June 2021 | Photo Album
Until June, our 2021 travels were restricted to a brief visit with my parents in Oklahoma City and trips to and from Checotah, Oklahoma to arrange for and attend the funeral for Wendy’s mother. It had been a long hard time since the pandemic shut down our travels in March 2020.
So with summer break finally underway and the Pfizer vaccine protecting us from COVID-19, Wendy and I were eager to take our first real vacation since December 2019. The pandemic had forced us to cancel a cabin we had reserved for spring break 2020 at Mount Magazine in Arkansas, so we chose that as our destination. With Oklahoma exiting an unusually cool and rainy May to enter a hot and humid June, it also seemed a good idea to spend a few days up in the clouds at the highest point in Arkansas, where it is usually about 10° Fahrenheit cooler than the river valley 2,100 feet below.
Ft. Smith Regional Art Museum
We drove down to metropolitan Tulsa to enjoy a Sunday lunch at the Charleston’s restaurant in Broken Arrow. Then we headed southeast on the Muskogee Turnpike, but instead of exiting around Muskogee as we had to do for our previous trips to Checotah, we continued 10 miles south to I-40 and headed eastward to Fort Smith, Arkansas.
We had already strolled about the eponymous fort on our 2015 trip to Mount Magazine, so this time we stopped to see the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum. The building was a classic example of Mid-Century Modern design, originally built in 1963 as the Superior Federal Savings and Loan Bank. The floating staircase made me feel like I had been transported back to my childhood when many such structures were springing up in Oklahoma City.
We first toured the temporary exhibition Art in Aviation, although the subject matter was of limited interest to us. Wendy did snap an “Institute of the Blind” certificate awarded in 1943 to Lt. L.D. Whittaker for completing a course in instrument flying. Only 14 years earlier had Lt. Jimmy Doolittle made the first complete flight from takeoff to landing solely by the use of instruments and radio.
We took the floating staircase up to the second floor exhibit of items from the museum’s permanent collection. Wendy was surprised and pleased to finally see in person two pieces by Robert Burridge, an artist she has long enjoyed watching on YouTube. She had even seen him paint a pineapple in 2019 similar to his Pineapple #19 of 2014 which he donated to the museum, along with Floral Study #147.
In the basement’s Dr. W.E. Knight Porcelain Gallery, we toured the collection of Boehm porcelain. I can’t say I am a fan of that company’s porcelain birds and wildlife, but Wendy readily identified and admired their Supreme Peace Rose.
I have always considered Thomas Kinkade‘s paintings to be kitsch, yet I nevertheless admired John Bell, Jr.‘s Cabin at Greenleaf State Park which is quite Kinkade-like with its depiction of a brightly lit cabin beside the lake which features a fellow fishing by lantern light in his boat.
The overwhelming blue of the painting was striking in its contrast to the fiery cabin. I’ve hiked at Greenleaf several times, and I opted to buy a print in the museum gift shop as a reminder of this happy vacation after the long and successful struggle to avoid the coronavirus. But I will also enjoy its reminder of Joan Didion’s withering yet accurate take on such paintings:
A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent cosiness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.
On the Mountain
I love the views and hikes at all three of Arkansas’ lofty state parks along the Arkansas River Valley to the northwest of Little Rock. Easternmost is Petit Jean, with little Mount Nebo and its girdle of trails only 20 miles away. Another 20 miles west rises mighty Mount Magazine, which is not part of the Ouachita mountains, but has a commanding view of several of their northeastern ridges.
Usually the Skycrest Restaurant at the Mount Magazine Lodge would be an attraction for us to stay there, but I’d been warned by our friend Lynne Shaw that the restaurant was stuck in buffet-only mode, with mediocre fare. So Wendy and I stocked up at the CV’s Family Foods in Paris before driving up the mountain to our cabin.
We had stayed at a room in the lodge in 2015, but we craved more privacy for our return. So I booked one of the 13 cabins arrayed along the mountainside on either side of the lodge. Our cabin was clean and spacious. I noticed that the door onto the deck overlooking the Petit Jean River had a familiar mechanism. Sure enough, it was a Pella door similar to the one installed a week earlier at Meador Manor when we had all of the windows and the patio door replaced. I wonder how long it will take me to stop noticing Pella windows and doors on my travels.
The deck offered a tremendous view of the river valley and Blue Mountain Lake. I enjoyed reading Alastair Reynold’s Revenger trilogy on my Kindle in a rocking chair on the deck, taking breaks from its dark tales of space piracy to enjoy the panorama. Wendy read books by Bill Bryson and Lewis Black during our visit to the mountain.
