We slept late this day and drove around Eureka Springs some more, learning a little more about the town. We found that the springs around which the town was formed—much like Hot Springs—were famed for their medicinal qualities toward those who drank and bathed in the water. There were even a couple of old bath house/hotels still there, which we would have loved to see. A shopkeeper told us that the water in the springs had become contaminated around 35 years ago, and the flow of water was stopped for public use. She said she remembered what a traumatic event that was for the community. It would be interesting to take a look at the newspaper stories from that era. That Eureka Springs snapped back so strongly is a tribute, I suppose, to those who promoted the Passion Play and the town's image as a honeymoon getaway. Whatever they did seems to have worked; there is certainly a lively tourist trade, with seemingly endless hotel/motel accommodations along route 62. There are also many, many beautiful Victorian bed and breakfast places, as well as a couple of country music theaters.
Before leaving town, we stopped at a joint that advertised the best Ozark fried chicken and barbeque and had a cool-looking barbeque pit outside, fashioned in the shape of a cannon. It was enough to hook me, so we went inside to see what the best Ozark fried chicken tasted like. Because of the effectiveness of the outside appearance of the place, I ignored several other warning signs that were obvious: It was nearly noon and we were the only patrons, and there were only two employees present, which means they had not planned to be overrun with customers. One of the employees was a cranky little woman who was only visible from her eyebrows upward as she barked orders to the harried middle-aged blonde lady who manned the counter. The fact that customers were present didn't dissuade her from continuing to badger the order-taker over whether she had mopped the restrooms. The place was also uncomfortably warm inside, which prompted me to ask if they had air conditioning. The blonde lady, wiping her forehead, replied that she had been working hard at mopping the whole place and hadn't turned on the air conditioner. This was certainly more than I needed to know. Since she herself was obviously uncomfortably warm, I assumed the little Nazi lady in the kitchen was the owner and did not wish to waste electricity for air conditioning on mere employees. I was even a little surprised when the blonde lady turned it on for just us two customers. These were all very bad signs. Mean cooks do not make for happy meals. My instinct told me to just turn around and leave, but I was now intrigued; I wanted to validate this latest bit of insight. Very wary of what I was likely to be served, I ordered only one chicken dinner, which consisted of three pieces of chicken, a scoop of mashed potatoes and gravy and baked beans. Within three minutes, the blonde lady called me up to the counter, where she handed me the meal on a Styrofoam plate with plastic utensils. I knew right away that, unless some new frying technique had been discovered, the chicken had been cooked for some time. It had indeed but, actually, it wasn't too awful. Perhaps my hunger was affecting my taste buds. Sandy and I shared the chicken, and I tried the potatoes and beans. The potatoes had no taste at all. I was curious as to how they could possibly have prepared these in such a way that any element that contributed to a potato taste could have been removed. They must have really worked at it. The "baked" beans were out of a can and were barely warm. I really wanted to give the little Nazi lady a piece of my mind, but she had disappeared into the bowels of the kitchen and her head was not visible at all. Besides, it was getting late in the day for departing with Homer. So we left, marveling at the vast number of restaurant owners who don't seem to care that they serve slop and the equally vast number of diners who eat it without protest.
We headed south toward Fayetteville, stopping there early in the afternoon to finish lunch. I chose La Huerta, a Mexican restaurant on highway 71 that still had a parking lot full of cars at 2:30 in the afternoon. This was a good sign. We ordered two combination dinners, which included a taco, an enchilada and a chalupa with chili con queso. When our meals arrived, all three items were exactly alike. All contained the same serving of finely ground hamburger meat, poorly seasoned. Only the tortillas were differently formed so as to make a taco, and enchilada and a chalupa. The chili con queso, a tasteless emulsion that had the consistency of milk, had been poured over the hamburger meat on the chalupa and had quickly disappeared, except for a thin, filmy residue. We ate a bit and left, but not without pausing to look at the many other customers, chomping away at this mess as though they thought it was good. Note to self: Don't bother eating tex-mex outside of Texas ever again. We've tried it everywhere, and it just doesn't measure up. (London, England was the worst.)
