Road Trip To The Heartland Of America During The Pandemic-Part 2 – The Scent Guru Group

Road Trip To The Heartland Of America During The Pandemic-Part 2

One of a few rules I have for road trips is to never drive after dark—especially when driving in the countryside where deer might cross the highway and collide into my car. I’ve seen too many vehicles ruined and heard of lives lost this way.  I keep keep my eyes wide open and both hands on the wheel. 

As I crossed over the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tennessee into Arkansas I passed by several cotton fields along the way. I had never seen cotton fields during the time when cotton bolls were open, and ready for harvest.  The fields were beautiful, but I could not help but to think about the slaves who worked for years picking  cotton for the white man. I was in an impoverished and conflicted  part of the state where on one side of the highway you will see gigantic signs saying  “Jesus Saves” and the opposite side would be an advertisement for XXX Adult Mega stores.  That’s America. 

The road towards Greers Ferry Lake was easy, straight and flat all the way until I started to climb small hills in the Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge area and through little towns that often seem to have been left behind some decades ago. I spotted a few houses flying weary and faded Confederate flags accompanied by loud gigantic Trump flags—often hanging from the sides of houses that were ran shackled and unkempt—the yards often full of junk and rusted old cars.  The “Keep America Great” slogan kept me asking out loud “What kind of house did you live in before he was elected? A cave?”  Well, enough of that.  It’s Election Day, and this is not supposed to be a political blog, but is an observation made from the region where I was traveling.  

Back To The Farm:  I’m back on track now:  The subject of scent and its connection to wellbeing has been a good diversion from the harsh political climate and from the mighty fist of the pandemic and being back in the south, I am thrown back in time to the aromas that take me to my parents’ farm house in Northwest Arkansas:  Bacon, my mother’s weak, but aromatic coffee, fried catfish, hay fields, vegetable gardens and animal farms. These aromas are not all wonderful and some take time to get accustomed to. As kids, my siblings and I had to milk goats before school, we gathered eggs from the chicken coop, gave feed pellets to the rabbits and chickens and corn to the pigs. We also had a garden full of almost every vegetable that could be grown in the region, so we were essentially raised on fresh and organic food long before organic became fashionable. When I write about our vegetable garden, I have some distinctive scent memories that are immediately recalled:  The smell of damp earth as we pulled weeds before the hot summer sun dried the surface; of snap peas being opened before cooking; red ripe juicy tomatoes picked from their vines; and the smell of carrot leaves while being pulled from the earth.  These aromas tied to those specific moments have been buried in my olfactive memory and are being recalled with each tap I make onto my keyboard. Although these scent memories and moments may sound romantic, they were often bitter and hard working days for a wimpy kid like me.   

What’s A Dry County Again?:  Once I arrived in the town of Heber Springs where I own a house, I wanted to have a good dinner with my daughter, so we headed to a local restaurant called Cafe Klaser where, if you pay $10 for a yearly membership, you can order wine or beer with your meal.  Heber Springs is a town of just a bit than 7,000 inhabitants and part of Cleburne County, one of 75 counties in the state for which more than 35 are “dry”. The nearest county to purchase wine or beer was almost an hour away.  That said, I’m glad I brought some of my favorite Bordeaux from Connecticut with me to keep in the many motel rooms I’d be staying in while moving my daughter back up to Northwest Arkansas, and renovating the house in Heber Springs!  That evening, I devoured a wonderful ribeye steak and a baked potato drowned in butter and sour cream.  Thank you Chef Klaser for that steak and the beautiful view of the Little Red River from your outdoor dining area! I stayed that first night back in Arkansas in a small motel chain run by Indians from the western part of India who evidently chain-smoked their cigarettes inside because the entire reception was saturated by the aroma of cigarette smoke.  Welcome back I thought to myself. This was going to be quite a surreal trip.

