a panic when Yarnell's went under; fortunately, Yarnell's was bought, reopened and saved).

So, here's the thing. You may not be aware of this, but Farrell's is still around. After just about every location closed down, there were two -- one in San Diego and one in Eugene, Oregon. In the late 1990s, Parlour Enterprises got the rights to develop new stores from The Kirin Group (which had bought the rights to develop more stores from Marriott), and new locations came about. Today you can enjoy lots of different ice cream confections at seven locations in California and one in Hawaii. Food Network even declared the super sundaes at Farrell's one of its top five decadent desserts.

But that doesn't answer the original idea for this post. Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour was part of the draw for my generation, a reason to choose McCain Mall over other shopping sites. Having that nostalgic Music Man-style eatery with its big ice cream creations return would be one step in creating a nostalgic destination for Gen Xers... pair it up with a showing of Flashdance, the original Star Wars trilogy or Xanadu and a before-the-show visit to Mr. Dunderbak's, and you're just a fashion mistake away from a time warp.

So should Farrell's return?  Or should Purple Cow consider a McCain Mall location?  Is there a different ice cream magnate you'd rather see there?

For more reading;
Farrell's Memory Page
Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour Restaurants
Swensen's Ice Cream
Purple Cow Restaurants

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Sea of Lights - Fireworks Over Beaver Lake.

Throughout Arkansas, dozens of fireworks show dot the Independence Day schedule. Most are held in city parks or over ball fields – but one, out at Marker 8 on Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas, captivates not only for the light show in the air but the one on the water’s surface. Kat Robinson shares the experience of this pageant put on annually by Ventris Trail’s End Resort.

The boats wet on as far as the eye could see -- hundreds of them -- as the sun set. When the sun escaped the sky, a thousand tiny bulbs illuminated on the surface of the water, front and back markers for every watercraft. They multiplied as more came into the bay, as individuals turned on strings of tiny lights or big blue LED bars, even a black light or two. Green on the back, incandescent white on the front, out and on and on, six hundred boats or more becoming a sea of sequins in the night on Beaver Lake.

It was a Friday night, July 5th of 2013, the day after Independence Day. The drive took hours. We rode up from Fort Smith through northwest Arkansas and then down from Garfield on the long peninsula into Beaver Lake. The road dwindled from a two-lane to a two-lane without shoulders to one without a stripe to a dirt road curling back and forth between trees, narrowing further.

The lodge sat into the side of the hill, two stories of log-clad majesty at the top of a story-tall concrete staircase. Inside the office, large fish on the wall and a big dining room off to the right that smelled of 1985 and cedar and such.

But on the other end, there was a splendid, surprising diner that served up burgers and steaks and daily late lunch specials with wine or when it was open. It was not when we arrived, but big eyes and big cameras brought out a couple of slices from the case, a blood-red strawberry and rhubarb filled slice and one of pink-tinted peach slices under a hand-rolled, hand poked lattice top crust, perfection. This place should have been in my pie book.

But we hadn't come for pie; fireworks were what we sought, great blossoms and flashes of fire in the nighttime sky. And though we wouldn't know it for a short while, we had arrived in the right place.

The Simrell family has owned the property since the 1970s, but Ventris Trail’s End Resort was just built in 1997 – a lodge and a collection of cabins nestled into the woods on one of the lake’s many peninsulas. The show we had come to see had first been presented in 2002. It wasn't just folks on the shoreline shooting off what they’d found at a roadside stand.. no, it was quite different. Jody Simrell met us at the lodge and started telling us about the inspiration -- seeing a grand fireworks show at Epcot Center one year and thinking about how grand it would be to have that sort of display over the big lake at home. The original idea was to bring a little attention to the resort and let people know it was there; it had turned into something much bigger.

The lodge is at the top of the ridge that runs the length of the peninsula, while the action to create the show are on the lake's banks. Jody took us in a golf cart down to the shore and marina to show us the speakers. I was surprised they weren't larger -- but he assured me they'd be able to be heard across the water. "They can also tune to 100.9fm," he reassured me.

