Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Taylor’s Steakhouse in Dumas is Dry Aged to Perfection.

If you manage to get down to Dumas and are looking for an epic dinner, head west out of town on Highway 54 until you see a set of stores that appear to be an old grocery store. Inside that plain interior, you'll find what might be the best steak in all of Arkansas, at Taylor's Steakhouse.

Charles and Dorothy Taylor opened Taylor’s Grocery in 1954. The original shotgun-style country house was pretty small, but it functioned like a traditional country store, a place to buy dry goods and foods and share a little gossip. In 1961 the Taylors moved the operation a quarter
mile closer to town into a larger building. They sold that store in the 1970s and opened up a third spot – and in 1983 the fourth moved happened, placing the business where it is now, far from the outskirts of Dumas.

Now, I mentioned grocery store. Taylor’s has always been a place to get a bite. Country stores often had a back counter and a kitchen, and you could pick up a sandwich to take with you when you picked up your bait for fishing or were heading out to the farm.

The 1983 opening of Taylor’s included not only groceries but sporting goods, bait, tackle and just about anything for living in rural Arkansas. It did so well, that Chuck Taylor (Charles’s son, who had by this time been working the grocery store quite a while) opened a liquor store adjacent to Taylor’s (local ordinances did not allow liquor stores and grocery stores to share the same building).

“My mother has always made barbecue. We’ve always done barbecue,” Chuck Taylor says. “You know, when the grocery store sales declined, we branched out and bought equipment and started doing hamburgers and po’boys and the lunch thing, sandwiches and fried fish, shrimp, oysters… and then it started to grow, so we started taking out grocery shelves, taking out sporting goods and adding tables and chairs for people to eat.”

That little spot on the road from Dumas to Monticello started to pick up steam.

“We started out with two tables, and lunch just took over. We became full of tables – we still sold chips and drinks and stuff like that, knick-knacks,” Chuck shares. In fact, Taylor’s cheese dip took on a great deal of notoriety, with people dropping by to pick up dip to take home. The restaurant even developed a big burger called the Double Bertha, which folks would try to eat in one setting.

But burgers weren’t where the Taylors wanted to stop. Chuck and his wife Pam had plans.

“It’s always been our ambition to do a nighttime restaurant. So we started planning on it. We have a daughter in college now. We wanted to get her out of high school because she had activities at school – she was a majorette and we went to all the football games. We kinda held onto the lunch thing until we got her graduated. I perfected my recipes the whole time, for porterhouse steak, crawfish enchiladas, the whole time we knew we were going to do this.

“Once we got her graduated, we let the liquor store license expire and took in the liquor store as part of the restaurant,” Chuck continues. “We connected the two buildings, remodeled and started doing the night thing (in October 2012).”

Chuck Taylor worked out his dry aging process over the years. While he’d always worked with the grocery store and liquor store, he made a living by supplementing with other jobs –as a cook in a duck lodge during fall and winter, surveying rice levies in spring and summer. “I started aging beef on a commercial scale when I worked a year at the Yellow Dog Lodge,” Chuck says, “I studied up on that while I was doing lunch, too. I got that perfected, I hope.”

Taylor’s steaks have quickly gained renown, not only for their flavor but for their size. Kansas bone-in ribeyes and T-bone steaks run 25-28
ounces. There’s also a 31-25 ounce Porterhouse steak for two. Once the day’s supply is gone, they’re out. There are other great dishes, such as that crawfish enchilada plate and two different lush versions of bread pudding. Of course, there’s the cheese dip. “Our cheese dip is legendary. That’s one of our claims to fame,” he chuckles.

So, with all that history, you're probably wondering about the dining experience. Within the tin-clad walls at Taylors, you'll be seated at a table, either a traditional table in the heart of the restaurant, or one of the
large party tables to the left of the entrance, which are afforded a great view of the dry aging steak facility.

There are many steaks on the menu, but the night we went, Grav and I chose to split the Porterhouse for Two. It came with salads for both of us with
homemade dressing (I chose blue cheese), two side dishes (we chose asparagus and grilled zucchini, bread and butter. These were all ample servings, but they didn't come close to matching the massive slab of meat presented to us.
We ate it down to the bone.

No, literally, DOWN TO THE BONE.

The steak was absolutely magnificent. It was perfectly spiced and needed nothing to improve it. It was cooked close to rare (or, as I usually say, medium rare, closer to rare) and it glistened. There were angels singing when this came to the table, though the tune was more likely to have been O Fortuna from Carina Burana than the Hallelujah Chorus.

