I headed east to De Queen, Arkansas, one of the first “pleasantvilles” that I would encounter on my trek through the “Natural State”, as they now call it for some oblivious reason. I was really getting into rural America as I headed north on U.S. 71 through some hill country that reminded me of the Appalachians in eastern Kentucky. All along the two-lane highway were bare-boned shanties with the accouterments of the poverty-stricken – car carcasses, hanging laundry, mongrel dogs, and of course, a refrigerator and a transmission on every porch (several still brandished a Confederate flag). In Mena, I stopped to photograph a jewel of a railroad depot resplendent with a red tile roof and a red brick veneer. All that was missing was a 2-6-2 steam locomotive puffing away in front of the station. I flagged U.S. 270 to take me east towards Little Rock, passing through little burgs with idyllic names such as Acorn, Y City, Pencil Bluff, and Mount Ida. The highway rolled and pitched through hills ablaze with a myriad of autumn colors.
It was then I started remembering the backpack excursion of thirty years ago and thinking to myself, “I just know the trailhead was around here somewhere. It all looks too familiar.” Suddenly, as I crossed the Quachita River, I noticed a sign reading: Rocky Shoals Campground. I pulled in and walked around the area down towards the river. “This had to be it,” I thought. I recalled having to traipse up a shallow riverbed to our campsite. That was something else, standing there in the same spot so long ago removed. I walked around the grounds some more, gazing up at the montage of leafy ochres, reds, yellows, and crimsons. Now I had really jump-started autumn!
I stopped in Hot Springs for gas and a redneck fellow comes up and asks, “What part of Colorado you from?” I gave the rube the ol’ Gunnison County rigmarole, and he countered with, “Well heck, I used to live in Kremmling, but I’ve done a bunch of fishin’ on Taylor River up above Gunnison.” I had to ask him why he had moved from such a beautiful part of the country. His quick reply was, “There’s a lot more work here repairing transmissions.” Well, that sure went with the territory. Then I noticed an ol’ gal having trouble negotiating her gas pump, so I strolled over and said, “Lady, push the START button.” She did so, and said, “Oh my gosh, I feel so stupid.” Her naiveté about the pump confrontation had me laughing all the way back to Ol’ Blue.
I was able to enjoy about thirty more miles of serene country driving before I had to mercilessly merge with I-30. After three days of tranquil motoring, the helter-skelter of the interstate bordered on the abominable. It was as if I had been suddenly sucked into a mini-Daytona 500. Fortunately, the madness only lasted for about 20 miles. In Little Rock I exited the racetrack and found my way to the home of Nick “The Greek” Nicholas, my old friend from Columbia University days (1962-63). I always called him my “Itty-Bitty Buddy” because of his diminutive stature (about 5 feet – 8 inches and 140 lbs.). It had been many years since my last visit, so we had a great reunion, talking over good (old) times and old (good) friends until almost midnight. Then I got serious.
I started in, saying, “Nick, you’re 68 years old and been living alone in Momma’s house for 20 years, listening to your classical music (and operas) and reading your classical literature. Are you ready to die? I mean, do you feel like you’ve led a fulfilling life? I know you taught English Lit up at Amherst (a college in Massachusetts), but is that rewarding enough for you?” His eyes opened wide behind his eyeglasses, and he replied, “Yes, Bill, I’ve been ready for years. I would be content to pass away in my living room chair, listening to an aria from Madam Butterfly. There’s nothing else left in life for me.” I said, in jest, “You’d be happy buried with your LPs and your books, just like I’ll be buried in my van.” He had answered me, and I was satisfied knowing that he was at peace with himself. That’s all that mattered.
Yes, it was a curious bond of friendship that Nick and I had. If there was ever two people with disparate lifestyles, it was the two of us. In a capsule, Nick was gay,
detested franchise was right on the main access street to the stadium.
I maneuvered over to a spot facing the street where I could watch the Cavalcade of Hogdom slowly stream by while munching on my McMuffin. Practically every car had a Razorback flag fluttering from those ubiquitous plastic brackets (the ones originally merchandised for flagging Our Flag) with whoops and hollers bellowing out of open windows. It was like having a front row seat viewing the Parade of Fanatics. The liquor store across the street was doing a booming business as stud muffins loaded their SUVs and pickups with ample amounts of potations for tailgating parties.
I figured the liquor store proprietor should know where there was a good hangout to watch football. I had in mind the ballyhooed “biggy” between Florida and Florida State that night. Sure enough, he told me of a place called “Grubs” not too far from there. He even scribble out the directions. As I made my way back, I found myself somewhat stranded in the median. Then I got a crazed idea. Why not have some fun with these Hog Fanatics? Impulsively, I started waving a raised arm with the ol’ “Hook `em Horns” hand sign. To my consternation, I did not get one antagonizing response. My “obscene” gestures fell on blind eyes. I couldn’t believe it. The great Texas – Arkansas rivalry had finally been buried. Obviously, this crowd was either too young or just didn’t care to remember the halcyon days of the Southwest Conference. What a pity. Things change.