Photo of Darlene Rios-Drapkin as featured in Roadside number 32

Oakland twenty years on

Twenty two years ago this month, I had just completed an exploration of Oakland, California in preparation for an article planned for issue 32 of Roadside. Why Oakland? The story is serendipitous. 

Two-plus-years before, I sat on a four-stop Southwest flight to Seattle from Providence. On the leg between Los Angeles and Oakland, an attractive woman sat down next to me and asked me if the book I happened to be reading was any good. I was not reading the latest Grisham or Stephen King. It was another book about urban planning.

Her name was Darlene Rios-Drapkin (pictured above), and she was a Main Street manager for the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, which was where she disembarked. The plane ride was the start of a cross-country road trip and hers was the first meeting of many I had on that trip back from the west coast. I jotted a mental note to put Oakland on Roadside’s radar as another potential urban exploration feature in the magazine. Then a little over a year later, NPR featured Darlene and her efforts to revive Fruitvale. Now, I made it a priority to get out there, especially in 2000, the year we had a real budget. 

At the time, San Francisco was the epicenter of the tech boom and I wondered if long-suffering Oakland might enjoy some spillover from all the cash pouring into the city. Using Fruitvale as a launching point, I would finally write my story exploring all the little nooks and crannies of the city’s culture in much the same way we did with Syracuse, Cleveland, Portland, Oregon, and Pittsburgh. I spent ten days soaking it all in, and came away hopeful that Oakland — and Fruitvale which would soon see the development of a new transit village around its BART station — would exemplify the concept of urban revival. 

I returned in 2006 for a quick drive-through. Fruitvale got its transit village and all seemed well. I haven’t been back since. 

Most of us know about the crisis affecting San Francisco these days. For the past several years, it has experienced a growing epidemic of homelessness and crime coexisting with an outrageous cost-of-living. It’s so bad that you can find online maps marking the concentrations of human feces on the sidewalks. 

While I’m sure most of the city remains a pleasant experience, the fact that matters descended so precipitously in its core has completely eroded the optimism I once felt for the prospect of revival in our great cities. If it has become that bad in the jewel of the west coast, what hope is there for Baltimore or Cleveland or Buffalo? Or even Philadelphia?

But what about Oakland?

I regret to say that I’m almost glad we never published my story about Oakland. This video, which tours many of the same streets I did, shows why and it breaks my heart. 

Roadside Online

Revisiting the Other Road

Day One — The Avenue of 444 Flags at the Hillcrest Memorial Gardens, Hermitage, Pennsylvania, sprang from the hostage crisis in Iran, one flag for each day the Americans there were detained. Every Flag Day brings an outpouring of media.

Day Six — At Wickliffe, Kentucky, that’s the Fort Jefferson Cross at the Confluence, still a work in progress according to Anita Howie, a driving force behind its continuous construction. She called us back three times with updates. It stands 90 feet high on a 20-foot pedestal, particularly visible to pilgrims eastbound from Missouri.

Day Eight — Both football and baseball are played in the coliseum at Okemah, although it is referred to only as the town highway garage. Its date of construction eluded us, but a clerk in the town hall says it held prisoners during World War II

Day Eight — Carl Hubbell was actually born in Carthage, MO, we are reminded by author Mark Harris, but he made the move to Meeker at the age of one. Hubbell appears in Harris’ fictional “Ticket for a Seamstitch,” also about a transcontinental odyssey.

Days Eleven, Twelve — As suburbanites of Buffalo, NY, we can sympathize with a city painted in unflattering strokes by transient reporters. It happens to us all the time. Therefore, we regret that our El Paso experience was so grim, and that we must report it so. We are sure that El Paso has much to recommend it, else why would a quarter-million people choose to live there? Within the self-imposed constraints of our routing, this was what we found, and we beg the indulgence of rightfully offended El Pasans.

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Day Twelve: El Paso, Over and Out

If El Paso had something besides a rush hour, that’s when we sought to depart, so we lingered over Hobbs doughnuts addressing 41 “We made it” postcards, one to Luis, who had stamped us on our way from Niagara Falls.

