Oklahoma and Arkansas are the 4th and 6th hottest summer states in the Unite States…perfect for conducting a mid-August ballpark tour. We chose Little Rock to begin our 4-day swelter-in-place drill… temperature 98 degrees; dew point 69.4; heat index between 105 and 110. But Scott was evidently pretty hot before he even arrived Wednesday evening. On Gerry’s way to BIB 2021, he was toting “Flat Scott”, the near life-size cutout that he’d ordered from the Brewers as a birthday gift to “Not-Flat Scott”, as a carry-on. Flat Scott had spent the COVID-ridden 2020 season watching from the stands in Milwaukee’s Miller Park (now American Family Field). A fellow passenger, identified by Gerry only as “cute girl”, asked if Gerry was traveling with a friend and, rumor has it, asked if Flat Scott could sit with her. There’s no accounting for taste. What does a perfect 10 girl see in a 2D guy?
The first time we all met was actually Thursday morning, after we’d flown in Wednesday night. Mark, as per tradition, was the last to emerge from the hotel. He threw his stuff in the back of the SUV, and off we went down East Roosevelt Road. Only once we got up to about 40 mph did the unusually loud road noise clue us in to the fact that Mark had neglected to shut the back door. Gerry pulled us over on the side of the road while we pondered just how widely our belongings had been strewn across Central Arkansas. We weren’t 5 minutes into BIB 2021 and we’d already sprung a leak in our think-tank. We opted for breakfast at a well-seasoned diner called Rosie’s, where we met a friendly waitress named Katie…or was it a well-seasoned waitress named Katie at a friendly diner called Rosie’s? In any event, once friendly, well-seasoned Rosie was able to grasp the notion that four grown men had flown from all over the country to watch minor league baseball in mid-August Arkansas (she did clue us in that the Little Rock Travelers are the “Travs” to locals), she bid us farewell with “Y’all enjoy the game. It’ll be hotter than Hades.”
Since none of us were entirely sure just how hot Hades is, and since Google does not provide a Hades-to-Fahrenheit conversion chart, we had our own way to figure it out. We simply needed to find the temperature of something that emanates from the underworld. So it was that we paid a visit to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where the main attraction, you’ll be shocked to find out, is its hot springs. Assuming that the natural springs spew water that has its origins somewhere near the River Styx, and based on the smell of searing flesh when Kevin reached into a pool of it behind one of the town’s famous bath houses, we estimate that 1 Hades = 143 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature of the springs, per the National Park literature. On this day, that was only mildly balmier than the air itself, which could make your teeth sweat. We next rode to the top of the 216-foot Hot Springs Mountain Tower, overlooking both the town and surrounding national park of the same name. The latter essentially encircles the former. There was a pleasant breeze and quite of bit of interesting historical information at the top (did you know that Bill Clinton attended Hot Springs High School?), the payoff for having to wear a mask inside the tower and take the chance that mildly acrophobic Mark could deliver payment pizza at any point during the elevator ride. After a couple of drives around a scenic loop in the hills overlooking the town (one on purpose and one as the result of a navigational gaffe), we were headed back toward Little Rock.
On the way back, we found Dan’s I-30 Diner, rated just a half-star higher in the Forbes Travel Guide than anywhere that has 15-foot letters on the roof spelling out “EATS”. The poor waitress was starting her job that very day. It’s got to be mortifying for any server to see the four of us plop ourselves down at his or her table. Dialing us up on your first day has to have you seriously rethinking your career choices. Aside from bringing Gerry a chicken sandwich when he requested chicken salad (Gerry didn’t say a thing), she got through it okay. Kind of makes you wonder if he’d have made her take back the ears of corn if he’d ordered Cobb salad.
Back in Little Rock, we visited the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Well, kind of. We would have liked to have checked out some of the historical documents there, but since it was closed due to COVID, we did not have textual relations with that building. Best we could do was admire some of the architecture from outside, most notably the cantilever wing that extends over the Arkansas River. Like the President himself, it was erected impressively.[figured I’d just censor that myself and save you the effort] Next up was Little Rock Central High School, a National Historic Site for the role it played in desegregation in 1957, offering the first test of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Of course, the visitor center there was also closed due to COVID. Since we’d seen the hot springs in Hot Springs, it stands to reason that we’d want to see the little rock in Little Rock. And so we did. There it was, on the banks of the Arkansas River, at the foot of Rock Street, nonetheless, where it served as a navigational landmark for early river travelers.
