Mena is a little town, though her residents seem to have forgotten. She sits shirelike at the base of Rich Mountain, just short of where Arkansas 88 becomes Oklahoma 1. With a population that hovers around 5,700, the county seat of Polk County—and the undisputed capital of the Ouachitas—has the feel of a town readying itself for the spotlight. Founded in 1896 by the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad, Mena’s had to reinvent itself many times over the past century: first in 1910, when she was abandoned by the railroad that provided the bedrock for her foundation and shipped in her citizenry. And then more recently, and more radically, in 2009, when a devastating tornado laid waste to much of her downtown core.
It’s also a place where my GPS is almost unnecessary. Janssen Park, the reference point I was given, is obvious. It sits obliquely in the middle of town, a wide-open field among the houses and churches that spring up just a block away from the town’s main drag. Just as I was told, the Janssen Park Place Bed & Breakfast is sitting directly behind the park, a Georgian-Revival home painted a delicate shade of flamingo.
John Vacca is waiting for me when I park. He and his wife, Jolynn, own the bed and breakfast and will be my hosts for the next two days. They’re transplants from Fort Worth, Texas, who’ve owned the place since they moved here in 2009 to be closer to their grandchildren.
After I put my bags away, John and I are picked up by Gar Eisele. Gar and his wife own Washburn’s Home Furnishings on Mena Street, a store that has been in their family since 1939. Both John and Gar are leaders of the Arkansas Regional Coalition of the Ouachitas, a task force dedicated to economic and community development in Montgomery, Scott and Polk counties. The three of us trundle our way to Mena Street, the lively heart of the town and the center of its economic and artistic revival. Downtown Mena is quaint and charming, filled with the kind of small multifunction mom-and-pop stores that might seem out of place outside of a small town but, nestled against one another in buildings that have stood for decades, seem natural and almost nostalgic.
I’m told that we’ll be lunching at the Skyline Cafe, a Mena mainstay founded in 1922 when Mena was booming and both Model Ts and hitching posts were common throughout town. Like so many things in Mena, it was leveled in the 2009 tornado but was rebuilt four months later. But yet aside from new televisions on the walls and a fresh coat of paint, there’s very little reason to suspect that much of anything has changed in the past 90-plus years. Once we take our seats, John mentions that the cafe’s Reuben is a popular choice. Unbeknownst to John, I have a unique relationship with Reubens. For the first 23 years of my life, they were an enigma to me: Why did the corned beef always look so raw, and why did my grandmother love them so much? It wasn’t until after her death that I finally sought the sandwich out in a desperate attempt to feel close to her and thereupon realized what I had been depriving myself of all those years.
Naturally, I can’t let the sandwich pass me by. Gar and our waitress affirm John’s recommendation, and 10 minutes later, it’s sitting in front of me. I remember my grandmother once reminding me that “God has many shades of glories,” and this sandwich may very well be his brightest. If there is a better sandwich in Polk County, I couldn’t find it. My plate is clear before John and Gar have half-finished their meals. I briefly consider ordering a second.
As John and Gar finish their lunch, my eyes wander around the restaurant. It’s a familiar scene, the kind of restaurant that most small towns have, the kind of place where regulars are often in their seats by 5:30 a.m. and have finished their second cup of coffee by 6. John and Gar brag on the place and all of Mena in turn. They’re proud of their city, their faces lighting up as they tell me about the recent improvements to the town: a new building at the community college, the expansive new sports complex, the revamping of the downtown sidewalks.
If Skyline Cafe is Mena’s stomach, its heart must be three storefronts west in the Ouachita Little Theatre. Originally The Lyric movie house, the building was opened in 1923 and, like most things in Mena, has survived its share of tornadoes, including a 1993 storm that ripped away the back third of the building. When John and Gar arrive, a volunteer is hanging a sign outside advertising the forthcoming performances of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the theater’s children’s production set to debut that weekend. Inside, the theater is cavernous, almost barnlike, with exposed ceiling beams and past set pieces adorning the walls.
Brad Storey, the theater’s vice president, is on the stage. He’s been with the theater since 1997, when he was cast as the lead in his very first play. His jeans and sweatshirt are splotched with green and white. He’s been painting a forest.
“It’s what’s kept me in Polk County,” he says of his involvement in the theater. The theater stages four plays a year with one or two junior productions featuring children from the local schools. It’s not uncommon for actors who grow up doing junior productions to eventually become key players on the main stage.
A large part of Mena’s recent resurgence has been its newly branded Arts District. The theater and its neighbor of over 30 years, Mena Art Gallery, have been the foundation upon which new businesses have been based. The arts have long been important in Mena, and now they are a cornerstone of the town’s plans for the future.
“Theater gives cultural meaning to life, and we need that here. This town is hungry for it,” Brad tells me. And it’s that hunger for art that Gar and John plan to use to attract visitors going forward.
As Mena Street runs north from the Arts District, it rises in elevation following the not-so-gentle incline of Rich Mountain’s spine. Rising up off the valley floor, the 54-mile stretch of highway known as the Talimena National Scenic Byway ends after a steep descent in Talihina, Oklahoma. The drive’s most prominent tourist attraction is Queen Wilhelmina State Park, a vast 460-acre park 13 miles west of Mena.
The park has been the focal point of Mena’s tourism reinvention in recent years. “It’s interesting,” Gar tells me as we make our way out to the park’s newly opened lodge, “most of our visitors come from out of state, from Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma. They’re people for whom our mountains are a real change of scenery.” I look out the car window at the valley floor, the bottom of which is hidden by a blanket of trees, the tops of which are several hundred feet below us. Somewhere beneath the canopy, he tells me, are the headwaters of the Ouachita River.
