Prairie Road Companions
In which the staff takes a 427-mile trip of discovery through the Arkansas Delta.
It’s one of those Arkansas spring mornings when incandescent blue skies are threatened by ever-swelling storm clouds, the threat of rain always near. I know because I’m piloting a vehicle eastbound on Interstate 40, and the sky is everywhere. We’re heading straight—always straight—and I’m so used to this stretch of highway, this road that leads to Memphis, Nashville, the Smokies and beyond, that I’m afraid I’m going to forget to veer off at exit 202: Lower Surrounded Hill.
“Turn!” says Jordan, playing the role of navigator, and I do—at the last moment possible. The speedometer’s needle drops to 45, to 35, to 20, and we find ourselves at a crossroads, straight meeting straight in that patchwork grid so familiar to rural routes. Turning left would lead us to DeValls Bluff; right would lead us through Biscoe, over Bayou De View, past Brinkley and, eventually, straight into the middle of a headwater swamp—the sort of place where the reflection of ghostly cypress blurs the line between what’s above and what’s below. Which is precisely where we want to go.
We make the right, passing stately oaks and quiet farmhouses as we wind ourselves away from the interstate. To the five of us in this car—the majority of the Arkansas Life staff—“the Delta” has only and always been a pass-through kind of place, a place you see out of dusty windshields and passenger windows while you are-we-there-yet? your way to where you’re going. It’s always been tidy rows of soybeans and tangles of cotton puffs, monstrous irrigation rigs and looming grain silos. Old barns. Gas-station stops and barbecue-shack breaks. But it’s never been a destination.
At least not until today.
Twenty miles south of Brinkley, we take a left on lonesome Arkansas Highway 362, where spring’s first greens and violets clash against the gnarly tangle of dormant cypress and tupelo framing the road. In the 2 miles it takes to reach Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park’s entrance, we pass no other cars, only a snapping turtle whose dawdling trek we interrupt with a flurry of iPhone photos and a brief debate over what he should be called. (Donatello, in case you’re curious.)
I glance at the clock. We’ve got less than a half-hour to spend moseying around, based on our road trip’s itinerary cobbled together based on suggestions from a handful of Delta natives, which I’ve sketched out to the minute. Starting here at the park, we’ll work our way eastward to Marianna, northeast to Johnny Cash’s Dyess, southwest through the farming hamlet of Tyronza and west to Hazen before following straight-as-an-arrow I-40 back home—all in all, a 400-some-mile loop through a region we’re intent on knowing better. And this eerily calm bottomland seems as good an introduction as any.
Necks craning both skyward and earthward, we head down the park’s elevated boardwalk that cuts a hollow-sounding zigzag some 950 feet through the swamp’s towering trees—their spindly branches and ancient roots like skinny fingers tethered by giant knuckles to the water—to the exact spot where the survey of the Louisiana Purchase began in 1815. It’s still. Almost too still. Birdsong pings off the trees and echoes over the water.
“I wonder how long you’d last out here in the dark by yourself,” Emily says, casting an eye around. “I’d give myself 10 minutes, max, before I’d start running.”
As we walk along, our footsteps vibrating across the weather-worn wood, the stillness of the place settles over us. Civilization seems much farther than 2 miles away—I’m with Emily on the whole “not after dark” thing.
“Wasn’t all the land bought in the Louisiana Purchase, like, 3 cents an acre?” I ask.
“No wonder we got it so cheap,” says Kelley, as she looks over the railing into the muddy water below.
It takes a few minutes to acclimate—the landscape seems foreign, almost preternatural, though we’re a mere 87 miles from where we started. Twenty minutes pass quickly in the stillness, oddly enough. I’d like to stay a little longer, but it’s almost 10:30.
And in Lee County, 10:30 means we might be too late already. Jones Bar-B-Q Diner is not to be taken lightly, y’all.
MILE 119: JONES Bar-B-Q Diner, Marianna
James Jones is wearing a red plaid shirt and an Arkansas Razorbacks ball cap, and his gloved hands move almost instinctively from barbecue to bread, barbecue to bread, barbecue to bread. Walking into his diner, a whitewashed, two-story house on a quiet side street in Marianna, we spot him through a postage stamp of a window toward the back, which is almost obscured by a haphazard collage—handwritten notes, newspaper clippings, a list of folks the Lee County Class of 1976 hopes to find in time for its upcoming reunion—thumbtacked to the charcoal-gray wall. To the immediate left is his hand-scrawled menu, which, apart from the prices, hasn’t ever changed.
