Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Girl on the Bridge.

The Pruitt Bridge (1931) across the Buffalo National River
on Scenic Arkansas Highway Seven.
I thought it was all about the ride.

When I was a young girl, I went many times to Dogpatch USA. The straight stretches of Interstate 40, though new, bored me but I always loved getting above Dover. The vehicle was a car on the best roller coaster ever, one that went longer than a minute and a half and that took me marvelous places… to Booger Hollow and the little burg of Jasper.

I always knew I was close when we crossed the Pruitt Bridge over the Buffalo National River. We’d pass the A-frame cabins of Little Switzerland, climb around a mountain, curl down into the valley and coast across the old steel frame bridge. Once the bridge was crossed, I’d put away whatever tablet or game or book I’d had in my lap, knowing that just a few curves away was Dogpatch.

The view from the overlook south of Jasper.
At 17 I started at Arkansas Tech University. Weekdays were for class, Saturdays for marching band… and Sundays? They were mine. And I found myself in those years hitting Highway Seven… which was soon designated Scenic Highway Seven… found myself sliding past Dover and climbing into the mountains, sometimes stopping at Rotary Ann, sometimes at this overlook or that… taking the hard right downtown in Jasper and then out and up… and coasting over the Pruitt bridge, that sign that Harrison was about 20 miles off, the turnaround where sometimes I’d grab lunch at the Hi-Boy and sometimes I’d eat at Master Chef before heading back down into the valley and Russellville.

Dogpatch USA closed, and the next year I graduated and moved away.

Smokeshed at Booger Hollow, October 2007.
Twelve years later I’d venture that way again, one October afternoon in 2007 when I went to learn the fate of Booger Hollow. I found it closed. When I got home I wrote the story… on a brand new blog. This one, of course.

That trip sparked in me a desire to chronicle Scenic Highway Seven. I wanted to capture what I found special about it, this ride through the mountains that had held so many memories. I started collecting stories, photographing the drive each time I went.

The lady at Nellie's knew I was expecting.
I took the drive up and back in April 2008… with the thought that I was expecting. There was a lady in a flea market along one curve that told me I was… just by looking at me. And she turned out to be right.

Pruitt Bridge, April 2008.
That time, I coasted over Pruitt Bridge, pulled over and looked back. This is what I saw. And I knew I wanted to be on that road on the bridge. But not that day.

My cabin at Little Switzerland Cabins.
The next ride, the next month, I finally satisfied my curiosity and stayed at the Little Switzerland Cabins, unplugging from the world in an A-frame that overlooked Scenic Highway Seven with a comfortable bed and a fridge full of juice and absolutely no cell phone signal at all. I had to clear my mind a bit. After all, Hunter was on the way just at a time when I was just getting my start on the road… on this path, this path of being a writer. What was that going to mean for me?

Hunter with me at Jasper City Park, April 2009.
It meant… that a year later I’d be driven by my husband over that bridge, infant in the back seat, to do a story in Jasper. Hunter had slept the entire ride from Little Rock to Harrison and back down to Pruitt, where she woke as we crossed the bridge and started to holler.

The old bridge has been around 82 years. It was commissioned and built in 1931, one of four Pennsylvania-truss style bridges still remaining in the state. The old green bridge crosses the nation’s first national river… below it, during the warmer months, kids and adults play in the water, while in spring you’ll see canoes and kayaks passing by.

It has been a landmark in my memory my entire life.

Grav Weldon's shot on the Pruitt Bridge.
It was more than 100 degrees when I stepped on the bridge on foot in July 2010. I was working on a story for Arkansas Wild, a multi-faceted story I’d been meaning to tackle for some time and had finally found a commission to write. It was also my first trip with photographer Grav Weldon. While we were collecting stories, I mentioned my desire to walk the bridge, and he photographed me there… an image that has become iconic in my life. My friends told me it needed to be the cover of my book, whatever book I ended up writing one day.

