Along the entire way to the University of Arkansas I’ve got The Count of Monte Cristo playing at 1.25x speed. 47 hours of material, of which, by the time I’m pulling out of my driveway, I have 17 hours left. 5.5 hours of driving projected by Maps and the car’s a-rumble with the sonority of John Lee’s narration. Ma foi, I could listen to him say French words all day.
After 6.6 hours of material listened to (because sped up to 1.25x speed; which, for any mathematicians out there, does mean 5.3 hours of driving, which, yes, meant I was speeding — something I got away with on the way to Arkansas, but was not so lucky about on the way back), alone but for Mr Lee’s disembodied voice, I arrive, late evening. The temperature goes cliff diving as a ponderous cold front at this time sweeps the US. The top of the cliff in this instance being 0 Celsius. Briar, my UofA-enrolled friend, whose middle name shares my first (a bonding-point for elementary-schoolers), greets me at the reception of Yocum Hall, his digs, and we talk music and basics for a while as he wraps up his shift. Saving philosophic conversation for the witching hours, we later find out: using his bunkbed as verticaled, makeshift confessional (me, tipsy from more-or-less minesweeping the dregs of some chap’s left-behind Southern Comfort; him, teetotaler). I couldn’t tell you which of us was priest and which sinner. It vacillated.
That was all that happened that day (rather, evening), so the bulk of adventuring took place the day after. Waking at a bright-and-early 10:50, he drove me outside Fayetteville to the Devil’s Den State Park. Temperature by the time we got: flitting into the negatives, but, the wind only flickering here and there into gusty gusto, doable.
Midwest hiking trails aren’t terribly fancy when they haven’t begun to shuck themselves of winter, but the sketchlines of grandeur are undeniably there. At a rock overlook the colour of copper, we see grey expanse of trees (what with lack of evergreens), mostly, but also a glassy flash here and there, the lethargic Lee Creek pottering along. That cold front skimming by (I say offhandedly, because it up and left before it had even unpacked), it wouldn’t surprise me if, once we left, floes shone upon its surface, fragile and windowpane-clear.
Oak-hickory forests, the least seemly when overlooked after they’ve donned their dun winter togs, still have their charm when you pull back from the macroscopic. The way the boughs, webbing, thresh the overcast daylight, and sedimentary rock overhangs peppered with grizzled handholds stand like cracked earthenware. Trees, uncomplicated in their vectors, leafless now make it easy enough to go off-trailing. Briar and I in our pathless wanderlust find an icicle-toothed crick (in the most romantic sense of the term) a short ways away, water still trickling like saliva down those temporary dentures. We follow it up further, but it vanishes beneath the forest floor’s brocading: leaf-litter, upon which we can find little footing.
Later, done with trekking, we gorge ourselves on Arkansas barbecue at a place called Sassy’s Red House. There is a noticeable temperature gradient (downward) on entering and on leaving, but it’s still not the coldest it would get. Later yet, Briar the tour-guide led me along the campus highlights, and we both nearly froze. Then we went bowling and played Guitar Hero II, quintessential mid-2000s leisures and both bona fide knuckle-thrashers.
The following morning, the day I set to leave as the day Briar set for the first classes of his semester, the thermometer had completed its cliff dive in beautiful form with a crisp low of -17 Celsius. My ears felt as if they could’ve been chipped off. Even inside Briar’s truck our breaths fogged heavily. We had breakfast at Rick’s Iron Skillet, an establishment so local that the tabletop was laminated with advertisements. Which I can’t say didn’t work: it’s difficult to not at least glance at them. After a hefty Americana ensemble of breakfast items titled “The People’s Choice” went down the hatch, that was that: Briar dropped me off at my car and I zipped back home to Texas.
Again a pleasant drive, until getting caught allegedly speeding in Kiowa, Oklahoma, your wonted Midwestern Podunk. I was cordial enough to the cop, and he to me. I didn’t catch the guy’s name, but tattooed in that age-blurred blue-green ink on the inside of his right index finger was the pleasant single-word reminder, in all-caps: KILLSWITCH. After ticket reception, a “good-day-to-you,” and window rolled back up, I clicked Monte Cristo back on. I could just imagine Dumas, had he seen this Oklahoman Eastwood, rubbing his temples and muttering. “Mon Dieu.” A nervous, muted chuckle. “Mon Dieu.”
Images courtesy of Hudson Cleveland