Keeping track of Northeast Arkansas
The post on Half Fanatics, a Facebook group of runners who are fanatical about half marathons, reads: I have discovered race nirvana: Imagine plenty of parking, a warm building and real bathrooms at the start. Aid every FREAKING mile—not just water—port-o-potties, Gatorade, fruit, pickle juice and excited wonderful people cheering you on! ROTC kids cheering the last whole mile, helping to run you in and then … Showers at the finish. BBQ. This small slice of race heaven: Midsouth Marathon in Wynne, Arkansas. I have run in 27 states this year and by and away this is my favorite.
That post had 105 “likes”; 106 now with mine. And I don’t even run! But I’m running up to Wynne today, and a member of the Muckas Running Club (the association that puts on the Midsouth Marathon, both half- and full-distance) seems like a perfect guide for the day, even though “race nirvana” won’t be back until November 2017. But, for sure, someone who runs 13.1 miles or more through the area should be an expert in what makes the town so great, right?
My starting line in Wynne, population 8,367, is Colby’s Cafe, about 10 miles north of Interstate 40. The landscape surrounding Highway 1 just off the interstate is flat, flat and more flat. It’s perfectly built for a runner’s ease, perhaps, but it also happens to be a sightseer’s bore. I ride on into town and park my Mercury in the cafe’s parking lot, stepping out to get a picture of where I’ll be carb-loading. A voice calls from the front door: “Heather? I’m Keeli!”
“Nice to meet you,” I respond, and Keeli—a petite brunette with a smile a mile wide—holds the door open to usher me in.
Keeli Smith is one of the Muckas and has volunteered to be the pacesetter for my day. She escorts me to the counter inside, and the menu is a sight to behold. I try to choose between fried mushrooms, seven different salads and a slew of gourmet sandwiches. As I settle on the mushroom Swiss burger, two ladies who tower over me and Keeli sidle up to us. Keeli’s friends Melody Douglas, with her straight blonde hair, and Joy Shepherd, with her curly dark hair, are going to share a meal with us. We all sit down at a table near the door, and it’s like I’m eating a weekly meal with my best girlfriends. I compliment Melody on her eyelashes—the longest, curliest, most beautiful I’ve ever seen—and she refers me to Felicia’s Design Team, a salon only a mile and a half jog away, for eyelash extensions. Melody lost her eyelashes to chemo a while back, but these are so natural-looking I can’t believe they’re fake. I make a mental note to head over there.
It was actually Melody’s cancer that brought her and Joy together; Joy is the director of community outreach at CrossRidge Community Hospital, and each October she puts on a breast cancer awareness luncheon. One year, Melody was the guest speaker at the event—the two have been thick as thieves ever since. And both of them love their hometown.
“We have the small-city feel,” Melody says. “But we’re near the big city.”
“We’re one hour from the airport!” Joy agrees. “I always say I can be in New York City in three and a half hours.”
But New York isn’t the only big city that Wynne has ties to. Every June, the Wynne FarmFest hosts the Delta Smoke BBQ Contest, a Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned state championship, and the Midsouth Marathon every November is a qualifier for the Boston Marathon. In fact, competition breathes a lot of life into this community, and Keeli’s shirt is just further proof of this healthy spirit.
“Is that a yellowjacket?” I ask about her Peace-Love-Some Kind of Winged Bug shirt.
“Yes!” Keeli says, her eyes lighting up. “Our team is going to the state championship tomorrow!”
“Football?” I ask.
“Yes,” Keeli confirms. “They’re undefeated.”
“They’re supposed to be headed down the road at 12:30,” Melody chimes in. “We’re supposed to go outside and cheer.”
So we do.
We sprint to the side of Highway 1 (would it have any other number here in Wynne?) and there are no less than 30 people just in the Colby’s parking lot. Across the street, under the Caldwell Pharmacy Sign that flashes “Go Jackets!” stand another half dozen people. Down the block, folks holding blue and gold balloons squint in the sun.