After a short rest back at our hotel, we proceeded to a watering hole called Brewskies just across the river from Dickey-Stephens Park. And what did we check out at Brewskie’s? Hint: hot springs in Hot Springs, little rock in Little Rock. We also watched the TV broadcast of some of the inaugural Field of Dreams game between the Yankees and White Sox. After the short drive to the ballpark, we watched the Springfield (Missouri) Cardinals dispense with the hometown Arkansas Travs 4-3 in 10 innings. During the game, we learned that the Travs’ name emanates from the mid-19th century folk song The Arkansas Traveler, and we watched a portion of the game from the wooden, but remarkably comfy, Adirondack chairs just beyond the outfield fence.
On our way to breakfast on Friday, Mark regaled us with excerpts from the latest book he’s been reading: The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party. Nothing whets your appetite before breakfast with friends like hearing about a breakfast of friends. Meanwhile, driver Gerry approached our destination, Delicious Temptations, as a bad golfer would a tough pin placement. Went right past it once, passed it again on the way back, then finally nailed it on the third try.
After breakfast, we headed for Mount Magazine, which admittedly sounds more like a periodical you’d hide from your parents than a state park in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests. The visitor center was actually open (the difference between a state park and a national park) and there were a few short trails leading to sheer cliffs with breathtaking views.
As we made our way toward Northwest Arkansas, it became obvious that we were getting deeper and deeper into Razorback country. Nowhere was this more evident than at Ed Walker’s Drive-In and Restaurant, a diner specializing in French dip sandwiches and covered from floor to ceiling with University of Arkansas logos and memorabilia. The place opened in 1943 and maintains a 1950’s vibe. You get the feeling that the last time the Razorbacks won a national football championship, in 1964, someone at Ed’s said “We must never again update our décor, lest we jynx the team.” Ed Walker’s is in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, so named for the military outpost built in 1817 in an attempt to keep the peace between the native Osage and newly arriving Cherokee. We traveled there next, where we found a visitor center that was (naturally) closed due to COVID. The most intriguing elements of what remains of the compound were the well-maintained gallows and the spot where an overlook used to be (recently washed out by a flood) marking the Trail of Tears (the real one, not the string of exasperated restaurant servers we’ve left in our wake over the years).
From Ft. Smith, we drove into Oklahoma, which was unfortunate because we meant to drive to our hotel in Springdale, Arkansas. 4 adults, all sporting the latest in GPS-enabled navigational technology, managed to find ourselves in a state we did not intend to visit until a day later. After bouncing aimlessly around northwestern Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, our little disorient express finally made it to our hotel for a brief rest and respite from the heat. That rest was interrupted when power was suddenly cut off to our hotel, an event probably related to the arrival of some nasty looking weather in the area. The outage wasn’t limited to our hotel; we knew that because we tried to visit a local bar called Foghorn’s near the hotel and it was lights out as well. Not to be deterred, we found another Foghorn’s in neighboring Fayetteville. We settled there while we periodically checked in on the status of the game at Arvest Ballpark, back in Springdale. Despite what appeared to be a steady rain in Fayetteville, the phone message of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals indicated that the game was still on. As we arrived at the Ballpark, the stream of fans headed out of the stadium indicated otherwise. Nevertheless, we entered the stadium like salmon swimming upstream to check out the sweet suite that Scott had intended as a little surprise for the game. With the game cancelled - our third rainout after Ottawa (2002) and Lehigh Valley (2016) - the best we could do was take a few pics of the tarp-covered infield from the would-be BIB crib. Now with some time to blow, we reversed field and headed back to Fayetteville to check out the University of Arkansas and Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. A few photo ops there and it was back to Foghorn’s, but this time, with power restored, it was the one back in Springdale, near our hotel. For those of you scoring with us at home, just since lunch, we had gone from Fort Smith to Oklahoma (by mistake) to Springdale to Fayetteville to Springdale to Fayetteville to Springdale. Not since John Daly has so much driving produced so little in the way of intended results.
Saturday began at the Buttered Biscuit, paradoxically both the home of such masculine BIB-worthy platters as the Slaughter Pen and the Carnivore and such dainty “is my slip showing?” dishes as the Acai Power Bowl (lookin’ at you, Gerry) and Avocado Grove Toast. What every menu item did share in common, however, was service that could be timed with your choice of an hourglass or a sundial.
Most of tour drive-time conversation on any trip is unfit for print, but suffice it to say that somewhere between Springdale and Eureka Springs, there was a thought-provoking conversation that involved both the relative merits of backyard vs. pet cemetery burials and product adjacencies in the call-before-you-dig market. It was on this same drive that we figured out (on day three of our trip, mind you) how to use the SUV’s Bluetooth capability with Scott’s phone GPS. Have we mentioned recently that we met thirty-one years ago when we were selected as four of the former Bell System’s top thirty young technologists?
