Which elements are intrinsic to any great trip? It was in the unlikeliest of places that clarity came to me, crystalline as the crescent moon set on Northwest Arkansas’ indigo night sky.
To experience recreational greatness that charms, delights, and feeds the soul, a trip needs: new landscapes, adventurous and cultured company, a passionate guide, regional flavors, and some serious fucking visual stimulation. More on that later.
Despite waking up early and shuffling through the various indignities that is modern air travel, I arrived in Tulsa by noon and was collected by my entourage already on the ground. It was crisply sunny, in the way it only is out west. Humidity low, sun rays hot.
Tulsa reminded me of Denver, with its weathered greenery, high desert feel, and prolific prairie and art-deco historic architecture. It’s smaller and less busy as you might imagine, but with a clear taste level, apparent on streets like South Peoria Avenue. Depressed former oil boom-cities don’t have boutiques like Aberson’s (The Row, Brunello Cucinelli), Black Optical (Eyevan, Mykita), or the ubiquitous lululemon.
We toured some of the riche areas, including a cruise around Swan Lake, along the Cherry Street corridor, and past the Philbrook Museum, before browsing at Downtown Tulsa’s Boxyard, an open public market made from shipping containers. I bought some überlube and Stephen bought a leather bracelet, both from Landella, a spinoff of a gay-run fine jewelry store called Spexton.
I knew of Tulsa from years past because my friend Kevin Stephens worked on some renovation and redevelopment projects there. He always said it was cool, for a Midwestern city, which is exactly how it felt. A liberal(ish), artsy, cultural gem with a penchant for irony. It felt more western than northern to me, with a hipness that more common to Austin than St. Louis.
We left the scrubby plains of Oklahoma by way of the 75-foot Golden Driller statue, pausing to marvel at it, as the cap to our day in Tulsa.
The lush rolling hills of Northwest Arkansas were our real destination, 90 miles east.
I don’t know what it was, but everything tickled me on this trip. The drive through Siloam Springs (perfect setting for a cliche small-town horror movie), the guided tour of Gentry and Highfill (including the cemetery and swimmin’ hole), where our friend Dustin grew up as a little hillbilly boy, in literally a community of under 100 residents (another apropos setting for a horror flick).
And finally our arrival in Fayetteville, made complete by an elegant crescent moon and fireflies all about, flickering and vanishing.
Have you ever really seen fireflies on a summer night? They’re spectacular.
The city is home to the University of Arkansas, and so it has the vibrancy that many small-medium college towns do, with perpetual construction and expansion projects, cute districts and neighborhoods, and grand historic buildings. Its Florida equivalent is Tallahassee, if only because it is also very hilly and has a massive football stadium.
Fayetteville is the liberal bastion in an otherwise conservative, religious part of the country, as capitals and academic centers so often are. I was shocked to discover that our trip coincided with the city’s gay pride celebration, which was as highly-subscribed as any. It wasn’t a meek LGBTQ… pride, it was emboldened and unapologetic, with glitter and leather chaps aplenty.
At the street fair, Stephen bought me a polished raw garnet from a witchy woman with a tent full of gemstones and crystals. It seemed like the right sort of souvenir.
Just before imbibing, we stopped at The Clinton House Museum, set in the historic home of Bill and Hillary Clinton from when they lived in Fayetteville in the 1970s. All the memorabilia and photos recalled a purer time in political history. The vignette taken as a whole was bittersweet, but I’m so glad we did it.
That night, we sampled the nightlife along Dickson Street, watching crowds of swishing, happy 20-somethings. Our preferred spot was off the main drag, at Maxine’s Taproom, a long and slender red brick building (that felt like Chicago to me), where the cocktails were craft and vibe relaxed.
At The Nines, a true hipster dive, we drank muddled sangria and debated the issues. Dustin is a dean at Hillsborough Community College, his sister Krista works at a Montessori school in Fayetteville, Stephen is an urban planner, Meredith is headed to Yale in the fall for law school, and I’m multifaceted/undecided, and so the discussions were lively and cerebral, witty and sharp.
We had burgers in the cellar at Hugo’s, and brunched at The Farmer’s Table on coconut pancakes and fresh veggie omelets. We ate fried catfish at The Catfish Hole, which was the only time I felt like I was glimpsing the more rural flavor of the area.
We also strolled U of A’s gorgeous campus, which is centered around Old Main, the original classroom and administrative building from the late 19th century, which has been restored several times. It is surrounded by many other newer and historic buildings, and an expansive sloping central lawn. The sidewalks that cross this area are etched with the names of every graduate of the school from every year of its operation, all 147 of them!
I didn’t get a picture of it, but the Inn at Carnall Hall on campus is really beautiful too.
Throughout the weekend, it was so nice to already know the good spots, thanks to our guide and hosts (Dustin and his sister Krista). We didn’t have to labor over many decisions, which I realized is one of the stressful parts of being on a trip in an unfamiliar place without any real word-of-mouth knowledge.
For Meredith, Stephen, and I, visiting for the first time, it was like getting an insiders cheat-sheet. For Dustin, though it was far from his first encounter with the area, his approach was earnest, ardent.
Bentonville / Rogers
Twenty five miles away at the northern edge of Northwest Arkansas, not far from Missouri, we visited Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, which was so impressive and so delightful, I will be writing a separate post about it.
Bentonville is less vibrant than Fayetteville, with a more traditional, corporate, family-centric atmosphere. It’s the global home of Walmart and Walmart’s many suppliers, vendors, and affiliates, so there are lots of jobs, but fewer lively, youthful spots.
We did however have dinner at The Hive, a chic honeycomb-themed restaurant inside 21c, a boutique hotel just down the pedestrian path from Crystal Bridges in Downtown Bentonville, where there is a Walmart museum and a handful of other nice-looking restaurants.
In Rogers (a midsize city between Fayetteville and Bentonville), I made the group stop at an upscale menswear store that I’d read about on MR Magazine.
Hubbard Clothing Co. opened just in April, but already had the vibe of a local institution. We chatted a length with Casey, who gave us a tour and was infinitely more polite than many salespeople in high-end stores. Hubbard stocks the likes Isaia, Canali, and Boglioli (all excellent Italian tailoring brands).
The store is set up like a private club, with a rear lounge area for members and their guests only, with a pool table, private lockers, and a stocked bar. As retail commerce blends itself more with experience and ambiance, shoppers will expect such perks. And at this price point, it makes sense. I particularly liked the bathroom treatment…
The entire subject area of this blog post, between Eastern Oklahoma and Northwest Arkansas, is at a curious crossroads, and hard to define as an outsider. Is it the old South? The Midwest? The West? Equidistant from Mexico and Chicago, just where the states get bigger and the open spaces wider. Kansas City is directly north, Houston is about directly south, Nashville is east, and Santa Fe is a ways the the west.
I had a great time exploring, thanks in equal parts to some visual and cultural surprises, and an engaging group of fellow travelers. It was one of the few times I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be, with the people I was destined to be around.
And who knew there was such taste around these parts? I didn’t.
For more on Tulsa, see my custom map of the city.
Fore more on Northwest Arkansas, see my custom map of the region.