The Happiest of All Endings

Forrest City was a fine place to spend the night (if a bit cookie cutter for my taste), but we had fried pies to eat and a wax museum to visit so were soon on the road and I'll be damned if it wasn't another beautiful autumn day.

Only a short distance from I-40 lies DeValls Bluff, Arkansas - a town so small it doesn't even have a Walmart, but not so small that it can't contain two of the most outstanding pie venues in the entire state.  Last time I was out this way I made a visit to Mary Thomas's Family Pie Shop and enjoyed an exquisitely delicious sweet potato pie, so this time I figured I'd stop and give Miss Lena's offerings a try - hand rolled fried pies with a variety of luscious and inventive fillings.  The pies are only available on Fridays and Saturdays and when they're gone - they're gone. So it turns out we were just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time - wahoooo!

The shelves of the tiny shop were lined with baskets of golden freshly fried pastries, each nested deeply in its own paper napkin cocoon.  We ordered a variety: pumpkin/pecan, apricot, banana/chocolate, coconut and blueberry. Mark elected the blueberry for us to stand right there in the parking lot and eat and it was indeed delicious.  The filling was chock full of fruit and not gloppy or overly sweet.  A steady stream of customers came and went as we polished off our decadent breakfast.
The lively gal named Viv that had sold us our pies stuck her head out the door and hollered at us as we departed, "Now y'all be sure and eat that coconut pie soon - that's the one you want to eat next!"  We weren't too terribly much further down the road when we decided to follow Viv's sage advice and devoured not only the coconut, but the pumpkin pecan too - just for good measure.  Fried pies are kind of a right now thing, after all.  Fabulous.

We were next headed to Hot Springs for a therapeutic bath at the Buckstaff Bathhouse - the oldest continually operating public bath house in the area.  When we arrived, there was a long discouraging line, so we decided to jump ahead on our itinerary and visit the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum instead.  Josephine was the great-great-great granddaughter of the famed Madame Tussaud, but this classic American roadside attraction bears no resemblance to the glossy product of her British peers.  Most of the figures date from 1971 (along with the literature) and it adds a very definite charm to the place.  And the curators certainly don't feel the need to fuss about formalities like chronological order or reality, which makes it all feel so....free wheeling!

I really liked the evil twin of Jimmy Carter at the bottom of the celebrity escalator.  It looks like Jimmy is about to lead Clark Gable, Mae West, Liz and Richard and Louis Armstrong on a rampage in downtown Hot Springs.

Only at the top of the escalator, a rather tipsy looking Pope John-Paul II stands casting a derisive look of bemusement on the lot of them, thinking to himself, "I hope those kids have fun, but this is the LAST TIME I am bailing them out of jail!"

Christ surveys the scene from his cross high above the escalator, eavesdropping on the nearby Hanson brothers who are hanging out with their friends at a dinner party...

...while Christina Ricci, wearing a throw-out bearing on her head like a crown, pretends she's afraid of Joe Sears dressed up like Carrie Nation.

And what's a good wax museum without a hall of horrors?  There was a curtain you could go through to avoid the Hall of Horrors in case you were too scared.  We saw one couple duck through it hurriedly, relieved that they were able to spare themselves such distress.  And I thought I was squeamish!

One of my favorites was the Joseph Stalin dance party.  Can you tell it's a rave?

The figure of Queen Elizabeth II of England was stunning in its apparent lack of resemblance.  I'm not even sure what to say to be sarcastic about this one.

After finishing our tour, we wandered a bit further down Central Avenue until we decided that it had begun to look like every touristy strip of any city and that we just weren't in the mood for that sort of thing. We found a place where we could have a tolerable but immediate lunch, and then got back on the road so we could make use of the extra daylight to dial in our next adventure.  This next feat was going to take a bit of logistical prowess.

The plan was to hike almost three miles down a remote stretch of abandoned railway outside the minuscule town of Gurdon, Arkansas to see if we could observe a phenomenon referred to as The Gurdon Light - a bluish glowing orb that sometimes appears and floats gently along the track bed, bobbing to and fro in a way that's distinct from normal. Sightings of the Light have been reported since the early 1930s (long before cars were introduced to the area) and even today, the site is far enough away from any sort of road that the headlights-from-the-highway explanation has largely been abandoned.  Some folks claim the Light is the apparition of a murdered  railroad worker, searching for his head with a lantern.  The boring old scientists posit the effect is related to the accumulation of electrical discharges generated by the flexing of underground crystals (the basis of piezoelectricity).  But one thing that pretty much everyone does agree on is that there's something going on out there, even if no one is exactly sure what it is.   

I'd compiled an elaborate set of instructions from the web to help us pinpoint the exact location, but after driving back and forth several times in the area where we felt like it should be, the dirt road we were looking for failed to materialize.   I decided to stop and ask the gal behind the counter at the Red E Market for some help.  After she explained how to locate the turn off and where to park, I peppered her with more questions: "Have you ever seen the lights?  How far are we supposed to go along the track?" She laughed and said, "I've never seen the Light even though I been out there a bunch of times.  And it's a long way out there!  You better take snacks and jackets and other people!"  Another local who was in the store getting some fried chicken chuckled and said, "Yeah, I've been out there a couple of times before, but I never seen 'em.  Be sure you got a good flashlight because some of those bridges are falling apart."

