It p[ays to ask the locals when you’re looking for interesting off the beaten path attractons. Take the time I stopped after dark at the city park in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas.
There were all-night bathrooms with showers and electrical hookups, but no signage at all about rules or fees. It took most of an hour to track down one of the local police officers, but he gave the thumbs up and I settled into an area near the outdoor basketball court. The court was in use, and the players were blasting music from their car radio, but they soon left, and after finding the switch that turned off the court lights, I passed a restful night. Even the trains running through on the nearby track didn’t disturb us too much.
Walnut Ridge (see interactive map below) is home to the guitar walkway. Set in the ground is a large replica guitar. Walking down the neck of this facsimile Fender, the visitor is treated to several displays, each featuring a famous R&B or country artist who has some connection to the area. Each display is equipped with a speaker, and the push of a button delivers a notable performance by the artist. Amazingly, all of them worked! The installation sits alongside the railroad station, which now houses the visitor bureau. Just across the street is the local diner.
We’ve always loved diners, and not just for the grits, eggs, and biscuits (which were delicious), but for the opening they give onto the local culture. Invariably there will be a group of locals, usually retired men, drinking coffee at the corner table. Ask a question of your waitress, loudly enough to be overheard, and within a few minutes one or more of them will begin to volunteer information on the topic. Then you’re in. You can take your cup, move over to their table, and spend the rest of the morning talking over local history, politics, and sports as if you were a native.
I remember one morning along the Ohio River when I asked about a factory that used to make buttons from the shells of freshwater clams harvested from the river. I spent the rest of the day on a private tour of the local museum, which had been closed for two years, and being driven to the site of the factory by the only man still living who’d worked there. But I digress.
“What can you tell me about the guitar across the street,” I asked, just a little too loudly.
“I don’t really know anything about it,” admitted the waitress. Pause. Pause. And one of the old guys at the front table called out, “Ask Danny about it. He runs the yogurt stand around the corner.”
Walk around the corner, as instructed, and you come face to face with the Beatles crossing Abbey Road. Tucked into a corner park by Art & Culture Frozen Yogurt and The Dark Side Coffee Shop is a life-size sculpture and the story that inspired it. It seems the Fab Four, on their 1964 tour of the USA, were offered a bit of R&R at a dude ranch near here. Secretly they flew into the small local airport, it being the closest to the dude ranch in question. But small towns are small towns, and the secret didn’t last. A screaming crowd of locals greeted them on the single runway. Danny West, owner of the coffee shop and yogurt stand is also Danny West, sculptor and artist. He was there the day it happened.
So drive down US 67, the music highway, through Arkansas. Stop in Walnut Ridge to see the Beatles and the guitar walkway. Enjoy some R&B at one of the roadhouses that still survive along the way. And whatever else you do, don’t skip breakfast and morning chat at the local diner.
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