Taylor’s has also become known for a magnificent pair of bread puddings – including a chocolate version that often runs out. Many order theirs with their meal so they won’t miss out on the popular dessert, since it takes a while to cook. The Arkansas Delta has its share of great bread
puddings, and this chocolate beauty deserves high ranking amongst the best.

You may be wondering, how does an upscale restaurant manage to make it in deep, rural Arkansas? “Anytime you step out of the loop of interest, as I told my wife
Pam, you realize that you had to draw from a lot of different areas," Chuck Taylor says. "You can’t just make it on Dumas. The food has to be excellent. And it is, and we draw from everywhere – Little Rock, Texarkana, Mississippi, Fayetteville… the Panola people have come up from Louisiana. We’ve had a Saturday night where everyone in here was from DeWitt or Stuttgart. Pine Bluff, Monticello, you name it. People come, they love it, they say ‘we will be back.’ That one person might tell ten people, and they come and they go tell 10 people. It’s kinda like a chain letter, word of mouth is the best thing there is.

“It’s kinda like Field of Dreams,” Chuck tells me, referencing the Kevin Costner movie. “You build it, they will come. Yeah, it’s a dream of mine to do this, but it might become a nightmare, too,” he laughs. Something tells me with the great product he has and this growing restaurant, Chuck Taylor is going to be laughing all the way to the bank.

You’ll find Taylor’s Steakhouse on Highway 54 west of Dumas, headed towards Monticello. It’s open Thursday 5:30-9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 5:30-10 p.m. The official address is 14201 Arkansas 54, Dumas. Call ahead if you wish at (870) 382-5349.

Taylor's Steakhouse on Urbanspoon


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Fighting Words About Stubby's Bar-B-Que and its Sauce.

When the random person anywhere in the United States is asked about barbecue and Arkansas, particularly barbecue from Hot Springs, you know what they're going to say.  But there are other barbecue joints in the Spa City, and one of them has been around more than 60 years.

Back in 1952, Richard Stubblefield Sr. started slow smoking pork, beef and chicken over fragrant wood over at 1000 Park Avenue.  He was a master of the hickory pit, smoking up ham and ribs, pork butts, briskets and whole chickens. The sauce conjured at the restaurant was sweet, thick and mild and the customers just kept on coming.

Mr. Stubblefield sold out to the Dunkels from New York in 1977.  Mr. Dunkel worked for a short while for Coy's Steakhouse, and he got to talking with Stubby and they made a deal.  The Dunkels opened a second location in 1978 along Central Avenue just south of Oaklawn Park -- which remains the restaurant's key location today.

Susan Dunkel is still involved in the operation today, but it's her son Christopher's shop now.  Still, people keep on coming in, and there are locals and Arkansawyers who frequent the city who say Stubby's beats everything else by far. And while I have been blessed with the gift of Stubby's sauce (which is available in retail stores and by mail order), I hadn't been back there to do a story since I started this blog.  It's time to remedy that.

I dropped in one Wednesday morning before opening time and sat in my car waiting.  By the time the doors opened, the vehicle had been permeated with the amazing, fragrant scent of hickory smoke and roasted meats, and I was dying for a tasty bite.  Even arriving early, I was about fourth in line through the door to push a tray through the line and pick up what I wanted.

Inside the case on that line, one can view shiny, smoked black butts and briskets next to vats of beans, sauce and shredded meats.  The outside "skins" of the smoked meats are black thanks to the tomato in the sauce -- these meats are doused, swabbed, rubbed, wiped with that magnificent sweet sauce during the smoking process, and if you're in it for flavor, you'd be smart to ask for a bit of the "crust" when you place your order.

Though I dallied over the thoughts of a jumbo shredded beef sandwich, I changed my mind after reading the menu board. Turns out, everything -- and I do mean everything -- is affected by smoke in the place.  Not only are the meats smoked in the hickory pit - the potatoes are as well, big red-skinned potatoes used for potato salad and for the gigantic potatoes available for stuffing. The beans, legendary in their own right, come from a big bean pot at the bottom of the pit, which is the beneficiary of the dripping juices from each of the animals whose flesh is smoked there... sadly, this means I cannot eat them, but every other person I know who's endeavored to try Stubby's reminds me of the masterpiece I am missing.