Twelve days’ anxieties boiled over into a roaring argument over the best way to exit El Paso, ‘though we both knew the secret word was “quickly.” Still friends, somehow, we checked out and found Route 62 as Paisano Drive. We had nine and a half miles to go. At the post office we sighted our first Mexican license plate, attached to a low-riding car on treadless tires.

The way was pretty clear for a while and then there were more Border Patrol cars than direction signs and suddenly we knew we had lost it. We U-turned into the parking lot of El Paso’s grand old railroad station. Polly urged Doug to seek directions; he just couldn’t find a way to inquire, “Which way to Mexico?”

We backtracked, reversed, parked and walked. Route 62, we determined, was Stanton Street. From across the Rio Grande, a steady flow of Mexicans entered, one slow step at a time. We tried hard to not look like the law.

Here, then, The Other Road does not so much end as just fade away among Mexican pedestrians, as mysteriously and surely as an illegal seeking a new life.

“I really want to leave,” said Polly. No argument. “I’ll drive,” she said.

A few miles out of town, we were stopped at an inland border checkpoint. A big handsome patrolman leaned into our packed Mitsubishi.

“That’ll be a one dollar, please,” he said.

Polly nudged Doug, who extracted his wallet.

The patrolman unleashed a big “gotcha!” grin. “Just kidding, ma’m,” he said. “I saw your New York license plate and thought you might be homesick for a toll.”

Day Eleven: Seminole to El Paso, Texas

Now, flouting all advice, we had El Paso as a day’s destination. We planned to reach its eastern fringe, retire to some Shady Rest, then roll up the final miles the following morning.

First, though, there was Hobbs. The Other Road angles through New Mexico from one Texas Panhandle to another and Hobbs is the first town in, first sign of any habitation at all in fact, save for an oil-pumping donkey at the state line. We were now on Mountain Time.

Hobbs is an attractive, efficient, industrious, self-confident little city and while The Other Road sort of runs around it, we didn’t. While Walmart caught us up on photo processing, we bought several souvenirs and gifts at the Grafter’s Corner, which actually covers several acres.

The Hobbs Donut Shop sold us the next two days’ breakfasts. In all deference to the Amish, these were the blue ribbon doughnuts of Route 62. And for today, the clerk, in a charming Spanish lilt, sent us on to Chili Peppers Restaurant on Mariad Boulevard.

Polly little relishes spicy food at any hour and Chili Peppers tended her tastes with gentility. Doug added eggs quesadillas, sort of a huge Mexican-style McMuffin, to his roster of regional repasts — the quail, the chicken-fried steak, the cat nip. Still no after-effects.

There were huge gateways silhouetting the names of dozens of ranchers along 62’s next 62 miles over to Carlsbad, about a third the size of Hobbs. It had a well-maintained movie theater (The Cavern), and a dress shop with Polly’s full name (Pauline) in enamel tiles. In making a good impression, Land of Enchantment cities were two-for-two.

But from here westward, not even the most optimistic map hinted at any habitation save for White’s City, a horrid souvenir storefront fashioned to sift the last dollar from the pockets of overnighters at Carlsbad Caverns.

After more ranch gates, 62 became upwardly mobile through the Guadelupes. It was magnificent yet manageable and eminently photogenic, worth an entire roll at one turn in the road, which was now called The Texas Mountain Trail.

Then it leveled onto expanses of salt flats, past adobe motor courts, long abandoned, then through a little oasis settlement called Cornudas.

Suddenly The Other Road was full of cattle. Men astride horses were closing a gate on the north side of the road, opening, then closing one on the south, a genuine “Lonesome Dove” cattle drive. We’d missed a lot of it and hadn’t the brass to holler “Come back so we can take your picture,” but some of its remains were in the road; others in the thin, dry air.

Forty-one miles later came the nightmare of El Paso, all construction and no place to grow. There’d been no roadside inns since Cornudas and to find one we fought our way along an expressway. The pace was frenzied through smoke and dust, the furnace of the sun red and low. It looked like the evacuation of hell.

In what was sold to us as the largest room in a Residence Inn, a dog would have had to wag vertically lest it knock pictures from the wall. Doug walked a quarter-mile over a sand dune to bring back bagged ice from a convenience store and then a salad from a most accommodating Tex-Mex restaurant. They were right, we didn’t want to come to El Paso.

