MILE 0

It should be easy, but Google won’t make it so. In the way that the algorithm twists our projected route away from Scenic Byway 7, fighting at literally every turn for a more direct shot to Jasper from El Dorado along the state’s main thoroughfares, you can practically hear a tiny computerized voice (probably that of angry comedian Lewis Black) screeching that this road is not a good road. It’s an anachronism! An affront to efficiency! The worst road!

All of which might very well be true. In the nearly 90 years since engineers tamed oil flats and Ozark hills into a landscape suitable for automobiles, many other routes with less serpentine paths have been forged, earning commuters’ favor. One has to wonder if 7 might’ve been forgotten altogether if it hadn’t been for the Scenic Byway designation it received in the early ’90s.

But on this April morning, as four-fifths of the Arkansas Life staff cram into my Honda Civic for a 256-mile jaunt through the Ouachitas and into the Ozarks, none of that is really on our minds. This, after all, is a road trip—a trip taken for the sake of the journey, an extended flouting of common sense and efficiency.

After polishing off a bag of the best donuts in the state (Spudnuts), and determining the best choice for a road-trip theme song (Toto’s “Africa”), we turn our attention to more pressing matters—namely, the matter of the weather. Just before we left, our associate editor, Wyndham Wyeth, had pulled up a weather app on his phone, displaying a red-, orange- and yellow-banded map threatening the rapid onset of tornadoes, with our plotted course charting an arrow deep into the heart of the thing. As we pull out of El Dorado, he leans over the steering wheel and eyes the fast-moving clouds warily.

“They’re just waving hello!” our creative director Emma Devine says from the backseat. “Hellooo, Wyndham!”

In this moment, as we turn onto the as-yet-not-so-scenic path of Scenic Byway 7, with Wyndham at the wheel, yours truly taking notes in the passenger seat, and Emma and our photographer Arshia Khan in the back, any hope for certainty or a solid understanding of the trip ahead is stolen away by the threatening clouds above and the green-buffeted gray ribbon of old asphalt unraveling there behind us. But of course, that might be the point.

MILE 43

Just outside Camden, the landscape goes green awfully fast, with the flora growing up and over the scenery like man-made fixtures. Trees curving over the road form tunnels and canopies, and vines tangle among themselves and the rest of the growth along embankments. Only when the land has been reduced to fields of black stubble (from controlled burnings) and green pastures (from agriculture) do the thick stands of greenery yield any sense of the scenery behind it.

It feels different. The land is different. The air is different. Not long after passing beneath the raised rusted X’s of a train trestle, we stop the car in front of a locked cattle gate to explore the area and admire the graffiti tattooed on the sides of a stalled freight train.

For reasons that I won’t pretend to understand, the staff goes looking for treasures beneath the tracks. The first find is a railroad spike. Somehow it ends up in my hand, coating my palm in an indelible orange rust that will remain there for the rest of the day. Just a few moments later, however, we experience one of the defining moments of the trip.

“Oh my gosh, Arshia!” cries Emma. “You win!”

A look to where Arshia is standing at the base of the embankment reveals a series of bleached animal vertebra, detached from one another, though still preserved in the vague suggestion of a spinal column.

“Are we in True Detective right now?” Wyndham asks.

“Do we need this?” Emma says. “Is that too weird? Does anyone want a rib?”

A few minutes later, from the corner of my eye, I see Emma approaching my car with the deer skull.

“What should we name it?” she says, answering her own question (“Bernard”) before opening the door to my car and leaning inside. Through the back window, I see her hands settle the skull into a position just behind the back seat’s headrest. And just like that, on this day of unexpected treasures, standing water, mosquitoes, fields of gold flowers, houses and tiny enclaves of humanity that have seen better days, the houses with their doors ajar sentenced to decay, my car has become a deer mausoleum, Bernard’s last known resting place.

MILE 118

At the first lacquered wooden table on the right, just inside the door at McClard’s Bar-B-Q, sit three diminutive white-haired ladies. If there were ever a moment more indicative of the bridge-building, fence-mending, kumbaya qualities of McClard’s, I’m not sure what it’d be. Because heaped on those little old ladies’ plates, piled high, causing each woman to lean over the table in the rapture of a good meal eaten in silence, is meat. Lots of it.

It’s a strange feeling, suddenly being so close to so many people after having spent the past several hours in the relative isolation and intimacy of the car. We’d felt it coming into town. The trees had grown sparser as the hills had started to roll. Little pockets of industry gave way to big-box stores and signage for marinas and housing developments and restaurants. Arriving in Hot Springs felt like hitting upon a brief interlude of civilization after being away from it for a while.

