CHAPTER 30

Slow Journey Through Arkansas

Arkansas at last. From all previous knowledge of the state we were not sure there would be any roads at all and more than suspected we'd have to cross it on muleback. Our surprise was great upon finding ourselves on a beautiful broad highway with an abundance of automobile traffic.
Our first night in Arkansas was spent north of Parkin, along the St. Francis River. We had picked an open place to sleep and during the night a cloud hanging low in the sky above us had either a puncture or a blowout. No shelter was near so there was nothing to do but pull our ponchos from beneath us and add them to our covering above. The scheme was partially successful. When daylight finally found its way under our blankets, the rain was still pouring down but we were wet only on the under half of our bodies where the water had seeped in.
Breaking camp in the cold rain provided considerable excitement. Every motion counted. And so did every icy raindrop as it struck our backs and sent shivers racing through us. Finally, we bundled our baggage together haphazardly and ran down the road until a deserted cabin came into view. For two hours, we washed, shaved and defied the weather, then headed on. The rain stopped and we did, too, to eat a couple of quarts of strawberries and two feet of French bread.
Just before dark a couple of rough looking characters picked us up and asked for a cigarette. We bought them some and soon found out they had just escaped from jail and were broke. The sheriff had taken their guns and money; all they had been able to get away with was the Ford in which we traveled.
We felt safe in their company for we looked as disreputable as they and confessed to having but a few cents in money. We rode with them through the rain and the mud until 10:00 P.M., finding them as ugly and disagreeable as the roads and weather. After a short conference they decided to junk the car at a water tank and
catch a freight train into Little Rock. Parting company with these fellows didn't bother us a bit. We figured the car must have been a stolen one.       
Rain again threatened but we were too tired to look for shelter so stretched out on the edge of the roadbed. Next morning, our blankets, clothes, hair, and packs were a mess of gooey ooze.       
Our dirty condition was so obvious, we didn't even have nerve to try for a ride when a Memphis car skidded by. The rain continued and walking was heavy all morning. At Brinkley we found the road under water for eight miles and were given the choice of detouring for fifty miles or walking the railroad for sixteen. Before leaving home we had resolved never to ride on a railroad train during the trip. But we had never said anything about walking a railroad right-of-way. We did fourteen miles of track walking before dark, continuing on a trestle over the Base River.       
Next day it was necessary to take to the railroad again, walking the trestle over the White River. We reached DeValls Bluff where the detour road came in and tramped all morning with only a few short rides. Rain started once more when the sound of a tooting horn came from an auto which looked familiar. The driver invited us in. It was the Memphis car—a Buick—which had passed us the previous morning. They had taken the fifty mile detour and the roads were so bad Win and I had beaten them to the Bluffs by a full half day.       
That Buick ride was a memorable one, according to two different definitions of that word. It was memorable, first, because we shall never forget the highway experiences we encountered while riding with Mr. Stevens, our driver-host. Also, our conversation with Mr. Stevens soon began stirring half-forgotten memories within us.       
"Did you ever see such roads?" were almost the first words he spoke after inviting us in.       
"Yes," we had to admit, "we've had quite a few like this in the last week or so." Then I added, "We're from Michigan. We were brought up on roads like this. "       
"Really? I didn't know anything could be as bad as Arkansas."       
My reference to Michigan roads brought up half-dormant memories. "I'll tell you how bad they were," I replied. "Our father used to be president of the Howell Boomers Club. Just about every other year he would get 'Good Roads Earl' to come and speak in Howell." Then I launched into a description of those speeches. 'Good Roads Earl' had declared that Michigan roads were among the worst in the country. Earl said:       
"You've heard that doggeral about 'Little drops of water, little grains of sand, Make the mighty ocean, and the pleasant land.' Well, it isn't true. Little grains of sand, or dirt, when you mix them with little drops of water, make MUD."
With that, 'Good Roads Earl' would pound the podium and almost shout: "Michigan roads are a disgrace. It's up to you to do something about it. Write your congressman. Put pressure on local officials. Do anything to get mud and ruts and quagmires out of your roads, and out of your lives."