Roadside Online

Day Ten: Childress to Seminole, Texas

Childress is an old railroad town with a neglected display of equipment and, we discovered, a post office turned into a museum.

It was enormous, at least a dozen rooms, tracing the history of Childress down the depths of its soil. There was a painting of an airport landing strip with a lighting sequence depicting it at various times of day and night, even thunderstorms flashing in the background.

As the only visitors, we the full attention of the well-dressed woman who was its curator. Of the hour we were there, she talked a good 50 minutes. It was like a Smithsonian tour conducted by Mr. Smithson. When we at last escaped, Childress’ most promising antique shop showed no signs of opening soon.

Next, Paducah, Texas, with a population of a bit more than 1,000, surrounded by square miles of scrubgrass. Anticipation was enhanced by our adventures in its Kentucky namesake. On the north edge of town a museum, in the railway station of the former Quanah, Acme & Pacific, was closed.

So was almost everything else, including the post office, taking a long lunch. Abandoned storefronts surrounded the town square; the print shop and news office had only sighed when we asked about postcards. Poor Paducah was little better off than Boynton, Oklahoma.

But on the way out of town, we did find a tiled mansion called the Hunter’s Lodge, elegantly appointed and decorated.

The concierge, of British extraction, said business was very good among traveling sportsmen at $50 a night.

We turned then toward Matador, 36 miles to the west. We craved lunch, but if Paducah was this pitiful, what could Matador do? According to our guides, it was even smaller.

A cut-metal sign greeted us at Matador city limits. With the camera in the right position, Matador was framed by its own welcome.

And, it was busy. The postmistress led us to the little cafe which would introduce us to the Southwest staple of chicken- fried steak followed by a delicious spice cake. (In Matador, though, order a “stack” and you WILL get pancakes.)

Matador had a mural, several stores and a library/museum which provided a lot more postcards. Matador’s Main Street is eight lanes wide, probably, we speculated, to accommodate the passage of driven cattle. (Route 62 in Matador, though, is Bailey Avenue, just like in Buffalo).

On a map, Matador and Paducah are indistinguishable, identical in climate and agri-nomics, yet one hustled, the other busted. Some places wring their hands, while others roll up their sleeves.

At a crossroads west of town, two arrows pointed in opposite directions; it was 28 miles north to Turkey, 28 miles south to Dickens. Along a curving ridge we stopped and took a panoramic picture of the only man-made object above the landscape — our car.

Doug drove on, declaring “I can just hear Woody Guthrie singing” when another man-made object appeared in our rear-view mirror. It had a flashing red light. We pulled over. One Ranger slowly circled the car while the other, standing carefully behind Doug, inquired politely as to whether any emergency was necessitating such haste. Doug said no.

“Well, Mr. Smith,” the Ranger said, “when I went by you going in the other direction, you were OK, doing about 72, but by the time I got back here, you were really up there, about 77, I’d say.” Doug didn’t dispute a word of it. “I’m really embarrassed,” he said. “I drive a wheelchair van back home and all the other guys tease me about being the slowest driver on the staff.” The Ranger went to his cruiser, then returned with citation in hand.

“Mr. Smith,” he said, “Welcome to Texas. This is an official warning. Do try to avoid getting another one.” After normal breathing resumed, Doug asked for help with directions. The Ranger, intrigued by the scope of this adventure, pinpointed the next turn and suggested a pause in Floydada.

“You’ll like Floydada,” he predicted. We already did.

Floydada (rhymes with “boy data”) calls itself “The Pumpkin Capital of the U.S.A.,” a proudfully silly little city of some 3,000 with orange foil pumpkins on every street light.

Polly enhanced the prosperity of two nice five-and-dimes while Doug looked for postcards. The variety store sent him to the City Hall, the City Hall sent him to the Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber had locked up for the day, so he went back to City Hall with its mockup of Cinderella’s coach.

“How many you want?” asked the clerk, and she left her post, skeleton-keyed into the Chamber office and came back with five, “FLOYDADA” emblazoned across fields of orange gourds. We love the way they do business in this part of the country.

