Setting the scene in northwest Arkansas
It feels like I’m in a movie—one of those coming-of-age flicks where the fair heroine must return to the stomping grounds of her youth in order to understand her place in this world. And as I travel up Interstate 49, I think about how things used to be when I was young. I knew this road as Interstate 540 but never really traveled it because I was a senior at the University of Arkansas before this motorway was even partially built. At that time, you could get from Fayetteville to Mountainburg on the newly constructed highway, but no farther. I had to travel the last 30 or so miles on good old U.S. 71, now relegated to scenic status, in order to reach my hometown of Fort Smith.
This “new” highway serves well as the backdrop for my movie, I think. I enjoy driving on the overpasses, where trees plunge into valleys speckled with churches and livestock. I like holding my breath through the length of the tunnel, feeling like a goofy college kid again. And I cackle out loud at the Wal-Mart semi in front of me, knowing fully well that, as with any movie set in Northwest Arkansas, our ubiquitous state industry must make an appearance. Even the radio obliges my film fantasy, with the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” circa 1998, playing loud as I enter Fayetteville proper, population 78,960. That’s about what Fort Smith was when I was growing up, and Fayetteville? It was significantly smaller.
Change, friends. It’s the theme of my motion picture.
WEDNESDAY, 2:15 P.M.
What I remember most from my last residency in Fayetteville is the scent of patchouli. I’m actually surprised when it doesn’t waft into my car the moment I cross Fay-town’s border. But as I park my car at the Chancellor Hotel and stroll Block Avenue, I see that Flying Possum Leather, with signs for both Birkenstocks and Bernie Sanders, remains an institution. Of course, a few doors down is the super-stylish Shindig Paperie. Hippie is still here, but it’s not all that’s here. I’m clearly not the only one who’s developed in the past two decades—as evidenced by the grand Chancellor Hotel itself, which underwent a complete renovation and reopened in 2012.
And it. Is. Beautiful. The lobby is sleek and modern, something that would be at home in Paris or Rome. The hotel has 16 floors, and I secretly hope to be on the top. Alas, I am on the sixth, but the lady at the check-in smiles so sweetly that I cannot be disappointed.
When I get to my room, I know for sure that I am not. In fact, I am super impressed. The room is large, the bed looks super comfy, and as I plug my computer in to return a few emails and make a few notes, I look in the mirror situated over the desk area, and I do not see myself. Instead, I am Carrie from Sex and the City, a writer engaging in the cultural pulse of an urban paradise. I may not have Manolo Blahnik stilettos to wear, but neither do I need that old tie-dyed broomstick skirt I have stashed away from my college days. Now … what would Carrie do?
A drink. I need a drink.
“You’re not gluten intolerant or anything?” Hannah Withers, my guide for this foray into my mind’s movie, asks me.
“No, I’m a glutton,” I reply, and we laugh like girls starring in their own movie should.
Hannah has taken me to Arsaga’s at the old train depot, another update to my college days. I’d been to Arsaga’s down at the corner of Gregg and Township, but that strip-mall location is now closed, and this much more stylish, repurposed space has been opened instead. It’s hot outside, as Arkansas summers are wont to be, and I’m perusing the chalkboard menu for something cool. I spot “The Sunburn”: fresh lime, coconut syrup, ghost pepper syrup and soda water. Wait—ghost pepper syrup?
“You’re like, ‘Ooh, lime!’ and then it burns a bit. I think it’s great,” the barista says. She’s adorable. Sort of neo-hippie.
“It burns?” I ask.
“Yeah, but in a good way. We could go light on the burn, if you want.”
I do want, and it turns out to be one of the best things I have ever tasted. The lime is refreshing, and the light burn at the finish warms the throat ever so slightly. It smells like suntan lotion and feels precisely like the slightest bit of a sunburn—the kind you get when the sun has just kissed you on the bridge of your nose and the tops of your shoulders.
