Friday, October 29, 2010

Scenic Seven Survives IV: Down into the Dogpatch.

Writer Kat Robinson and photographer Grav Weldon head into the hills in search of what’s brought a stretch of Scenic Highway Seven back to life.

An abridged version of this article appears in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Arkansas Wild. Click through for a downloadable copy.
When I was in college at Arkansas Tech University in the early 90s, I often made the run north, sometimes alone but usually with the man who would later become my husband in tow. The curves and hills were exciting for a 19 year old to take right at the speed limit, and the places to stop were plenty.

There were all sorts of places along the route, from the aforementioned Booger Hollow to a particular stop at the top of one of the better vistas, where the mileage to cities all across Arkansas and the U.S. were carefully painted onto the side of a building and where tourists stopped to get their photos taken.
We’d head to Dogpatch, and even then it was just a matter of time. The park I’d grown up loving to visit with family had gone from its former glory I last experienced in full back on Labor Day 1990 with my mother, stepfather and brother to little more than a swap meet with amusement park rides. The top of the hill had been shuttered off and trams no longer ran; instead, you drove directly into the park and found a place to leave the car, then headed from one booth or building to another. The games were mostly gone, and little was left open save the small amusement area and the old mill and the fudge shop that I adored so much.

The park was closed for good by the time I graduated in 1995, and I rarely found myself passing that way. I recall it going up for sale on eBay in the early oughts (00s) for a cool million, all that land and buildings, but it was some time before I went there again.
In May 2008 I was passing through researching what has become this article and which might one day become a book -- and noticed that someone had recently come through and re-roofed a good number of the original buildings with gleaming silver tin. But the “Keep Out” and “No Trespassing” signs and my pregnancy were enough to keep my curiosity at bay.

Two years later, and Grav and I were looking down on the ruins from Scenic Seven at the site where Arkansas’ stone for the Washington Monument was cut. He’d never been to Dogpatch, and though I’d told him tales I’m not quite sure he was prepared for what he saw. It is an eerie sight, the strange desolation below, veined with asphalt broken by weeds and wear, the sign for the attraction itself now even gone.
It apparently had its own eerie call. The next morning Grav came and woke me and asked me if I wanted to go into Dogpatch. I looked at the clock, saw it was 6am and told him no, I wasn't ready to get up. A few minutes later I called him, but realized he'd left his phone by my door. It didn't take me long to figure out he'd set out on his own, with no way for me to get ahold of him.







Yeah, that worried the tar out of me over the next three hours.

Grav had set out on his own from the top of the hill and walked right down into the ruins, on a road un-gated but criss-crossed with trees and obstacles that would easily puncture a car tire. He spent a good deal of the morning there, and caused some worry for those of us up at The Hub.

At one park he had crossed a bridge over the falls, those marble falls that had given the park town its new name after Dogpatch went bust. The wood was rotted and if I'd been down there I'd never have allowed him to cross. But that shot at the top of the page was worth it, at least that's what Grav thinks. I'm just glad he was safe.

What he returned with were images of a park long forgotten, hints of memories under the overgrowth that he documented with the best care he could, especially for a park he could not have remembered. For several days later we’d swap photos via the Internet -- his from his adventure, mine and others found on the Web of the park in its heyday.
There have been rumors about the park ever since its opening in 1968 and there are rumors today. Just hanging around at the Ozark Café in Jasper we heard about the park being sold on the steps of the courthouse, how the last owner disavows even knowing who owns the park today and of whispers of televangelists and even Dolly Parton possibly purchasing the property. These are all just wisps of thoughts, though, and are all taken with a modicum of salt.

What does remain are the memories and structures barely standing, of bridges that have lost their railings and kissing stone figures lost in the grass.

***
There’s an unusual little monument just across the road from the ruins of Dogpatch USA. The chimney-like marker represents the place where a hunk of marble was hewn in 1836 and sent to Washington DC for the construction of the Washington Monument.

We thought it was interesting, how just as much of the monument recalls the people that erected it as described what the monument was for.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Scenic Seven Survives III: The Excaliburger.

Writer Kat Robinson and photographer Grav Weldon head into the hills in search of what’s brought a stretch of Scenic Highway Seven back to life.

An abridged version of this article appears in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Arkansas Wild. Click through for a downloadable copy.

We went back into town for more searching out of things. It didn’t take us too long to end up at the Ozark Café.