Doug now read the fine print in his Official Warning, which assured him that none of this would ever appear in his driving record. It said Texas believed that public safety was best served by sensible hospitality, by issuing just warnings to those in minor, non-threatening violation of the highway code.

Polly found the Generations antique shop in the lobby of a former movie theater. It was open only two days a week and this was one. She paid for a rare piece of Depression glass at the old box office window. “Sorry I can’t offer you a senior discount,” the proprietor apologized. “It’s OK,” said Doug. “We just got one from the highway patrol.”

With a keen eye on the speedometer, we zig-zagged south by the sorghum fields of Ralls and straight through Lubbock. For a city of six figures, Lubbock yielded fairly easily to our passage along Buddy Holly Boulevard. At an attractive cut-stone high school, students were milling noisily, but peacefully, out front.

Our destination was Seminole, near the New Mexico border. Job One would be replacing the now empty flagon of Maker’s Mark. We settled on the Raymond Motel, its units in clusters of two, scattered seemingly at random around the shady grounds, affording unusual privacy.

Its proprietor was a gentleman of India, with a degree in engineering, he said. He took pleasure from a layman’s appreciation of his establishment’s unique design. Then Doug carefully famed an inquiry: “Sir,” he said, “I am a temperate man, but could you perhaps direct me to the liquor store? “

“Ah.” said the propietor, whose name was not Raymond, “there is none, sir. This is a dry county.” He paused to let this sink in.

“But, sir,” he continued, “As you are a visitor, it it within the regulations for me to be permitted to present to you one can of beer. Would you like it now?” He reached under the counter and produced a cold Coor’s Light.

Doug reached into his pocket and produced an old dollar bill.

“Ah, sir,” said the host, “I could not. accept that. We would both be in trouble. This is with my compliments!”

Confidentially, Doug despises “light” as counter to what God intended on the day He invented beer. By bedtime, he had made it go away.

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Day Eight: Bentonville, Arkansas to Meeker, Oklahoma

Route 62 into Fayetteville ain’t what it used to be. It’s an Interstate now, and while we were tempted to try to locate the original right-of-way, we had another agenda.

An old Roadside held out the promise of a prize Valentine diner, Stevie D’s, in Shawnee, OK, about 240 miles distant. We couldn’t expect it to be open on a Sunday night, but we could spot it, learn the hours, and then breakfast there on Day Nine.

So we suffered the indignity of the Interstate, along with signage hailing a former Arkansas governor who had moved on to greater disgrace. We spun off into Farmington where an ostrich hooted at us from a pen.

We backed up to take a picture. The bird collapsed spastically, like a featherbed doing the twist. We drove away. The ostrich stood up. We backed again. The twist resumed. Everyone stops that page in our scrapbook and asks, “What in hell is this?”

The next village, Prairie Grove, had a leafy old Civil War campground and a church on the corner of Kate Smith Street. (Kate Smith was born in Philadelphia.)

At Lincoln, one family appeared to have attached a rocket to its house, and next came the deserted Shady Grove Motor Court, its dozen cabins desolate and ghostly. Across the street, a family sold pecans off the back of a pickup.

Then we came sweeping down the plain to Oklahoma. Westville. its easternmost community, showed us a distinctive slate-sided school and a road policy:

“60, No Tolerance.”

Oklahoma here was far more mountainous than we’d imagined and we were hard-pressed to tolerate 45 for a while. In industrial Muskogee, firemen were hosing down embers from what looked like a three-alarmer.

Then we came to Boynton, or would have, if it were still there. The entire community of perhaps 500 people was boarded up and abandoned. Gone. It was scary.

Lunchtime brought us to Henryetta, proud birthplace of football star Troy Aikman. We wound up at the Colonial, whose glib, string-tied proprietor knew the reach of Route 62, even with Route 66 symbols all over his walls. “I just took three ton of stone up to that Minor Nursery in Amherst,” he said. “He ain’t paid me yet so I may go up and bring ’em back.”

He meant Menne Nursery near Niagara Falls, which had landscaped our yard. We may have set foot on this gentleman’s stones before we set foot in his restaurant. He also dealt in exquisite agates of translucent blue. We purchased several for the fish tank. He said he was only kidding about Menne Nursery, whose reputation is unassailable. He also said we should rethink going to El Paso.

