Saturday, November 12, 2011

Morrilton, Arkansas

Friends: One of the great traveler's cliches is raving how friendly the people are. Of course they are friendly.  Its is a natural inclination to express curiosity towards someone who is passing through or visiting.  People naturally wonder about such a person.

But there are certainly degrees to friendliness and also genuine friendliness compared to simply rote friendliness. The friendliness of the Ozarks has been exceptional. It is the South, a region known for its hospitality. But the Ozarks are also a cousin to Appalachia, both regions dominated by people living in semi-isolation off in the hills with a natural suspicion towards outsiders. When I have biked through Appalachia I have encountered a certain degree of reserve. That has not been the case at all in the Ozarks.

When Jim and I slipped into the Mona Lisa Cafe for lunch in Shirley, a town of three hundred off on lightly traveled route 9 south of Mountain View that began with a warning "Crooked and Steep Next 17 Miles," we thought we had slipped into a family gathering, the people were so friendly, not only towards us but to everyone seated at the seven tables in the cosy two room cafe. All of a sudden we were the guests of honor with everyone from the waitress to the people at neighboring tables asking about our travels.

The owner, a woman by the name of Lisa, kept up a lively banter with everyone. Jim and I just sat back and enjoyed it all. One woman had driven up from Little Rock, eighty-five miles away, to take her eighty-year old mother out to lunch. When the mother declined the German chocolate cake desert, Lisa asked, "Are you watching your weight? Trying to catch another husband? You keep outliving them all."

Her daughter commented she had many suitors. "She makes me look tame and I'm not tame at all. She had three daughters. One was crazy, one was shy and one was wild. I was the wild one."

A bald-headed guy with a goatee, who had earlier been telling Jim and I he had hitch-hiked all over the country, responded, "Sounds like you take after your mother. I was the black sheep of my family. Everyone kept telling me, why can't you be more like your brothers. I didn't want to be like them and I'm glad I wasn't."

An older gentleman walked up to the counter and told Lisa, " I hate to say it, but that was all too good of a meal not to be able to afford to pay for it."

Lisa quickly retorted, "If you don't have the money, I'll just have to come after you to get it."

"I live off in the hills," he replied. "You'll never find me."

"Oh yes I will. I got real good at trackin' down folks when I first moved here and had a video store."

She told us that when Netflix put her out of business, she was happy to have the opportunity to open up a cafe, her true love. The walls were filled with paintings of Mona Lisa and dolls and other knick knacks. "You should have been here at Halloween," she added, "I had Mona Lisa's decorated in Halloween costumes."

When a couple asked her what they owed her, "She said $15.43, and the entertainment is free."

We've encountered such unrestrained friendliness all along the way. On our second lay-over day in Mountain View, while Jim went off to Ozark National Forest to ride some single-track I took a ride to Baxter County, twenty miles away to pick up a couple of six-packs for Jim. It took me through a small town with the name of 56. When I saw such an unlikely named town on the map, I was sorry it wasn't on our route, so was delighted for the opportunity to see it, and learn how it got its name. It was six miles before the county line.

There was a liquor store just across the county line, four miles before the next town, with a flashing sign warning "Dry County Ahead." The young lady at the liquor store lived in 56, but she said she didn't know how it got its name. "You can ask my mother. She's working in the convenience store back in 56." We had a pleasant fifteen minute chat on her varied customers and family life. She wasn't concerned at all if the neighboring county ever went "wet," as she said they had loyal customers who she was confident would remain faithful to the store.

She wasn't a beer drinker herself, so couldn't recommend a beer for me. My instructions from Jim were to get any micro-brewed beer they might have. And if they had none, just don't get anything lite or Bud or Miller or Michelob. If his cell phone hadn't gone kaput the day before, I could have tried calling him to tell him what was available. I simply asked what was her most expensive beer. It was Sam Adams and Shiner at a little less than ten dollars for a six-pack. Jim would have been happy with anything, not having had a beer for three nights, but these he was pleased with.

