Arkansas might be America’s best-kept secret. Every time I’ve visited it’s been with a certain stereotype in my head, and every time I’ve been blown away by its natural beauty and its friendly, laid-back residents. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.
I landed in Little Rock and drove straight West through to the unnamed space between the Ozarks and the Ouachita Mountains, the late-autumn beauty of the land enveloping me all the way. Fall colors flamed in my path, broken only by the grey road and the occasional mirror of a lake reflecting the fading sky.
My turn onto the scenic byway weaving through Mount Magazine State Park was painted with these trees, and I could glimpse the huge jagged plateau rising in the distance. I imagined standing on the edge of the rock cliffs with autumn’s patchwork quilt rippling through the valley below. This was going to be epic!
The higher I climbed, the more the silver sky sank down, finally meeting the road in a soft cold blanket of fog. It damped the fiery trees, now just dark branches reaching greedily out over the road.
In a moment, the trees and the road disappeared, too. I drove past my turn three times before it finally slipped out of the fog. Signs warning of recent black bear encounters plastered the trailhead, the most recent one handwritten, containing no fewer than seven exclamation points and dated just four days earlier. I stripped the granola bar out of my bag and tried to remember if I’d packed my sweetly coconut-scented shampoo.
I crept cautiously through the soupy fog up the trail, ducking behind my hat brim as rogue branches tickled my cheekbones. There was no wind or birds to rustle the leaves, just a thick padded silence. Even my footsteps seemed muffled. Large dark shapes loomed up out of the mist, and I sang out cheerily, “Hullo! Are you a stump or a bear?,” each time pausing a moment to see if the stump would react and waddle off at the sound of my voice.
The summit was an open space amid the shrouded copper trees, marked with a sign and paved with flagstones in the shape of Arkansas. I brushed an armful of orange leaves off this patio and sat cross-legged in the center of the state, the once-blazing landscape now as silent and as cold as a tomb.
About the beer:
Somewhere between the airport and the Ozarks I stopped at an open-late liquor store to weigh my options. Tristan– he looked like a Tristan– lamented the fact that craft brewing has exploded in Arkansas recently, but few breweries “package” their product; it’s all on tap. I’d heard about Diamond Bear and had just pulled a sixer of their Paradise Porter out of the walk-in when he shook his long locks and gently guided me to a tiny selection of bombers in a central aisle. “This is Core.” he said, as if in explanation. He pointed to the Imperial Red. “This.” He helped me carry it out to my rental car.
Here among the fog and the leaves and the non-bears, it was delicious. A piney bitter cross between a Red and an IPA, it’s as sharp and as dry as a cup of black coffee, but with a malty birthday-cake backbone and a tangy hop kick but virtually no aftertaste. It’s also 22 ounces of nearly 10% alcohol, and on the way down I wield my empty bottle as a talisman against the bear/stumps, suddenly feeling very bold about my place in the food chain.