The weather was often overcast during our stay, with the usual morning fog over the valley which would often rise up and envelop the mountaintop. The lodge and cabins are a bit under 2,600 feet in elevation, with the highest point in Arkansas atop Signal Hill north of us at 2,753’ while the Petit Jean River to the south is at 350 feet.
One morning the peaks of the Ouachitas became islands jutting out of the fog. The island peak to the left was that of Potato Hill Mountain, which tops out at 2,226’ while the ridges on the right were Flood Mountain peaking at 2,238’ and Petit Jean Mountain at 2,223’.
The Petit Jean River at 113 miles is the longest river to be contained entirely within the Arkansas River Valley, rising at White Oak Mountain about 22 miles southwest of Mount Magazine and winding its way around Boney Mountain before flowing eastward past Mount Magazine, dammed to form Blue Mountain Lake, on its way to join the Arkansas River just north of Petit Jean State Park.
I didn’t realize that since our last visit they had cleared and restored part of the old CCC amphitheater just north of the main overlook, so we will have to see that on a future visit.
The next morning I braved the mist and drizzle to follow the wide sidewalk past the cabins to the lodge, passing pretty flowers. I reached the central portion of the new lodge, which I now know is perched on the footprint of the original lodge built by the WPA in 1940 which burned in 1971. The Cyclopean stone retaining wall below the lodge is all that remains of the old lodge…or is it? I remembered there was a short trail somewhere below the lodge that doesn’t appear on the park’s trails brochure.
Below the east building with the 60 guest rooms and swimming pool, I found the Old Lodge Trail loop which ventured down the mountainside to a few overlooks. I had my faithful Tilley LTM8 hat to keep my head dry despite the drizzle, but I wasn’t wearing my usual Columbia hiking boots. I hadn’t planned on going off the paved trail, and I’ve recently taken to wearing Kizik shoes. They have a spring-back heel you can easily crush with your foot to pop them on without stooping. I really like the blue Madrid Camo Knit shoes I recently purchased, which are quite comfortable. But because of the rain, I was instead wearing my grey Cupertinos, which look fine and are less likely to be problematic in mud, but did make my feet sore when I walked too far in them along the Pathfinder Parkway last fall.
The old trail was so tempting that I braved it despite my lack of appropriate footwear, stepping cautiously to avoid slipping on wet rocks. I passed spiderwort and daisies before reaching an overlook with the Blue Mountain Lake Dam directly ahead down in the valley.
To the side I could see the palisade of bluffs along the southern flank of the mountain. Stepping stones kept me out of the mud as I made my way along to climb the slope to behind cabin #5. I retraced my steps to the lodge and wandered again off the paved sidewalk to a more challenging overlook above the rock climbing area where I could see the lake framed by the limbs of a dead tree. A large broken stone revealed its red interior normally hidden by its gray and lichen-coated crust.
Wendy got to see both the deer and rabbits when she ventured out with me on the third day of our stay to walk the paved sidewalk all the way past the lodge to the far end of the row of cabins. Along the way, she noticed the bright yellow and waxy petals of a creeping buttercup. She also spied the bird she had heard during our stay which she had suspected might be a mockingbird from its repeated and varied songs. But it was a brown thrasher, which repeats a song twice before moving on to the next, while mockingbirds sing a song thrice.
We never dined at the lodge restaurant during our vacation. It was too wet to grill, but we enjoyed bacon, eggs, and biscuits for our breakfasts, turkey sandwiches for lunches, and Wendy cooked steaks and baked potatoes with the cabin stove and oven for our dinners.
Rather than return to Ft. Smith along Arkansas highway 23, also known as the True Grit Trail, we drove Wendy’s minivan down the south slope of the mountain to Havana and took Arkansas highway 10 to Greenwood, taking a spur to US 71 to drive into Fort Smith. I had discovered that Calico County, our favorite restaurant in Amarillo, Texas, had a sister restaurant there. We enjoyed chicken fried chicken with vegetables for lunch and then made our way back home.
Throughout our trip, the only time we were required to wear masks was in a recently built Love’s Country Store at Vian, Oklahoma. All of the employees but only a few of the patrons joined us in masking up. Of all our pit stops along the way, however, a convenience store in little Magazine, Arkansas sticks out in my mind because it featured a classic group of old guys gathered around solving the world’s problems…or perhaps it was a Liars Club meeting.
The pandemic is not over; I fully expect a surge among the unvaccinated this winter, especially in areas like our county in Oklahoma where currently only 25% are fully vaccinated. But seasonality and vaccinations have brought us a welcome respite for now. We plan to enjoy it further late this month when I take 12 days away from work. Maybe we’ll venture to Kansas City and/or Crystal Bridges for some short escapes.