Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Guest Post: "A Trip to Bentonville and NW Arkansas" by Harold Watson

[Credit Bubble Stocks correspondent Harold Watson recently visited Bentonville, AR and his trip report is below.]

On the recommendation of a friend from Nashville with whom I took several long road bike rides, I drove to Bentonville to see what all the buzz was about. This friend has recently moved back to Fort Smith, so I was also looking forward to seeing him again. He told me that if I visited NW Arkansas I’d want to buy there.

I left Nashville a bit too late on a Thursday to make it all the way to Bentonville, so I decided to drive halfway to Poplar Bluff, MO via Paducah and across southern Missouri. The drive to Paducah was quick and all freeway. The mid-November early sunset meant that the drive on secondary roads into Missouri would be dark and watchful. After driving for a while on a two-lane road (KY 286) I arrived at the small town of Wickliffe, where my nav system directed me through some town streets to another two-lane highway, US 51. Before I knew it I was driving over the Ohio River on an old two-lane cantilever bridge built in 1938 and over a mile in length. The semis heading east on the other side were only a foot or so away from my driver’s side mirror. The darkness and width of the river below were a bit ominous. As soon as I crossed the Cairo Ohio River Bridge I made a left onto US 62 and immediately found myself on another old and narrow cantilever bridge, the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge, also about a mile long. I slowed to 20 mph as another large semi approached on the other side. Briefly, I darted my eyes to the right and was struck by the vastness of the river below. I breathed a sigh of relief as soon as I entered the west bank on the Missouri side. From there, I took US 60 to Poplar Bluff, four lanes all the way.

I stayed at the Hampton Inn in Poplar Bluff and stored my mountain bike in the room. I checked Yelp and decided on The Wine Rack down the road. The food was passable and I passed on a drink, settling for some mineral water. The hotel was quiet and clean, and I slept soundly.

The next morning I drove on to Bentonville through the Ozarks, passing Springfield and Joplin before heading south on I-49 to Bentonville. I was struck by the emptiness of the landscape, but the fall foliage was at its peak. Very few towns appeared until Springfield. The roads were in excellent condition and traffic was light.

As soon as I entered Bentonville, I could understand its explosive growth. It was clear that it and its neighboring towns are the economic engine of Arkansas. Three Fortune 500 firms—Walmart, JB Hunt and Tyson’s Foods are headquartered in the area, and the University of Arkansas is located just to the south in Fayetteville. As I drove through the hilly streets towards my Airbnb just west of the central square, I saw a number of walkers and mountain bikers using the many interconnected trails. The houses are well-maintained and the downtown is charming and full of artisanal shops and restaurants. Since I was a bit early, I dropped by Heroes Coffee and had a latte. The girls at the register were super-friendly and laughed when I told them that I’d never been to Chick-Fil-A. Given Walmart’s influence over the town, I certainly didn’t admit that I’d only been to a Walmart once in my life.

After coffee, I did a reconnaissance tour of the town and located the trailheads and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which was packed. The area around the museum, and the buildings themselves, are stunning, situated in a forested area minutes from the downtown. I decided to visit two days later, on Sunday morning, en route to Eureka Springs.

Before self-checking into my Airbnb, I dropped by Gearhead Outfitters, an exclusively Specialized shop. I thought it might be prudent to have them check the sealant level in my tires and, sure enough, they needed a refill. I also bought some new Smith sunglasses and a pair of mountain-biking pants, since the weather was in the 40’s. The young folks who work there are friendly and knowledgeable and gave me some good tips regarding the trail network.

I was impressed that my Airbnb had a garage, which made storing the mountain bike a snap. The condo itself was immaculate and well-furnished and provisioned. After unpacking, I headed into town for an early dinner since I hadn’t eaten all day. The Airbnb was a 6-minute walk to City Square, where most of the bars and restaurants are located. On the way to The Tusk and Trotter, which had been recommended to me by the folks at Gearhead, I passed some great bike stores and a Raffa boutique. Raffa is a high-end London-based cycling wear company and they have moved their North American operations to Bentonville. There’s also a great outfitter in town, Moosejaw, with a large selection of all the Yuppie hiking and outdoors brands. I picked up an Arc’teryx fleece as a Christmas gift for my son there. As in all the stores and restaurants, the staff was friendly, young and knowledgeable. My kind of town!

I sat at the bar and ordered a few appetizers and a salad for dinner. The bartender showed me how to make an Old Fashioned using turbinado sugar, which I filed away in my memory to try at home. I had a nice conversation with a couple of older gals about the town and the Walton family’s philanthropy. They are really committed to making the region an upscale and outdoorsy locale, with a dollop of high culture included. I was told that Alice Walton, the force behind Crystal Bridges, was also establishing a medical school in Bentonville. Talk about a city and an area punching above its weight!