Partly as a result of agitation by 'Good Roads Earl' and others like him, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Highway Act in 1921.
By the time Win and I set out on our trip, the wheels of bureaucracy hadn't started turning sufficiently to make much difference. But better roads were on the way. At least they were just beyond the next mud hole.
Our conversation with Mr. Stevens drifted from Michigan roads to Michigan moguls. "Did you ever know any of those auto makers up in Detroit?" our friend asked.
"You couldn't say we knew him," Win responded. "But once we did have an experience with Henry Ford. " The two of us related the episode to Mr. Stevens.
Our next-door neighbor in Howell, Mrs. Briggs, was an interesting and eccentric elderly woman, so old that nearly everything in her house was an antique. Henry Ford's great passion, next to building automobiles, was collecting antiques. One day he visited our neighbor, hoping to buy some of her treasures. Since he was one of the only two or three billionaires in the nation, he offered a fair price. "No, Mr. Ford. Keep your money and I'll keep my precious chairs and tables." That was the answer Ford got. But he was as stubborn in antique collecting as in car building. A few days later he came again. In that contest, Mr. Ford lost. "Grandma" Briggs still liked her chairs and tables more than she did Ford's money.
Mr. Stevens carried us into Little Rock. "We've got business here," Win reminded me. That was true. A man we'd ridden with back in Tennessee had told us to be sure to look up his friend who ran a grocery store in the Arkansas capital. He'd even given us a written letter to deliver. We found the store. We delivered the message. And we left Little Rock with packs and pockets bulging with grocery store goodies. Message bearers in Arkansas, it developed, were well rewarded. Perhaps we had earned our reward. Paul Revere had not encountered as many hazards on his famous ride as we had encountered getting to this Arkansas capital.
Recrossing the Arkansas River which was beginning to reach grains of sand, Make the mighty ocean, and the pleasant land.' Well, it isn't true. Little grains of sand, or dirt, when you mix them with little drops of water, make MUD."
With that, 'Good Roads Earl' would pound the podium and almost shout: "Michigan roads are a disgrace. It's up to you to do something about it. Write your congressman. Put pressure on local officials. Do anything to get mud and ruts and quagmires out of your roads, and out of your lives."
Partly as a result of agitation by 'Good Roads Earl' and others like him, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Highway Act in 1921.
By the time Win and I set out on our trip, the wheels of bureaucracy hadn't started turning sufficiently to make much difference. But better roads were on the way. At least they were just beyond the next mud hole.
Our conversation with Mr. Stevens drifted from Michigan roads to Michigan moguls. "Did you ever know any of those auto makers up in Detroit?" our friend asked.
"You couldn't say we knew him," Win responded. "But once we did have an experience with Henry Ford. " The two of us related the episode to Mr. Stevens.
Our next-door neighbor in Howell, Mrs. Briggs, was an interesting and eccentric elderly woman, so old that nearly everything in her house was an antique. Henry Ford's great passion, next to building automobiles, was collecting antiques. One day he visited our neighbor, hoping to buy some of her treasures. Since he was one of the only two or three billionaires in the nation, he offered a fair price. "No, Mr. Ford. Keep your money and I'll keep my precious chairs and tables." That was the answer Ford got. But he was as stubborn in antique collecting as in car building. A few days later he came again. In that contest, Mr. Ford lost. "Grandma" Briggs still liked her chairs and tables more than she did Ford's money.
Mr. Stevens carried us into Little Rock. "We've got business here," Win reminded me. That was true. A man we'd ridden with back in Tennessee had told us to be sure to look up his friend who ran a grocery store in the Arkansas capital. He'd even given us a written letter to deliver. We found the store. We delivered the message. And we left Little Rock with packs and pockets bulging with grocery store goodies. Message bearers in Arkansas, it developed, were well rewarded. Perhaps we had earned our reward. Paul Revere had not encountered as many hazards on his famous ride as we had encountered getting to this Arkansas capital.