There's also the matter of the quality of the meat.  I have been informed that the hams are the pride of Arkansas themselves, right from Petit Jean Meats in Morrilton.

There are three degrees of potato: the smoked pit potato, which comes with butter and sour cream; the stuffed potato, which comes with beef or pork and sauce; and the supreme, which is a potato stuffed with meat and sauce, beans and slaw.  I went for the middle and asked for a stuffed potato.  I was asked if I'd like one lump of butter or two (one would do, I reasoned) and then I watched as the gentleman behind the counter ripped brisket from one of the husks of meat behind the glass and shoved it inside the potato.  Sauce was ladled over the top, and the whole mess was handed to me.  I also opted to try a couple of deviled eggs while I was at it.

The sheer heft of the potato became evident to me when I took that plate.  It was likely two pounds of potato and meat, far more than I had expected.  I was handed a packet of sour cream and sent down the line to the register, where a lovely woman rang me up.

Within the walls at Stubby's, everything is remarkably clean... surfaces are carefully lacquered without a hint of greasy buildup.  This is quite unlike most barbecue joints I have visited, where conditions range from cleaning attempts made to greasy walls to... well, to the
point where one closes one's eyes and tries not to look towards the kitchen for fear of what matter of animal or ash might lurk beyond.  Stubby's, while decorated eclectically with a hundred different license plates, aged signs from around the area and other decorations, is neat as a pin.

I know Stubby's burned a few years back... in 2007.  As sometimes happens in barbecue joints, the fire got away from the pit and ate the place.  But the rebuild, from the outside, simply looked as if someone hit rewind and then threw a fresh coat of paint upon the place.  There's no real change.

Still, you are wondering about the food, as well you should.  I had to take my photographs, of course, and all the time the sweet and tangy scent of ketchup, sugar, vinegar and spices from that sauce taunted me.  I wanted to drool.  I wanted, actually, to lay lips to the potato's filling and slurp, but there were other customers, and I was dressed nicely, and heaven forbid someone get a photo of THAT.  No, moments such as that are reserved for standing in my own kitchen with no witnesses to be found.

The deviled eggs, I sadly found, were very good for someone who likes a lot of mustard and dill flavor to them, which I do not.  They were good examples and should not be criticized for my particular tastes.

The potato, though, once I managed to break out of my reverie and adequately
document the mammoth shoe-sized spud, was a delight.  The brisket was smoky, tender, moist but not too greasy, with little crusty bits of that sauce-swabbed
outer crust that were just heavenly.  The sauce, sweet and thick, clung to the meat and the potato better than ketchup and with such a rich and full flavor... you know, I could eat the sauce on a bun and be quite happy, meat or not.

But the real surprise was
the potato itself, with its permeated woodsy hints of flavor.  This perfect vessel... well, it's a two person job to properly respect this spud, and the folks at Stubby's will not fault you for asking for a box to take home the half you cannot bear to ingest for fear of gastronomic puncture.  It's big, it's hearty, it's tasty... you should share.

I was wise this particular day.  I asked for the box early on, thanks to the pan I had noticed when I was at the register.  There's one food item that doesn't go into the pit at Stubby's, and that's the peach cobbler.  It goes into the oven and then it's scooped out on a plate or in a bowl for individual consumption.  Rich, buttery and a little crusty (I LOVE the crusty cobbler bits), speckled with canned peaches, it's an old school dessert for an old school restaurant, and I cannot imagine anything else being served.

As I mentioned, the sauce at Stubby's is available a whole lot of places, or online at the restaurant's website.  And applying it to your own smoked meats is a good call.  It's a very good sauce.  But I still think you're not going to get the whole effect until you get down to Hot Springs and have yourself a plate or a potato packed with smoke-soaked meat doused in that thick, sweet sauce.  Get yourself down there and try a bite.  And then make your own decision about what might be Hot Springs' best barbecue.

Stubby's Hik'ry Pit Bar-B-Que
3024 Central Avenue
Hot Springs, AR 71913
(501) 624-1552
Website
Stubby's Bar B Que on Urbanspoon



Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Hollis Country Store, since 1930.

Alongside Scenic Arkansas Highway Seven, in one of the more remote sections of the Ouachita Mountains, sits a classic community store made of local stone. At first glance, one might think the place is old and lost to time. But no, the Hollis Country Store is still in business.