We could have jumped on I-540 from Fayetteville at this point, but U. S. 71 paralleled it all the way to its intersection with I-40 south of Fayetteville. I opted to take U. S. 71, because it obviously was the old route that I-540 replaced, so I knew it would not be heavily traveled. The road atlas I was using also showed highway 71 to be a scenic route (you know, the little green dots alongside the route). We weren't disappointed. The road was excellent, and there was so little traffic that we were able to slow to a crawl in many places to enjoy the magnificent vistas out over the Boston Mountains. We also went through wonderful sleepy little towns like Mountainburg, where there was an old-time drive-in called the Dairy Cream. I was sure it would be a great joint for foodies like us to stop, but we were still gagging from the previous two food debacles that day. We just waved, forlornly, as we went by.
As we neared I-40, we noticed a roadside vegetable stand just outside Alma, Arkansas. We did a quick u-turn and pulled into a church parking lot next door. We loaded up on cucumbers, squash, new potatoes and sweet corn, all of which looked as though it had just been brought in from the field. It was ridiculously cheap, too. We got four big bags of veggies for about eight bucks. I knew we had some steaks in the fridge, so I was planning to have a good meal that day, even if we had to fix it ourselves.
We got on I-40 and droned on into Oklahoma, stopping at the Marval resort in Gore, a tiny burg that billed itself as the "trout fishing capital of Oklahoma." Bubba, who was now preceding us by a day, called to say that they had stayed there and recommended the place, so we were looking forward to another good overnight spot. This was, indeed, a nice park, situated on the bank of the river formed by the water released from the Tenkiller Reservoir. The river was a fast-flowing, sparkling clear stream, cold as ice. One couldn't possibly swim in it without a wet suit, but it was certainly appealing, as it was 95 degrees this afternoon.
We set up in a shady spot and I began assembling my portable charcoal grill that I had bought for ten bucks as we were stocking Homer for its maiden voyage last May. I was astonished at the amount of assembly required for so small a device. I suppose there is no getting around this, but it took about an hour, using the dreaded "bolt A, washer B, locknut C" instruction diagram and dropping every other one of the infernal little parts through the cracks in the picnic table. This little grill was made in China for Sunbeam Corporation. They seem to have gone to a lot of trouble to arrange all the parts in such a way that the grill would barely fit, glovelike, into the box, which I utterly destroyed in the throes of birthing the grill from its cardboard womb. The Chinese obviously went to a lot of trouble to manufacture, sort and package the myriad of little parts and their packaging, not to mention printing the extensive instructions in three languages. Surely it wouldn't have been too much more trouble for the Chinese just to have put the grill together in the first place. I really don't know where we poor consumers are headed from here. I think pretty soon they're going to just send us some iron ore, a tiny blast furnace and some engineering drawings and have us make the danged product ourselves!
After the stupid and frustrating grill assembly process, I discovered that my charcoal starter fluid was missing. Then I remembered that I had loaned it to Bubba in Hot Springs. He obviously failed to return it when our hamburger cookout was finished. I shall have to punish him for this omission, as I had to jump into the Hornet and drive back into Gore for another can of lighter fluid.
I can't remember what law it is when, faced with two ways to turn to look for something in a store, you will always find that it is in the other direction. Such was the case in the Harp market in Gore. Spotting sporting goods in the far north end of the store after entering, I headed for that area to look for the charcoal starter. Every other thing imaginable for a picnic was there, except for charcoal and charcoal starter. I turned around and ambled back toward the south end of the store and found the charcoal starter where I'm sure every Goreian would have looked for it—near the pickles! Go figure. I wasn't very happy with Bubba right then, but I got over it pretty quickly.
Hungry, hot and exasperated, I finally got the steaks going about 8:00 p.m., while Sandy cooked some corn on the cob, baked potatoes and a salad made with the fresh cucumbers. It was all delicious and more than made up for our restaurant debacles of the day.