I headed to Hot Springs early on a Sunday morning. This was supposed to be my first time in Arkansas but was now the third of the trip.
One afternoon I walked from Memphis over the Big River Crossing bridge over the Mississippi River. Crossing the Mississippi by foot seemed like something out of the old video game, Oregon Trail. It was a bright day, there were a couple of joggers. About a third of the way out over the water, there was a small blue sign with AR and TN and a dotted line between then. I straddled the line, danced over it, and then kept walking. The bridge emptied in a parking lot with nothing around it. A slightly anticlimactic ending to walking over a major American waterway. I turned around and headed back into Tennessee.
My second foray into Arkansas was the previous night. There is light show on the main downtown bridge in Memphis every hour at night. I glimpsed the bridge on the way back to my hotel and thought that I could make it to a parking lot and watch the lights. I pulled up to a light near the waterfront at about 8:57. I was almost to the river and turned right, thinking there would be one more chance to turn left into the lot closest the bridge. I wanted to get just a little closer. I drove and scanned, waiting for a break in the highway. It never came. The road merged onto the interstate and I had no other option but to head over the bridge I had been hoping to watch. In the dark, I drove lost into a new state because I missed a goddamn turn. I laughed. This is characteristic of me when I travel. I turned around in the first exit about 3 miles ahead and returned, the light show having started and ended while I was careening through the night.
But back to Sunday morning.
Grey clouds hung low in the sky. The rain could start at any minute. The interstate sat slightly above the rice paddies on either side of the highway. Water was everywhere – bloated rivers, flat puddles. This road was at sea level or just below it. I wondered if water just sat and sat.
The traffic consisted of me and a bunch of truckers. The flow was steady, the trucks slowly passed. I was aware of their immense size in a way that I don’t usually notice.
There was occasional roadkill, the shapes strange. I didn’t recognize them, not like a deer or a possum. Later, I asked a man if I could have seen a razorback. He smiled and then said no, razorbacks were “big and mean” and that “you’d definitely know if you ran into one.” He added that this was not razorback country either, they were more north and west of where we were, closer to the Ozarks.
I scanned through mostly static on the radio. NPR for a little while. Several Christian stations, the fire and brimstone kind. An R&B station that faded out. I eventually settled on 70s, 80s, and 90s. which I guess is oldies. The road atlas sat open on the passenger seat. Nothing was in bold face between Memphis and Little Rock, only small towns, intersections with names like Biscoe and Brinkley.
I stopped for gas when I got to Hot Springs. I pulled up to the island and walked toward the store. My steps slowed on the walk in. In addition to the pumps at the island, there were also two sets of pumps interspersed in the spaces in the front of the store. I had never seen that. Two sets of freestanding pumps out front, so that there are even fewer steps to the store.
I opened the door. Inside was a hot foods array like I’d never seen. I am used to chicken and potato wedges. This warmer was massive, stretching down the length of the counter. It featured multiple sizes of corn dogs, fried corn, kielbasa sausages, Buffalo wings, a few different kinds of sandwiches in foil wrappers gleaming, chicken tenders, eggrolls. The most magical thing were chicken kabobs which consisted of chicken tenders interspersed with slices of fried onion, pepper, and pickle slices on a long stake. White Styrofoam cups overflowed with other globes.
It was late on a Sunday morning and I was looking at a sea of fried food that reminded me of the state fair. There was no green vegetable in sight unless you counted the fried pickles.
Someone was in front of me in line. I waited, staring at this massive hot-lamp fried food spread, until the attendant asked me if I needed anything. Her drawl was silky. It snapped from my reverie.