We finally reach the lodge, a new two-story building with exposed timbers and stonework that overlooks the sprawling Ouachita Valley to the south. It’s been nicknamed the “Castle in the Clouds” and has been rebuilt numerous times since it was first constructed in 1897. Most recently, the lodge underwent a three-year renovation and reopened July 1 of this past year. Mena, like all rural towns, is a web of interconnectedness, and when such a large industry ceases to function, even temporarily, the effects are widespread.
Tourism is by and large the region’s largest industry, and when the lodge was closed, the region lost $16 million in revenue each year. Sarah Jones, the park’s assistant superintendent, came to Queen Wilhelmina shortly after the renovation began. She’s noticed a huge change in the five months since the lodge reopened. “Down at the Skyline [Cafe], they told us they had to hire more waitresses because they couldn’t keep up with the volume.” For visitors, the park contains miles of trails, a miniature golf course, numerous camping options and even a small train that operates during the summer months.
Sarah gives me a tour of the lodge, or “The Queen,” as she lovingly refers to it. The recent renovation places it among the state’s finest hotels, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to Lake Wilhelmina some 2,000 feet below. All rooms have been refurbished, with some now containing in-room spa tubs and fireplaces. As the tour ends, Sarah asks if there is anything else I’d like to see. I tell her no but then change my mind. I have a personal request.
Twenty minutes later, I’m wishing I hadn’t opened my mouth. I’m halfway up a metal staircase beneath the abandoned Rich Mountain fire tower. The 65-foot tower was built in 1954 but later taken out of service in the mid-1970s. We had passed it on our drive to the lodge, and on a whim, I had asked Sarah if she had a key.
Turns out she did. The tower noticeably sways in the wind as I follow Sarah’s lead, putting one foot in front of the other and trying not to notice that the stairs seem to be more corroded with rust the higher we climb. “Worth it” is a strong phrase for this acrophobe, but the view from the tower’s top is still impressive. From 2,746 feet, the whole of southwest Arkansas is laid out before me. Lakes, ponds and chicken houses all glint varying shades of sliver as the sun melts away the clouds. Mena is largely obscured, but towns like Rocky, Potter and Hatfield all appear as smudges in an otherwise green field. I wonder if, on a clear night, we might see the tiny twinkling of cities like Texarkana or DeQueen staring back at us or if, just maybe, we are far enough above the light pollution to see the gentle arms of the Milky Way reaching out above us. On a clearer, warmer day, finding out would certainly be worth the climb.
A few hours later, John and I are seated beneath a mustachioed and bow-tied deer. It’s fitting, given the name of the restaurant is Stache’s Cookery, a Mena staple and the first restaurant in the county to obtain a liquor permit. The restaurant hosts concerts in the summer on a large outdoor patio, but tonight, we’re seated indoors beside a fireplace whose flames have been replaced by orange twinkle lights.
I ask John if he was this involved in the community when he lived in Fort Worth. “No, not at all,” he says. “But here … You’re new, and you meet someone, and they bring you to a thing, a function, and then you get invited to another. It just sort of happened to me here.” It’s easy to see how much the town has come to mean to John, but it’s even easier to see what John means to it. Given the number of people who’ve stopped John throughout the day to say hi, I wonder if he, or anyone else in this town, has ever met a stranger.
John orders a mountain of Cajun nachos, and I find myself staring down into a seemingly endless bowl of Cajun pasta. It’s a hearty dish that’s much needed after a day of exploring the town. As we sip our wine, John tells me that the thing he loves most about owning a bed and breakfast is the diversity of the people he meets. “They come from all over: Texas, Louisiana, Canada, Europe,” he says. As he’s saying this, a British-accented voice from the table behind us drifts into my ear. I hear him telling his waitress that he’s in town on business from the United Kingdom. There’s an unexpected international side of Mena—I’ll later learn that the city’s largest factory is Japanese-owned and that Queen Wilhelmina is named for a Dutch queen—which is somehow exactly what you’d expect to find in a city so adept at defying rural conventions.
On my way out of town the following day, I drive by the airport, a small airstrip southeast of town. It’s immediately evident where its name, Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport, comes from, as its runway is laid out on an eastern tendril of the valley floor, mountain jutting out on every side. This is where Barry Seal, the notorious pilot for Colombia’s Medellín Cartel, smuggled cocaine into the U.S., earning $500,000 per flight.
I had asked Gar about it the day before. “We used to not like to mention it,” he had said, “but at this point, we embrace it. Whatever gets people to visit is fine with us.” We had all laughed at the idea of a national drug scandal now being mined for tourism, but the fruition of the idea isn’t too far off. Tom Cruise will play Seal in a movie about the scandal set for release in January of next year. Though the movie is appropriately titled Mena, it’s being shot in Georgia, a fact that disappoints Gar. “We’ll still get some of the spotlight,” he said. “We just have to be ready to act on it when it shines.”
The movie and the eventual completion of Interstate 49 both loom as potential boons for Mena. Gar, John and the rest of Mena’s residents have done a lot in the past six years to make sure they’re ready for whatever comes their way. In the meantime, though, they plan to stay true to themselves and their town. They pride themselves on being a welcoming destination for anyone who might visit. And if my visit is any indication, it’s only a short time until Mena stops being the Ouachitas’ biggest secret and becomes its greatest asset.