Hannah and I sit on the patio out back, with prime views of the paved trails that now reach as far north as Bella Vista. Hannah moved here eight years ago after about 15 years in Eureka Springs. She and her husband had opened their first bakery there in 2003 but had to shutter their business when the economy tanked. Luckily for Fayetteville, Hannah and her husband booked it south, opening the second iteration of Little Bread Co. on Block Avenue. Since then, she’s become a fixture in the goings-on of local businesses, investing in a revamp of Maxine’s Tap Room, an iconic Fayetteville bar, and helping coordinate the Block Street Block Party, an annual festival held the weekend after the university’s graduation, which drew about 12,000 attendees this past year. So, I wonder, what exactly does Hannah, this person who is so active in creating the new Fayetteville, think makes Fayetteville Fayetteville?
“It’s the community, the people who live here,” she says. “The people here are up to try anything with businesses. It’s the people that keep us here, which is why I wanted to put you in touch with some people while you’re here. I want to take you places, but it’s the people that make it great.”
And apparently she has my less-than-24-hours here scheduled with people to the max. Apparently, we’re going to go on some kind of beer tour with her friends. Apparently, she’s going to treat us to drinks at her bar. And, apparently, at some point, I’m going to meet a guy named Clunk.
Roll the film.
First stop: International Grocery. Close to the corner of Lindell Avenue and North Street, the strip mall this store is located in is about as diverse as it gets. From Mojo’s Pints and Pies to the comic store to Oak Plaza Barber Shop, a more varied shot of Arkansas living my movie could not show. Hannah leads me down the aisles of a store she herself has never been in, looking for spices to infuse in her bar’s drinks come fall. Wearing a shoulder-grazing pageboy haircut and a white oxford long-sleeve button-down over an orange/blue/black/white/yellow/pink-striped dress, she is adorable and funky. Her green Converse tennis shoes remind me of the ones I wore to my senior prom, and still wish I had. Am I past those now, though? Who am I? Hannah peruses the black cardamom and whole nutmeg and Radhuni coriander, and I wonder who she is these days.
“So do you consider yourself a barista? A baker? A restaurateur?”
“None of those,” she says, filling up her shopping basket. “But my husband is all of those.”
Before I can continue the conversation, an Indian woman, dressed in a hot-pink and purple sari, shows Hannah some vegetarian samosas in the freezer section. A man I take to be the Indian woman’s husband, dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, approaches me with a “mango bar.”
“It’s like jelly,” he says, while his toddler son growls at me from behind his father’s legs.
I can’t help but growl back. It seems like the appropriate thing to do. And in this moment, I doubt my full-fledged-grown-up status.
When we leave, the boy attaches himself to the glass door, bombastically waving me the sweetest goodbye.
Hannah drives me up College Avenue, past a parking lot called “The Yacht Club,” where about seven trailers form a makeshift retail center.
“That’s where we’ll be getting our dinner from later,” she tells me, pointing to a silver Airstream with a neon green deck built onto the front. “It’s the Green Goat. They’ve got the best Cuban food. I wish they’d move into a brick-and-mortar.”
I wonder if we’ll be sitting on that patio in this heat, but Hannah informs me that there’s where Clunk comes in. “He’s got a food-delivery service. He can bring stuff from just about anywhere in town.”
My mouth waters.
Hannah points to another trailer. “That’s Sidney’s,” she tells me, and I am dumbfounded. I remember them being located in a super-cool old theater on Dickson Street, where I bought tie-dye and jewelry and Beatles T-shirts. I look down at my white capri leggings, navy-blue summer dress and bejeweled nude-toned flats and realize, again, that all things change. And with this trip, I’m beginning to appreciate that change and enjoy the newness that comes along with it.
Our picture becomes a road movie. Hannah has arranged with a friend of hers, Lora Murphy, for us to take a Hogshead Tour to a local craft brewery. Hannah and I return to the Chancellor Hotel to meet two more of Hannah’s friends, Erika Wilhite and Jessica Taylor, and we jump into Lora’s immaculate forest-green VW bus. Hogshead tours usually consist of stops at three breweries, but today we just head to one: Fossil Cove. From the outside, this group of industrial buildings housing the operation looks like a storage warehouse. But inside is an adorable little tasting room that looks like a local pub. A tasting of five brews is on our agenda, and Ben Mills, formerly the youngest brewer in Arkansas, does not disappoint. I’m not usually a beer drinker, but since our script is clearly calling for it, I drink up. The Orange Cream—which tastes not unlike one of those Dreamsicles from my childhood—is my favorite.