Eureka Springs, while it sounds like a brand of mattress you might purchase on Home Shopping network, is actually a quirky Victorian town built into a hillside in northwestern Arkansas. Its main export, best we could tell from driving through, appears to be kitsch. The first of two places we decided to stop in the surrounding area was the Christ of the Ozarks statue, the fourth largest Jesus in the world. It vaguely resembles Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer, but with a minimalistic, simplified shape that RoadsideAmerica.com describes as both “a milk carton with a tennis ball stuck on top”, and “Willie Nelson in a dress”. It is also somewhat reminiscent of the Word of Life Mural in Notre Dame, Indiana, except that the outstretched arms pose of Christ of the Ozarks is less “Touchdown Jesus”, than “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” Jesus. Keeping with the religious theme, our second stop in the Eureka Springs area was Thorncrown Chapel, constructed in 1980 using organic materials indigenous to northwestern Arkansas, including pressure-treatedSouthern pine and flagstone. The predominance of glass gives it the feel of an open-air structure, very much in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright. However, it was actually designed by another individual, E. Fay Jones. He may have entertained using other designers as well, but if you want something done Wright, you have to do it yourself.
As we pushed on toward Tulsa, we were reunited with the Trail of Tears at the Pea Ridge National Military Park. Located in northwest Arkansas near the Missouri border [foreshadowing], it is the site of the March 1862 Battle that saved Missouri for the Union. Of course, the visitor center was (all together now) closed for COVID. Not far away, in Bentonville, Arkansas, was one of the highlights of the trip, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The Walton Family Foundation (as in Sam, of Walmart fame) is very involved with the museum, and Walmart’s sponsorship ensures that schlubs like us don’t even have to pay admission. The complex itself consists of a series of interconnected pavilions that wrap around two creek-fed ponds and picturesque wooded trails. Not a bad way to see Charles Willson Peale’s famous portrait of George Washington, original works of Norman Rockwell, and all manner of contemporary sculpture, digital art, and lighting displays.
Inspired by our own sophistication and realization of our status as art aficionados, we hit the road again for Oklahoma…and somehow wound up in Missouri. A day earlier, we’d wound up in Oklahoma by accident, and now we couldn’t get there on purpose. We learned two things from this: first, that it’s easy to take an incorrect turn in the bustling metropolis of Gravette, Arkansas; and second, that Bluetooth doesn’t fix stupid. Nevertheless, we repointed ourselves toward Oklahoma, where Kevin was quick to remind us, that the wind comes sweepin' down the plain, and the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain. Over and over, he reminded us…incessantly…with vocals like a honey lamb stuck in barbed wire. We had barely gotten ourselves headed in the right direction when our pressure gauge indicated that one of our rear tires, like Kevin’s voice, was a little flat. So we stopped to pick up some air, some gasoline and, unintentionally, a fly that would torment us the rest of the way to our Tulsa hotel. Scott always makes the hotel reservations, and he’d made one at the now sold-out Tulsa Club Hotel…exactly one. No matter – we just confidently explained to the front desk receptionist that we had most certainly made four reservations and the hotel MUST be at fault. Miraculously, three rooms opened up at precisely that moment, negating the prospect of four of us having to share two queen beds. Thank you, Christ of the Ozarks! We make better Sooners than spooners.
Our walk to Elgin Park took us right by Tulsa’s quirky “Center of the Universe” tourist attraction. Weirdly, if you stand on a small concrete circle inside a bunch of concentric rings of bricks on an otherwise normal looking walkway, your voice echoes back at you more loudly than you spoke (or so it seems, anyway). No one seems able to completely explain this weird acoustic phenomenon…but if someone could explain it while standing there, it would reflect well on them. You probably thought Elgin Park was a ballfield. Not quite. Elgin Park is a bar across the street from ONEOK Field, where the Tulsa Drillers normally play. On this night, however, the Drillers had assumed their alter ego as the Tulsa Noodlers, as in barehanded catfishing. Minor league teams seem to be assuming a new identity for one weekend a season with increasing frequency, presumably so they can sell an entirely fresh set of merchandise, and apparently, Oklahoma fancies itself the noodling capital of the world. The Noodlers, in lime-green pants and caps that were a wild departure from their normal Driller royal blue, won 5-2 over the Wichita Wind Surge. No Adirondack chairs at ONEOK Field, but the park more than made up for it with a top shelf selection of between innings tomfoolery that included what had to be 100 young kids chasing Hornsby the Bull (Tulsa’s mascot) across the outfield while players were trying to warm up, Hornsby using two foam pool noodles to play the heads of four bald men sitting on the roof of the dugout like Chinese temple blocks (synchronized to the stadium sound system, of course), an inter-sectional volleyball competition using a giant beachball and a net that suddenly appeared in the row alongside our seats (sadly, our section 104 fell in a barn burner to section 105), and a seventh inning stretch punctuated by the singing of Oklahoma! (for the love of all that is holy, why did they feel the need to egg Kevin on?).