Flashing lights down the road catch my attention. Two school buses pass, preceded by three police cars and a fire engine. The crowds on the side of the road cheer. I can’t help but join them, waving and wishing good luck to high school boys I don’t even know. No, I don’t know them, but I sure hope they win. It just seems appropriate for a town named Wynne.
The balloons on the corner float into the sky.
The Midsouth Marathon starts—and finishes—at Wynne High School. Runners who complete the 26.2 miles head east out of town past picturesque cotton fields, then north along Crowley’s Ridge before heading back. The public schools are an important part of Wynne, as is being active. So as director of the Midsouth Kids Marathon, Keeli figured it made perfect sense that some of the proceeds of the junior race should go to constructing a quarter-mile of walking trails (complete with fitness stations!) that now circle the playground behind the intermediate school. It gives kids more options to be active at recess—options that are available before and after school as well.
“I’m really passionate about how kids can be outside and safely walk where they need to go,” Keeli says regarding one of her favorite things about Wynne, the Safe Routes to School Program. With funding from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, Safe Routes to School has manifested in Wynne as a series of connecting sidewalks that link the intermediate, primary and junior high schools. By providing a safe course, parents can feel more secure in letting their children walk to school, which not only reduces traffic, saving fuel consumption and reducing air pollution in the process, but also starts the citizens of Wynne on the path to the active lifestyle that is such a central component of the town’s identity.
“It brings the community together,” says Keeli, who, on Fridays, leads a “walking schoolbus” along the route.
She runs, she organizes runs, she walks, she organizes walks. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. “You sure are active here, aren’t you?” I ask Keeli.
“Well, I love this place,” she responds.
Keeli drives me up to the old Bank of Wynne building on East Merriman Avenue. It is here that her brother-in-law, Martin Smith, operates his branch of the Ecological Design Group, a business where he uses his landscape architecture and community connections to “create innovative, resourceful and compatible spaces for people, plants and wildlife that enhance community and socio-economic well-being.” In other words, Martin looks for needs in town helps find grants that will partially fund those needs, then goes to various organizations (the school district, they city, the parks department) and shows how what he has in mind will benefit them. Then comes the hard part: asking that organization to chip in whatever remainder there might be. But with his beautiful and useful plans, “the answer’s usually yes, across the board,” Martin says.
The Bank of Wynne building is one example of what Martin likes to do: help make Wynne both functional and attractive. Martin took this building, which had holes in the roof and was essentially unusable, and made it not only useful but beautiful, with hardwood floors, glass transoms over doors and exposed brick peeking through plaster walls. “Martin also designed the fitness trail I took you to at the intermediate school,” Keeli tells me. “He also worked on the Safe Routes to School.”
Keeli, Martin and I head to the street, where Keeli takes her leave. “Martin’s going to show you downtown,” she says in parting. “It was sure nice to meet you!”
“Nice to meet you, too,” I say, and my new guide shepherds me down the street.
As we walk, Martin reveals that it wasn’t always his dream to live in Wynne. “I spent the first 20 years of my life trying to get out and the next 10 trying to get back,” he laughs. “You grow up in the Delta and kind of take it for granted. I went out in the world, saw what I needed to see. But I came back, I think, because of the heritage. The challenge of restoring the family home—the preservation of that heritage. Then I got into trying to revitalize downtown.”
His newest downtown revitalization project is an admirable one. Down at the corner of Merriman and Front, he has plans for a “multi-generational space” to be completed by summer. The renderings of the plans on a sign in the currently empty concrete lot include a splash pad for kids, a music performance space, awnings for a farmers’ market and cafe seating from which to enjoy the view of it all. The only thing that would make it more perfect, I think, is if the library could move into the historic building located across the street. “Think of the programming!” Martin says. “Friday night outdoor movies, used book sales …” Martin begins ushering me back up the street, back to his building. I marvel at the idea of the library being in such an accessible space. “How neat that would be,” I say, “to have such easy public access for so much of the community. And to tie into the beautiful space you’re creating.”
“You get it,” Martin says. “You really get it.”
At that moment, my third guide for the day drives up in a gray Volvo SUV and rolls down the window. “You about ready for me?” Joy, the dark-haired beauty from lunch calls out.