Now I’ve been to the Ozark Café before. When I was on my trip through the area in May of 2008 I stopped in needing to feed my pregnancy cravings. And let me tell you what… there was nothing that quite hit the spot than the Deep Fried Burger. The hand-battered and deep fried patty wasn’t anywhere near as greasy as I thought it would be, and at $4.49 it wasn’t too expensive.

A lot can happen in two years. One of the assignments I’d picked up for this trip was for Serious Eats, an online publication for which I’m a hamburger correspondant. I kid you not. I knew we had to go there, and we were both hot, so we tumbled into the place for a couple of cool beverages and a sample of that burger.

The first thing our waitress told us was that there was no ice cream. The cooler had died a few days earlier and it’d be a few days more before they got the new unit in. I experienced a moment of disappointment. She gave us menus and went to fetch our beverages.

As I perused the menu I noticed another listing:

Excaliburger: Our ½ pound burger, sandwiched between two grilled cheese w/Ozark sauce… Single $5.99 Double $8.99

Well, what do you do? We debated over the two burgers, but then Grav pointed out to me that I’d already experienced the other burger and I had pictures… so why not? And since we’d already eaten breakfast -- twice -- we’d split the thing.

While we waited for our order, Grav got up and took photos. If you haven’t been to the Ozark Café and you’re in the area, you should stop in. The place is a veritable treasure trove of historical photographs and memorabilia from all over Newton County, including a great deal of Dogpatch USA items. It’d be hard to be bored there. The café itself has been around since 1909 and many of the photos you’ll see are from the restaurant over the years.

The burger was delivered to our table with a big knife stuck in it. Well, a sword would have looked strange. The grilled cheese sandwiches themselves were butter-toasted, each two slices of bread glued together with American cheese. In between the two were all the things you need on a burger — juicy tomato (very juicy, actually), the Ozark sauce (an herbed mayo, I believe), thinly sliced red onions, the burger patty, green leaf lettuce, flat hamburger dills and a thin layer of mayo.

And the burger had this perfect char on it, a grilled burger with lots of black pepper and a hint of thyme, and the strong suggestion on the use of Worchestershire throughout. It’s thick but not ovoid, and it was cooked medium well.

Now, there was one thing that was tough, and that was getting the burger to the mouth. Because of all the wet items, the burger patty tends to slide right out. In the end I procured a fork to finish my half. I was awesomely pleased with the burger, really I was.

We sat there for a while, cooling down and plotting out the rest of our day. I had interviews to conduct and Grav had images to shoot. And there was this bridge.

***

See, I’ve had this idea for an image for a long time, but no one to photograph it. That’s the problem with being out on your own as a freelancer -- you really are out on your own, so if you want a photo of you doing what you’re doing it has to be something very, very close-up, or it has to be on a timer. I’m not that technologically advanced when it comes to photography.

But having Grav along for the ride, that was a different story. This was the first assignment we’d taken together, and once I told him about the bit about me wanting a shot of me standing in the road, he wanted to oblige. And the first time he saw the perfect shot happened to be on this bridge on Highway 7.

We’ve been talking about how the road itself has dithered down with drivers and then come back up. For a little town like Jasper, though, it’s the main pipeline through which all things flow, from food for the restaurants in-town to building supplies for folks constructing their own river cabins to gravel for roadbeds. So getting this shot wasn’t easy. We parked at the river access on the north side and I walked out there and stood on the double yellow, only to run back a few seconds later at the approach of a truck. With no shoulder to speak of and the drop below, running back was the only option. Trucks making the curve from either direction at 55 miles an hour don’t give you much chance to get out of the way. In all that time we saw just one motorcycle, and we were starting to wonder if our idea about bikers on Scenic Seven was a sound one.

Grav finally caught this shot as I walked out towards the bridge, carefully listening for approaching vehicles. It was now literally 100 degrees outside, I was in long sleeves to keep my arms from burning too bad and the breeze had all but died. I wouldn’t know for another week that he’d captured this perfect shot in that second or two.

We drove from there down to the river out of curiosity, following the half a dozen vehicles that had made the turn while we were trying to catch that shot. Kids splashed in the shallows as their parents waded out to waist level on the tumbled rocks. Someone had decided to stack those rocks on the riverbank, and it was this we found the most interesting.

The afternoon was waning and we needed to get on up to Marble Falls.

Next: Down into the Dogpatch.

Ozark Cafe & Gift Shop on Urbanspoon

Something different for lunch at Cafe Bossa Nova.