Grav's interest the day he took the bridge shot
was more piqued by these rock piles along
the Buffalo.
That was three and a half years ago. I could no more have told you that I’d have two books under my belt then than anything else. Indeed, my life is so very different these days.

I left life on the road behind at the end of 2011 for the sure thing of a day job. Hunter started school soon afterward. I’ve gone through a lot since the day I walked the bridge… divorce, publication, growth, survival. Hunter has grown into a tall girl of five.

The Excaliburger, photographed
during that July 2010 trip, is on
the back cover of my second
book.
I still find excuses to cross the bridge… for research, for stories, for the fun of it. I’ve crossed after ice storms that ripped branches from the trees. I’ve crossed in the fog of early September mornings.

April 2013… the story came… the Pruitt Bridge is being replaced. The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department was looking for a buyer but have decided to instead just build a new bridge alongside and close the older bridge to all but pedestrians.  82 years is a long time for a bridge, especially along Arkansas’s longest state highway.

But that’s neither here nor there.

The thing is, 2013 has been a very full year, very busy. I look back and see how packed it was, how every single moment seemed to be bursting with things to do, so much time in motion.

I’ve been rather ill this past week, with one of the worst colds I’ve ever caught. I’ve been too out of it to concentrate on writing, or even just mindless TV watching to be honest with you. It’s left me with a lot of time to think.

I’ve done a lot in my life… a lot of big jobs and a lot of big events. But I have been my happiest when I’ve been sharing stories of where I’ve been and the people I’ve met… oh yes, the food I’ve tried as well, but not so much. I’ve wanted to share what is now and what was… so there will be some record of these things for the days to come.

And I realized something. I am the girl on the bridge. I have told the stories about the chances I’ve taken and the adventures I’ve had… and that is more me than anything else.

I think I need to take another drive.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Delta Commissary: R. A. Pickens & Son Company.

One of the biggest treasures amongst Arkansas’s Delta eateries sits on what had once been a very important plantation. The R. A. Pickens and Son Company started out in 1881 as the Pickens Plantation at Walnut Lake, south of Dumas. At one point, some 500 people were employed in the various enterprises on the land – which included everything from cotton farming and ginning to a saw mill. Today it’s still a busy hub and home to a great southeast Arkansas restaurant… in the middle of an honest to goodness country store.

Folks around these parts call it the Commissary… which is what it’s always been. Before 1948, farmers and their families would come to the commissary to purchase staples, trade, sell crops and gather to share news and enjoy a bite. Though not really a restaurant in those days, there was always something to eat readily available at the counter, such as jerky or colas or fried pies.

There's a long history here, that started with Reuben Adolphus Pickens.  He was one of a family of pioneers that first settled the community of Walnut Lake in 1881.  He became a progressive farmer who held hundreds of acres of plantation lands in the area -- as well as a cotton gin, a Hereford cattle business and a commissary that served the dozens of workers and families that lived in the area.  Walnut Lake would eventually be renamed Pickens for his family.

The original structure, which bore the more common general store look we’re accustomed to, burned in 1948. The building that replaced it is a long brick structure with a curved roof reminiscent of a Quonset hut. What you find inside it is what makes all the difference in the world.

Every Monday through Friday from seven in the morning to five in the afternoon, the store is open. Breakfast is good but lunch is likely better, with daily lunch specials of local standards. The baked chicken, covered in herbs and spices, is a particularly fantastic standout – but others are just as well loved, including the meatloaf and the fried salmon patty. And then there are all the side items – regional favorites such as turnip greens, sweet potatoes, broccoli and cheese casserole, stewed squash, rice and gravy, devilled eggs, stewed cabbage and lima beans and the best of all – squash casserole. You might as well come here if you want the old southeast Arkansas dinner on the porch experience.

You order at the counter, and then go claim a table and get the condiments you want. The folks running the place will call your name when your food is ready, and you go get it – and you eat it at a table in the middle of a room running every sort of business around its edges – grocery store, apparel shop, post office, community center – and at one time, even a bank.

