Friends: Don Jaime was quite startled to learn that Arkansas's Fulton Country was dry when he went in search for his nightly six-pack in Salem, the first town we stopped in after leaving Missouri. It was less than an hour until dark, so we didn't have enough time to make it to the next county. We assumed that it had to be wet, as how many dry counties could there be. But we assumed wrong, as more than half of Arkansas's 75 counties are dry, a higher percentage than any other state.
The husband and wife team volunteering at the Calico Rock tourist office in the next county, Izard, also dry, said that they had been part of a periodic petition drive to put the issue up to vote for their county. But each time they had, it had been voted down. They had retired to Calico Rock from the western suburbs of Chicago ten years ago after having done some canoeing in the area and falling in love with it. The husband commented when he was researching the profile of the county's population, he discovered it had no blacks or Hispanics or Asians, though he didn't say if that had any weight in their decision to move here.
The 80-year owner of the ice cream shop next to the tourist office said he considered the region paradise and he didn't like others finding out about it and moving in. Back when he was in the army 60 years ago he was too embarrassed to tell anyone where he was from, because he said, "People from Arkansas had a reputation of having no education and no shoes." Now when he travels he doesn't want to admit where he's from, as he's afraid he'll rave about it too much and make people want to move here.
Don Jaime was desperate enough for a beer to hire someone to drive him to Norfolk, ten miles away, to the nearest liquor store, but couldn't find any takers. Nor could he find anyone who had a spare beer for sale or who knew of any bootleggers or moonshiners. As kindly as the husband and wife were in the tourist office and a couple of other locals who dropped in to talk to "the bicyclists," no one cared to give us a lift or arrange one or find a source of The Don's favorite beverage.
Ever since we entered this black hole for alcohol we found ourselves in the curious situation of intently studying our state map for county lines, hoping the next county might be wet. "Never before have I cared so much about county lines. Put that in your blog," The Don said with an exasperation he normally reserves for automobiles.
Two young girls with tattoos up and down their arms at a hamburger joint at Calico Rock, who should have known, couldn't offer any help nor could that feisty 80-year old owner of the ice cream store. A woman who provided jams and jellies and dried fruit at an artist's cooperative thought her husband might have some beer to spare, but that was a false alarm. We later surmised that they all might have feared we were part of a sting operation and that we ought to have produced our Illinois driver's licenses and assured them we weren't undercover agents. So The Don has had to survive two nights without beer and may have a couple more ahead.
The first night we were wild camping in a forest too thick to risk lighting a fire, so it was simply early to bed. The Don slept twelve hours. "I've never done that before. Put that in your blog," he commented the next morning.
Last night we sought refuge at Pinewood Cabins in downtown Mountain View, as we were drenched by a hard, cold rain the 25 miles from Calico Rock to Mountain View. The rain continued well into the night, dumping a total of four inches. We were so soaked and bedraggled, the first bed-and-breakfast we tried made it obvious we weren't welcome. We were lucky this wasn't the weekend of the Bean Fest and Outhouse Races. The 29th annual edition a week ago drew 40,000 people, filling every bed in this town of less than 3,000.
Besides being dry, the biggest contrast of Arkansas to Missouri so far is all the dead armadillos along the road. The ice cream shop owner said they began migrating into the region just ten years ago and are now taking over. "I shoot 'em whenever I see 'em on my property," he said. "They dig holes everywhere and are a great nuisance."
The Arkansas folks seem to be a take-charge lot. A sign outside a yard full of broken down cars just beyond Salem announced, "Attention. Theve or Theves. Restitution Will Come If I Don't Get You First."
The few motorists on these little trafficked roads through the Arkansas Ozarks have had no more objection to our presence than those in Missouri. The Don never imagined he could ride so many miles on pavement without being irked by a gas guzzler. He had initially been reluctant about starting our bicycling in St. Louis, 300 miles from the single track in Arkansas he wanted to ride, preferring to take the train to Memphis instead, just 150 miles away, 150 miles less of pavement he would have to ride. But I said I was very confident we'd find little traffic in the Ozarks, which has been true. Also, Amtrak would allow us to take our bikes onto a passenger car unboxed to St. Louis, while we would have had to box them and put them in a baggage car to Memphis. After my recent experience of my bike not making it into the baggage car to Grand Junction from Chicago, I wanted to avoid that possibility again.
The Arkansas Ozarks have been as superlative for bicycling as was Missouri. Arkansas seems to have a genuine bicycling consciousness. The woman at the Arkansas Visitor Center just across the border from Harvey, Missouri gave us two brochures on bicycling in the state. One listed 22 bike routes, eleven off road and eleven on road. The other detailed a 17-mile trail in Little Rock along the Arkansas River and across the Big Dam Bridge, the longest bridge in the country built specifically for walkers and cyclists, 4,246 feet long. Among the sites it passes is the Clinton Presidential Library. She also gave us a brochure/passport to Clinton Places in the state--a "Billgrimage" it is called. But she gave us no warning or information on the dry counties of the state.
Yesterday we had such a fine breakfast of biscuits and gravy The Don pulled out his camera for a photo. "People do this all the time at our hotel," he said. What had at first seemed like a silly thing to do, he can now understand. He has also found himself turning into one of his clients when we check into a hotel. If he starts asking too many questions he realizes he is becoming a dreaded "VHM"--"Very High Maintenance" client. He and his wife Marshia have five categories of clients--very high maintenance (VHM), high maintenance(HM), medium maintenance (MM), low maintenance (LM), and Poster, the ideal client they'd like to put on a poster.
They employ fifteen people maintaining their restaurant and bed and breakfast. They have expanded it from ten rooms to sixteen since acquiring it seven years ago, and within the past year have started up a brew-pub and restaurant managed by their son Jason, a chef, a few blocks away. Don Jaime says they treat their staff so well none of them want to leave.
This is a most welcome respite from the business for The Don, so only occasionally do our conversations veer off to his business life, but he can't help but revert to it when he encounters someone else in "the hospitality business," as he calls it. "Dealing with tourists all the time," he says, "It's hard not to become jaded. I don't want to, but its not easy."
As always, its been a grand time sharing The Don's company and hearing more of his exceptional and fascinating life. He's another of those larger than life characters that I feel so privileged to have come to know thanks to my traveling life.