Highway 64: Arkansas

Elvis ate at the Old South Restaurant in Russellville, Ark., at least once. Pay homage to the King, but ask to sit in nonsmoking or you may have trouble tasting the home cooking.

Highlight: Fort Smith and Fort Smith National Monument

Hidden Treasure: Petit Jean State Park

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The middle of everywhere

When 64 makes its great leap west, crossing the Mississippi outside Memphis, it lands in Arkansas, a state that touts itself as being “in the heart of it all.” Arkansas certainly is surrounded.

So what’s in Arkansas, other than Wal-Mart headquarters and the legacy of Bill Clinton? Travelers along U.S. 64 will discover some of the state’s finest, and most surprising, assets.

From the sodden delta – site, our park ranger told us, of the movie adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Painted House” – rises a series of mounds now designated as Parkin Archaeological State Park. The mounds are the ruins of a Native American village. Displays say that some experts believe explorer Hernando de Soto converted some villagers to Christianity here after he preached a sermon and a long-awaited rainstorm followed.

Unlike its superhighway counterpart, Interstate 40, Highway 64 skips Little Rock and heads directly into the Arkansas River Valley. Though termed a valley, this region contains the state’s highest peak, Mt. Magazine. Its hills offer several places to stop and enjoy the atmosphere.

It seems like every corner of the country is creating its own Napa Valley, with wineries, wine tastings and tours. Before my journey, a state tourism official encouraged me to visit “Arkansas Wine Country.” True, this alleged “country” consists of about four wineries. But their wine is worth a taste and a tour. I stopped at Chateau Aux Arc, where the winery’s PR man gave me the surprising news that the winemaker there is a young woman exactly my age. She finished college and decided to live her dream of growing grapes and making wine. The story gave me hope that my own schemes, the 64 story among them, also will one day succeed.

Skipping Petit Jean State Park, which we almost did, would have been a pity. This natural wonder south of Morrilton has a giant hidden waterfall, boulders to climb and admire, New Deal-era tourist architecture, and a romantic legend. It is an accessible place to camp and hike.

This region commemorates the taming of nature at the Arkansas River Visitor Center. Post-September 11 security demanded that the center require UPS delivery men to navigate caution tape strung up around the perimeter, but it evidently didn’t require anyone to be at the information desk when we stopped by. No problem; the displays explain themselves, showing the waterlogged horrors the river wreaked before Big Government brought it under control. There’s a fine view, and a computer game that lets visitors practice the technical procedures involved in guiding a boat through the locks of a dam.

The actual dam here holds in the Dardanelle Reservoir; there’s access from Lake Dardanelle State Park in Russellville.

Fort Smith, the second-largest city in Arkansas, stood in for urban America for Paris Hilton and her pal on “The Simple Life,” and it’s historical enough to make it worth a visit for 64 travelers. Its attractions celebrate its past as the last outpost of federal authority and justice before the frontier. But that distinction works both ways: Fort Smith also provided perhaps the last taste of wildness on the road east. The town visitor center, “Miss Laura’s,” used to be a bordello. You have to admire the retirees who work as tour guides here for keeping straight faces while they point out tawdry Victorian touches like the player piano and the clawfooted tubs.

Fort Smith National Historic Site presents a similarly matter-of-fact view of Judge Isaac “Hanging Judge” Parker. The 19th-century lawman sent 160 convicted criminals to their deaths. Many of them died in public hangings at the gallows across from the courthouse, in view of jeering crowds. Yet he also worked with muckraking journalists to expose unsanitary prison conditions, and may even have opposed the death penalty on principle. Heartless executioner or forward-thinking reformer? You decide.