THERE IS SO MUCH roadwork on the way to Rogers it’s almost like I’m on some kind of test track. Orange barrels narrow the lanes until I feel like I’m in a giant bumper-car arena. I guess turning Highway 71 into Interstate 49 takes a whole lot of effort and a little bit of inconvenience. But there’s a meme on the Internet that echoes in my head this morning: Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations. And for now, that’s enough for me to keep my eye on the prize, my hands on the wheel and my mind open to whatever is in store for my trek today.
Rogers, I’m ready for you.
Rogers is a Purple Heart City of 55,964 people, so monikered because of the services it offers to veterans. It’s a sign I haven’t noticed in all my Arkansas travels to date. But that’s not the only interesting signage I see—I also spy Smokin’ Joe’s Ribhouse Pit Barbecue and the Estetica D’Pelos and the Northwest Arkansas Sikh Temple. And as I turn onto Poplar Street and head to the heart of Rogers—its newly reinvigorated downtown—I pass the Arkansas Arts Academy (100 percent tuition free!) and a beautiful blonde-brick building with a square center turret emerging from seven Roman arches. I’m an architecture buff, and so far, with just this one incredible edifice, Rogers has delivered.
I park on First Street in front of what looks to me like a train-depot-turned-park with a brick pavilion and red-topped playground, and when I learn that it’s named “Frisco Park,” I pat myself on the back for my keen observation skills. Just across the road is a pizzeria called The Rail, where I am scheduled to meet my host for the day. Clearly the railroads played a key role in the development of this town.
I enter the glass door under the black awning to find an exposed brick wall, a dark parquet floor and a bar adorned with corrugated tin. And sitting at that bar—I recognize her from her Facebook photo—is Hannah Cicioni. Hair pulled back in a bun, sunglasses on her head, wearing a gray shirt and khaki pants, Hannah looks like a fixture here—and she is.
“They want The Rail to be an extension of your living room,” she tells me as we move to a booth. “Everything was handmade by Shane Zimmerman and Dave Davis.” They’re both hometown boys who work in construction and decided there needed to be a cool place to eat in downtown Rogers. They opened five years ago in a snowstorm, and to this day, even when everything else might be closed because of bad weather, you can count on The Rail to be open. “The owners and servers live downtown so they can walk to work,” Hannah explains. It seems like that’s a growing trend here, as Hannah tells me, “I work and play in downtown Rogers.”
Hannah owns not only Cicioni & Co. Development and Consulting, a firm that sells and develops real estate, but also Red Ridge Outfitters, which caters to hunters, fisherman and outdoorsmen in general (what she calls her “fun job”). In fact, it’s her commitment to the outdoors that led me to her in the first place—her volunteer work with R.A.T.S. (Rogers Area Trail Supporters) drew my attention. “I think of Rogers as the gateway to the outdoors,” she tells me.
That’s not all that she thinks of Rogers, though. Her knowledge of her hometown is extensive. That brick building I already love? It’s the old Lane Hotel, she tells me. It was purchased in the last year, and although she doesn’t know what it’s going to be used for, she knows it’s going through a full restoration. “It was considered the palace of Northwest Arkansas,” she says. “Amelia Earhart stayed there.”
As we’re talking, a train whistle blows. Or was it a horn? Either way, when you hear that, it’s time for the $1.50 beer special at The Rail. She orders us each a Coors Banquet Beer (which I can’t believe I actually like, but I do) and gets us “pig wings” (pork shanks smoked, flash-fried and coated in barbecue sauce), which are brought to us by Shannon Ingram, who was born and raised in Rogers. Her long brown hair makes her blue eyes really shine, and what she loves about her town isn’t too far removed from what Hannah loves about it as well: “It’s community. It’s relaxed. It’s centrally located. In our backyard is Beaver Lake. We can go kayaking on the Mulberry. We’re active people.”
Hannah definitely fits that description; every year she goes on a Colorado elk hunt—several of her kills are hanging up in businesses around town, she tells me. And to train for the hunt, she carries her heavy rucksacks on the trails that this area has in abundance. Her passion for the outdoors is obvious. “Do you know what the national average of unstructured play time for kids is?” she asks. “Twenty-eight minutes a week! I grew up walking in the woods, making mud pies, floating on the lake. The outdoors should be for everyone. There are so many things you can experience, and for us, it’s all right here.”
Then she whisks me into her Ford Super Duty 4×4.
Hannah takes me just down Walnut Street—not even a mile, I don’t think—and suddenly we’re at the Lake Atalanta project. Mr. O.L. Gregory originally donated the land for the park in 1936, provided that it would be named after his wife, Atalanta, and the Works Progress Administration developed the area primarily for recreation. After years of vigorous use by the community, the area had slowly succumbed to wear and tear. But with much interest from both the city government and the community in general, Lake Atalanta, a 236-acre city park, began being renovated as part of a $138 million bond the citizens voted for.