Given the nature of the trip—that is, one that follows the unilateral rigidity of a road that doesn’t waver much at all from its purpose of ferrying cars from A to B—you might think Hot Springs is just one more point on the line. And you might be right.

McClard’s, however, is about as delicious a point (CJ’s Butcher Boy) as you’re liable to find.

Inside the white-washed building, the lunch rush already throwing in the barbecue-stained towel, with just a few hangers-on still bent over their plates, we find a booth midway through the restaurant and take our seats. As far as Arkansas institutions are concerned, there are few less questioned than McClard’s. Since 1928, they’ve been chopping beef, pulling pork, roasting chickens and doing whatever they do to those tamales to make the corn-husked beauties sing in your belly. And lest you forget, portraits of personalities hailing from state and regional and national royalty stare out from articles and photographs from all corners of the restaurant.

(A disclosure: Until this visit, undeterred by the enthusiasm of local devotees, I was not a fan of McClard’s. That changed when I had the tamale spread.)

Our table pulls from all parts of the menu:

-A half tamale spread for me.

-A plate of sliced beef for Arshia.

-A heap of loaded fries for Emma.

-A chopped-pork sandwich for Wyndham.

When it’s time for dessert, our server, Eleanor, stands at the front of the table and asks whether there’s any interest in dessert—namely, in the specials: Italian cream cake and carrot cake.

“One of each?” she asks. “It’s calorie-free, fat-free.”

“I think that carrot cake’s sugar-free,” Wyndham adds. “Ice cream, too.”

We accept this without a question. It’s delicious.

MILE 138

Out back of the Coleman Rock Shop stand dozens of tables of rocks of every shape, make and color. And it’s there, as we’re perusing trays of slag glass and rose quartz, that the rain begins. It makes percussive, tapping sounds on the tin roof, working its way from west to east across the vast corrugated panel overhead. Eventually, the rain reaches where we stand, splattering the green glass peaks with water, making them slick and shiny as if they were waves in the sea. The rain comes in waves. We don’t go inside—or at least not right away.

There’s still too much to see.

Some 15 miles north of Hot Springs, where the landscape is just beginning to rev further into gears that swing the road side to side and over hills and up and up before allowing it to run slack through the river valley, we’d come across the cluster of local rock shops. Overhead, storm clouds glowered as they had for most of the trip. Local news outlets announced tornado watches for the entirety of the state. Reports of a few tornadoes touching down in Mountainburg near Fort Smith weren’t but a few hours off.

Inside, we make our way to the counter and tell the two women behind it that we’re ready to pay. The woman on the left takes my card and begins punching the prices into the credit-card machine.

“1944,” she says, reading the total aloud. “Good year.”

After a brief moment of panic—was she saying she’d been born that year, or that it was good because of some other historical reason, say, the last days of World War II?—I calmly ask why that was. Looking up at me from her heavily green-eye-shadowed eyes, she confirms that yes, she’d been born that year.

“If you think young, you are young,” she says.

Then in the way that unexpected experiences just sort of happen, our group gets lost in a conversation with the two women, whose names we learn are Vada and Patricia. For the better part of 15 minutes, we lean on the counter as they tell us about everything from their children and grandchildren to how someday, maybe, they’ll both take a trip to Hawaii to visit one of Vada’s sons.

Somewhere in there, we realize that we’ve spent perhaps a little too much time in the rock shop and bid our goodbyes, promising to return. The two women tell us to be careful out there—there are tornadoes in the forecast.

MILES 140-165

“I feel like this is where Scenic 7 really starts,” Wyndham says, pointing out a sign for the Ouachita National Forest. “Not that it hasn’t been pretty already.”

This is true. For the past 3 1/2 hours, it’s been pretty. Southern Arkansas pretty. Swamp and snaking green vines pretty. Long, meandering roads pretty. But this, though, is something different. As we’ve driven north from Hot Springs, the road has taken on a different aspect, rising and dropping, allowing long, uninterrupted views of the national forest.

But while this makes for some nice vistas, two uncontestable elements—the weather and time—have conspired against us. Already we’re running late and won’t be getting to our destination in Jasper until well after dark. More pressing, though, is the matter of the weather. The gray clouds above have taken on a sickly queasy appearance, rutted with dark rifts, paired with a warmth that any resident of this state knows well and to be wary of. So we drive, passing landmarks that might have otherwise been stops along the way. To the left, we sight the sky-blue hues of Iron Springs through the stands of trees. A few miles later, we catch a glimpse of the Hollis Country Store, looking dark and water-logged in the rain.