Changing Gears:  I had never driven a truck before, so when I decided to rent a 19’ U-Haul for my daughter’s move back up to Bentonville, the only rental place in town was a pawn shop.  I had never been to a pawn shop before and wanted to “stake out” the place before making a decision.  I put on my mask and went inside only to find a line of people —all non-maskers waiting in the checkout line. They stared at me.  I went in, grabbed a business card and said “I’ll be back”.  Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I said to myself, “you are not in Connecticut anymore.”  The following day, I went back to the pawn shop where the owner/operator was not wearing a mask, but no one else was in the store so I inquired about the U-Haul.  As I stood in front of the counter, I noticed a “Trump 2020 Make Liberals Cry Again” sticker adhered to the back of the cash register. In front of the register, was the Bible opened to the Book of Proverbs and my eyes fell to “Obey Parents“:  “My son, hear the instructions of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother.”  Gulp.  I’m a liberal and have voted for both parties before, but I almost wanted to cry.  OK then.  Get over it. I rented the truck for a one way trip because my oldest sister said she’d never been to Greers Ferry Lake before and volunteered to drive me back.  When I picked up the truck the day of the move, I practically needed a step ladder to get up onto the seat. I wiped everything down with sanitary wipes, adjusted the seats and mirrors and made a quick stop at the local Walmart to stock up on water. While in the parking lot, a woman walking nearby asked “Are you driving that thing?  You go girl!”  Feeling quite empowered, we packed the truck and started a 3-hour drive up north that went easier than expected and I felt like I owned the road like all the other truckers.

Sister Time:  Unloading up in Bentonville went smoothly, and I spent the night in Bentonville at my other daughter’s apartment and ate a great fish taco dinner she prepared, got a good night’s sleep and got up early the next morning to search for some strong coffee, went to the Walmart to buy some groceries for my daughter and by 2PM, returned the U-Haul, met up with my sister and we set out for our 3 hour trip back to Central Arkansas for some “sister-time”.  By the time we arrived back in Heber Springs we were both famished and ordered take out from the local Italian restaurant before going to check in at the Abbe House Inn my sister found on the internet.  What a beautiful place with one of the best breakfasts of homemade biscuits and gravy and a ham and spinach quiche with lean, locally produced bacon. I’m back in the South, and this is the type of breakfast that’s typically served, but this particular one was extreme eating and coated my stomach for hours!  After breakfast she and I took my first real walk since leaving home with more than 6,000 steps on a beautiful country road. 

The Renovation:  Renovating my house was like the Cary Grant movie, “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”.  Everything that could go wrong did.  Unexpected water damage in both kitchen and bathroom resulted in tearing up floors leading to many trips to the nearest Lowes 40 miles away for flooring and other necessary equipment that I had no vocabulary or understanding of.  I was fortunate that someone knew someone and that someone became the “lead” to bring in his people to get all the work done within a timeline that I had hoped would be complete by mid-October.  The man had a good background working for a hotel corporation and was sharp, efficient and knew how to lead his team. He had one person  on his team who had apparently dug themselves out of Crystal Meth use (teeth and skin coloring is a giveaway), but I am a person who is always open to giving people a second chance. Evidently down here, there is a lot of this type of abuse, typical of impoverished, underemployed and disadvantaged populations. All of us worked in the house together. They did their tasks in the main area of the house and I socially-distanced my work painting the walls of two bedrooms taking in that wonderful aroma of fresh paint, and patched the dog scratches on wooden doors and paneled walls with what I now believe is a magical innovation!  As with most  construction and renovation projects, there were glitches along the way such as with the local large plumbing company who sent a plumber to do diagnostics for my home warranty insurance claim. The plumber was a crusty old guy who was miffed that I was the person to meet him at the house and told me “contractors should be speaking with contractors”. I ignored the misogynistic undertone and did not say anything, but I for one, believe if I’m the one paying for the work, I’m also the one who is ultimately in charge. In the end, I ditched both plumbing company and cancelled my home warranty service and let my guy contact someone he knew, who knew someone who estimated the work would be 50% less to do in half the time as the big company. Reminder to self:  I am not in Connecticut anymore and here, trust is everything.  And, as my contractor said “we do things the hillbilly way”.  I got it. I had to take my skeptical big city controlling hat off and morph into a small-town Arkansan again. 