We got back into the cart and headed further out along the peninsula. When the road got too rough and steep, we walked, careful not to let the flint chips roll under our feet.

The row of fireworks didn't seem all that spectacular on approach, but the control board did -- a mass of hundreds of tiny buttons attached to wires like the craziest DJ system imaginable -- but past that were boxes, and wires, and tubes and more wires. These were the works.

Those wires were connected to mortars and other pyrotechnic missiles on the beach a short distance away. Close to 10,000 shells are involved in the show, each holding up to 120 shots. Each shot becomes one of those pinpoints or flares of light in the sky. That's a lot of light, right?

Jody was careful not to step on the wires near the mortars. Grav talked him into picking up one from its tube, and he did, carefully, like an ancient tribesman picking up a severed head by its hair. The resemblance was uncanny thanks to the size of the mortar, bigger than my head and about as oblong and round. Grav asked him to smile, and the effect was similar.

We went back to the lodge one more time to make sure we had all we needed (and for me to take an important break) and headed back to the marina, where we met up with Larry, Jody's brother. He had us sit up front on the pontoon boat and the family that had boarded moved to the back, a young couple with a redheaded girl that looked to be about six and a pudgy toddler of maybe three. There was also a guy in a red Hawaiian shirt by the name of Jeff who was gray and balding on the top but generally good natured -- and a couple of younger guys.

We headed out on the water, where boats were already gathering, maybe 50 between the marina and the island. I was surprised we were heading as far out as we were before I realized the island was our destination. The young man wanted to see the fireworks from that island with his family, and they'd packed a backpack and cooler to go with. The toddler did not like being on the water at all. She fussed and hollered and squirmed in her mother's arms.

We had to search out a spot in the brush to pull in. Water was high for the season - had been since May, when wave after wave of thunderstorms had more than made up for the previous year's deficit and filled the lake.

The young man jumped out and pulled the pontoon in to shore. His wife brought forward the toddler, who was really wrestling to get out of her arms by this point. She handed the little girl over, then climbed over herself. The redheaded girl did not want to go, and was given the option to go back to shore. She climbed out, and I heard her ask her dad where they were going, and I knew tales of adventures were being spun.

Back across the water, Larry took a phone call, and off we went to ferry one more group out to the island. This set was a trio, two young men and a young tanned woman with chairs.

Cruising back into the island, we saw the family again, sitting together tightly on a blue quilt, the man perched on the cooler. The talk of adventured had ceased and you could sense a dreary exhaustion, perhaps from the fight. The toddler was quiet now, rocked back on her diapered bottom with her back to the cooler, finally at peace with the decision to go there.

Grav took the opposite side on the front and Jeff sat beside me, balancing the pontoon as flat as possible. Larry went to set anchor and couldn't find it. Since the boat was one of the resort’s rentals, it was back one more time to the marina to grab another. The anchor fetched, we eased out into the bay one more time.

We nestled through the boats and swimmers to an optimal site about the time the sun crept down the other side of the peninsula, leaving the twilight blues to claim water and sky. Anchor pitched, one of the two young men on the back of the boat jumped into the water and shored us up so the front end faced the site of the fireworks.

But the wind kept sliding us around, and finally Larry untied the anchor and maneuvered it to the back of the boat. We were finally set even for the show.

Motor off, idling done, we sat and watched the night claim the lake. Boat after boat came into view, and as the glow faded from the sky each would turn on its lights. There was a sparkle about it, an undulating wave.

I've heard of an oriental experience where keel boats slowly float through a conglomeration of phosphorescent luminaries on lily pads -- and this was similar, the sensation of floating and quiet and fellowship. Though most boats were packed with people waiting for fireworks, with anything from two to ten on each, there was a silence, a bare murmur as folks waited.

A boom ad a flash of light came from the shore, a single mortar fired into the air. Over the loudspeaker there was a sudden crackle, and then an announcement for people to come out to the bay in their boats, that the fireworks were about to begin. I heard the echo from the radio on a nearby craft.