Route 62 joins Interstate 40 for about a dozen miles over to Okemah. We could have just driven east out of Henryetta on the original Other Road to the same place. There, Polly spotted a cut-stone semi-circular coliseum which looked like a baseball stadium, only larger, almost a quarter-mile in one dimension.

As we circled the padlocked edifice, Okemah police twice circled us, then moved on, either sizing us up as harmless or, in view of our New York State plate, geezers not to be trifled with.

Route 62 through Okemah is Woody Guthrie Street. The folk-singing, song-writing legend was born here, worked for the weekly newspaper before venturing forth to this land that was made for you and me.

Prague was next. There, Route 62 is Jim Thorpe Street, for the Native American Olympian many contend was our greatest athlete. At the second-hand shop, the proprietor confirmed that Thorpe had been an infant of Prague and gently corrected our pronunciation: It rhymes with “plague,” not “bog.”

At Meeker, we planned to turn toward Shawnee and the diner, but Polly suddenly asked “Who was Carl Hubbell?” “One of the greatest baseball pitchers ever,” said Doug. He told how Hubbell had struck out Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Cronin, Simmons and Lazzeri, all in a row in an All-Star Game.

“He’s from Meeker,” Polly said.

“Naw,” said Doug, now missing the turn to Shawnee.

“Check the sign,” said Polly: “Meeker, Home of Carl Hubbell.” Ballotting a few weeks later placed Hubbell among the top 50 major-leaguers of all time. Three little towns, linked only by Route 62, had each produced a giant.

Sunday was no day to go knocking on doors to ask about Carl Hubbell, so we went on diner-finding. At its address, there was only a vacant lot with a diner-sized brown patch and a sign telling of future use by a mental health clinic.

Our motel clerk said he’d heard a church had bought the diner to use as a community center, and as sun set, we found our funny Valentine at the Living Word Gospel Center, 3831 North Kickapoo St. With a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon, a jar of coffee and a loaf of bread, we could have opened it up the next morning.

Oh, and the key, it was locked.

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Day Nine: Meeker, Oklahoma to Childress, Texas

So we started the day in Meeker, seeking the spirit of King Carl Hubbell. First stop was the Meeker News (“Weekly in the Home of Carl Hubbell”) and at 8 a.m. publisher Ken Friskup, a character a Sooner Dickens might have invented, was glad to oblige.

“He’s buried out at the cemetery, I can show you where. Lots of his relatives still here, one of them works up at How Sweet It Is. Be sure to stop by the museum in the Town Hall.”

He gave us the last of his supply of postcards detailing Hubbell’s records. We gave him our outline of 62, the length of which he did not know though it ran right by his front door. “El Paso?,” he said. “Why would anyone want to go to El Paso?’

The one-floor town hall lobby displayed icons, pictures and souvenirs, and then it was on to How Sweet It Is, “Home of The Dinosaur Doughnut,” which by 10 a.m. is extinct. The air was thick with cowboy talk, the croissants as feathery as the sky.

One of the breakfast club finally turned to us and softly twanged his welcome: “You aren’t from around here, are you?”

Then the chef came out to autograph Doug’s scorebook (“With my Hubbell name, if you’d like”) and the proprietor gave us a jar of salsa she had just made. We hated to leave Meeker, where pride in Carl Hubbell had rubbed off on itself.

Heading west toward Oklahoma City, we thought back on how many memorable times had sprung from disappointment, starting with the commercialism of Berlin and Wilmot, OH, leading up to the Mount Hope Summit.

Kurtz’s, Kessler’s, the Rose Hill Porch, Maker’s Mark (now running low), all were desperation alternatives, and if the Valentine of Shawnee had not gotten religion, we’d have had but a moment for Meeker. Route 62 was giving us a lesson in flexibility.

Oklahoma City is the only common ground of the Mother Road and the Other Road. Route 66 went through northeast to west; Route 62 passes from east to southwest. They may have even have shared a few blocks through the government district, including the fatally bombed Murragh Building, but 66 is gone while 62 passes harmlessly and charmlessly around the city and its Will Rogers Airport on a series of Interstates, speed limit 70.