Do you ever get tired of the usual? After an interminable period of swinging between fried foods and barbecue I was ready for something quite different for lunch today, something that was both comfort food and simple and preferably with a green quotient.
I found these things at Café Bossa Nova and, while I did pay a bit more for lunch, I got exactly what I was looking for.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Scenic Seven Survives II: Descent into Jasper

Writer Kat Robinson and photographer Grav Weldon head into the hills in search of what’s brought a stretch of Scenic Highway Seven back to life.

An abridged version of this article appears in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Arkansas Wild. Click through for a downloadable copy.


Read the first installment here.

The road took us up and onward past Pelsor, past many pulling-off points like the Fairview Campground, the Who’d-A-Thunk-It Store (promisingly open), signs leading to cabins and a roadside stop for bikers called Hog Heaven. We even slowed down a little bit some 19 miles up the road as I pointed out my favorite overlook. I made Grav promise to stop on the way back. That place was important to me.

Three miles further along and the Cliff House Inn graced the right side of the road. The sun was just really getting out over the ridges dozens of miles away, burning off the end of the morning’s fog from the valleys below. Knowing we were on limited time, we went on in. It was a quarter after ten, and I had breakfast to catch.

I asked at the counter if breakfast was still being served, and a quick passed question to the kitchen confirmed that yes, we could eat breakfast. We sat and breezed through the menu. Grav agreed to eat my bacon if I’d order the French Toast. I always appreciate someone willing to eat pork so I can have something I want..

As soon as we’d ordered, he took off to take some exteriors. I tried to shoot in the big room we’d been seated in, a long glassed-in deck along the back of the building overlooking the valley below. The inside walls were covered with area memorabilia and publicity shots of stars, but my guess is that they rarely get much of a look. The view is stunning, an achingly beautiful sea of trees down to the valley far below, wildflowers close up, hawks soaring overhead. It can take your breath away.

Our breakfasts soon arrived. The waitress had raised an eyebrow when Grav ordered his egg boiled but didn’t make too much of a fuss. We pulled out our cameras and shot away. I noticed how the light from the still rising sun turned the bacon translucent and made the big squeeze bottle of honey appear golden. The light was strange, and other items came across as ethereal.

Having had to smell those hot pecan rolls at Hankins Country Store, I wasn’t wanting to wait any longer. I dug into the French toast, immediately enjoying the nutmeg and cinnamon tucked into the batter. I tried some of it with the honey, sort of an Arkansas thing I think, and thought of how great it was we have so many places to pick up honey around here. It was delightful.

Grav had chosen the country smoked ham steak breakfast -- and told me it wasn’t all that salty for ham, not like he was used to. But he also told me it was deliciously smoky and perfectly cooked. He also liked my bacon, the thin long rashers being cooked just to the right point of crispy.

The biscuits… well, I had to steal a few pinches of his biscuits. The Inn advertises them as Angel Flake Biscuits. I found them to be more of a traditional shortening biscuit, slightly sweetened and perfect for soaking up a little gravy or egg yolk. The moist texture was just slightly crumbly. They went nicely with the offered pepper cream gravy that came with Grav’s breakfast.

We took our time after breakfast, knowing we didn’t have to rush so much after that point. The gift shop carried all sorts of those staples travelers love to take home with them to remind them of Arkansas -- lye soap, horehound hard candies, jellies and jams, walking sticks and tin signs with sayings on them. There were restrooms, too, and they were small but clean.

The Cliff House Inn isn’t just a restaurant; tucked up underneath the restaurant are several motel rooms with that great view of the valley below. They rent in the $75-90 range. Can you imagine spending a fall morning watching the sun come up over that brilliantly colored red-and-gold valley below? That’d be a sight.

***

We rolled straight on up into Jasper from there. Three miles north of the Cliff House Inn we passed Scenic Point Gift Shop with its tower and started the descent to the valley below. I’d traveled this way in early spring 2009 shortly after the ice storm and had been shocked by the devastation. At the time I’d been told that the area wouldn’t recover for years, that there’d be no trees for greenery along the way.

But there was quite a lot of greenery, actually. Nature had come back with a vengeance in the form of kudzu and saplings, and though the view to the valley below was somewhat clearer it wasn’t barren. But it was hard to just look -- the road itself had become somewhat treacherous. Washouts and mudslides have taken their toll on Highway Seven’s northern slope into the valley. Patches of asphalt are fresh and rough. One section actually diverts the roadway around a place where the highway had completely washed out. What’s left hugs the hill tightly. Trucks already using low gear for the grade crawled along even slower than usual.