The conversations can get loud but never mean, and the clientele comes from every walk of life out there.


And what else? Well, there’s the pie… I mentioned it in Arkansas Pie, but I will mention it again.
On any given day, there are coconut and chocolate meringue pies. Some days there will be peach pie, others strawberry (topped with whipped cream) and really, it’s whatever is available at the time.

These days, the folks at Pickens are good enough to have a trailer out by US Highway 65 with a big banner on it, pointing the way to the community about a mile off that road. Most travelers will whiz on by, never knowing what they’re passing up. But now you know better.

You can call the store at (870) 382-5266 -- or just check out the store's Facebook page.

Pickens Store & Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Art of the Pitch: 10 Tips to Earning Time on Local TV and Radio.

So you have something you want to say, and need a big audience to say it to?  Whether it’s a product, an upcoming event or an idea – broadcast media gets the message out.

However, every television station and most radio stations handle a great number of press releases every day.  How can you get your message to the people making the decisions, who will let you share that message on their station?

Contact early
Some daily shows set up interviews up to a month in advance, while weekly programs might schedule months in advance.  Be sure to give the station time to fit you in.

Be informative
You’ve heard of who, what, when, where, why and how?  These are all questions you should answer in your message.

Be accurate and grammatically correct
Before you send off that letter or email or pick up the phone, make sure you have all the details down.  That means having the date, time and location set before promoting an event, or confirming the price and name of a product. Be sure to re-read what you’ve written before you press the send button – or have someone else read it for you.

Be quick about it
The average producer or editor doesn’t have a lot of time to go through everything that comes through a newsroom.  Deliver your initial message in no more than one page.

Get the point across first
Everyone knows that a festival will include x, y, and z – something to do, something to see, something to eat.  Everyone knows a location has a geographic address.  Share what makes yours different at

Go to the right person
The receptionist at the front desk will likely be happy to see you, but he or she probably won’t be able to make the decision to put you on the air.  While contacts with television anchors and radio personalities are important (they usually have a say in programming), it’s the producers and editors who control what content gets through. 

Be persistent, but don’t pester
Remember that whole lack of time issue?  The last thing anyone in a newsroom needs is someone demanding an answer.  Make sure your pitch gets in early, send a reminder if you don’t hear anything within two weeks of the scheduled date, and accept “not right now” as an answer.

Don’t be boring
Are you engaging?  Can you quickly share your message without confusing the audience?  Practice talking about your message – and don’t be afraid to choose the best spokesperson in your organization to spread that message about. 

Two minutes is better than no minutes
With the press for more content and the hectic nature of local interview programs, many producers are limiting interviews to as little as two minutes.  Just like your pitch, be succinct – and gracious.

Always be gracious
While the air is free, it costs money to put something on the airwaves – or cable, satellite or the internet.  You’re asking for free time in a medium that charges by the 30 or 60 second spot.  Be sure to thank the people at each station for having you on.  They’ll remember the kindness.

Who to ask for:                            Don’t ask for:
Affiliate TV                Assignment editor                            Station manager
(CBS, NBC,                Morning show producer                  News director
ABC, FOX)                 Noon show producer                       Program director
                                                                                                News anchor

Non-affiliate TV        Assignment editor                            Station manager
with newscast            Feature producer

Community access   Program director                              Station manager

Radio                          News desk (if station runs news)   Station manager
                                    Morning drive producer                  Production manager
                                    Evening drive producer                   Program director
                                    Specific show producer                    DJ on the air

Newspaper                City editor                                         Managing editor
                                    Features editor                                 Publisher
                                    Features reporter                            Circulation desk

Internet/                   Content editor                                                          
Websites                    Writer                        

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Holiday Weekend in Branson, With Pictures.

Hunter encounters an angel.  Find out where, at the end
of this story.
Few cities turn up the volume for Christmas the way Branson, Missouri does. This longtime mecca of Ozark entertainment is a great spot for enjoying shows, shopping and taking a neat ride year-round. But when the holidays come around, it's purely magic.

