Oklahoma City to Little Rock is a measly four hours and for once, we can relax and take in the scenery without rushing to the next scheduled stop. The wet green and brown make Oklahoma feel like a different planet from the dry red and tans of New Mexico. Somewhere in Texas we must have gained that thing they call atmosphere.
The view is beautiful, but I realize that it’s all forests and farmlands on either side of the highway, without a hint of a small town. The closest we get are the highway outposts of gas, food, and lodging. Stopping for gas, I walk down the street to look for any sign of local culture. The closest I get is an empty souvenir shop selling giant rooster statues out front. I know the small towns that are so romanticized in this country’s lore do exist. I grew up in one. The rub is how do you break free of the intercontinental highway system to take the scenic route?
First off, yes, I could have planned out a whole road trip that stuck clear of major highways. Absolutely. And I probably would have gotten exactly what I wanted in spades: main streets, diners and neon motels for miles. But where’s the fun in that? The whole healing power of the road trip lies in its spontaneous nature. Perhaps the problem lies in my cowardice in not taking a back road and seeing where it leads. Then again, this seems like more of blatant stupidity than an adventurous nature. Isn’t there some middle ground that isn’t a surefire way to get lost?
There seems to be a cultural and geographical quarantine set in place for the American Traveler. We hop on the highways and pinball our way from one city to the next, only stopping for the bare essentials. These outposts usually represents the largest of fast-food, gas and hotel chains and keep us at a safe distance from the real, tactile societies tucked behind the woods and farmland. Experiences at these places are like their cheeseburgers. They fulfill your immediate, base need, lets you keep going, but it has no substance and ultimately wears you down rather than energies you in your travels. You end up viewing the middle of America as some wasteland to just get through to your final destination.
Perhaps it’s from this cultural gap between travelers and locals that so much fear and mistrust grows in this country. The outsider looks at the locals with a kind of post-Deliverance stress disorder. As we ate lunch at a chicken joint in Oklahoma, I noticed Madison, with her bright pink hair, was a little self-conscious around this local farmers and fisherman with their hovering eyes and tight lips. Only after starting a conversation with an old retired couple on their way back from Branson did these irrational fears of “good ole’ boys” dissipate. In fact, anywhere we went always found us in conversation with kind, outgoing and accepting people who always had a good story to tell.
Of course it’s a two-way street. Most small-town residents probably aren’t too happy to have a whole bunch of strangers racing at high speeds through their town, each one a possible Perry Smith arriving at their doorstep. Keep those variables separate and moving at 80mph.. So fear widens this gap. We drive on, past that which is unfamiliar, clinging to the safety of isolation as defined by a phone’s navigation. Why bother with the hassle of the unknown route? Progress is the path of least resistance.
Little Rock is bathed in late sunlight when we arrive at the capitol. Central High School, where the Little Rock Nine went against conventional wisdom and self-preservation for an equal education. To look at the beautiful building, it’s hard to believe so much hate erupted here. That being said, Little Rock seems to radiate with a beatific aura of pride and equality. Central’s student body is mostly African American, and boasts some of the best test scores in the state. This city went through one of the worst fights for racial equality and came out on the other end. You can feel it walking through city hall and along the river market.
A well-dressed man carrying a bottle of blow-bubbles recommends an Italian restaurant, Vito’s, saying, “It’s kinda a dump, but I like it.” Ultimately, we end up at a riverside restaurant called Sticky’s (decidedly not a dump) where we eat and drink on the back patio. A traveling blues singer regales us with Johnny Cash covers and life feels good. A sense of agency penetrates my thoughts. This is what happens when you take action and move your being across the country to an unfamiliar land. No plane, train or bus shuttled me here. I got in a car and drove and now I’m sitting in Little Rock, Arkansas enjoying a beer and music. It feels good when you drive through the fear and hesitation.
My old boss, Graham, has put his kids to bed by the time we arrive for the night. We stay up and watch college football with him and his wife. For the first time in two days we sleep indoors, waking up to a delicious breakfast as Graham’s son and daughter watch Disney Channel’s Jesse on Netflix. Graham leads, what I consider to be, a rather ideal life. While he’s a screenwriter, having written for Sundance’s Peabody Award winning Rectify and co-created Cinemax’s Quarry with his writing partner Michael (Full Disclosure: This was the show on which I worked for Graham, so this is something of a plug), he maintains a full-time residence here in Little Rock with his wife and two children. He also happens to be a key player in the burgeoning Arkansas film movement; working to get a higher number of smart, independent films produced in state.
After breakfast, Graham and I talk about writing and artistic ambitions, the young artist’s desire to be a pure original. As Graham puts it, you have to realize art is a chain letter. We aren’t purely individualistic. We are the products of our environment and our media history. This has always been a struggle in my writing, to find the balance between the art and commercial. For Graham, it came down to simply asking the question of what pieces of film, literature, and plays inspired him, regardless of critical merit or commercial viability. It seems like such a simple directive, to follow your passion and, in a larger sense, who you are. Finding your own path seems to be a never-ending struggle.
Just before we leave, Graham hands over a piece of yellow legal paper on which is written, in a neat and clear penmanship, a list of restaurants, oddities, and back roads to take us all the way to Nashville. A Southerner’s guide on how to get a little lost in this country. For the first time on this trip, we get off the major highway, driving through main streets and cotton fields.
We stop at a BBQ place called Craig’s inside an old split-level house. The roof sags in, pushing the heat back down onto us. The woman in charge barks, “What you want?” You tell her and find a seat if you can. Customers walk back in the kitchen, breaking what I assumed was a sacred law of restaurants. Of course, none of this matters by the time we bite into our delicious brisket sandwiches with hot, sweet sauce dripping onto the Styrofoam plates. Not willing to let the good times end, I order up a home-made coconut-cream pie which they bring over from the house/pie shop across the street. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend you stop by. Just look for the words PIE SHOP spray-painted in black little white-brick house.