The bottom of the incline is marked by the wide spread of the Newton County Fairgrounds, just past the runaway truck ramp. A few more curves into the woods, a few more descents and we were rolling around and down into Jasper proper.

And Grav had to stop, right then. There was a totem pole inexplicably in the side yard of an old gas station. This bore some investigation.

We poured out of the car and started shooting. The totem bore the inscription “Jasper 08” on its spread wings and the faces of owls and other creatures below. The location seemed a bit odd, right behind an honor yard sale.

See, most people actually sit out and attend a yard sale. This one was set up with directions to leave money for anything purchased in a slot in a door in a shed in the back. Some items were marked; others were not, and it was assumed that you’d leave an appropriate amount behind.

I was rather taken with an old working console stereo… working, I knew, because the folks who had put out this shindig had run an orange extension cord out to the pavilion to keep it going and playing music. We found everything from ovenmits to coffeemakers to steamer trunks under the pavilion, and an old kayak and canoe out front amidst a few tomato plants.

***

After a brief orientation through town, I showed Grav one of Jasper’s little hidden jewels. I took him down Clark Street past the high school to this park that’s tucked into the elbow of the Little Buffalo River. Ball fields and picnic tables are spread out in the big curve, but what’s really fantastic to see is the river beyond.

The river is green in its shallows, something so beautiful and calm about it that makes me want to just sit on the bank and take photographs. At the eastern end of the park there are shoals that jut out into the river, perfect for walking down to and skipping stones. At the western end there are stairs that take you down to the water’s edge, and when it’s rained recently you can see a waterfall on the opposite shore.

Children were playing at the water’s edge, their cackles and happy cries echoing off the cliff face on the other side. A handful of Diana Fritillaries fluttered back and forth between plants on the ledge. They pestered us and flicked back and forth from time to time, brushing up against us as if daring us to try to get adequate photos of them.


We noticed a fluttering on the edge of the water. Grav scampered down to look. Half a dozen butterflies were perched there on the rocks, and they didn’t pay attention as he scooched closer to photograph them.

It was hot, for sure, nearly noon and a heat index in the town that had been close to 100 degrees. But on the riverbank it felt around 85. The wind sighed in such a carefree fashion, as if to say “there’s no need to rush.” And for a while it drew us in, the calls of a few birds here and there, the calls of children playing, the far distant echo of cicadas. I sat on the riverbank for some time, absorbing the calm that had eluded us through our rush to get up the highway.

And then I heard the rumble of thunder, the echo of engines and wheels on pavement. I looked up to see three cycles passing behind the trees on Highway 327 which rolls above and to the north of the little park. The noise wasn’t a huge disruption but a reminder of why we came up here. We had a story to follow. A couple, in fact.

Next: The Excaliburger, the Washington Monument monument and Dogpatch USA.

Cliff House Inn on Urbanspoon

Scenic Seven Survives I: Into the Ozarks.

Writer Kat Robinson and photographer Grav Weldon head into the hills in search of what’s brought a stretch of Scenic Highway Seven back to life.

An abridged version of this article appears in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Arkansas Wild. Click through for a downloadable copy.

Highway Seven’s northern leg is a twisting, snarling buck of a ride, rolling its way over hill and crag as it crawls up into the Ozarks from Russellville for its eventual sigh of relief in Harrison. The miles in-between have been their own source of folly, a litany of attraction and motels and tourists traps mostly eaten up by time and bad fortune. These roads that once saw traffic that never stopped now sometimes lays languidly calm on autumn afternoons, waiting for the next denizen to roll up and past and onward to another destination.

Thirty years ago and more, the sound would have been of sedans and station wagons packed with kids, families escaping the cities or making that grand trek to take their ilk with them to see what Arkansas was all about. They stopped at places like Booger Hollow, the Arkansas Grand Canyon and Natural Bridge on their way to that pinnacle of hillbilly greatness -- Dogpatch, USA.

Those sounds now are quite different. Booger Hollow has been abandoned nigh on four years now, Dogpatch has echoed quiet for a decade and a half and while people still stop to take photographs into the deep crevice the Buffalo River has carved over time, those visitors are fewer and further between. So many of the gift shops, the quilt stores and flea markets and craft fairs and such -- they’ve all dried up and blown away. Boomtime was three decades and more ago.