After a good night’s sleep, I bundled up and got on my bike and headed to the trailhead for the Slaughter Pens trail complex. Although chilly, the day was bright and sunny with no wind. The trails in the morning were pretty empty and I rode all of the blue trails and enjoyed all of the jump, drop and roll features. All the riders I met on the trails were friendly and chatty. I met up with a small group and we did one of the black diamond trails, which I usually avoid; however, this one wasn’t too scary and the other riders led the way.

After returning to the trailhead, I could appreciate why Bentonville bills itself as the MTB capital of the country, although there are many worthy competitors. The third generation Waltons are big outdoors people and the one son (third generation) hired the top MTB trail developer from Belgium to design the trails. With the Walton billions behind them, they did a stellar job. It’s always interesting to see how third generation money usually becomes more effete, with rarified tastes, when compared with the roughnecks who established the family empire.

On the way back to the condo, I stopped in town for a late lunch at Tavola Trattoria. I sat outside in the sun and had a light lunch, although as soon as the sun moved over the rooftops, it was time to flee.

After cleaning up and reading a bit, I heard from Marcos, my friend from Nashville who had returned to NW Arkansas. He was at a friend’s wedding reception, so we decided to meet at a wood-fired pizza joint across from my Airbnb. He was pretty jolly from the open bar, so there were a lot of laughs. He informed me that he has told his Arkansas friends about one of my impolitic acronyms, to their great amusement. He also expressed his disappointment that he couldn’t join me on the ride. Fortunately, his girlfriend lives in the area so he planned to stay there rather than drive back to Fort Smith.

The next morning I used the Keurig in the Airbnb, but needed something more substantial, so I walked to Heroes and had a large cappuccino with a double shot. Back at the condo, I packed up and headed over to Crystal Bridges just as it opened at ten. The admission is free and the museum has an unexpectedly well-curated collection of American art, including a few by Charles Willson Peale. One really should spend a whole morning there. I also had a ticket to visit the restored Frank Lloyd Wright house on the property, which is about a five minute walk from the main building. With the sunny fall day and foliage, the house looked like jewel box from afar. Inside, they provide a headset which expertly guides the visitor through the first floor and provide a detailed description of the surfaces and furnishings.

After my too-short visit, I headed towards Eureka Springs for more riding. En route, I pulled into the Pea Ridge National Battlefield, where a Civil War battle was fought in March 1862. The whole area was wooded and lonely, with vast meadows where the armies clashed and where many cannons are still set up. I’d never heard of this battle, which resulted in a Union victory. It was worth the detour.

The drive to Eureka Springs through the deep ravines and plateaus of the Ozarks is superb, especially on a nice autumn morning. My Airbnb cottage sat on a ridge above the center of Eureka Springs. The host was cleaning it but allowed me to change into my MTB gear so I could experience the local trails.

My first stop was the Lake Leatherwood Gravity Project. I took the shuttle to the top of the trail and enjoyed the steep ride down. I heard that the Waltons also financed these trails. From there I drove to the other side of town for a long leisurely cross-country ride through the woods around Christ of the Ozarks on the Genesis Trail. I only saw one other rider. On the way back to the cottage, I stopped at the well-stocked Eureka Springs Market to buy some locally roasted coffee and some organic whipping cream so I wouldn’t have to settle for the Folgers and Coffeemate on offer at the Airbnb.

When I got back to the cottage the sun was setting and the temperature was dropping. I cleaned up and checked email before heading down the steep Jacob’s Ladder to the town center in the dark. The town was pretty quiet on a Sunday Night in mid-November. I headed up the hill to the Take 5 Bistro and grabbed a seat at the bar. The food was quite good and I had an informative conversation with the bartender. Later, her friend, the chef, joined us and added to the local color. They urged me come back in the spring. I recommend the restaurant.

The cottage was so full of antiques and tchotchkes that I almost tripped. The floors were off-camber but at least the heat was on and I slept deeply. I got up around 5:30 and brewed a half pot of coffee and was ready to head back to Nashville at 7:00 am.

The eight-plus hour drive back home wasn’t bad at all. I chose US 62/412 across northern Arkansas and across the Missouri boot and then I-155 over the Mississippi near Dyersburg. The roads were all wide and fast. An hour east of Eureka Springs presented a lonely landscape of rural poverty and addiction. I later read that NE Arkansas is a major meth zone. The little burgs along the way always featured a Dollar General and an assortment of unheard-of Protestant sects. I would recommend this route since it avoids Little Rock and the Memphis metro area and is only a few minutes longer.

Verdict on NW Arkansas: highly recommended and worth a return visit.

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