Now, with 62 back in its own two-lane shoes, the land changes color to red. Blanchard shows us a fine Veterans’ Memorial. One of the largest grain elevators we have ever seen looms over Chickasha, where seven numbered highways intersect.

Polly, navigating on this shift, cries “halt!” She has sighted the J&W Grill, a cinderblock diner breathtaking in its lack of pretension.

It had 15 stools, 20 customers and still, time to be nice. Some clients wore suits, some dungarees. One slim little counter gal obliged them all, even forgiving our hesitation over an unfamiliar menu.

We settled on a corn dog, which was fine, but still a mistake. This was, we learned a moment too late, “The home of the fried onion hamburger,” its aroma imbedded in the walls. We were the only ones there who didn’t have one.

The J&W Grill’s sanitary facilities provided another unique adventure, requiring first a tour of the kitchen with informal introductions to all the help. It was a tight squeeze. One cook pleaded “Please don’t go to El Paso. You won’t like it.”

As Route 62 heads west, then south, oil pumps bow like donkeys. In Andarko, home of the National Hall of Fame for Famous American Indians, it’s known as Peetree Road.

Apache has a crossroads plateau almost as large as the village itself, with a well-detailed, untended museum in a former hank.

Everything is on the honor system, including attractive postcards. We send seven with the Apache postmark.

Route 62 dodges the military city of Lawton and turns right toward Texas as the Duanah Parker Trailway, the setting sun dead ahead. We wonder again, would we have been wiser to drive west to east? Altus is too soon to quit and Hollis too small, even with its photo-op at the Motley Gin Company, named for a county and the invention that spins cotton into gold.

Six miles later we’re in Texas (70 day, 65 night) and a southerly turn sidelines the sun. It’s as dry as desert, especially the Red River, spanned by a half-mile of redundant bridge.

There’s a junction at Childress with Route 83, with a dozen motels and Morgan’s House of Catfish. Doug demolishes a plateful of bitelets called “Cat Nip.” Polly, who rejects as nourishment all forms of underwater life, orders a small cut of beef and when the waitress says “your stack will be right out,” fears that her order has gone in instead as pancakes, but “stack” is what they call steak around Childress, and this close to the source, steak stacks up pretty well.

Doug & Polly Smith outside of Toledo, OH

Day Seven: Piggott to Bentonville, Arkansas

As we checked into the Open Road Motor Lodge at 7 p.m. on Day Six, Polly asked about antique shops; would any open early enough that we could shop and get on the road before 2 p.m.

“Oh, yes,” said the clerk of the Open Road, “There’s the Enchanted Forrest, right downtown. It’s run by Mr. Forrest, he owns this place, too. There’s ladies lined up at the door even now, he’s got new Beanie Babies going on sale at 8 in the morning.” Then he added, “You’ll really like Piggott, you sure you don’t want to stay another night?” Mr. Forrest’s right-hand man had it right on the money.

Piggott is the definitive Route 62 community with some 2,660 citizens, two locally-owned drug stores, a town square and a mural of Piggott’s greatest hits.

They made a movie here, “A Face in the Crowd.” Ernest Hemingway, wed to a Piggott belle, framed the early chapters of “A Farewell to Arms” in a studio proudly displayed.

Truthfully, though, Hemingway hated it here. He couldn’t wait to get out of town.

Bearing new Beanies and old Depression plates, we sipped a final drugstore soda and prepared a farewell to Piggott’s arms.

Then a lens popped out of Polly’s glasses. On a Saturday morning we were pie-eyed in Piggott, a 50-mile detour from any city big enough to assure assistance.

There was a small brick optical office on North Third Street, with one car in its lot. Doug tapped on the locked door and a young woman answered. “I know you’re closed… ” Doug began, but she interrupted: “Of course we can help you,” she said. It took about 10 minutes to restore Polly’s fourth eye and she refused any payment, adding her “Godspeed” to all the others from Piggott.

What a wonderful place. Who asked Hemingway, anyway?

Next stop, Pocohontas, about 50 miles up the road. After Doug shopped for doughnuts and postcards, Polly for clothing and gifts, they met empty-handed and drove on a while before Polly finally said: “That was a very unfriendly town. I felt as if everyone was looking down at me.”

“Me, too,” said Doug. “I got yelled at for wanting doughnuts after noon.”