The original building was constructed not long after Arkansas renumbered its state highways to comply with the then-new Federal Highway Administration back in 1926. The store was opened to serve the resident of Hollis, a mountain community named after Hollis Britt Aikens, a Union soldier who served in the Civil War. A year after it first started serving residents, construction began on the structure we see today - a sturdy and everlasting single story structure created from layers of mismatched rocks and mortar with an overhang porch. It was built by Mike Gross and William "Bill" Furr. Gross, a country doctor, operated the store and the local post office, which was south of the grocery. Electricity came from a Delco generator housed in a shed behind the building.

The store was sold to Dennis and Lillie Crain in 1940. They lived in the back of the building and their children grew up there. Their daughter Gulelma and her husband Loyd Hawks took over in the 1950s, and the store was expanded with frame additions.

When Dennis Crain died in 1980, Lillie Crain sold the store to their son Harold and his wife Louise. In 1989, they sold it to Loyd and Gulelma Hawk's son Berl and his wife, Connie. Berl died in 1999, but Connie still runs the store to this day.

The site is up for historic preservation. You can read more about its history here.
***

On our trip up Scenic Arkansas Highway Seven during Spring Break, Hunter and I spotted the store and looped back to check it out. There's really not a whole lot between Jessieville and Ola on this stretch of highway, just a series of Ouachita Forest trails and picnic areas and a whole lot of gorgeous views.

The first thing I noticed when we got out was that there was a truck out front... and a gentleman operating the late-1960s era gas pump. I haven't seen one of these in operation in years.

Hunter wanted a snack, and I was willing to oblige her, so I opened the old screen door and we went in. Before us were three well-laid-out aisles stocked with almost anything you might need, from soup to laundry
detergent. A counter sat to the left, and a small kitchen stood to the back right.

Hunter immediately gravitated towards the chips stand, and she perused the selection while I looked around. I haven't seen a store like this in ages, but recall many set up like this when I was a kid. There was everything available, including fishing equipment and bait, motor oil and baking supplies.

What really caught my attention was an ancient cooler alongside the north wall. This ancient double-sided cooler was marked Top Mark Refrigerator Company of Blytheville, and it had shelves in it for storing meats and cheeses. It's still being used for this purpose. It was packed with Petit Jean Meats bologna, peppered loaf and ham along with red wax cheese and some lettuce and tomatoes, jars of pickles and mayonnaise and tubs of mustard and butter. There were also individual packages of cheese and bottles of chocolate milk for sale.

Hunter chose a bag of Cheetoes puffs and I paid at the register, and we were back out the door. I made a note to add it to my travels, and caught Hunter at the old fashioned pay phone out front before we left.

Our stop was quick, but we'll be coming back to learn more. One thing I have learned since is that the place is up for sale, along with the three bedroom, two bath house out back. There's no cell phone signal, as far as I could figure, and it's a good stretch to anything close, but it's a lovely oasis, a throwback and a historical landmark, and I would suspect with all those folks who use Highway Seven to get from Russellville to Hot Springs that business is good. Here's a link to the listing, if you are interested.

And if you want to keep up with the Hollis Country Store, check out this page on Facebook.



Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Man Who Drank The Gravy.

I first encountered him at a 24 hour diner in Fort Smith.  It was about four in the morning.  I hadn't been able to sleep and, when the muse to write had refused to answer the phone, I'd dragged myself down to sit on an orange barstool and stare into my coffee mug.

He came in stinking of grease and sweat, a bandana so worn and encrusted all its red had run away. He wore his own weariness like cologne.  As he passed through the doors, he banged hard on the jukebox, which failed to produce more than a skip on the CD that was playing.

The cook, turning around, saw the fellow and rolled his eyes.  The hostess shook her little blond head.

He straddled his seat as if it had no back, which it did, which looked awkward.  He had neither the height nor the finesse to take it on correctly, and floundered slightly before spinning it around and taking his rest.  I turned back to my sweet potato pancakes and wiped my watering eye.

Blond waitress had left the bar and gone to the back.  She emerged with a single bowl, which she sat down silently in front of the dun-haired dude.  The look of disdain she gave him was spreadable, but nothing I'd want on my toast.

He pulled a wadded five dollar bill out of his pocket, nearly as dirty as he, and crushed it next to the bowl.  Then, closing his eyes, he picked it up and lifted it to his grimy jowel, slurping in the lumpy contents.