Over time and the next 25 miles, the rain lets up.

Still slick with water, the road becomes a mirror for the sky, reflecting the high white shine of the clouds and setting sun, a milky-colored ribbon that peels back as the car, mostly silent, sometimes rocking out to the musical mashups of Girl Talk, passes over it. Eventually, as the road rides the hills looking over the river valley, we see signs for an overlook.

“I’ll take this as one of [my stops],” Wyndham says, pulling the car off the road onto the gravel embankment. “I wanted to get an overlook.” 

On the north side of the road, a handful of concrete picnic tables have been arranged around a break in the trees. Emma and Arshia walk over to one and step from the bench onto the slab for a better view of the glaucous water below. A nearby informational placard posted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the glass-encased maps and photos bleached blue by the sun, describes the particulars of the dam and body of water that stretches out before us.

“Is that Lake Ouachita?” Emma asks.

“I think it’s Lake Nimrod,” Wyndham says.

After a beat, Emma replies, “You’re a nimrod.”

“I was waiting for that,” Wyndham says.

After a few minutes, Wyndham looks down at his phone and checks the weather.

“Guess what?” he says. “We’re outside the tornado zone!”

Standing on the picnic table, we take a moment to celebrate.

MILE 220

Nearing 6 o’clock, we’re about 50 miles outside Jasper. Evening is starting to set in, with a strata of slow-moving clouds in fluffy layers like insulation. Signs that read “Crooked and Steep” begin to appear. Emma and Arshia have drifted off in the backseat, so Wyndham and I make quiet conversation and listen to The Avett Brothers.

Much as I’d like to say otherwise, this sort of mood and atmosphere—the minutes-long periods when the car is silent inside and out—best represents how much of the trip has played out. During these lulls, outside the window, everything takes on new meaning. Every tree arching over the road, every abandoned barn sitting forgotten in a field, every sign with the scenic-byway designation, all assume some profound significance, as if they were all conspiring to teach us a lesson about life and the world and our place in it.

In the long, tired silences taking hold near the end of the trip, as the miles still remaining before we hit Jasper tick down from 40 to 30 to 20, we begin to lose the light.

MILE 265

It’s 8:30 p.m., and after a hearty meal of chicken-fried steak and french fries at the Ozark Cafe (our other favorite, Low Gap Cafe, was closed), just off the downtown square, we’ve finally ended the day at the Eagle Cabin, one of three run by the folks behind the Cliff House Inn. We’ve also very nearly avoided a disaster. Although we were careful to bring many important provisions, including wine, we didn’t bring anything to open the bottle. Fortunately, after rummaging through a few drawers in the kitchen, Wyndham returns to the living area with a corkscrew.

“I think we need some fudge to go with that,” Emma says.

“And almonds,” Arshia says.

We spend the next few hours in front of the fire, sipping red wine and nibbling on pieces of praline fudge procured from La Bella Gourmet Gifts & Delicatessen in El Dorado, reflecting on the day.

In retrospect, it’s possible that we tried to do too much. Such a long expanse, I think, deserved another day devoted to it. Or, better yet, we should have just started in Hot Springs, where the scenic quality actually started to take hold. But for all the things we wished might’ve been different—the weather we would have preferred, the places we wish we would’ve stopped (Dewayne’s, CJ’s Butcher Boy and the Long Pool)—as we sit there listening to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” none of that really seems to matter.


THE LONG AND WINDING ROADS

There’s a lot of beauty to see beyond Scenic 7

Where: Interstate 40 near Ozark to Brashears

Length: 19 miles

Of note: It might’ve gotten its name back when it was the only way to get from Little Rock to a Fayetteville Hog game, but we like to think the moniker refers to the route’s curly-cue hairpin turns. Pro-tip: Bring the Dramamine.

Must-sees: The Pig Trail crosses both the Ozark Highlands Trail (use the Cherry Bend Trailhead) and the Mulberry River—the nearby Turner Bend store will outfit you in canoes and kayaks. In wet weather, the lovely High Bank Twins waterfalls are worth the 9-mile side trip. Speaking of side trips: Though it’s 16 miles off the byway, Oark General Store is a sure bet for breakfast, lunch or pie, and is eminently Instagrammable.

Make a weekend of it: Option A: Turner Bend rents a couple of cozy cottages if you’d like to overnight by the river. Option B: Follow Arkansas Highway 16 to Fayetteville, and reward your efforts with a Hugo’s cheeseburger and a stay at the Dickson Street Inn.