Sandwich.. $3.50. Pounds…$7.
It smells of hickory smoke and hot sauce, the combination of which has our stomachs rumbling. Immediately, we regret not having stopped at an ATM on the way over. We pool our money: $30. It’s more than enough to order up a round of sandwiches—some with slaw, some without—and to pull a couple of “pops” from the black refrigerator in the corner of the dining room. Within minutes—seconds, even—Jones is passing packets of steaming foil through the window.
This. This moment. This was—and I’m almost hesitant to reveal this—the moment around which all of our other road-trip moments had been organized. Our window of opportunity was a small one; in fact, it all depended on the rusted “CLOSE” sign propped up on the sill of a lace-curtained window behind our table. At some point this afternoon, though Jones can’t predict when, that sign will be flipped when his daily stash of smoked pork runs out, just as it’s been flipped every day for as long as he can remember, long before he received his James Beard award (“That’s it up there,” he says, pointing a gloved finger above the window to a gray-ribboned medal settled in the bottom of a slightly askew shadowbox, no doubt dislodged during its many showings and tellings), long before he took over for his parents—likely, all the way back to the moment when his grandfather founded what’s now one of the longest-running restaurants in the state.
And the thing is, that moment’s living up to every single expectation we had for it. The pork—succulent, smoky—has soaked into the white bread, the sweetness of the slaw and the zing of hot sauce cutting the richness.
We order four more.
As we settle the check, Emily flips through a white plastic binder in the corner, the kind you’d use for a school presentation, serving as a guest book across the room.
“Salt Lake City, Dallas, Cheyenne, Milwaukee,” she says. “Even Alaska.”
Before we leave, we ask Jones if he’ll pose for a picture with his James Beard medal. “Of course,” he says, holding up the frame with pride. “I’ve taken enough pictures with it to fill up a Sears Roebuck catalog.”
Mile 122: Mississippi River State Park
“Did that sign say Kool-Aid Pickles?” I ask as we head east on Arkansas Highway 44 toward Mississippi River State Park. Surely—surely—my eyes are playing tricks.
“Oh, Koolickles,” Emily says from the backseat, decidedly unfazed, as if we’re talking about turkey sandwiches. “I just saw them on the menu at Porcellino’s (sidenote: see page 97) on Saturday.”
Apparently, Koolickles are a thing in the Delta, and a delicious one at that—at least according to Emily, who’s busy Googling the concoction on her phone. “A Koolickle is created by taking a jar of dill pickles, cut in half, dumping out half of its brine, and adding in a double-strong mixture of your favorite Kool-Aid flavor with water and 1/2 to 1 cup sugar,” Emily reads. “It’s on Urban Dictionary.”
We’re about 3 miles outside Marianna when the road begins to wind and the ground begins to lift. As we rise and fall over the highway’s gentle hills, we spot a green-and-white road sign marked by a steamboat wheel: The Great River Road. Next to it, a sign’s telling us we’re following Crowley’s Ridge Parkway.
The cypress and tupelos of the swamp have given way to evergreens and oaks, hickories and hardwoods, which grow denser and denser with every half mile, gradually thickening into the 20,946-acre-strong St. Francis National Forest, the largest national forest to touch the Mississippi. After chatting with the ranger at the park’s impressive visitor’s center (Wi-Fi! interactive exhibits!), we head back out onto the Great River Road, unable to resist the chance to drive out onto Crowley’s Ridge.
But here’s the thing about Crowley’s Ridge: Are you on it? Are you not on it? You’re never really able to tell. What you are able to tell is that this upland hardwood forest and these serpentine highways and these bumpy hills feel completely out of touch with the surrounding landscape of the Delta. Sunroof open, windows down, dappled sunlight on the dash, it’s as if, all of a sudden, we’re lost in the Ozarks.
Six miles later, heading east on U.S. 79, the hills melt into flooded fields, the horizon opens up, and rusty water towers and power lines are the only things of elevation for hundreds upon hundreds of miles.