Darkness had taken the guy, with the barest sparkle of stars overhead, the play was now in the water, as gleams and splinters and rays from each floating craft reflected onto the surface of the lake.

Impatient, some took to lighting their own fireworks on far beaches, exploding quickly and brightly far away ,briefly disturbing the hush – but near silence would fall again just as rapidly. Chinese lanterns were released here and there -- a blue one, a red one, a white one. One of the blue ones came down directly by the boat closest to us, almost unnoticed by the people within resting before the show, lulled into a watery lullaby by the rocking and the sloshing.

One more single mortar exploded above our heard, and then, suddenly, a call was made for the pledge of allegiance, and after the first two words a thousand voices joined in, echoing over the water. The cadence of human voice was more powerful than a sea of tympanis, stronger than a military drum core. This was an impromptu community more than a thousand individuals strong, maybe two thousand, bigger than many of the burgs that lined the lake, and they were united in this rite of ceremony.

At the end of the pledge, God Bless America blasted out from the speakers, accompanied by the first choreographed round of pyrotechnics. The noise around us became palpable as all those voices hushed by the majesty of the incoming night suddenly came alive again, enthralled by the pageantry above. Grav took up his camera, and I did too, and we aimed our lenses skyward.

Without a break, the music segued into Wayland Holyfield’s “Arkansas You Run Deep In Me.” This classic from the 80s might have seemed out of date elsewhere, but here it gave me goosebumps. Here I was on an Arkansas lake, surrounded by others who had come out for the show… the beauty of it all was remarkable.

One song after another drove the display, which continued through each piece. You could hear the music echoing from the shore and from radios on many of the bobbing points, Santana’s “Monster” and Celine Dion and even a piece Jody Simrell had written and performed. Though we had started seated in the boat we’d all risen to our feet, even Larry and Jeff, as the concert had progressed. It grew in intensity and never slacked.

The momentum came to a head as the opening to a Mumford and Sons song began. As the boys started to harmonize about how they would wait for you, I stood by Grav shooting and them put my hand on his back. The darkness hid most of our features, but I could see him smiling, too.

One last amazing, considerable volley of fireworks, a loud blast, and then silence. The show had ended just as quickly as it had begun. Hoots and hollers started to come from the crowd, followed by thunderous applause. And then some bugger turned on his headlights and blinded half of us.

As Larry aimed us at the shore, we saw those bobbing lanterns on the water start to recede. Everyone we passed and talked with agreed it was a far bigger and better show than the year before. We made it in, and while guys held the boat tight I was aided off the craft by an elderly gentleman with the pomp of a footman to the queen. I prayed my water legs wouldn't send me and the camera equipment into the drink.

We foraged on ahead in the semi dark up the hill, me following Grav -- who lead us not up the driveway but over the children’s playground instead. We both forced ourselves onward, knowing we had a two hour drive ahead of us. We saw Jody and overheard he need to go down to get us. He asked us how we liked the show and we just grinned at each other, speechless for just a moment. There were dozens of adjectives in my head, but none seemed adequate for what we had seen.

Last year’s celebration fell on July 5th, which allowed us to see other shows the nights before and after. The coordination and effort the Simrells put into their show place it in a category all its own. You should go. It’s… beyond words.

Click here to head to the Ventris Trail’s End Resort website. And if you’re out on the water, head to Marker 8 on Independence night. You won’t be disappointed.

To get there by land from Garfield, take Hwy 127 toward Lost Bridge. Just past Across the Creek Restaurant, turn right on Ventris Road, which you'll follow 6.3 miles to Trail's End Road. Turn left and look for Simrell Drive. Follow Simrell Drive through the gate. Signs will get you the rest of the way there.

To get there by water, head southwest of Ford's Creek or northwest from Cedar Bluff -- it's across the river from Martin Cemetery. Or, just use your handy GPS to find the Point 8 Marker.