Where: Interstate 40 near Ozark to Brashears

Length: 19 miles

Of note: It might’ve gotten its name back when it was the only way to get from Little Rock to a Fayetteville Hog game, but we like to think the moniker refers to the route’s curly-cue hairpin turns. Pro-tip: Bring the Dramamine.

Must-sees: The Pig Trail crosses both the Ozark Highlands Trail (use the Cherry Bend Trailhead) and the Mulberry River—the nearby Turner Bend store will outfit you in canoes and kayaks. In wet weather, the lovely High Bank Twins waterfalls are worth the 9-mile side trip. Speaking of side trips: Though it’s 16 miles off the byway, Oark General Store is a sure bet for breakfast, lunch or pie, and is eminently Instagrammable.

Make a weekend of it: Option A: Turner Bend rents a couple of cozy cottages if you’d like to overnight by the river. Option B: Follow Arkansas Highway 16 to Fayetteville, and reward your efforts with a Hugo’s cheeseburger and a stay at the Dickson Street Inn.


Where: Blanchard Springs Cavern in Fifty-Six to Calico Rock

Length: 26.5 miles

Of note: Lined by redbuds and dogwoods in the spring and golden hickories in the fall, this twisty path through the southeast corner of the Ozark National Forest is a leaf-peeper’s dream. There’s plenty for water bugs, too: The White River, Sylamore Creek and Norfork Lake are all close by.

Must-sees: On a hot day, there’s no better place to be than Blanchard Springs, whether you’re deep in the caverns or just knee-deep in the creek. Mountain bikers will want to take a turn on the 50-mile Syllamo series of single track, which is one of the state’s five “epic” trails, as designated by the International Mountain Bicycling Association. History buffs and antiquers will find it hard to leave cute-as-a-button Calico Rock, but dinner beckons at Whispering Woods in nearby Jordan, which has a killer lake view and a killer filet mignon.

Make a weekend of it: Start at Blanchard and stay the night at one of Whispering Woods’ cabins; then spend the following day exploring Norfork Lake. If you travel the byway north to south and book one of the creekside campsites at Blanchard Springs, the spring-fed Sylamore acts as natural air conditioning.


Where: Helena to the St. Francis River at the Missouri border

Length: 212 miles

Of note: A geologic anomaly formed some 50 million years ago, the 200-foot-tall Crowley’s Ridge curves some 200 miles through the Delta from Helena to the Missouri Bootheel. The ridge’s namesake parkway is actually a collection of tree-shaded state and county roads that roll through hardwood forests.

Must-sees: From beginning to end, this drive is a ride through Arkansas history. In Helena, explore the Delta blues at the Delta Cultural Center, and take a tour of the Pillow-Thompson home, one of the finest Queen Anne homes in the South. (And by all means, plan your touring around lunch at Jones Bar-B-Q in Marianna—Mr. Jones is known to sell out by noon.) Continuing north along the St. Francis River, you’ll pass Parkin Archeological State Park, believed to be the Casqui village visited by Hernando de Soto in 1541. Before you hit the Missouri border, make a stop in Piggott at the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum for a peek at the place where Hemingway worked on A Farewell to Arms.

Make a weekend of it: Tackle the trail in two days by booking a cabin at either Village Creek or Crowley’s Ridge state parks.


Where: Mena to Talihina, Oklahoma

Length: 54 miles

Of note: If you don’t stop, this drive will only take an hour, but you’re going to want to stop. The byway rides along the crests of Rich and Winding Stair mountains through the Ouachita National Forest, and each of the 22 “vistas” is prettier than the last.

Must-sees: On the Oklahoma side, stretch your legs on the interpretive trails at the Kerr Arboretum and Nature Center that cut through a particularly scenic patch of trademark Ouachita pine/hardwood forest, or cool off in the stream at Billy Creek Recreation Area. In Arkansas, be sure to stop and enjoy the view from the 2,681-foot Rich Mountain, the second-tallest peak in the state.

Make a weekend of it: If you drive the Talimena in reverse, starting in Oklahoma, settle in for the night in one of the lodge rooms at Queen Wilhelmina State Park. Spend the next day paddling the Ouachita River or hiking one of the many trails through the national forest (Lovers’ Leap if you want something easy; Tall Peak if you’re up for a challenge). If you head out from Mena, consider a short side trip to stay at the Copper Sky Ranch, where you can “glamp” in a 27-foot tepee.