Now that we knew how to get there, Mark and I decided to make a practice run out to the parking area so we wouldn't have to figure anything crucial out in the utter darkness, plus it'd give us a chance to fine tune the list of items we'd need to bring with us later that evening.  When we finally found the dirt road we were looking for, it immediately dissolved into two tire tracks through the weeds running along a narrow lane winding through Arkansas forest.  We followed the trail for close to a mile or more and just short of the parking area (which we could see in the distance) there lay an enormous puddle which spanned the entire width of the path. It was filled with murky red brown water and looked to be deep and muddy to boot.  We got out of the car to scout out the situation and quickly surmised that there was pretty much no way the car would make it through the puddle.  The real drawback of that situation was that the pathway where we were parked was only wide enough for one car and was bordered on each side by a shoulder of soft red mud, saturated by recent rains.  I wouldn't be able to turn the car around and was going to have to back out every single inch of the way, all the way back to the road.

Mark got out and spotted me to help make the task go a little faster and soon enough we reached the highway and were heading back toward the interstate where we had previously noticed a hotel.  As I drove, I listened to the various voices of reason in my head debate whether I should do this thing or not. The predominate themes centered around how challenging it would be and the high likelihood that we wouldn't see a damn thing besides gravel and mud.  Then there was the necessity of backing the car yet another mile or so down the path before we hiked 6 miles through a cold dark Arkansas forest.  I coasted the Caddie into the hotel parking lot and turned the key to kill the engine.  I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes, trying to dispel the raging debate going on in my head, searching for a state of calm which would simply allow me to listen to my gut.  I've found, however, that trying to fix that problem usually just makes it worse and after a good 10 minutes of fretting, I finally got tired of it all and realized hell yes I wanted to do this thing, I was just uncomfortable with all the unknowns.  All of a sudden, it was like the coin had dropped in the slot and I felt sure.  And I'm so glad that clarity managed to prevail.

When we returned to the turn off around 8:30 p.m., I decided to back the car down the path on this leg so I didn't have to cope with it later when we were tired and more than ready to leave.  It was pitch black out - no moon, no street lights, no nearby homes - but the night was clear and the glimmering carpet of stars over our heads was absolutely breathtaking.  A family of six arrived just as we were parking near the lake sized puddle.  They were moving surprisingly fast, so we let them organize themselves and set off before we got serious about departing ourselves.  We could just barely hear them and see an occasional flashlight beam in the distance as they walked along ahead of us.  One of the first things that occurred to me was, how the hell are you supposed to tell the Gurdon Light from someone's flash light, for crying out loud?

As we set out walking, we both agreed right off  the bat that whether or not we saw the Light was pretty much immaterial at this point - the intriguing walk itself would make the effort worth it.  We'd brought some tea and cakes along so we could stop and have a midnight picnic somewhere along the path.  The trail was a bit muddy and wet in some places, but we were easily able to navigate around the boggy bits and the terrain was predictable enough that we were able to use the red bulb setting on our headlamps to walk along.  The trek requires you to cross at least 5 (we crossed 6) trestle bridges, some of which are partially rotted.  We were careful to turn on the high white beams of our headlamps each time we reached a bridge - definitely not the place you want to twist an ankle or worse.

We walked and we walked and we walked.  We encountered a couple of groups that were returning from their trek down the tracks and each declared they hadn't seen anything and were ready to call it a night.  There was a group that followed behind us at some good distance and we could occasionally hear them laughing or see the beams of their lights bouncing in small points behind us.  We passed the third, fourth and even fifth trestle with no sign of a light other than those we had brought with us.  Sightings are most common, if you believe witnesses, between the fifth and sixth trestles.  By the time we reached the fifth, we could hear the family that had started before us headed back our way.  The report: no sightings and they were more than ready to call it a night.  By my reckoning, it was now highly unlikely that there was anyone else left ahead of us.  Not long after we crossed the sixth trestle (and into the prime viewing area), I scouted out a little graded gravelly area beside the path where I could spread out our tea things.  In mere minutes I had a piping hot thermos of English Breakfast tea ready for us to share along with a banana and a few assorted tea cakes.  Taking tea was even more immensely satisfying than I had imagined in this rarefied setting and reminded me of books I'd read about ruddy-cheeked English blokes having blustery picnics in the verdant English countryside, both revived and fortified by the power of good old fashioned black tea.  Only they didn't tend to do it in the middle of the night, as I remember!  I lay on my back basking in the sparkling starlight and spotted several shooting stars -  my final count was 3.  Mark and I took a moment to pronounce the adventure a tremendous and resounding success, light or no light. 

