Arkansas Highway 7 was designated a state “scenic byway” for good reason. The road features some truly stunning scenery, especially as it wanders through the Ouachita Mountains and through the Ouachita National Forest. Steep grades and sharp curves are common in that area, but coming onto expansive vistas after rounding a curve at the top of a particularly steep climb make the effort worthwhile.
We have driven the road as far north as I-40, near Russellville and, just yesterday, we’ve gone as far south as El Dorado. The road puts the topography of the state on display, passing as it does through level stretches of flood plains in river valleys and through heavily forested mountainous terrain in the Ouachita Mountains and, further north than we’ve been yet, the Ozark Mountains. The highway is the longest in the state, at 290 miles. We’ve traveled 190 miles of it, having yet to drive the ten miles or so in the southern stretch from El Dorado to the Louisiana state line and the ninety miles north of Russellville to the Missouri border. There’s plenty of time for that.
I tend to get wrapped up in what I’m seeing as I drive through particularly scenic areas and I neglect to think about stopping to take pictures. I’d like to have the photos, of course, but the process of making them is too much of a distraction, at least the first time through. I’ll plan on returning to the road many times in the coming weeks and months and years and may buy a decent camera in preparation for those trips. An iPhone or an iPad just aren’t quite up to the task of capturing the scenery, methinks.
Yesterday’s drive was relaxing and enjoyable, thanks in large part to the fact that the road was relatively free of traffic, at least traffic of the sort that is bothersome. By that I mean there were few instances in which I found myself behind a lumbering beast of an RV or log truck and, similarly, it was rare that I found myself in front of someone anxious for me to get out of the way. I suspect the road will see more and more traffic as the tourist season progresses, especially around the “touristy” areas around Hot Springs and north, in the Ouachita National Forest. We’ll see.
We arrived in El Dorado around lunchtime. My wife recalled an earlier trip through El Dorado (though I have no such memories) when we had a hard time finding a place to eat. She described a desolate, empty town with little in the way of open businesses when we arrived after 5:00 p.m. But yesterday was a different story all together. The downtown area was bustling. All around the square there were restaurants and shops. People were dining alfresco at a Mexican restaurant the Laredo Grill, so we decided to dine there. The atmosphere was delightful; the weather was perfect, the open-air seating was pleasant, and the decor was attractive. The food and service were less than impressive though, but such is life.
After lunch, we wandered around the square, stopping in at a book store for a while before continuing on. I found it a bit odd that one of the shops is a place that sells (and/or rents) tuxedos and formal evening attire. After a quick stop at a rather disappointing frozen yogurt shop, we hit the jackpot…La Bella Gourmet Gifts and Delicatessen. As we were wandering around the shop, we were greeted by a guy we would learn during the course of our conversations was the owner, Jim Robinson. Though we’d already eaten, we enjoyed his salesmanship and his hospitality as he offered us sample after sample of dips, chips, sliced meats, fudge, and on and on! We left with two packets of a spice mix, made in Loveland, CO, that, when mixed with sour cream and ketchup (which was one of the things we sampled) is absolutely delicious. We also left with a very expensive jar of jalapeño mustard and, for last night’s dinner, a muffaletta sandwich and a 911 sandwich, the latter of which is one of their specialties, loaded with pastrami and their own jalapeño mustard (the same stuff we bought).
Jim said he has owned the deli for 27 years. He started it after having moved to Arkansas from Connecticut. During the early years, he had to have some of the Italian meats shipped in from the east coast, he said, because there were no local sources for the stuff he had grown up with. We learned, during our conversations, that he served on a submarine during the Viet Nam war and that he will be in Little Rock for ceremonies involving a submarine on display there during an upcoming event. And, we learned that he owns a house boat on Lake Hamilton at Hot Springs. There is no question that we will go back to La Bella the next time we’re in El Dorado.
Arkansas Highway 7 is worth several visits. In fact, I suspect we’ll be wandering up and down the state on Highway 7 a number of times in the coming months, just to see what we missed on the earlier trips through.