But there is an echo of progress and more traffic on the road now than has been in a decade or longer. There are still sedans, but now they haul families up to Ponca to watch elk in the early morning hours. There are couples in coupes heading to a hillside cabin retreat. And there are the two-wheeled variety of traveler, the weekend warriors, motorcycle enthusiasts who are searching out the thrill of a good ride and a place to lay their heads in-between stretches of pavement on a Friday or Saturday night. These are the people who are coming home off of Seven and sharing their tales, who are heralding a little town in the hills called Jasper, and who keep telling people about the miracle at Marble Falls overlooking the ruins of Dogpatch. This is a story of Scenic Highway Seven, today.

***

We came to Scenic Seven, photographer Grav Weldon and I, on a hot dusty July morning to find out how the communities along the road are surviving. I’ve traveled the stretch many times and watched the eventual degradation of the area.

As we traveled, I told Grav my stories of Scenic Seven. I shared with him the stories from the 1992 presidential elections, when reporters lit on Booger Hollow (population seven, countin’ one coon dog) to find out more about The Man From Hope and to show the world what Arkansas was like. I shared also the thrill I’d get from stopping in at the store with my folks as a kid, paying a buck to pick up a bag of tumbled rocks and how the whole place smelled like smoked ham.

I went back to Booger Hollow in October 2007 because I wanted it as one of my first entries on my blog, Tie Dye Travels, but it had been closed most of a year and the property was in dispute. At the time it looked empty but not that far gone.

We passed by Mack’s Pines this day (I was surprised to see it was up for sale) and rounded the curve a short time later to view the remnants of Booger Hollow. There was another vehicle there, a truck with a guy talking on a cell phone. We hopped out and I showed Grav the famed Double Decker Outhouse. He showed concern for picking up chiggers but chronicled the ruins of the attraction; I walked around and noticed the back door standing wide open, a sour stench coming from inside. I’m not sure if transients had used the place for a flophouse or if it was just the aging of the dead attraction, but while I’d felt ghosts on my last visit this time it just felt like an empty shell.

It’s a real shame. Booger Hollow was the place to stop for any sort of hillbilly kitsch, for a good smoked pork product or a handwoven basket or even a postcard and a Coke before heading on up the road. I’d hoped that it would survive and come back, but that looks unlikely now. Even the place that sprung up down the road from there, called Chigger Hollow, seems quiet. Like so much of Scenic Seven, Booger Hollow has faded away.

***

But you don’t have to go far up the road to find a place to stop and have a bite to eat. It’s in a quiet place, barely a stop-over before heading up further into the Ozark National Forest. We were stopped by the smoke.

A Facebook fan had keyed me in on Hankins Country Store, an older property at Pelsor along Scenic Seven. On my last trip up I had noticed the building was empty. This reader had told me I needed to drop in and have myself a bread pudding muffin. Since I’ve been on a breakfast trek this summer, we had to stop.

But the scent we had picked up was of pork ribs smoking in a small black contraption out front of the store. We pulled in and took out the cameras. The store was alive and active.

Grav questioned a guy who came out to check on the smoker about the delicious scents. I went on in to see if I could find these pastries.

Jennie Yohn was just walking a big hot pan of pecan rolls over to the old school bakery case. She smiled at me and asked if I was interested in having one. I asked her in turn if it was all right for me to take photos of the place. She looked a little puzzled but agreed.

Grav came through the door, very cheerful about the smoker. “They’re doing beef brisket later today!” he told me, quite happy about this news. I pointed at the bakery case, which was starting to fog up from the just inserted pecan rolls. He also asked to shoot photos and got underway. It was nearly nine in the morning. The place smelled heavenly.

Turns out, the baked goods and the ribs and all other sorts of stuff are served up almost daily from six in the morning to six at night as part of Blue Mountain Bakery, the eats place run by Yohn and her husband, Roy. That’s not all you’ll find there -- they also carry all sorts of sundries and groceries and things you might need if you’re planning to camp in the area or if you forgot something.

We ended up walking out of there with a pecan roll and the bread pudding muffin I was there to try in the first place. As breakfast pastries, you could do far worse. The pecan roll was a symphony of butter-type notes, full of cinnamon and caramelized pecans with that great bready base. The bread pudding muffin was unusual and would have benefited from a quick pop in the microwave had we been thinking about it, but still nice and custardy. We marked it down for further investigation.

Next: The Cliff House Inn, a totem in Jasper, and the green waters of the Little Buffalo.