35°9′6″N, 93°48′28″WI honestly don’t know what the hell I was expecting when I rolled eastward on Highway 22 out of Fort Smith, Arkansas. The sun’s rays were barely enough to illuminate the horizon much less knock the frost off the grass. Darkness or not though, some odors of the most suspect kind would waft into my car every few minutes. I’m sitting there thinking what the hell kind of nasty ass crap is going on in this part of the state to perfume everything with this sort of funk.
Before setting out into Stinkville here, all I knew is that the tiny towns dotting the map had to hold some sort of local charm unknown in my urban backyard at home. I had gotten a wild hair up my butt as I imagined quaint town squares lined with pickup trucks and general stores. I wanted to eat a gut busting, heart clogging heap of fatty breakfast junk, preferably at some small town diner full of old farts who’ve been defying a heart attack there for decades.
You know the joint…something along the lines of Mel’s diner. Let me suck down 5,000 calories at a formica counter not remodeled since the Carter administration. Alice serves coffee from one of those brew pots with either the orange or brown handle. Flo dishes out some sass. Believe it or not, such a greasy spoon does not seem to exist in northwest Arkansas. Hardee’s and good ole Micky D’s have the market cornered wherever I looked. I can eat a sausage egg McMuffin at home. No thanks, I’ll pass.Oh well, what can a guy do? I had sort of lost my appetite anyhow. The odors still seeping into the car were stinking things up to high heaven and seriously obliterating my appetite. Besides that, dawn’s early light now illuminated a highway of horrors. Every couple hundred feet a who’s who of road kill stained the asphalt.
What’s the protocol here? Scoop something up for dinner? Dwayne down there in Sopchoppy would be busy. I mean we could feed village in India for a week of these tire tread squashed balls of fur. Indeed, this drive through smorgasbord turned out to be mostly kamikaze skunks and the occasional rogue possum.
Rolling into Booneville further deflated my greasy spoon diner ambitions. This tiny town seems to be mired in a weird mom and pop store time warp with fast food the only link to the present. Actually upon closer inspection, most store fronts were abandoned but I did appreciate the video rental store still clinging to life though they’d branched out by adding a tanning bed. I was actually more impressed that people here still rented videos the old fashioned way than the odd juxtaposition of a cancer bed mixed in with the latest releases.So what’s the fascination with tanning beds in this part of the state? I mean it’s not like they are in Barrow, Alaska shrouded in perpetual night all winter. I’m picturing some woman of size wedging herself into a poor tanning bed groaning under her immense girth. Are they even load tested by some regulatory authority? If the glass should be shattered by Two Ton Tessie, do her corpulent fat rolls succumb to one hell of a singe from those bulbs? And I thought the smell of Arkansas roadkill was bad…
Still no Mel’s Diner though so I continued my slow roll eastward. The town of Magazine held promise with its population less than 1,000…915 to be exact. Yes, you read that right. Two 747s could whisk away this entire metropolis to places more alive. I wonder if the people have big city ambitions or if life really is relaxed and just how they want it. Here I am trying to put my values on people I have never met or rarely come in contact with. I shouldn’t do that though they probably do the same with us city slickers who only see their towns as nuisance speed traps standing in between Points A and B.
I wanted to make the most of this town with its population just smaller than some of my larger freshman level classes at the University of Arizona. Oh where to start in this giant road kill laced boomtown looming so large under a water tower emblazoned with the town’s name…Now I’ve never been inside a bona fide general store so naturally the Magazine General Store sucked me right in. Holy crap! This was like a Goodwill on steroids. Do people really buy a busted out radio missing its insides or a dust caked, metal band aid box older than the Brady Bunch? I wandered around the aisles perusing shit that looked like a landfill had exploded and rained garbage down onto the shelves. And you know what? I was loving every minute of it. Bags of tampons from 20 years ago. Shotglasses commemorating the bicentennial. A rusted out walker that would most likely give Grandma Gertie tetanus when she tripped using it.
I pumped a whopping three bucks into the local economy when I bought an Arkansas license plate from a guy decked out in camoflouge from head to toe. As the day wore on, I noticed that camoflouge is the uniform of choice for the menfolk around here. I thought back to Johnstown where hoodies and gigantic jeans ruled the runway. And I thought back to how I had told myself never wear anything from Neiman Marcus to these sorts of places. When will I ever learn?
I stuck out like a sore thumb and I could tell the guy ringing me up was thinking, “Look at his pompous ass prick thinking he’s better than all of us.” Look, I’ll be honest that not so long ago, that assessment would have been sort of accurate. It pains me to admit that, but the truth’s the truth. We can’t chart a new future though unless we take an honest assessment of where we are coming from. Just because I happen to enjoy my particular way of life and surroundings doesn’t mean my way is the only way. Live and let live, right?As I headed towards Mount Magazine to commune with the great outdoors on this gloriously sunny day, I couldn’t help but notice that other drivers were waving hello at me. Go to any city and we are amongst thousands who could not give a shit about us and vice versa. We remain unconnected out in public save for our smartphones, texting, and Facebook. Drive down a rural Arkansas highway and the people actually make human contact. Hey, granted a few thousand pounds of Detroit steel shield us from each other, but still it’s something meaningful.
The only time someone at home in Atlanta gestures from inside a moving vehicle is to give a middle finger salute. Actually come to think of it, that probably was the last I gave any sort of gesture from inside my truck. I removed my foot from the gas pedal, and began enjoying this slower pace of life enveloping me with its warmth.
I don’t know why this excited me so much, but I saw a coyote and then a lone cardinal along one of Mount Magazine’s hiking trails. The bird’s bright red feathers against the otherwise grey canvas was just enough of a color pop to brighten my day. That little cardinal flew away but left me with a lingering thought. If we look close enough we can find beauty and good anywhere, even where we least expect it.
Part of this journey is discovering myself as much as the United States around me. There really is a lot of good out there. I’ve come a long way since that trip to Barrow and my whole life is undergoing a complete reinvention for the better. I’m 41 and am finally learning to be true to myself and not worry so much about what others might think.