Saturday, August 4, 2007

This morning we lounged in our shotgun shack, determined to milk every moment out of this place. As you can tell from the photo to the right, we got just a little sucked into a Tennessee Williams vibe. Jenny and Vienna watched a movie borrowed from the lobby. Though the television only played blues music, the attached VCR wasn't so picky. Unfortunately, by eleven, we had to leave, so we said our goodbyes and headed back to the Highway 61-49 crossroads. Following advice we'd received at the Shack Up, we stopped at Abe's for some decent BBQ sandwiches and turned northwest toward Little Rock, Arkansas.

The two-hour drive was relaxed and mellow. We chatted, listened to music, and felt an odd pleasure that our trip was both such fun and almost done. It had been two weeks on the road, a lot of driving and no real problems, a small, perfect thing ready to be stored into memory. And though I dream of an endless road trip, never stopping for long, always looking forward to the next place over the hill, even I smiled at the thought that today was our last real vacation day. All vacations, after all, need long stretches of "real life" to mark the pleasures of traveling in sharpest relief. Tomorrow we will drive to Dallas and catch a flight for home. But today we planned to drive anywhere we like. I made no plans for the evening.

We did have one last stop in our formal itinerary, though: The Whole Hog Café in Little Rock. I'd added this spot as an afterthought, figuring that we should enjoy some Arkansas BBQ at some point. And I'm glad we stopped. The Whole Hog served some of the tastiest ribs we'd had on this trip, definitely in our top three. They were basted in a sweet glaze and served with six -- six -- distinct sauces: vinegar-based, tomato-based, mustard-based, and various combinations. While the brisket was a little dry, the ribs were so good that I ordered seconds. The Whole Hog is filled with trophies and plaques commemorating the owners' victories in various BBQ competitions, awards richly deserved. Jenny and Vienna were also treated to potato salad mixed with dollops of sour cream, but I focused on the pork. We departed full and satisfied.

Our next stop was Hot Springs. We'd planned to stay the night in that city of historical spring water baths, but we arrived in mid afternoon with the sun still high. It just seemed wrong to end our trip so early in the day. Considering our options, we found our way to Tiny Town USA, one of my favorite roadside attractions anywhere in the country. Tiny Town is a miniature approximation of various places around the United States, little villages and historical tableaux, even a Mount Rushmore, all made from inexpensive cast-offs. While a number of pieces were whittled by hand, their only cost borne of sweat and patience, even those components calling for specialized materials are inexpensive. The priciest building in all of Tiny Town cost merely four bucks to create. And since the owners stopped adding to Tiny Town in the 1980s, the little people within this miniature world possess a fun retro charm: "Look! It's Mr. T. And there's The Fonz from television's Happy Days!" It's all sort of silly and a bit goofy to hear our guide recite pieces of a script that's been repeated for decades, but I smiled with genuine pleasure at this place. Tiny Town epitomizes the term, "labor of love." We chatted a bit with the owners, anticipating a return visit whenever I start that book on miniature cities I've longed to write.

Departing Hot Springs, we began to consider our options. We could drive for hours, all the way to Dallas if we wished. And we could take any direction we wanted. I suggested we drive through Hope, recalling that we'd never had a chance to visit that town during our President Trek. We lulled a while there, enjoying a quiet sojourn in a sleepy part of town. Then we continued along a stretch of road that roughly paralleled the interstate. It was fun to share with Vienna the story of how the traces left by Native Americans offered the original templates for today's highway systems. Stretching near these trails came railroad tracks and telegraph lines, two and four-lane highways, and finally interstate slabs wide enough to serve as airstrips. Vienna and I chatted about her plans to take a road trip soon, and I delighted at the prospect of her being able to discover this country for herself, at her own pace and in her own direction. In that spirit, I invited Vienna to set our course and identify a decent place to stop.

We thereafter headed for Texarkana, a perfect example of a border town. After some aimless touring, we found ourselves on State Line Road with Texas on one side and Arkansas on the other, surveying the neon and looking for a good place to grab a meal. We chose the Dixie Diner and enjoyed a third occasion on this trip to hear from a local, "Y'all ain't from around here, are you?" It's always said in a friendly manner, and we're always happy to report, "Nope. We're from California." Later on, we found a comfy motel room that evening and settled in for our last night on the road. Tomorrow we'll return to Dallas and commence our flight to the Golden State.

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All text and photos copyright Andrew and Jenny Wood