“They don’t need our money,” said Polly.

Route 62 winds through the southern Ozarks and on this Saturday, craft shows ruled. It was bumper to bumper through Hardy, population 510 with 75 speciality shops. Bluegrass music drifted from every shed. Late lunch at Salem’s South Fork Cafe brought us to Route 62’s mid-point, we calculated.

“Why on earth are you going to El Paso?” the waitress wondered, and then it was on through distinctively Arkansan places — Gassville, Flippin, Yeliville. At Green Forest, we hit the brakes for Polly’s Orchard restaurant, even with promising Eureka Springs and Berryville ahead.

Polly’s Orchard was a wise choice with its apple dumpling and folksy charm. Saturday nights turn Eureka Springs into a five- mile parking lot, a “No Vacancy” gauntlet, and it was really dark by the time we grasped at Gateway’s battered Battlefield Motel, a veritable Stalag 62.

“Eighty-four dollars plus tax, one bed, smoking’s OK,” announced Colonel Clerk. We’d rather sleep in the car. Fuses were short as we approached Bentonville, birthplace of Wal-Mart.

We randomed a Comfort Inn from a motel cluster. “One room left,” said the bright young Comfort Clerk. “Fifty-five dollars, no smoking. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, eh?” She smiled. Soon, so did we; the last room in Bentonville was the size of a small county and it had a jacuzzi.

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Day Six: Eddyville, Kentucky to Piggott, Arkansas

Not even the Mini-Mart clerk in Possum Trot has heard of Doug’s, so it’s on past dams and lakes to Paducah, KY, a bit hungry and one of us, at least, sorely in need of a hairdresser.

And out of the blue comes a big tin beanie called Hair Impressions, right across Route 62 (Irwin Cobb Boulevard) from a restaurant called Skin Heads.

Hair Impressions will take Polly in an hour, time for breakfast at Skin Heads, a local and national landmark, delicious and generous. Actually, breakfast took 45 minutes. We spent the other 15 coughing second-hand smoke back into the cool morning air of Paducah.

Polly and the Hair Impressionist hit it off like long-lost cousins and now, “civilized,” as she calls it, Polly plunges into Paducah’s plethora of antique shops while Doug explores a city that seems to succeed. More murals enhance its riverwall.

Again, it is almost 2 p.m. before they hit the road, named Alben Barkley Drive, for President Truman’s second-in-command, the Paducahn who coined the slang “veep.” At the edge of Wickliffe, KY, a huge cross stands on a distant hilltop. It seems significant yet remote. We pause for tea at cozy Christy’s, which this day is featuring quail, a delicacy which never has passed Doug’s lips. Tea time becomes dinner time.

In the style of the region, Christy’s offers “three sides” with dinner, including black-eyed peas and butter beans. The quail is a honey bird on the order of Cornish game hen and the whole tab comes in at barely $12, including Polly’s casserole and the next morning’s muffins, fresh from from the shelf.

We wonder about the cross, look at our watches and reluctantly move on. Within a few miles Route 62 plunges into construction designed to modernize the ancient arches bearing it first across the Ohio River, and then the Mississippi.

Route 62 paves less than a mile of Illinois, avoiding dreary Cairo which, at the confluence of two mighty rivers, seems ever on the verge of being swept away downstream. Missouri greets us with a cluster of route signs including “62,” and, separately, “B,” and “RB,” designation for local roads.

In sweet little Charleston, storefronts extend shingle roofs over the sidewalk. We buy out the drugstore’s supply of postcards, a watercolor sketch of the Congregational Church.

Near Sikeston, Routes 60, 61 and 62 all come together and then, a bit to The south, it looks like snow on the berrn. We’re seeing a cotton crop for the first time. We pluck a few bolls and stuff them into the glove compartment.

Route 62 bypasses New Madrid, a Mark Twain hangout, and so do we. We’re tired, it’s darkening and Piggott, Route 62’s Arkansas gateway, shows blue on the AAA map. It has neither approved accommodations nor attractions.

On Grand Avenue in Campbell, Missouri, a gas-station attendant assures us hospitality of Piggott, some 20 miles away. The next 16 hours will fulfill his prophecy.