The diner had hushed... the jukebox had given up on playing the skipping CD and shut down. A couple in the corner that had huddled over their food with sneaky eyes had pulled off their hats.  The college kid typing away furiously at his laptop began to curse his blue screen of death before noticing that everyone else in the place had their eyes on the man with the bowl.

Cream dribbled out of the corner of his chapped lip.  He swallowed gruffly, grunting like a rutting pig.  The bowl fell from his hands next to the dirty five and he stood up, wiping the residue with the back of his sleeve.  He glanced at the blond and shuffled out the door.

His truck door slammed, and the whispers began.

My pancakes, or what was left of them, remained on the plate as I craned my neck over.  The blond waitress picked up the bill with the corner of her napkin, pressed the button on the register and then lifted the money tray to stash it within before pulling out three starchy ones.

The girl in the sneaky couple in the corner squeaked.  "What is WRONG with that guy?" she asked her partner, who was looking out the window as if he were a kid dreading being picked up by a parole officer.  The blond grabbed the bowl with a towel and slung all of it into a gray rectangular washtub. Sausage gravy spattered the wall behind the counter, and she cursed under her breath.

The smell of him had barely evaporated.

The blond came back over to my side of the counter with an orange-topped coffee pot, attempting to warm up my already full mug.

"What was that all about?" I asked.

"He comes in about once a week," she grimaced. "And all he wants is gravy.  Who drinks gravy?"

"Is there something wrong with him?"

"I don't know... he just... he never talks.  The first few times he came, he just pointed at the menu.  He always tips... but he just STINKS."

She moved away, uninterested in my further curiosity.  And even I, as the skies began to lighten outside, lost my enthusiasm for the mystery.

***

A few days later, and again I was out.  This time, my deadline was looming, and so I'd headed to the south side of town to find an open table and a decent hamburger steak.  Notes all over the place, on my recorder and my notebook and the backs of receipts, still not enough to get me past the second paragraph of a 2000 word piece that was due in hours.

I smelled him before I saw him.  This time, he came in the door opposite my booth, but the odor of sweat and oil still overpowered the baking pies and bacon grease that had already perfumed the place.  He didn't even wait for someone to direct him to a table.  He just sat down near the register and waited.

A few moments later, a white-clad guy who I suspected was the cook came rolling out of the kitchen with a bowl in his hand.  He plopped it down on the table and looked at the stranger expectantly.  Their staring contest lasted mere seconds.  I have no idea what they were trying to accomplish, but they had my attention.  An hour, or more likely about two and a half minutes passed, and the cook walked away.  A crumpled five appeared on the table, and then the huge slurp began, the bowl held in both hands up to the muzzle of this bearish guy.  The loud gulping echoed across the single dining room, and the other patrons glared.  The bowl went down with a clank and he was back out the door.

"Ungrateful sunuvabidge," the cook shouted from the back.  A waitress came over and carefully picked up the five.  I wasn't sure what ungrateful had to do with anything.  He'd paid for his, er, meal at both places.

As I settled my check, unable to continue on my story or my hamburger steak, I asked the cook if this was a common situation.

"That guy won't say a word to any of us.  I don't know what his problem is."

"But how do you know he wants gravy?"

"First time he came in here, all he would do is point at the menu.  One of my girls brought him out biscuits and gravy and he threw the plate.  I should have kicked him out then."

"But you didn't?"

"He tipped her $20. She figured out he just wanted the gravy, and he doesn't say a word but he always pays."

"When does he come in?"

"When it's dark.  Sometimes it's in the evening and sometimes it's in the morning but he only comes when it's dark out."

I thanked the cook and went on my way, knowing there had to be another story.

***

I managed to get the piece I was working on under the deadline, but I wasn't ready to let this go. The gravy-slurping man had to have a tale, a reason for eating just the gravy, or rather, drinking it.  I started visiting other late night and 24 hour establishments.  The drive-thru restaurants hadn't noticed him, and no one reported orders for just gravy over the intercom.  He'd been sighted at Waffle House and once at Cracker Barrel, where he'd freaked out two of the waitresses so bad the manager told him to get out and he'd smeared a couple of granny-worthy sweatshirts on the way out with his gravy-laced fingers.  The doughnut shops didn't know a thing, and it was quickly clear that he wasn't a patron of any of the city's Thai or Vietnamese joints.