When I stopped in at the general store back in 56, the woman at the counter seemed too young to be the mother of the woman at the liquor store, but it was indeed her mother. She said she hoped her daughter hadn't told me too many bad stories about her. She explained 56 got its name from its school district, 56. She too was happy to chat as if we were long-time friends without any nervousness of telling me too much.

Ten miles after the Mona Lisa cafe Jim and I arrived in Clinton (though not on the "Billgrimage Route") on busy route 65, just seventy-five miles north of Little Rock. It was 3:30, two hours before dark. We had gotten a late start out of Mountain View and had only biked thirty-five miles. Jim said his ankle was bothering him and he was too tired to continue riding into the strong head wind. Since we would be soon parting ways in Little Rock, where he would take the train back to Chicago, while I would bicycle back, he said it wasn't necessary for me to continue tagging along with him at his pace.

His heart was clearly no longer into the biking. Back in Mountain View he said he wished he could find someone to drive him the one hundred miles to Little Rock. "If this were Ecuador I'd have no problem finding someone with a pick-up truck to drive me anywhere for five bucks." Jim had been dreading those last few miles into Little Rock through the heavy traffic for days and had been trying to figure out a way to avoid them.

Jim was so eager to get to Little Rock, he was willing to continue on busy 65, a road he normally would have utterly abhorred. He'd be cursing and raging at every passing vehicle until there was a danger of his head exploding. It was a relief not to be subjected to that. If he wasn't at such a low energy level he would have most certainly stuck to route nine, just an additional extra fifteen miles to Little Rock, and my preference by far, not only for the minimal traffic, but for the small towns along the way and the added bonus of a Carnegie library, one of only three remaining in the state. The fourth in Little Rock had been razed quite a few years ago.

Jim was hoping to catch the midnight train on Sunday, two days away. Ordinarily he ought to have been able to easily ride the seventy-five miles by then, even though we had only been averaging forty miles a day in these travels. The road would be flatter than it had been, as we had descended into the Arkansas River valley.

"Let's aim to meet at the Clinton Library in Little Rock at noon on Sunday," I suggested. That will give me enough time to explore the city and then escape before dark. Jim said he would do his best to make it.

I was sorry not to get his reaction to the Carnegie in Morrilton, forty-five miles beyond our departure point. It was a classic small town Carnegie, built on a small hill near the center of the town of 6,000 residents. The red-bricked building was adorned with several plaques inside and out, recognizing Carnegie and acknowledging it as a National Historic site. It was identified by "Public Library" in black block letters over its entrance.

At first I thought it was the rare Carnegie without an addition, but its back-side had been extended in 1991 with a barely detectable red-brick extension. Carnegie's portrait hung in a corner of its upstairs room overlooking several framed photos of the library as well as a two-page document telling its history, tracing it back to a woman's group in 1896 that collected books for a rotating library until they won a grant from Carnegie in 1915 to build a permanent library. Morrilton was the smallest town in the South to receive a Carnegie grant.

Though we've stopped at small town libraries nearly every day, none had the majesty, nor the history, of this Carnegie. Its been nearly four hundred miles since our last in St. Louis, about the longest stretch I've ridden in the U.S. without coming upon one. It will be a couple hundred miles or more until my next. Which it will be, I do not now. I'm still uncertain of my route back to Chicago. It could be through Memphis and then along the Mississippi or perhaps back up to Missouri and a Carnegie south of St. Louis along the river. Either way, I hope to pick up Historic Route 66 at some point in Illinois and follow that through Springfield and Lincoln's Presidential Library, the largest by fifty per cent of any of the Presidential Libraries. Now its on to Clinton's and hopefully a final meal with The Don. I scavenged a Rebel flag this morning along the road for him. He can appreciate it, as it was once the state flag of Alabama, where he grew up.

Later, George

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