On Food And Supplies:  Walmart, Ace Hardware, The Dollar Tree and Lowes were my go-to places for everything and anything I needed in Arkansas.  I made friends with the employees at the paint supply counter at F.L. Davis Ace Hardware, learned about the differences between Formica and Corian, plumbing with PVC vs. copper pipes and I now have an Ace Rewards Card!  I ended up on first-name basis with Dallas and Adam at Lowes in Conway, finally purchased a real plate and wine glass for one dollar each at The Dollar Tree  (where everything is a dollar) and know the location of the hardware aisles in Walmart conveniently located by the bathrooms that were very clean and for the most part, not used. For food, I discovered a fabulous brand of frozen Tika Masala for under $4 in the frozen “healthy food” section of Walmart worthy of any fine Indian Restaurant. You can’t miss it because the packaging is hot pink!  I visited Burger King more than I’d like to have done, but I have to say they have darned good burgers. The guys on the crew knew about the 2 for $5 deals and so I bought lunch at least once a week for them.  The dining area was permanently closed, so all customers went to the drive up window to place orders.  I had never had better fast food burgers in my life before the Whoppers in Heber Springs! The addictive aroma of French Fries filled my car—void of any nasty smell of rancid oil as I have experienced before back up east.  Burger King is definitely king of burgers here and they take their business very seriously.  Customer service was fantastic and all employees wore masks and gloves.  Payment was either by credit card or cash with cash being deposited into a tray handed through the window by the cashier. I also discovered some of the best barbecue pulled pork and brisket sandwiches I’ve ever had at the Food Plot food truck not far from the house, next to the local Trump headquarters where an “All Aboard The Trump Train” flag blew in the wind. The first time I went to that food truck, one of the workers asked me where I was from, and I explained that I started off in Eureka Springs, but now live in Connecticut. “What do they call people from Connecticut?” she asked. I responded “American”. 

The Trump Thing:  It seemed that there was a big sale for Trump merchandise in town the weekend I arrived.  I spotted a road side stand at a busy intersection selling the stuff like fireworks on the 4th of July.  I was tempted to stop and look at the items to read if the labels indicated “Made In China”, but did not bother to waste my time. People were wearing Trump masks, Trump hats, and displaying their flags, stickers, and banners around town but was particularly happy that they at least wore masks.  I only saw a few Biden signs but like most things Biden, they are reserved, and polite. I was surprised that even the county sheriff had a big Trump sign on his front lawn.  Don’t misunderstand me:  It’s everyone’s right to express their freedom of speech but I took offense to one flag I saw:  The American flag on one side, and the Trump flag either printed, glued or stapled on the opposite.  Isn’t that considered desecrating the American flag? One day I saw a truck driving up and down streets in my neighborhood with the flags on its backside blowing in the wind and through the truck’s open windows, I heard one of the passengers shouting expletives that should not be used in public and never to shout out loud in quiet residential neighborhood where church is everything. That night going to the motel, that truck was sitting in the same parking lot.

At the end of third week away from home, I decided that it was time to wrap it all up.  The house was looking good, and I had met with a few realtors to determine whether to rent or sell.  I made the announcement to the contractor that things had to come to an end:  “I do not have bottomless pockets and need to get back home.” I was tired of sleeping in motels...one of which had fleas and men’s underwear still hanging on the shower rod. I complained, and they changed my room, and all went well after that, but enough was enough.  I wanted my bed, my husband, my dog and home-cooked meals again! I dreamed of having a gigantic arugula salad, end of season garden tomatoes with garden-grown basil and mozzarella, and a baked chicken with its aroma filling the entire first floor of our home. In the end, I think the project worked out well, and I really enjoyed getting to know my crew, to roll up my sleeves and help bring an older home to newer beginnings with modern light fixtures I drove down from the IKEA in New Haven.  I think back to the first night that the house was empty after the previous tenants and started to tear down the old wallpaper.  Once I started, I did not stop, I was getting rid of old decor and the smell of dogs that had saturated the all paper. All projects have a beginning but must also have an end.  Like Tony my contractor said “you have to know when to stop”.  So on a Thursday afternoon, I wrote my final check, thanked everyone for their good work, loaded the remaining supplies into my Suburu and took off for Kentucky for appointments at Atria Senior Living and the Thrive Center in Louisville.


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