Thursday, August 1, 2013

My hometown in the NYT(!!!)

That's right, folks.  Newton County, Arkansas and the Ozarks have hit the big time.

Forget this blog's "My Rural Travelogue" series.  Credit NYT's Frugal Traveler with Newton County's five minutes of fame.

Today, frugal traveler Seth Kugel -- en route from New Orleans to North Dakota this summer--posted this piece titled "Music and Moonshine in the Mellow Ozarks." A short video accompanies it.  In these, Kugel shares vignettes of his trip to the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks, including his stay in a Harrison, Arkansas B & B for the "motel-like price" of $55, his stop at a fiddle jam in McClurg, Missouri, and his tour of a licensed moonshine facility in Walnut Shade, Missouri (for which I can justify use of the blog label "agritourism").  I especially appreciated Kugel's detailed description of what sets the fiddle apart from the violin, and what sets the fiddle playing of this region apart from the fiddle playing traditions of other regions.  The fiddling (is that a noun?) on the accompanying video is fantastic, but not nearly as priceless as the old-timers Kugel interviews at the McClurg fiddle jam.  

Interestingly, both the fiddle jam and the moonshine distillery Kugel visited are in the sprawling Branson Micropolitan area, but Kugel (thankfully) manages to omit that detail--perhaps because of his explicit focus on frugality and his unstated focus on "off-the-beaten path." I should note that this is also the territory of Winter's Bone, which similarly featured a house-party fiddle jam (one of few bright spots in that fabulous but visually very dreary movie).

Kugel is, however, somewhat miserly with his praise of the Ozarks' beauty, stating that the mountainous region "finally" lives up to its potential during that "golden hour" before sunset, when everything gets a "temporary visual upgrade."  Of course, he is considering the Ozarks in the wider U.S. context:
[T]he region, which straddles the Missouri-Arkansas border, is at best competing for Miss Congeniality in the pageant of American mountain ranges. They are more like hill ranges — and some point out they are really not even that, but valleys carved into a plateau, as if the reflection of hills in a vast lake became the hills themselves. 
But what the Ozarks lack in soaring grandiosity, they make up for in subdued beauty and cultural quirkiness.
Quirky, indeed.

Nearest and dearest to my heart, of course, were Kugel's reflections on a few places in Newton County, Arkansas, where I grew up (fifth generation on both sides of the family!) and where, well, it's easy to be frugal.  On his visit to Jasper, the county seat, Kugel reports that he had a chicken-fried steak sandwich (just $4.95) at the century-old Ozark Cafe (featured in my post here).  He also visited Whitaker Point in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness, a local beauty spot which, as Kugel notes, is often touted as "the most photographed rock in Arkansas." Of the latter, Kugel writes that the 3-mile access trail follows
the brim of a dramatic bluff, high above the tree-blanketed valley below. At the bluff’s edge were curious squared-off rock formations that seemed not so much products of nature but what was left when a giant’s limestone house had collapsed over the side of the cliff, leaving just a few chunks on the edge. The point itself comes shortly thereafter: a bare rock outcropping thrusting out into the void.
See my own photo and description of Whitaker Point, also known as Hawk's Bill Crag, here.

Finally, Kugel notes a third Newton County spot:  the Parker-Hickman homestead, maintained by the National Park Service as part of the Buffalo National River.  (It was vandalized by artifact seekers a few years back; read more here).

Kugel notes several links between the Ozarks and Appalachia, including shared folk traditions of music and moonshine.  One common trait he does not mention--and you wouldn't in a travel feature--is the extremely high poverty rates in the two regions and, in fact, a high number of persistent poverty counties with mostly white populations. I wrote about some of that here and here, in relation to the film "Winter's Bone." Read more about Newton County's demographics here and here.

On a somewhat related matter (that is, the ways in which the region is not optimally salubrious), I especially got a kick out of Kugel's description of the opportunity to "rubberneck as you drive by old-fashioned pickups residents have left to rust on their properties."  One of my photos of this phenomenon is featured above.  Indeed, that photo was taken just a few miles from the lovely Whitaker Point. And that is part of the quirkiness of the Ozarks:  junk, juxtaposed against stunning (in my opinion, if not Kugel's) natural beauty.

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