Recrossing the Arkansas River which was beginning to reach flood stage, we headed toward Russellville. A man picked us up on the bridge. He was going only two blocks but became so interested in our story he took us ten miles on our way through the mud and rain.           
A detour threw us off on miserable roads but we caught a ride with a young man going through to Russellville, eighty-five miles distant. All afternoon the roads were so slippery and slimy, nothing but a Ford could traverse them.           
At night our friend found a place by the road where we could sleep while he went to visit a girlfriend. At 11:00 P.M. with a strong blast of the car horn he woke us up, to continue on to Russellville. We arrived next morning, our only adventure being that we were stopped by prohibition officers and searched thoroughly for moonshine liquor.           
That night a cotton gin belonging to a man we rode with provided shelter, helping us to outwit the never-ending rain.           
With the help of railroad trestle after railroad trestle, we continued along the valley of the Arkansas River, by this time at flood stage. Walking the rails was not overly dangerous, for if a train had appeared there was usually room to crouch at the side and avoid injury. Once a car in which we were riding was guided onto a track by the driver and we bumped across the ties for half a mile, to avoid the impassable roadway. That was dangerous.       
Rumor began to circulate that good roads—at least roads which would be passable even if drenched—were just a hundred miles ahead. There was nothing we could do but plunge on—literally.           
Mud holes, such as even Missouri or Michigan could not have duplicated, were becoming so numerous they reminded me of the hazards on a steeplechase race course.           
A loaded car with a Florida license passed us and we soon found it stuck in deep mud. We lent a hand—or rather four hands and two shoulders—pushing it out, but half an hour later caught up with it again. This time it was stuck beyond our power to help, in a mud and water hole which extended for a tenth of a mile.       
Farmers were lined up on either shore prepared to do a flourishing business. Their charges were one dollar if allowed to hook on while on dry land, and two dollars if they had to hook on in water. The whole thing sounded like another Paul Revere episode concerning his lantern signals: "One if by land, two if by sea." A wagon was just hooking onto our Florida friends when we came up. They had attempted the passage unaided and therefore had to pay the two dollar rate.           
We tried for a ride but finally had to take off our shoes and socks, roll up our pants and attempt the passage on foot. The water was up to our knees but the crossing was safe. No two dollar fee.
Then the luck of the road improved, even if the roads themselves did not. A man in a Model T Ford picked us up; he was going 110 miles on our way. "Your worries are over," he told us.
We didn't worry, but he did, a lot. Perhaps that was why he picked us up. It required six hours of hard work to traverse the next thirty-five miles. In that distance we pushed and pulled twelve cars out of the mud—mainly to get them out of our way—and were stuck ourselves several times. By pushing we always managed to free ourselves, with one exception. This was a mud hole which made even the mule team that pulled us out grunt with the severe strain. This pull cost three dollars. Most people had to pay fifteen dollars to cover the thirty-five mile stretch and our friends from Florida gave up the fight completely. They said they were not going a mile farther until the rains ceased and the roads dried out.
The rumors had been correct. Passable roads finally appeared. Ft. Smith, Arkansas, on the Oklahoma border, emerged ahead, out of the deluge.
As we were pulling into Ft. Smith we saw a sign—half mired in water—giving the name of the city, followed by the state name in abbreviated form. Staring at the sign, I called out, "Look Win, this place is labeled 'Ark. ' "
Under the circumstances, it seemed like an apt description. Noah and we had much in common.
A couple more railroad trestles, negotiated on foot, carried us into our 26th state—Oklahoma.
Arkansas had been the one state of our trip which, even though we had traveled completely across it, we hadn't seen—in the deepest meaning of that word. We'd "experienced" it, yes; but as to really seeing it, no. The people we rode with told us about it: it had the only diamond mine in America, it boasted the largest mountain spring in the world, it had wonderful caves, beautiful mountains, a world-famous health resort. We had to admit that we'd learned about Arkansas by hearsay, not by eyesight.
Years later each of us returned to the state, and grew to love it. One might say that this first trip to Arkansas had been just a "dry run."