Heat and watermelon just go together. It’s not just the way the summer bakes watermelons to their proper ripeness. It’s the cool refreshment, the garden’s canteen for the working man, the thirst-quenching sweet welcome to drench a shirt when one sits on the back porch, a salvation from the inferno that rages all around.
I suppose it’s no wonder then that Arkansas has two watermelon festivals. And I have waxed poetically time and time about one of those festivals, the Cave City Watermelon Festival. The one I haven’t taken you to yet is the one you’re more likely to have heard about. That, my friends, is the Hope Watermelon Festival.
Hope itself has received much notoriety these past few decades, having spun forth two Arkansas governors who have both sought the presidency (Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee). But long before either of these boys from Hope stepped on the national stage there were the watermelons -- big’uns, legendary whoppers that took records and brought crowds to gawk.
I felt the compunction to finally travel to this famed festival, this Hope Watermelon Festival that convenes the second week of August every year. I wasn’t going alone. I took with me my child and two close friends and photographers, Grav Weldon and Leif Hassell. The temperature was above 100, we were full of breakfast from Ed & Kay’s in Benton and we were searching all over for the appropriate approach. From the interstate we had followed signs that seemed to take us on an unnecessarily circuitous route into the county fairgrounds, where we forked over $3 to park (a donation to the local Boy Scouts) and assembled ourselves outside the vehicle, me with Hunter in her stroller and all three adults with our cameras of choice. It was hot, we were ruddy and it was time to go get the story.
Somehow, we’d missed out on the bigwigs and their watermelon eating contest. Lots of cars had passed us on our way in, but that had allowed us to get parking up close so I wasn’t complaining. We hadn’t gotten 20 yards from the car before we were all showing signs of the drenching humid heat that surrounded us.
Our first stop was a vendor’s pavilion, shaded but sawdusted. Grav and Leif took off through the building to get shots; Hunter and I hung back, me shooting with my little point-and-shoot camera here and there. I saw crazy things -- inappropriate T-shirts, camouflage lingerie, depictions of animals created from garden implements. Bizarre and strange stuff, all of it and the vendors selling the items sweltering in the almost unbearable heat.
I caught up to Leif at a jelly stand, where our eyes had been drawn. The lady behind the table was fanning herself; what had drawn our attention was the way the burgeoning sun had illuminated the jellies from behind, all colors of the rainbow save blue, virtual stained glass. Beautiful, if indeed a little strange.
“Where’s Grav?” Leif asked.
“I thought he’d taken off with you.”
“He went on… do you see him?”
We spent a few minutes looking, with no success. I tried to call Grav’s phone but it went to voicemail.
Leif and Hunter and I crossed over to the Arts & Crafts building and went in. It was air conditioned inside, but all we saw were three vendors along the narrow hall.
We decided to split up, and Leif went on while I went out the back. He returned to me a moment later.
“He’s at the seed spitting contest.”
“Should we go that way?”
“In a minute. I want to see what’s going on here.”
The little dusty lot we were in was littered with tiny riding lawnmowers decked out in all sorts of decorations. There were teams of kids and adults gathered under a tree, and trophies were being handed out. This, I learned, was the award ceremony for the lawnmower races.
A few minutes longer and the heat was just eating us alive. I followed Leif into a packed auditorium. There were vendors everywhere, and by the back entrance we had come through was a bingo game. Leif captured a shot of the woman spinning the lettered numbers in a cage.
“Who you workin’ for?” she asked.
“Well, I write this blog…” I started.
“Aw, I don’t do computers. When’s it going to be in the paper?” she asked. I just smiled and thanked her and moved on.
We shuffled in between vendor after vendor, looking for a way out of the maze. There were all sorts of things being sold inside -- from bed sheets to rocks to feed to dresses made from pillowcases to John Deere paraphernalia to jelly to… well, the vendors were everywhere, and in between the little aisles were people, a sea of people, hiding indoors form the heat.
We finally managed to make it to the front entrance of the gymnasium, where there was a giant fiberglass watermelon seated next to the T-shirts and programs for the festival. I picked one up and looked through it. It was coming up on 2pm and there was the seed spitting, sure -- and later the arm wrestling competition.
We ventured out into the heat, concerned we’d lost Grav. Leif helped me get Hunter through the doorway, and we turned and walked through one line of the concession stands. Here there were all sorts of things -- gator on a stick, fried meat pies, fried fruit pies, pickled eggs, corn on the cob, dogs, suds… the cacophony of scents hung in the air. But not a stroke of watermelon to be found.