No one knew where he'd come from.  I asked different diners here and there, men and women who worked at the areas manufacturers, and they were all in agreement.  He wasn't some guy on the line at Trane, or Whirlpool, or even Rheem.  The motorheads I met didn't recognize him, and the car dealership owner I talked with told me straight out that no one would hire a grease monkey that greasy to work in a shop.

I found my schedule slipping, quick naps after lunch becoming long snoozes and nights full of insomnia.  I grew hungry for omelets and coffee and slightly bitter banter with tired waitresses.

And then, one midnight, I walked in and found I had managed to catch the guy moments after he'd come in.  I saw the bowl raised to his ragged orifice and turned on my heel for the parking lot.  Maybe he hadn't noticed me, but I could, perhaps, notice which vehicle he would drive away in.

I expected him to hop into the old beat-up Ford pickup at the edge of the lot.  His appearance pretty much ruled out the nice white Escalade with white leather seats, and probably the little green Beetle with its crisp tan interior as well.  Instead, I heard the screech of wheels... and realized he'd gone out the door on the far side of the restaurant.  I ran to the street and saw a black late model Camaro grunting off down the street.

***

Summer had begun to drone on, and nights were lengthening.  By this point I was rising as the sun went down, hopscotching from one diner to another.  I needed to know more about the gravy drinker.  I needed to understand his state, and why he was drinking the gravy. Because apparently that's how I roll.

And it all came back to that first diner.  By this point I had become a regular, sitting in the lopsided booth at the end of the dining room so I could see everything.  I didn't even need to look at my waitress.  She just brought me black coffee and flopped that menu down in front of me, as if I might decide I didn't want sweet potato pancakes for once.

He came in and managed this time to back-straddle the barstool without looking like a Great Dane trying to sit on someone's lap.  My waitress started to move away, but I pressed a five into her hand and told her quietly the gravy was on me.

When she sat the bowl down in front of him, she quietly shook her head at his own crumpled five and pointed at me.  His entire crusted countenance turned towards me and I realized now I had nowhere to flee save the restrooms.  I held my ground, kneeding the edge of the seat with my hands as he approached.

And in a tinny, nasally voice he snarled at me.

"I don't need your charity."

After a moment of leaning over my table, crowding my breathable air with body odor and brake grease, he turned back to the counter and one-handed the bowl, gulping it down quickly and slamming it on the counter.  He flicked his crumpled five off the counter to the floor beyond and strode out the door.

***

I started to re-evaluate whether I should be pursuing the story.  After all, my attempt to be friendly had been taken poorly, and it was doubtful now that I'd get anywhere with him.

But I don't give up easily, and I found myself hitting several diners a night, taking coffee at each.  I would get the jitters and sit in my booth or on a bar stool, wondering if a bite of toast would calm the roiling thunder in my belly.  Sleep started to evade me completely.

Here was my Bigfoot, my great white stinky whale, my quest.  I knew if I could convince him to talk to me for a while, I might find that perfect story and justify all these overnights.

And then, weeks after our last meeting, I pulled up to a diner and saw him through the window.  There was no second exit this time.  I rubbed the coins in my pocket together and took a deep breath.

He was already bowl-up at the counter when I entered.  I cleared my throat and he swung around.  I set my jaw, knowing I was about to probably take a punch.

He stared.  I stared back. He looked at me with pained eyes and asked me...

"What do you want?"

The voice, so tiny, so high pitched, could have been comical.  I knew if I snickered the opportunity would be lost forever.

"I'm a storyteller."

He shrugged at me.

"I want to know your story," I continued.  "Could we talk?"

This bear of a man, this oil-encrusted, stinking hulk suddenly seemed to lose a few inches of his height.  "Outside," he whined, the gruffness gone.

On the other side of the glass door, he sunk to the pavement and squatted.  I shuffled over and plopped down on the curb.

"So, you like gravy?"

He looked sheepish at the question.  I pressed on.  "Why gravy?"

With a heavy sigh, he ruffled his hands through his hair and blurted out, "You've ruined my groove."

"Excuse me?"

"I've been working on this book for weeks and you have ruined my groove."

I stopped.  I looked him in the eye and just asked, "What do you mean?"

"I haven't had to talk to anyone in months," that tinny, quiet voice stated.  "And I have never felt so clearheaded in my life."

He went on to tell me about Jack Kerouac and about a thought he'd had.  He was going to be the next great novelist, but he needed a schtick.  "Stephen King is a recluse in Maine.  I thought I could be a recluse here," he admitted.
\
"And the grime? Why are you covered in filth?"