My mom and my daughter Hunter and I traveled to Branson in November to enjoy the sights, sounds and savory tastes of the town. And shopping, of course. In fact, we managed to bring home a lot of bargains on the shopping front. However, you probably don't want to hear about the great $6 jean sale at Vanity Fair or about my neat new pair of Reeboks. You want to see Hunter in action. Who wouldn't want to see Hunter?

On this visit, we stayed at the Radisson, located just off The Strip (Highway
76) about a block east of Grand Village.  Our room was on the end of the floor,
which meant we were at the end of a hallway.  Neat perspective, huh?
Our room was on the northwest corner of the building, with so many
windows.
Our first stop was the Titanic, a half-scale replica of the famed
ship.  Because of the specific rules, we could not photograph
inside the museum.  But this is inside the entrance.  The first
thing you encounter is a wall of ice reminiscent of an iceberg.
As Hunter could tell, it was cold.
Shortly after we arrived, it occurred to both my mom and I that maybe the Titanic wasn't the best idea for a child of nearly five.  Would it be traumatizing?  We decided to focus on Hunter's experience.  She instantly fell in love with these rascals.
This is Molly and Carter, the King Charles Spaniels who represent the 10
dogs aboard the Titanic.  They were asleep when we came by, but Hunter
grasped onto the idea of pups on the ship and searched for dog-related
stories everywhere we went.  There are interpretive questions throughout
the exhibit focusing on these beloved pets -- and she found every one.
There was a lovely young man who talked with us before we headed up the
gorgeous replica staircase, all decked out for the holidays.  He paid special
attention to Hunter and made her feel like a princess.
A disclosure -- my mom and I did find it odd to see
a Titanic stateroom decorated for Christmas.  The
singular journey happened in April 1912.  But
Hunter thought it was charming.
Of course, we had to take advantage of this
iceberg photo op.
From there, it was off to White River Landing to board the Showboat Branson
Belle.  We had a few minutes, and Hunter spied something she wanted at McAdoo's.
It only took a few minutes for a lovely lady
to personalize Hunter's own parasol.
There wasn't a cloud in a sky for this noontime sailing.
Before boarding, Mom and Hunter fed the
enormous catfish on-hand below the boat.
We were treated to the pickpocketing antics of Mike Bliss before lunch.
Lunch was salad with sweet vidalia
onion dressing, a corn roll...
beef roast and honey mustard glazed
chicken with mashed potatoes and
vegetables.
Hunter's lunch: penne pasta in marinara with mozzarella
and applesauce on the side.
Mom also got a couple of the
specialty beverages -- a mug
of cappuccino
and a strawberry smoothie.  I stuck
with the coffee and plain iced tea.
For dessert, the adults have a slice of Golden Brittle Lemon Berry Torte...
while Hunter enjoyed the confetti-sprinkled ice cream cake
with chocolate sauce.
After lunch, Hunter wanted to see more of the ship.
She marveled that we were already out in the middle
of Table Rock Lake.
We climbed to the deck on top, where we could see
a panoramic view of the lake.  Hunter was thrilled
to watch the paddlewheels working.
We even climbed up to the pilot house and had a visit with the captain.
Then it was time for the show.  We headed downstairs, took our seats and
listened to The ShowBelles go through their routine.  Hunter was polite
and respectful, but when Julie McClary-Davis took the stage and started
playing the piano, Hunter sat up and took notice.  She was enthralled with
Julie's master pianoship.  I suppose the fact that Hunter's recently started
piano lessons didn't hurt!
She was equally stunned by violinist Dean Church, who can play a fiddle
in ways I've never seen done before -- on his chin, his knee, behind his knee,
you name it.
After our ride on the Showboat, we took a little break and then headed to
Grand Village, home to one of our favorite Branson restaurants.  There's no
place in Arkansas quite like Mel's Hard Luck Diner.  You never can tell who you'll
see there... even a certain Jolly Old Elf taking a break for a patty melt.
He's got good taste -- the patty melts are good.
Hunter, of course, was all about some more applesauce along with macaroni
and cheese and our fries.
You don't go to the Hard Luck Diner just because of the food.  You go to
hear breakout would-be stars sing arias from Phantom of the Opera to you...
or country music hits... or tunes that will get your bobby sox a rockin'.
See what I mean?
With evening upon us, it was time to head out to Silver Dollar City to
experience An Old Time Christmas.