We park the truck in an as yet unfinished lot and are immediately greeted by a tall man (6-foot-2? 3?) in a copper-colored hardhat wearing a tan City of Rogers polo, jeans and hiking boots. This is David Hook, facilities development manager, and he has much to show me in what feels like too little time. Right off the bat, he moves a large “NO ENTRANCE” sign and ushers us down the new 1,800 linear feet of boardwalk they’ve added around Lake Atalanta.
“Approximately 60 percent of the lake was inaccessible due to the terrain,” David tells me about the area pre-project. “Now we’re going to have approximately 3.5 miles of multipurpose concrete trail and 10 miles of single-track, hiking-slash-biking trails.” The boardwalk is part of this trail system, and it leads to a kayak launch and five different fishing piers. “Keep your eye out,” David tells us. “You’ll see some pretty big fish.”
“I remember when I was a kid,” Hannah recalls of Lake Atalanta. “There was the legend of Moby Dick.”
I don’t see any white whales swimming beneath me, but I see a healthy lake ringed with trees (supposedly the state’s biggest sycamore is around here somewhere) and trails peeking out of the hills rising up from the waters. Across the lake from where we stand is a boat launch that will allow crafts up to five horsepower. “Will there be a day-use fee?” I ask.
“Oh no,” David replies, shaking his head. “No, no, no.”
All of it, indeed, is free. That’ll include the fishing and kayaking and boating, as well as a creek area for kids to splash in and two awesome treehouses to explore and a natural-themed playground complete with ropes and orbs made from wood and an orientation pavilion with an education center that identifies local plant life and information about the 182 bird species that have been identified around here so far.
Before this project began, the Lake Atalanta park had a swimming pool, a restaurant, a skating rink and a miniature golf course that were all past their prime. “The idea,” David says, “is to take this back to nature.” And they’ve done a beautiful job of that. But it hasn’t been easy. “This lake is fed by two main springs—the Frisco and the Diamond. They used to be the water supply for the city of Rogers. Two million gallons a day flow into this. And believe me, that makes it a challenge to build here.”
But build they have, and in an organic way that complements the natural beauty of the place. Native stone forms the basis of what David refers to as a “meditation pavilion,” and the timbers helming the treehouses and the orientation pavilion create a harmony with the hills around us. The area even has purposely planned open fields designed for creative recreation. “Let the kids play,” David says. “Not everything has to be structured.” I cannot wait to bring my own children here.
A tunnel under the road is being constructed so the area close to the springs can be used, too, and we visit the pavilion on that side as well—it has a fireplace and will soon boast yet another playground. Leading from the pavilion is part of the network of trails that Rogers has worked so hard to develop. “We’ve been calling it the Frisco Valley Trail,” David tells me. “And you usually see deer around here.”
Green shrubs with pops of orange blossoms line the trail. None of us are sure what they are, other than beautiful. Tall iron light posts provide safety at night, and as we walk, I hear flowing water. The remnants of an old pump house, signifying the font of the Frisco Spring, lie just to the left of the trail. It seems like as good a time as any to ask David my signature question: “What, for you, makes Rogers Rogers?”
“The word that comes to mind is simplicity,” David replies. “It isn’t overdone. We don’t have to be New York. We do what’s right for the citizens and allow their creativity to take over.” I actually love this answer. I haven’t experienced too many towns with the confidence in their own geography—and their own people—to simply bask in what it is they have naturally.
We walk quite a bit more up the trail. I see an old wooden bridge to my right (charming) and, later on, a new wooden bridge with massive stone underpinnings (amazing). It feels like every detail has been thoughtfully considered, perhaps because it has. It was part of the plan all along to make as little impact as possible on the environment. “Instead of cutting into the hillside, we cantilevered the trail over the slope.” And believe me, it is a sight to behold.
Apparently this trail meets Cherry Street downtown, if you follow it far enough. It leads toward a park called the Railyard, yet another nod to the industry that contributed so much to the development of Rogers. But it’s time for the three of us to head back down the path. I imagine how beautiful this tree-lined walk must be in the fall. And that’s when four—four!—deer cross the trail ahead of us.
“All the time,” David says, nodding and smiling. “All the time.”
Hannah and I climb to the top floor of a three-story observation deck overlooking the Railyard, “a natural surface bike park.” But the Railyard is so much more than just a bike park. The grounds also contain a natural play area for kids (beams to walk on, open areas to play games in), picnic spots and a dog park. But, admittedly, it is the bike park that is the main attraction, and rightfully so: From the shade of the covered deck, we can see dirt tracks with hills to ride up and down as well as some ramps and half pipes and a super-cool obstacle created from a train freight car—all in keeping with Rogers’ past as a rail town and present as a natural preserve.
