Heartland of America: Last Leg


Burning off the fields in Arkansas

Hot Springs to Marion, AR – I’d be lying if I said the drive to Marion was easy. I was tired from the heat and listened again to a sweet cd mix made by a friend. The route Eddie and Dell gave me wove through farmland. From the raised road, I could see farmers burning off their fields in the distance.  The air smelled wet and slow. I drank my sacred coffee and noted that the names of places had changed from Booger Hollow and Chigger Gulch to overflow areas for the White River.  The ranger had told me that everything was poisonous in Arkansas so I didn’t dare to pull over.

Somehow I misread my map outside of Bald Knob where I was supposed to leave state highway 167. I couldn’t find state highway 67 east to Memphis. Feeling like I was racing against nightfall, I pulled over at a gas station. Five older men who looked like farmers sat outside shooting the breeze. They looked like an advertisement for Oshkosh sitting on a bench between the newspaper stands.  They showed me where I was on the map, too far south.

“You get back on that road and stay right.  You’ll come to the only stoplight and you need to be in the right-hand turn lane.  You just stay right and you’ll be fine.” They all sent me off with a wave.

Sacred coffee

Sacred coffee

Driving through Arkansas as night fell, fireflies on the side of the highway gave the appearance of wild animal eyes.  Did they have alligators here? Snakes, they must be snakes. I pulled over to let numerous trucks pass me but wouldn’t open my door for fear of snakes and spiders.  I finally pulled into Marion at 10 o’clock at night. I’d called the Memphis KOA to be sure there was room and looked forward to pitching a tent and sleeping.  I couldn’t find the campground though.  I stopped at a gas station and they told me to go over the overpass.  I could see the KOA sign but their directions seemed to send me back on the highway where trucks sped by at over 70 miles per hour in the night.  I pulled down a gravel road around the backside of the campground where a sign told me I couldn’t enter. Turning around, I finally found the entrance.

A sign at the night check-in told me the tent sites were full.  Crickets chirped and mosquitoes bit me over and over as I tried to figure out what to do. A husband and wife from Springfield, MO, pulled in to find a site.

“Did you have a hard time finding this place? I called ahead and now they’re saying there’s no room.” I looked at the campground map and shook my head.

“This place is ridiculous.  We have that 35-foot trailer and the signs sent us down a gravel road to a railroad bridge.  our rig was too high for the bridge so my husband had to back us out in the dark down the road. We got stuck and had to put the truck in four-wheel drive. I told him he’s my hero tonight.” She filled out her after-hours camper form. “You can camp next to us if there’s not a site for you.”

I walked around indecisively and mentioned to the husband that I would probably just take a site out of the way and be off early. The whole site was lit up by the enormous KOA sign and the highway rumbled just a few hundred feet away.

“I’d hate to see you out there by yourself next to that open road,” he told me. “We are close to Memphis.”

I didn’t know much about Memphis but eventually I set up my tent next to their trailer.  Their water-pumped clicked on and my tent glowed yellow inside from the KOA sign.  I tried to sleep but something kept biting me.  Turning on my headlamp, I smashed a bug and blood, my blood, splattered between my fingers.  Three mosquitoes bounced against the screen and I smashed two of them.  My thumb was numb from one of their bites and the sole of my foot itched.  More mosquitos bounced against the outside of the tent and, when I finally turned off my headlamp, one more buzzed in my ear.  I flipped the light back on and smeared him down the side of the tent leaving a trail of blood and finally fell asleep, sweaty and exhausted.

Tina Turner's Childhood Schoolhouse

Tina Turner’s Childhood Schoolhouse

Early the next morning, I threw my tent in the car and left a few dollars under the windshield wiper of the couple who let me stay in their site.  I felt like I hadn’t slept and decided this was my number one worst KOA experience ever. I drove past Memphis to Brownsville and slept in a McDonalds parking lot close to Tina Turner’s childhood schoolhouse propped up on cinderblocks.  Eventually, I was rested enough to continue my trip to Sewanee.  An attendant at a gas station asked me how my day was going.  I had just driven through a thunderstorm almost cried I was so frazzled. My mosquito bites itched and my knee was stiff from driving. When I arrived in Sewanee, I needed a nap and a shower which my cousins, also avid travelers, immediately provided. That night, tucked in in Tennessee, I realized that I had never been so thankful for a comfortable horizontal bed and a good night’s sleep. Let the Tennessee adventures begin.

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