I made a mental note that I needed to come back and try the homebrew root beer. Leif looked impatient.
“Shouldn’t we find Grav?”
“I’m sure we should -- but I want to look at stuff. Besides, we’ll have different perspectives.”
“Okay?” he quizzically responded in a way that wasn’t quite a question or an answer.
“I want to see what’s over there in that big tent,” I told him, pointing to the west.
We heard a shout and a holler from a crowd some distance away. “I think that’s where the seed spitting is happening,” Leif told me.
“Good. Want to go?”
“Well, yeah, isn’t that what we’re here for?”
“It is. You go. I’ll catch up.”
He took off, and I knelt beside Hunter to check on her. She was watching the world pass by google-eyed. I opened my water bottle and offered her a drink. She took one, then popped her bottle back into her mouth.
I looked the way Leif had gone, then towards the tent, and I took the stroller off the road and headed towards that tent.
It was a long way off, but something big had to be going on because I could see dozens of people sitting underneath, though from that distance I could not determine what they were doing. I stopped at the pork rind stand and took photos of the guy pulling the fresh hot rinds from the grease.
“Want a sample, ma’am?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t.”
“Sure you can!”
“Sorry, no, I’m allergic to pork.”
He sat down his basket hard. “How do you manage to eat around here?”
I laughed. “It’s a challenge.”
“God bless you, ma’am.”
I pushed Hunter’s stroller past the inflatable attractions for the kids, past political booths and a raffle, past people picnicking. And finally I could see what was under the tent.
There, somewhat quietly, were nearly a hundred people, quietly munching on watermelon in the heat. Nearby, there was a bulldozer with a bucket being slowly filled with used watermelon rinds.
There was this strange hush over this crowd. It wasn’t just that mouths were full of watermelon -- it was the oppressive heat. It was so hot that the ice cold watermelon was warm by the time forks hit the white under the red. It was so hot that I saw people who had cradled bits of rind against their skin and their t-shirts, looking for the dampness to take away some of the heat that just wouldn’t quit.
Beyond the tent was a series of tables set up around a refrigerated truck. From it, men were pulling one watermelon after another, big honkin’ melons they’d divide longitudinally into eighths. Each eighth was a dollar, and they handed over a paper towel and a fork with each purchase.
The line wasn’t long, but the hours were -- apparently the watermelon’s available the entire time until it is gone, starting Thursday night.
“Want some watermelon, Hunter?” I asked. She looked at me askew and sucked on her bottle harder, Maggie-style. I laughed and wheeled her back to the east.
I could see the crowd around the stage but not much of the stage itself. Carefully I rolled the stroller along behind the stage and listened to what was going on. One after another, young people were being called up to take their turns spitting seeds.
Later I’d find that Leif and Grav had both met up on that other side of the same stage. What shots… so much better than I could get with my little Nikon P50. I need a better camera.
I’d find out later that Grav and Leif had gone from there in search of gator. We’d talked about gator on the way down -- as one of those odd little festival foods that you can find this time of year. Grav was bound and determined to find some. So about the time I was taking video of the seed spitting they were back off towards the tent where the watermelon was being consumed. Not having found any there… they walked back to the concessionary stands, where Leif discovered he had lost his cell phone. He told Grav where we’d come from earlier and left him as he went back to retrace his steps.
Left alone, Grav went to a gator vendor and bought a skewer of gator-on-a-stick for $7. He consumed this while looking around to see if he could spot Leif’s phone. Grav’s description:
“It was quite tasty. It had a slight Cajun seasoning to it, but the breading was crisp, the texture -- I was expecting something like chicken. The other time I’ve had it, it basically was the consistency of chicken, but so was anything else you added to gumbo except maybe shrimp. This had a much leaner and dense texture than any chicken or fowl. In fact the closest meat I’ve come to its texture and flavor would have to be rattlesnake.”
So at that point, Grav decided to try to call Leif’s phone -- but no answer. About the point where he’d found Leif, Grav got a call -- it was someone who’d picked up Leif’s phone and had dialed the last number, hoping to find the person who’d lost it. Grav says “it’s nice to know there are nice--- perhaps honest instead of nice --- people out there, because I thought my friend’s phone was toast.”
You may be wondering “well, Kat, what were you doing all this time?” Well, I had headed off down another lane of concessionary stands, taking the random photo and checking in on Hunter from time to time.
A church had set up a stand with a couple of water coolers for people to get a drink, and I gratefully filled my water bottle again. I offered it to Hunter, and this time she drank very deeply from it. She looked at me with a little exhaustion in her eyes.