As we finishing the last dregs of our tea, the voices of the group that had been behind us grew louder, indicating their imminent arrival.  We called out to them as they passed by to see if they'd observed anything and no, they hadn't.  They were new at this too, and sought council on how much further to venture but I didn't have any helpful advice to offer.  They set off unsure of how much longer they would go on and it wasn't long before we heard them returning - still no luck spotting the Light and they were finally ready to get back to their car.  We waited to let them get a good little ways ahead of us so we could enjoy the silence of having the place to ourselves. I felt pretty confident that we were bringing up the rear of the retreat since we hadn't seen or heard anyone else for a \while and we were sort of at the furthest point of the viewing area..  As we stood and stared deep into the inky blackness searching eagerly for streaks or smears or pools of light, our eyes seemingly began to play tricks on us.  We concurred and found that both of us had begun seeing strange flashes, pin pricks and faint smears of softly glowing light.  Could any of those anomalies be the Light?  No, not the Light we decided.  This was different, but distinctly present.  After thinking it over, I'm pretty certain that being in such an intensely dark environment allowed us to perceive light traces that would not otherwise be significant enough to register.  Sort of like how you can't see the aurora borealis during bright daylight, even though it's still percolating away in the heavens.  In that ultra dark location we were momentarily gifted with the power of seeing some of the ultra faint wisps and streaks of light that flow around us all the time.  It's because we're humans that we usually choose to disbelieve something when we don't know how to explain it.

I stowed the last tea things in the backpack and pronounced the official commencement of our return to the car - there seemed no use in going any further.  As we walked along, we checked vigilantly both behind and ahead for the merest suggestion of an unusual glimmer.  We hadn't been walking long when we identified a steady bright point of light not far ahead of us.  We kept our eyes on it as we walked along, trying to figure out what it was - was it a spook light? No, it couldn't be the Light because it never wavered.  We soon discovered that it was in fact a solitary votive candle that someone had lit and left in the middle of the path.  Pretty quaint, if you ask me.  Once we realized what it the source of light was, we used it as a way of empirically understanding how fire and light and eyesight work over long distances in the deep of night.  We continually swept our eyes forward, looking for any sign of the Light, but also frequently turned back to see if we could still see the candle glowing in the distance (which we could for an unbelievably long time).  We mused on which group had left it and what their motivation was.

On one of the many occasions when we turned to face forward after having just paused to turn around and see what was behind, there suddenly appeared a large blue sphere of bright light hovering over the rail bed just ahead of us, big and round and sharp, moving in an erratic enough fashion that I felt sure this was it - the Gurdon Light.

"Do you see what I'm seeing??!?!?" one of us whispered sotto vocce to the other.  "Yes, yes, YES!  It's the Light!" said the other.  I was so excited I have no idea who said what.  But it was the Gurdon Light alright!  It shone through the black lacy forms of trees lining the railway and hovered for what must have been a full minute or two before disappearing.  Almost immediately after the light vanished, there was a dim blue glow that appeared near the ground and quickly dissipated.  We were stunned.  It was hard to articulate anything useful or reasonable after seeing that.  Virtually nothing could be said to do it justice.

We spent the next half hour of our walk verifying that we had indeed seen what we thought we had seen.  When we weren't able to debunk the event and it became clear we'd been privileged to witness the ephemeral wonder we had come to see, we were joyous.  The heroin high of adventure pumped at lightning speed through our veins.  It was still a long walk back to the car, but we were joyous.

Turns out we were indeed the last ones to leave that night.  I noticed ours was the only car in the vicinity when I finally slipped gratefully behind the wheel of the Caddie, enjoying the thought of getting to drive forward this time.  But getting in bed after a good long walk and all that excitement was even better than driving forward.  We both slept really, really well.

The next morning, we packed the car for the last time and headed out early since all that was really left of the trip was the last mad dash across Texas so we could arrive in Austin by evening time.

The weather that last day was the loveliest of all the weather we'd encountered so far.  The clouds were putting on an all star revue featuring an abundance of  ice crystals dancing high in the stratosphere.  I spotted one gigantic fan shaped cloud that had a distinct bar of bright light across its middle and as the cloud moved, I noticed that the bar of light remained in the same exact place, definitely reflected light of some sort.

We stopped in Fairfield, Texas, so we could have some late lunch at Sam's Restaurant.  Sam's is in my estimation one of the very best steam tables of southern style home cooking you'll ever have the privilege of running across.  There are a huge number of restaurants that aspire to what Sam's does so flawlessly, and very very few of them succeed.  How about freshly baked loaves of soft white bread whisked to your table; a lavish fresh salad bar featuring the likes of watermelon pickles and three kinds of pickled pepper; a mahogany glazed beef brisket competing for room on your plate with thick slices of country ham, chicken fried steak and of course, golden fried chicken.  I really wished I'd brought my second stomach because for dessert there are a lot of different pies and they're all delicious. 

Meringue was not only a mighty fine way to top off the day, but it also served as a grand symbol for the entire trip.  Airy, light, delicious ephemeral magic  Meant to be enjoyed right now, just as Viv advised.

Can you see the sundog on the left?

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