Sunday morning began with a bit more subdued tone at Greenwood rising, an exhibit that had opened only ten days earlier, commemorating “Black Wall Street”, the surrounding Greenwood District, and the Tulsa Race Riots that had occurred exactly 100 years earlier. From there, we drove to see the Tulsa Golden Driller, a 75-foot tall, 43,500 pound statue of an oil worker erected in 1966 on the grounds of the Tulsa Expo Center and composed of steel, concrete, and plaster (not gold). It’s the sixth-tallest statue in the United States, just edging out the 65.5-foot Christ of the Ozarks – an ill-advised architectural oversight that seems like a great way for TGD to get himself struck by lightning a time or three a year.
We decided to begin our drive from Tulsa to Oklahoma City along Route 66, which passes within about a half-mile of the Tulsa Expo Center. With our Bluetooth-enabled GPS, we were able to navigate our way there in less than 15 minutes. Somewhere along Route 66, the topic of whether or not to invite wives to a BIB trip arose, as it always does. The vote usually falls along party lines: those who want to put a damper on the party are in favor of including the wives. An agreement of sorts was reached, that any trip including the wives would need to be a “modified” BIB trip. A committee will likely be formed to study the issue. About 11:30am, we arrived at the Route 66 Interpretive Center in Chandler, OK. Good news: it was not closed for COVID. Bad news: it opened at 1:00pm. So we did not gain a new understanding of the construction and history of America’s first cross-country highway. What we did gain was another stowaway insect. Levi Strauss never had to deal with this many flies.
Upon arrival in Oklahoma City, our first stop was at Tucker’s Onion Burgers – a far better choice after a drive of over 100 miles than before. From there, we headed downtown to the Oklahoma City National Memorial, commemorating the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Even 26 years later, the tragedy of that day remains vivid despite all that has occurred since, perhaps even amplified by the eerily similar manner in which the 9/11 bombings also interrupted an otherwise peaceful downtown workday morning.
We decided to check in early at the “Airport” Wyndham, which earned its quotation marks by being the world’s only airport hotel without an airport shuttle. Scott had made four reservations this time, which turned out to be a mixed blessing as the Keystone Kops front desk staff of 2 required a full 30 minutes to get the four of us checked in. That left just enough time to hightail it to Bricktown Brewery where we’d pre-arranged a time to meet with Gerry’s niece and her husband, Oklahoma city residents who seemed nice enough, but apparently didn’t have the good sense to ask a few questions when Gerry mentioned bringing his posse. Gerry frantically tried to drive with one hand and call to extend our rental car reservation with the other, now that our airport shuttle’d been scuttled. As for Bricktown Stadium, just a few blocks from the brewery, some of its features were weird: uncomfortably close Hampton Inn and Hilton Garden Inn overlooking left center and center field, respectively; deepest portion of the park being left center (415 feet) as opposed to center (400 feet); obtrusive foul ball screens that lean into the stands as they approach the outfield, diverting foul pops that might otherwise reach the fans; and a PA system so annoyingly loud as to be indecipherable. The between-innings fare was downright lame by comparison to Tulsa: a sack race (seriously?) and another seventh-inning stretch version of Oklahoma!, Kevin’s performance of which was made even less tolerable than before due to his discovery of 32-ounce novelty beers served in a hollowed out plastic bat. As for the game itself, the Oklahoma City Dodgers bested the Round Rock Express on an eighth inning two-out RBI double. Aaron Wilkerson, the Dodgers’ 32-year-old starting pitcher who in 2018 and 2019 had played in eleven major league games for the Brewers, went a full seven innings, giving up four earned runs. After the game, we spent what was left our last night of the trip wandering through the Bricktown entertainment district, nestled a little too conveniently around what is described as the Bricktown Canal. It seems designed to mimic San Antonio’s River Walk, but unlike the River Walk, is obviously man-made with water that does not appear to flow anywhere.
After a drive back to the ne’er-port Wyndham, the longest BIB trip in our 31-year history was, well, history. And so we will meet again in 2022, Gamma, Eta, Iota, Kappa, Mu, and Zeta variants of COVID notwithstanding.