I find much in common with my drinking partners/costars. Lora and Jessica both have two boys, like me, and Erika has a 2-year-old girl, like me. Dustin Bartholomew, who has joined us at the tasting room, writes, and Heather Holaway shares my first name. I love this little group, and I tell them I’m not usually a beer drinker, but with these flavors, and in these small doses, I’m actually quite the fan.
“Just about anything is good in moderation,” Erika intones.
“Five samples?” I ask. “Gluttonous moderation!” I exclaim, and we all laugh.
I’d noticed that as Hannah’s people trickled in, they often introduced themselves to the group. “Did they not already know each other?” I ask her.
They didn’t. “That’s my favorite thing to do when I throw a party. Get a whole bunch of weirdos together. And that’s a lot what Fayetteville is like. I hate to say ‘Keep Fayetteville Funky,’ but it’s a lot like that.”
I toy with movie titles. The Weirdos. The Funky Bunch.
Hannah isn’t alone in her sentiments. “It’s unlike any other place I’ve ever known,” Heather tells me. “I can go anywhere and see someone I know. The town itself doesn’t mean as much as the people.”
It’s a pretty darned cool town, though, and I can’t wait to see more. We trek back to the bus, with Heather in tow this time, and head back to Maxine’s. On the way, the standard-transmission van falters. We laugh at the possibility of us six women pushing the bus to get it started. “As long as we have a sea shanty,” Erika, the artistic director and founder of the Artist’s Laboratory Theatre, says, “we can get this bitch back.”
The radio plays “Stairway to Heaven.” I think I’ll add it to the soundtrack.
We’re walking into the bar when I hear “HELLOOOOOOO!” I turn around to see a woman wearing a sleeveless shirt with a lion printed on the front, the sides of her head shaved, the top platinum blonde. She is Rebekah Champagne (yes, that’s her real last name), a mother of three like myself, a masseuse, and a startup partner in Maxine’s with Hannah.
I have never been in Maxine’s, even though I went to school in town, and it was a staple back then. I hear that it used to be very smoky and kind of, well, dive-y. But on my first visit, all I see is a beautiful copper-topped bar, glittering bottles of alcohol and dozens of people who are way hipper than I am. I’m starting to wonder if I fit into this part of the movie.
I mean, this bar is so cool that each bartender has his or her own signature drink on the menu. And there are dozens and dozens of drinks. Where do I start? I let Hannah decide, and while she’s away gathering our libations, the girls all pitch in and start folding the evening’s menus for her. They talk about their kids. And I realize that, yes, I do indeed belong in this scene. But before I lose myself in the plot of my motion picture, I remember that I have work to do, and ask Erika, “What makes Fayetteville Fayetteville? To you?”
Erika continues to fold menus. “Everyone I know is doing interesting things here. You can be an entrepreneur. You can make and sell art. People come and start here. I didn’t mean to do that, but I did.”
She’s right: A lot of people might not mean to stay forever, but once they get started, they’re just too invested to leave. Her nonprofit theater company does a radio show right here in Maxine’s. Lora created Hogshead Tours based on her touring experiences in Italy. Jessica teaches adult education at the Jefferson Center, and Heather is the director of marketing at Haas Hall Academy. All of these amazing women are movers and shakers. And speaking of shakers … one of the bartenders, Travis, brings me his signature drink: the Red Bird. It’s a vodka concoction with fresh strawberries, mint, simple syrup and lemon juice, and it hits the spot on this steamy late-summer night. Later, Hannah brings me a Blackberry Bramble; this time I’m imbibing gin, fresh lemon juice and marionberry liqueur poured over shaved ice. It looks—and tastes—like a snow cone for grown-ups. Delish. It’s only the Cuban food, delivered by the 6-foot-3-if-he’s-an-inch Clunk, that could tear me away. And luckily for me and my liver, it does. And my new friends and I feast on meat empanadas and fried plantain and yucca and Cuban sandwiches and rice and beans. By the time we’re through, there’s no food left, but there are plenty of patrons around us.
