Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Welcome to the first installment of another special MCC miniseries, representing the original travelogue from our 2005 drive from Indianapolis to San Antonio, Texas, and back again in far too short a time…
Anne and I have been to Arkansas exactly once. Sure, we could’ve spent that singular opportunity hiking Hot Springs National Park, visiting the official Walmart headquarters and museum, peeking inside our first Bass Pro Shops, or touring something related to the Clinton family while my wife made faces and rolled her eyes. But my peculiar TV fandom took us off-course in another direction…
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From Nashville’s Parthenon we continued west on I-40 for the next leg of the trip. Our second gas stop in Jackson, TN, set us back another $22.67, which lasted us the rest of the day. Not too much later came the border crossing from Tennessee into Arkansas, just after Memphis and right over the Mississippi River, all of which my son napped throughout. In comparison to Tennessee’s well-paved and advertisement-strewn highways, I-40 into Arkansas was bumpy and unadorned. The large hills and lush greenery in the background gave way to flat farmlands and forests in name only, short and tangled and scarred as if on the losing end of too many bad weather experiences. Every few dozen miles came signposts advertising a toll-free number that Arkansans could call to report litterbugs. I dared not imagine how much of an eyesore I-40 must have been before some brave soul declared the War on Litter.
Our hotel for Night One was the Holiday Inn Express in North Little Rock, which I’m told is different from adjectiveless Little Rock in ways. The section of North Little Rock we saw looked just like every single overpacked commercial area you’ve ever seen — stores and restaurants and strip malls covering every inch. If we were in the same ZIP code as local flavor, we missed it. Worn out from the nine-hour-plus drive, we checked in to our second-floor comfy hovel, then drove up and down McCain Boulevard while bickering over dinner options.
I was worn down enough to compromise my desires for new and different experiences, deferring to my son’s demand to settle for the mundanity of TGI Friday’s. Today fortune favored the not-so-bold: not only did we score a table within fifteen minutes — a near-miracle on a Saturday night at Friday’s in Indy — but the host seated us near a wall festooned with a life-size cardboard cutout of Han Solo, a Millennium Falcon, and an old Darth Vader carrying case. It was apropos of us, but I preferred to focus on my scrumptious Chicken Verde Enchilada and diet cheesecake, which I begrudgingly admit in retrospect was my favorite restaurant meal of the entire week.
My son’s favorite part of any vacation had become the hotel pool, which necessitated a brief stop at a nearby Walmart after dinner to scare him up a pair of swim trunks. He fussed about style and color at first until I pulled rank and forced him into a clearance-sale four-dollar pair of simple grey trunks in his size. Beggars and choosers, simple as that. We returned to the hotel, where Anne opted for our comfy hotel bed while the boy and I made it to the hotel pool forty-five minutes before shutdown…where we found it tiny and crowded by a family of eight, ages twelve and up, who appeared to be in the middle of a group swim-meet practice. The two of us staked out a half-length stretch along one side and muddled around for all of a half-hour before giving up and abandoning ship for the night.
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DAY TWO: Sunday, July 24th.
Every hotel on the trip shared two common denominators. One was a hotel pool, per the boy. The other was free breakfast, at the insistence of our budget. The Holiday Inn Express offered biscuits ‘n’ gravy, li’l muffins, croissants, and hard-boiled eggs, among other typical continental-breakfast options. It was at this meal that I decided my year-long diet was on official hiatus for the rest of the week. The tender reunion between me and my long-forsaken biscuits ‘n’ gravy was tentative, touching, eye-watering, and mouth-watering.
After a quick car repacking in the scorching Arkansas humidity (I hesitate to call it “Arkansas air” since the water molecules outnumbered the O2 molecules twenty-to-one) and a stop at the gas station next door ($20.62), we returned to I-40 West and zipped through Little Rock proper. One curiosity that still hasn’t been explained to us, aside from the Clinton Presidential Library (which naturally wasn’t open that early on a Sunday — there’s a gratuitous hangover joke there that I can’t quite nail) and a sign for — not kidding — the Clinton School of Public Affairs (straight out of the Department of Jokes That Write Themselves) was a billboard about Bass Pro Shops. Like Jack in the Box and its creepy snowman model, Bass Pro Shops have yet to gain a toehold in Indiana as they have in almost every other state we saw this week. I’m told it’s a major chain in the manner of sporting goods chains like Dick’s and the erstwhile Galyan’s, but the Little Rock billboard wasn’t an ad. It was instead a political proclamation from some unhappy lobby: “Bass Pro Shops can come to Little Rock…but only if THEY pay for their own way!” The billboard made no other details available. I can only conclude that Bass Pro Shops is another corporate tyrant who must be destroyed. Or something.
140 miles later we took a detour at Texarkana that to this day I have a hard time justifying to my son. If you head south on AR-245 then exit onto Highway 71, a dozen miles of smooth back road brings you to the tiny town of Fouke, a few dozen miles north of the Louisiana border. Otherwise unremarkable to the average traveler, fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 may be delighted and appalled to know that Fouke is the hometown of the Boggy Creek Monster, an imitation Bigfoot myth as “seen” in numerous local incidents as well as in a widely unknown film that spawned the sequel-slash-MST3K episode Boggy Creek II: the Legend Continues! For interested parties, Boggy Creek HQ is Fouke’s very own Monster Mart.
To the locals it’s just another gas station and convenience store. For geeks like me, there’s a wall of newspaper clippings about alleged sightings with accompanying blurry photos. The clerk helpfully pointed out each speck and shadow that represented the theoretical boogeyman in all his obscured glory. A single display case carried generic Arkansas souvenirs as well as gen-yoo-ine Boggy Creek merchandise, VHS copies of the first Boggy Creek film, a plaster cast of an alleged monster footprint, and an “artist’s rendition” of the alleged monster in ink on plain paper that looked to be ten or fifteen minutes of light work between classes. One half-tank of gas plus cheap Boggy Creek T-shirts for me and my son worked out to $36.83.
A stone’s throw north of the Monster Mart, a wooden standup helps one answer the unasked question, what if YOU were the Boggy Creek Monster?
Once we were done permitting Fouke to fleece us, we made our way back north to Texarkana, back to I-40 West, and onward into Texas, our primary objective and hopefully monster-free destination.
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Not-quite-amazing true-story postscript: after the first time I posted the Monster Mart pics online, a few months later I was contacted by a low-level basic-cable TV producer asking if they could use the wide shot of the station for a planned documentary miniseries about all fifty United States to include in the Arkansas episode. At their expense I Fed Ex’d a duplicate of the photo along with a signed release granting my blessing to have something of ours displayed on national TV. I was later informed they’d decided to go in a different direction and wouldn’t be using it after all, but the few minutes between the offer and the shutdown felt pretty validating while they lasted. And just think, the Monster Mart was this close to telling their story to a wider audience. I tried, guys.
To be continued!
[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]