Two guys on mountain bikes run the trail simultaneously, and it’s exhilarating to see them speed and jump and spin. “In November, the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) will be in Bentonville and two of the top riders in the world are coming here to demo the bike park,” she tells me. It seems that between the autumn leaves, the reopening of Lake Atalanta and the IMBA summit, Rogers is the place to be this fall.
Nathan Hudgens, an employee for the City of Rogers Parks Department working on the Railyard today, agrees. “There are so many different activities now! But Rogers still feels like a small town.”
Nathan likes to mountain bike, so the work here is a natural fit for him. As it is for Ted Huie, who’s working with Nathan today. Ted is part of the Southern BMX Stunt Show, which travels around doing festivals and shows at schools. Originally from Little Rock, Ted moved to Rogers permanently in 2012. He really loves all the free things available to the public, like Crystal Bridges, the Railyard, Lake Atalanta … but for him, there’s one great thing that makes Rogers Rogers. “The local breweries!” he exclaims.
“The local breweries!” Nathan repeats, nodding his head.
“We’re going there next,” Hannah laughs.
“Need some help?” Nathan asks.
It is an undeniably hot day. After tromping around Lake Atalanta and scaling the Frisco Valley Trail and hanging out at a bike park, I am literally dripping sweat. I could use a nice cold refreshment, and the Ozark Beer Company offers just that. In full disclosure, however, I am not a beer drinker. I like wine. Mixed drinks. Traditionally girly fare. But I am also a polite Southern girl, and if a beer is offered, I sip it. The one I had at lunch was pretty good, surprisingly, and I am up for the best Rogers has to offer. And from everyone I’ve listened to today, the Ozark Beer Company is part of that best.
Hannah and I sidle up to the tasting bar, a chalkboard menu at one end. Should I get the IPA, with notes of citrus and tropical fruit? The Coffee Stout with tastes of French roast? Jose Socarro, originally from Mexico but residing in Rogers for 24 years now, has taught classes in beer tasting and now works for Ozark Beer. “I’m a pretty big fan of beer,” he says, and he pours me the IPA, which strikes a nice balance between fruity and bitter.
In walks Lacie Bray, one of the three owners. She wears a black sleeveless top and jeans, her brown hair piled on top of her head on this hot day. She’s originally from Rogers, like so many folks here, but she went away for a while, doing things like raft guiding, working in a ski town and even teaching environmental science in Chicago. While in Illinois, her husband, Andy, went to brewing school and got an internship at Goose Island, eventually securing a job there. Then they decided to open their own brewery, and discovered that their home state of Arkansas actually had the most favorable laws. At first, Washington County was their only option, but when Benton County became a possibility, they knew that this was the best space for their venture. “People were so amazing,” Lacie says of Rogers. “So supportive of what we were doing.”
“So is that what makes Rogers Rogers for you?” I ask her.
“The people,” Lacie nods.
“Yeah!” Jose agrees.
“Plain and simple,” Lacie says. “This is community in the purest sense. They don’t support businesses. They support individuals.”
“Yeah, the community here is great,” Jose chimes in. “I’ve looked at other places—I go to Chicago quite frequently—but the community, for me, is a legitimate home.”
The Ozark Beer Company actually has a lot to do with making this community a legitimate home. Every week they host Sunday Funday from 3 to 6 p.m., where people can come, have a few beers, listen to music, even bring their kids along to play some family-friendly games. Sometimes these Sunday Fundays are even fundraisers, giving money to area charities like the Humane Society. They also have Pies and Pints, where they match pies from local bakeries to their beers, and on the second Friday each month they host a square dance.
“It’s like a social hall,” I observe.
“That’s very true,” Hannah says, standing beneath one of her kills and positively the biggest elk head I’ve ever seen mounted. “It’s a community center within itself.”
I am sitting tall in Hannah’s truck. She drives me through downtown Rogers, which is a collection of streets and not just a square or one main drag. I see the Daisy Airgun Museum (don’t shoot your eye out) and Vintage Antiques and the Arkansas Public Theatre—all beautiful old buildings with so many interesting things to see inside them. But today, it’s not what’s inside that holds any interest for me.
Because today, I found myself squinting into a cerulean sky, listening to the trickling water of a vital spring, tasting good beer made with the freshest ingredients. I walked and sweated and felt … alive. Just absolutely full of life, like all of the outdoors around me. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but it turned out to be so much more. So much more … real. Which is what Hannah has been trying to tell me all along.
“The quality of life—the real genuineness of what’s going on here—that’s what makes Rogers Rogers,” Hannah says. “This is where I want to raise my family. It’s just a good, good place.”
And like the genuine person she is, she shakes my hand and thanks me for coming. I hope, someday, I can thank her in return.