"This isn't filth," he squeaked.  "I've been working on my car."

"But why not bathe?"

"Because people don't talk to me when I'm like this," he admitted. "I kept losing my train of thought every time someone would say something to me, so I just... stopped washing."

"But why the gravy?"

He chuckled.  "You really want to know why?"

"Yeah."

"Because it FREAKS PEOPLE OUT. And they don't ever try to talk to you again.  Dang, I don't even LIKE gravy all that much, but after I drink a bowl I feel like a god.  I can write.  And no one says a single word."

I sat quietly on the curb, thinking about that.  He started to stand to go.

"So, how's your book coming along," I asked as he got to his feet.

"It's gonna be a best seller, if I ever get it done," he muttered as he crossed the parking lot.  He slid into the Camaro and turned the key but left the door open.

"What's it going to be called?" I asked.

"You ask too many questions.  That'll get you in trouble one day," he hollered before shutting the door, the car already rolling back out of the parking spot.  He took off down the street while I watched.

After that, the gravy-drinker disappeared.  I don't know if he ever finished his book, or if it did well or not.  I just know that the different waitresses and cooks at the diners I frequented say he never came back in again.


Monday, March 30, 2015

Oh How I Love Thee, Rotary Ann.

This article, I kid you not, is about a comfort station, a roadside station... in short, a rest stop along Scenic Arkansas Highway Seven.  What?

Highway 7 didn't exist before Arkansas joined in
the federal program for numbering highways, and then it ran from Camden to Harrison, with several sections a bit different from what they appear to be today.  Much of the roadbed was dug out with mules and carts back around the turn of the
century.  It improved a little over the ages, but slowly.  That roadbed received its designation as State Highway 7 in 1926.  It was a gravelly passage (except for around Hot Springs) and it was a bugger to traverse.

In the Ozarks, it was made even worse by the undulating peaks and valleys of the Ozark Mountain Plateau, rocky on its best days and horrifically muddy on bad ones.  But because it connected Russellville and Harrison, which connected to other important cities, it became a major route for travelers.  Mind you, this was back in the day when cars were still a relatively new invention.  There were few places to pull over and have a lunch, or even a break from the road itself.

Enter the Rotary Anns.  Now, the term Rotary Ann comes from two women -- one was Ann Brunier, who traveled with her husband to a Rotary Club convention from San Francisco to Houston in 1914.  She was the only woman on the train headed to the conference, and by the time the couple deboarded everyone was calling her Rotary Ann.  Ann Gundaker of Philadelphia was also at the event with her husband, and by the time it was over she too was known as Rotary Ann.  The name stuck, and the ladies auxiliary membership for the Rotary Club went by the Rotary Anns up until the 1980s.

The auxiliary members in Russellville saw a desperate need for a plate to stop along the route... not only because of the need for sanitary bathroom facilities, but to give drivers a place to take in some of the amazing views of the Arkansas Ozarks.  They encouraged development with the Rotary Club, and in the 1930s a scenic overlook with places to park was created along Highway 7.

It was the first rest stop in the state, and it should be around a good, long time.  In 2004, the stop was reopened after a year-long renovation and upgrade.  Today, it includes an unmanned restroom for men and women, interpretive panels, rail-guarded overlooks and picnic tables, along with lanes allowing for small
vehicle and bus parking.

Highway 7 received its Scenic Byway status in 1994, at one of the last high points of tourism in the area.  That happened to be the last year Dogpatch USA was open, and new developments
around the state were already drawing away travelers.  Upgrades to US Highway 65 to the east and plans to create an interstate through northwest Arkansas to the west were already underway.  Traffic dwindled.  Businesses faded.  Yet, Rotary Ann has been there throughout the decades.


Ask any Arkansas Boy or Girl Scout, family member who's traveled or motorcycle enthusiast about the highway, and they may mention this splendid little site.

I try to stop often, and I have many photos of these quick stops.  On Spring Break with Hunter last week, it came in very handy.  Hunter enjoyed
its views, too... as did the more than two dozen different individuals we counted that passed through in the quarter hour we were parked there.

If you're looking for Arkansas's oldest rest stop or would like to take in a gorgeous view, head up Highway 7.  You'll find it south of Pelsor and north of Booger Hollow.  Take a few moments and enjoy the view.