“How far do you think you can see here?” Kelley asks, looking from one window to the other, cotton stubble and purple clover stretching into infinity.
After a few ludicrous equations are debated, we agree that it’s miles upon miles, and turn our attention to a crop-duster dipping and diving like a remote-control plane piloted by an oft-distracted 7-year-old.
We’re about 35 miles north of Interstate 40 and only 5 or so west of Interstate 55, but it feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere. A school bus passes (OK, actually, it almost runs us off a narrow bridge), leaving us in a proverbial cloud of dust, one that’ll follow us a few miles farther west to the former Dyess Colony, which was founded during the Great Depression as the largest of Roosevelt’s agrarian relief communities. We’re in Mississippi County, where the rich Delta soil nurtures soybeans, rice, corn and wheat. And cotton—which is what Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash tended on their 20-acre plot.
We spot a sign for “Johnny Cash’s Boyhood Home,” and make a left onto Arkansas 297. We drive for a half-mile, passing a farmhouse or two and a couple of abandoned barns, and then …
“Whoa,” we say all at once.
“Well, that’s kind of a can’t-miss-it situation,” says Emily.
Ringing a circle drive off 297 are a handful of whitewashed, vaguely Seussian buildings—almost blindingly white in the late-afternoon sun. The largest—the town’s administration building—is a grand two-story affair with a sweeping front porch. Out front, a white-plaster marker denotes “DYESS” in Art Deco lettering. A ’40s-style theater sits off to the right.
“The administration building seems like a good place to start?” I say. And it is. Inside is the research compiled by Arkansas State University, which has plans to restore as much of the resettlement community as possible, and as funds will allow. In this first phase, videos, maps and memorabilia from the Cashes and the 500 other families who worked the Dyess colony come together to tell its story: how they lost their farms in the 1927 flood, how they raised this new land from the mud, how, as J.R. Cash said, “a certain way of life produced a certain kind of music.”
A couple of miles west, former Dyess mayor Larry Sims is waiting for us at the house, which is the only standing structure in the middle of acres upon acres of soybean buds. Opening the front door, stepping onto the patched-linoleum rose-printed rug, we’re back in time, back to the late ’30s, ’40s, early ’50s, when the Cash family slept beneath this roof. In its painstakingly accurate restoration, no detail was overlooked. The lions’ heads gracing the turned legs of the dining room table. The quilt frames tucked up into the ceilings. The music sheets on Carrie Cash’s piano. The framed wolf print hanging over J.R.’s bed, the one he pulled from a magazine and stared at for hours before turning in each night. Also, Prince Albert in a can. Larry Sims is keen to talk about these details, and we’re keen to listen, as is the group of seven Irish tourists milling about—a family of die-hard Cash fans who’ve just come from Nashville and are headed to Memphis, then on to New Orleans before wrapping up their tour in Las Vegas. (And who, unfortunately, have a flat tire waiting on them in the parking lot. But not to worry—Larry Sims is also a mechanic.)
As we get ready to leave, we’re stopped on the front porch by two ladies sitting in the swing. They’re friends of Larry’s and want to know where we’re headed next? And if that’s Lepanto? And if we’d like to visit the house that was featured in a movie based on John Grisham’s novel A Painted House? And if we’d like them to call the mayor to arrange a special visit?
Before we know it, one of them’s whipping out a cellphone and placing a call.
“Yes, Dale? I’ve got five folks here from Little Rock that want to see The Painted House. Will you be …? Can you …? OK, great, five minutes.”
“I’m supposed to be there, you see, but I slipped out,” she says, hanging up the phone to give us directions to Lepanto.
“Had to get to the beauty shop.”
We thank her profusely and head out to the parking lot. “If you get stopped for speeding, tell ’em to call Minnie!” she yells over her shoulder.
Mile 235: Tyboogie’s, Tyronza
After our efforts to find Mayor Dale Dunlap, Friend of Minnie, prove unsuccessful (we were running late, after all, and it was past closing time in downtown Lepanto), we’re in need of a late-afternoon pick-me-up, so we’re heading to nearby Tyronza to a cafe called Tyboogie’s. We make a 90-degree turn onto Arkansas Highway 118—again, straight meeting straight—and the road begins to bend, slowly snaking past rows of neatly lined trees, their branches wide and strong and old.