We arrived just in time for the Holiday Light Parade.  The square was packed,
and this cool blue-lit tree was "dripping" with "icicles."
We made it just in time to squeeze in a front row spot for Hunter -- a real
treat, since there were a lot of cool characters to give her a high-five.  Look
at the neat lights on the toy soldier.


Santa won't be any trouble for Air Traffic Control to spot with this sleigh.
Wonder how that patty melt was treating him.  I was still full!
I cannot emphasize to you just how many people were on the square to
see this parade... and the parade continues throughout the park, several
times a night.
As I said, Hunter was fully engaged and seeing
nothing but this parade.
It went on...
and on...


and on...
and on...


and finally ended with a rolling nativity and winged angel.  Once it passed,
we stepped out and followed the parade down the hill.  We even waved
to others gathered to watch... and they waved back.
We wandered the park until we reached the Grand Exposition, where I tried
to encourage Hunter to ride.  She saw the Magnificent Wave Carousel and
said "nope."  Same to the coasters, to the Mighty Galleon and to the Racing
Regatta.  I finally convinced her to go on the spinning Tea Party ride and the
Elephant March.  Can't take the camera on those.
Hunter was relieved when that ordeal is over. I
suppose I'll never be the mom standing white-
knuckled beside the more adventurous rides while
she tries them out.
Of course, Hunter has hollow legs and an incredible
appetite, so after leaving the Grand Exhibition and
wandering through the Frisco Sale Barn, it was time
for a snack.  I went for hot spiced nuts.
Hunter was all about a potato on a stick.  Actually, these spuds were ready
for twisting and frying.  If you look close, you can see Hunter's face in one
of the potatoes.


It was kind of nice after such a busy day to relax on a bench and enjoy the
millions upon millions of lights that bedeck the park.
No visit to Silver Dollar City is complete without a visit to the candy store.


At the end of it all, Hunter's favorite ride ended up being
the tram ride out to the parking lot -- no loops, no twists,
just a slow ride. 
The next morning we went over to The Butterfly Palace.  This edifice sits
above the western end of the 76 Strip -- a round domed building.
To say that Hunter loves butterflies is like saying puppies
like puddles.  She really digs looking... and she's of the right
age now where she doesn't try to catch them.

There are dozens of different varieties of butterfly throughout
the exotic butterfly aviary -- such as this Golden Helicon.
Butterflies emerge from their chrysalis state in a special incubation room.

Of course, what's exploring without a pith helmet
and binoculars?
The butterfly bench at the end of the exhibit area is a favorite of ours.  Mom
and Hunter looked for more butterflies in front of the poinsettia tree.
She really got into exploring.

And then there was this statue... except it's not a statue.  It's a performer.  I've
seen similar performers in New Orleans, but this lady was excellent.

Thing is, Hunter's a big Doctor Who fan... and I believe she was convinced
that this was a Weeping Angel... and hence she would not take her eyes off it.
I have to admit, she was mesmerising.

At the top of this post, you see the angel reaching out to Hunter.  It was a very magical moment.  It's all part of a yearly celebration they call White Flight -- and if you have a young one that's interested in butterflies, this is a must-stop.

I wish we could have stayed in Branson longer... but our schedules didn't work out that way.  I'm looking forward to taking Hunter back now that she's old enough to appreciate far more of the city and its attractions.  If you're interested in checking Branson out, click here.