A political volunteer came up and offered me a fan. I handed it to her and laughed when she started fanning herself with it. We progressed onward along the route.
I was stopped dead by an improbable sight -- a man carrying what appeared to be a Capuchin monkey on his shoulder. I stopped.
I noticed I was about to walk through a line of people. These people were waiting in line. To have their photos taken. With the monkey. For five bucks. I kid you not. There were all sorts of signs -- “Give the monkey a quarter for good luck.” “Give the monkey a dollar for a photo.”
There was a family of four taking their position inside the tent, and the man was handing the monkey over to sit in the laps of the two children. A woman went to focus her camera.
Ah, only in Arkansas.
Shaking my head, I progressed on further to another church stand. I had been paying attention to each of the concession stands to see what sort of odd food was being offered. The words “pickle juice” caught my eye.
Now, I’m a weird bird. I like pickle juice. I prefer it to Gatorade when I have to be out in the sun. And while water and soda was a buck they were selling pickle juice for 50 cents.
Yeah, you know I bought a cup.
I took a sip, enjoying the refreshing salty beverage a bit.
Hunter started hollering for my drink. I squatted beside her, took out my camera, and prepared to shoot. She’d never tried it before, and this was going to be interesting.
I handed her the cup. She looked at it like it was some sort of weird Kool-Aid. She drank. And she puckered.
I prepared to grab the water bottle again, getting ready to give her water to take the taste out of her mouth.
Instead, she reached for the cup again. My daughter, the pickle juice lover.
She sipped away at it as I pushed the stroller along further, capturing photos of big hand-held size fried pies and people lining up for fried gator on a stick. I managed to make it back to the gymnasium and halfway up the concessionary line again, still taking photos and checking on Hunter in-between shots. She’d gone back to slurping water out of the bottle. Pickle juice had even gotten to her. I took the cup back and put in the holder on top.
I spotted a vendor selling pickled eggs, and I stopped to take a photo. After I’d snapped, the proprietor leaned over and looked at me.
“Ma’am, that’s just plain rude.”
“I’m sorry, sir, I shoulda asked for permission,” I sheepishly replied.
“Oh, you can take pictures of the eggs. But how come you didn’t want me in it?”
I paused. “Would you like to be in the picture, sir?”
“I sure would!” he crowed, leaning over the counter next to the eggs. I took another shot and thanked him. He grinned at me.
“You get hungry, you know where to find them,” he told me.
I just grinned and slowly edged Hunter’s stroller away. Moments later I caught waving hands out of the corner of my eye, and saw the guys heading towards me from the other direction.
“There you are! You gotta try this!” Leif was calling.
“It’s just vile!” Grav said, wiping sweat from his brow with the back of his arm and holding out this brown bottle.
“I’ll trade!” I offered, holding out the cup of pickle juice.
“Gladly!” he said, swapping bottle for cup. “What is this?”
I caught him just before he drank it. “It’s pickle juice.”
“You’re really, really sick,” he told me, handing the cup back to me.
“Why’s it vile?” I asked, holding the bottle back up
“I like it,” Leif told me.
“Root beer?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s good,” Leif confirmed.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” Grav remarked.
I tried a swig. It was birch-y and sweet and kinda spicy for root beer, but rather good, too. But it wasn’t carbonated. That’s why Grav thought it was vile. I wasn’t surprised.
“Sure you don’t want the pickle juice?” I asked him.
We found our way back to the Arts and Crafts building, where we sat on plywood steps while we cooled off. The two guys alternated fanning Hunter and cooling her down; she’d turned bright red in the heat. Grav bought a hat. Leif showed me shots from his camera. I panted.
We eventually found our way out to the car. Outside the gates, we went to find a Sonic, where it took no less than 25 minutes to get our drink order. And somehow our order taker had interpreted “One Route 44 strawberry Limeade, one Route 44 Ocean Water, one Route 44 unsweet iced tea and two vanilla cones” as five beverages… but I digress.
Thing is, the Hope Watermelon Festival was a lot bigger than I’d anticipated. It was easily four times the size of the Cave City Watermelon Festival and about as spread out. I think we only saw about half of what was going on. And I’m sure it was fun… it was just so damned hot. So hot.
Will I go back? Perhaps. Maybe on a Friday night to capture a concert and have some watermelon. I just wonder how much money they make off of selling watermelon and other stuff.
There will be another festival next year. And you’ll be able to find out about it on the website. We have finally recovered from the heat. Next year Hunter can push her own stroller.