Good things come in threes, I figure. And I join her.
Before Joy is willing to drive me to my next destination, she insists I go into the Holiday Bazaar put on by Wynne Downtown Revitalization—a little downtown boutique filled with local organizations selling odds-and-ends to raise money for their various efforts. I see booths operated by the CrossRidge Community Hospital Auxiliary, the Good Shepherd Food Pantry, the Cross County Historical Museum, the Cherry Valley Food Pantry, First United Methodist Church and the Lions Club. I am greeted at every table with smiling faces and unique items. I buy my 4-year-old daughter a little dolly from the Hospital Auxiliary, and I feel good to have contributed. I feel … almost a part of the community.
But it’s Village Creek State Park, the second largest state park in Arkansas, where Joy’s been entrusted to take me. The drive there is hilly and curvy, and no longer do I bemoan the boring countryside. When we arrive at the Arkansas State Parks Regional Office, we meet Marcel Hanzlik, Joy’s uncle and the Region 3 supervisor of the parks department, who wastes no time in getting us going on our journey through the nearly 8,000 acres of gorgeous landscape. He drives us first towards Lake Austell along a road that curves around and over Crowley’s Ridge. “Riding the ridge is amazing. You go under the canopy, up and down the hills,” Marcel narrates.
Riding the service road down onto Lake Austell, we come upon some surprised hikers (only service vehicles are allowed down here). We park and look at the placard denoting the trail we’ve come upon as part of the actual Trail of Tears. “You can walk in wagon ruts eight inches deep,” Marcel tells me.
We get back in the car and head up to the campsites. Around Village Creek, there are 96 campsites, 10 modern cabins and 66 horse stalls with wash bays for those with equine friends in tow. Marcel, Joy and I come across deer and armadillos and even cats, and in our just-under-8,000-acre journey, Joy begins to lament that she’s going to have to leave me with Marcel to go pick up her daughter. “I don’t want to miss the golf course,” she says.
But who cares about missing a golf course? Not me, as I enjoy Marcel’s description of Crowley’s Ridge (“It’s basically a sandbar that caught the soil the wind was blowing”) and tales of illegally caught fish (“the unofficial state record bass was caught here, but that story’s off the record”) and the confirmation I needed to know that kudzu is truly evil (“it grows 13 inches a day!”). We drop Joy off back at her car, I thank her and tell her what a lovely time I had.
Now, it’s time for Marcel to take me to the golf course, called The Ridges. I have to admit, I’m just not that jazzed about it. Old men in pleated shorts and argyle socks play golf, right? And the goal is to get the lowest score, right? I just don’t get it.
But then, Marcel gets us a golf cart. And we drive out onto the cart path. This course was designed by the renowned Andy Dye who, Marcel tells me, is a genius. “He just walked along the ridge, and said, This will be the fairway. This will be the green. We didn’t even have to change the landscape that much.” Which means that all the ups, downs, lefts and rights of Crowley’s Ridge are reflected throughout the 27 holes of the course. It’s more like riding a roller coaster than a golf cart. “You wouldn’t believe how many of these have fallen over,” Marcel says. But as I’m holding onto the roof and bracing my feet against the dash, I think I would. The Ridges is easily the most beautiful course I’ve ever seen, with the eponymous Village Creek flowing through it. Now I understand why Joy didn’t want to miss it. I think seriously about paying the measly $39 weekday fee just to come back and ride this coaster again.
Marcel takes me back to my car at Colby’s Cafe. He gives me advice on how to get back to Conway and makes sure I get in my car safely. He even hands me a CD for the ride back: The Arkansas Delta Music Trail: Sounds from the Soil & Soul.
I have to admit, I feel like I’ve run my own race today. I’ve been downtown, out of town and back again. But it’s been more like a relay than a marathon, as one knowledgeable person after another has taken over to lead me through their part of the dash. I haven’t minded being the baton, as it’s shown me what I think makes Wynne so special: their community. Individuals, with the same love of their town, combine their individual knowledge and strengths to make a great team. And that, my friends, is what winning looks like.