“I can’t believe how busy the bar is!” I say.
“And it’s only a Wednesday night,” one of the girls reminds me, and I am truly impressed.
By 10:30 p.m., I have indulged in more moderated gluttony than I know what to do with. Hannah returns me to the Chancellor, and my bed supports my weight, and the blanket hugs me, and I use all of the pillows to cocoon my satiated body.
Fade to black.
THURSDAY, 8:42 A.M.
I put on my fringed jacket and beaded headband—not the patchouli-smelling kind, but the Bohemian-chic kind. I stand on the corner of East Avenue and Meadow Street, waiting for Hannah to pick me up. The towers of Old Main on the university campus just peek out over the tops of the treeline in the distance, and a man wearing a dress shirt and tie drives by in his 1950s black sedan. Could this be my Mr. Big? But just behind him is Hannah in her green Jeep, and I’m much more interested in climbing into her car, as she has brought me water and juice and—from the Little Bread Co. she just sold last summer to her employees—a cinnamon roll and a ham-and-cheese croissant for us to share. It’s Day 2 of moderated gluttony, and I’m glad to see it.
We head to Dead Swanky, a full-service salon decked out in crystal and leather. Hannah is getting her makeup done by Bo Senesomxay, an adorable aesthetician from Van Buren—my neck of the woods. He moved to Fayetteville 10 years ago to attend the university, and when I ask him what makes Fayetteville Fayetteville, he sings a similar song: “The community. It’s pretty tightknit and supportive. Local’s, like, the thing.” His skillful cosmetics application makes Hannah’s eyes look startlingly green; then he tells her to move to his styling chair.
“You’re not going to make my hair real big, are you?” Hannah asks. “I know you wanna make it, like, Steel Magnolias big.”
But he doesn’t. He just makes her quirkiness shine through beautifully.
And off we go to the town square.
The flowers Hannah buys from Dripping Springs Garden’s stand at the farmers’ market are so beautiful they don’t look real. The zinnias are to die for. I amble a few stands down to Come Clean Soaps and absolutely cannot resist buying two bars: almond and oatmeal-mint. I keep walking, past babies asleep in strollers and grandmas escorting little girls wearing bows as big as their heads and leashed-yet-happily-prancing boxers and Yorkies and poodles, oh my! I see peppers and tomatoes and jellies and knit hats and candles. But what really catches my attention, down the block from the garden where butterflies flit amid brightly colored bushes and just behind the corner fountain, whose signage asks passers-by to “Supervise children at fountain” instead of warning them to steer clear of it, is a beautiful antique brick building. In my day, there was a restaurant there called the Old Post Office, and that’s where my husband asked me to marry him. Today, Bliss Cupcakes makes its home there. I dub it a fitting and sweet replacement.
But nothing makes a better setting for my show than Alchemy, the French macaron shop just off the square on Center Street. It’s been a full year since I lived overseas, and I am missing my European sweets.
“I haven’t found good macarons in a long time,” I say to Hannah.
The shop mistress overhears me. “Where did you go for them?” she asks.
“My favorites were in Paris.”
“I am French!” she exclaims, smiling broadly.
“Where are you from?” I ask her.
“Two hours south of Paris. There are many castles there.”
I don’t mind having castles in my movie. “The Loire Valley?” I ask.
She is amazed that I know it. “Yes.”
I order peanut butter and pineapple and salted caramel and lime and pistachio and maraschino cherry macarons. And they are every bit as good as the ones I had in Paris.
“Why don’t I live in Fayetteville?” I grouse to Hannah.
“Because you’d die of a macaron overdose?” She asks me, and we laugh.
I leave knowing that, really, I have found my new place among my old. That I, like Fayetteville, am just a little more sophisticated than I was, a little more open to all kinds of experiences and people. And if that’s not a fantastic reason to see your own movie play out in Fayetteville, I don’t know what is.