“What kind of trees are those?” I ask.
“I think they’re pecan?” says Kelley.
Tyronza is a town of 762. Tyboogie’s? It must seat at least 100. The farm-to-table cafe, owned by the fourth-generation farmers behind nearby Whitton Farms, is a charming space, the kind of place where pies sit under glass domes, where the tables are topped with bright floral oilcloth, where chicken-fried chicken and green bean casserole’s on special, where literally every inch of the perimeter is stacked with items available for purchase, from tiny rocking chairs to quartz crystals. It’s the kind of place that likely draws farmers from towns over for lunch, and then dinner, and then lunch again.
For us, it’s the kind of place where you order a milkshake.
What flavor does the server recommend? “Honey-pecan,” she says. “Definitely.”
Guess those were pecan groves we’d passed, after all.
Mile 254: Angel in the Field, Earle
I’m trying to describe Carroll Cloar’s Angel in the Field, but I’m failing. I’m trying to describe, from memory, the contrast between sky and field, the statue rising above, the vivid oranges and the delicate—I pause.
We’re on the side of Arkansas Highway 149, face-to-face with a sea of green—the lushest grass I’ve ever seen. A stony angel towers above, a monument marking the resting spot of George B. Washington, an African-American farmer who owned most of the land in Crittenden County at the turn of the century. It’s smaller than I imagined it to be when I first saw it rendered on canvas by Cloar, an internationally renowned artist who grew up in Earle. Who painted Earle. Who painted this field.
“Look at how green this is,” I say, bending down to feel the blades between my fingers.
A pickup truck honks as it passes. City folks, the driver’s probably thinking.
We pile back in the car, GPS set for our final destination, and drive, erm, into the sunset. It’s a catch-your-breath-beautiful evening, the kind that makes you want to walk barefoot in the grass, to run through a sprinkler. The sun paints a clouded sky in crimsons and violets. Hair blowing in a humid breeze, eyes gazing out over never-ending fields, I think to myself, This place. I could live here.
Mile 336: Murry’s Restaurant, Hazen
“Is that it?” I ask, pointing at a knotted, bare-limbed giant. The sun has dipped below the horizon now, and the tree’s silhouette is almost lost in the shadows. We’re looking for the state’s champion white ash tree, the largest of its kind in the state, which the Forestry Commission says is located here in the yard of this ranch on West Crowly Street.
We agree that yes, that has to be it, until we drive a little farther and catch a glimpse of another giant in the backyard, its limbs like the trees I used to draw in grade school. “Nope, that’s it,” I say, and we stare for a bit until our stomachs start to grumble and we remember why we’re really in town.
Which is catfish.
After a few GPS misses, a wrong turn or four, and a phone call to the owners who urge us to follow U.S. Highway 70 toward Carlisle, we’re seated in the wood-paneled dining room at Murry’s, and our order goes something like this: catfish, catfish, catfish, catfish, catfish. Which is unsurprising to our server, Yolanda, who’s dropped in on her way back from Memphis tonight to help out her parents, Stanley and Becky Young. This place has been in their family for 60-some years (Becky’s maiden name being Murry), and the delicate golden-fried catfish has always been their bread and butter, drawing folks from miles around. Even Garden & Gun has taken note, naming Murry’s catfish The Best in the South, according to a framed magazine tear propped up by the front door.
It’s late in the evening now, and we’re the only folks left in the dining room, which gives us plenty of freedom to examine the framed hunting photos—black Labs and duck blinds, camo and coveralls—and trophies, mostly of the feathered variety, lining the walls. It gives us the opportunity to imagine, even in the emptiness, what these rooms must look like during duck season, when hungry hunters sit elbow to elbow. And it gives us time to talk shop with the Youngs, some of the most hospitable restaurant hosts I’ve encountered. They’re curious who we are, want to know where we’ve been, what we’ve thought about what we’ve seen. Not that I’m at all surprised, at this point in the day. Down here, that’s just what you do.
Bellies full and curiosities contented, we pile back into the car one last time and set the GPS for home. A storm’s brewing, just as it’s been threatening to do all day long, and the wind’s picking up, blowing eastward.
As we drive home, no one says much. We cruise back down I-40, lightning splintering its way across the wide prairie sky.