Loud Pipes

_C1_0468This past week at work I got a chance to do the sort of work I usually put on this blog: My editor sent me out to the Bikes, Blues & BBQ motorcycle festival for a couple of days with my camera to wander around and find what I could find.

The organizers of this relatively family-friendly biker rally say between 300,000 and 400,000 people from here and across the country take part — there’s some skeptical rumbles around here about that number, but even if it’s half that big, the potential frames out there were countless.





_C1_0568The rally, which ran from Wednesday through yesterday, had events and venues throughout Fayetteville and Springdale, but Fayetteville’s Dickson Street is still the rally’s heart in my mind. No other place has the constant parade of choppers, touring bikes, sport bikes, trikes and other odd vehicles, and at no other place do those motorcycles line the sides of the street for six blocks solid.





_C1_0791I managed to get outside of the Dickson area on a couple of occasions, first heading to the “motorcycle village” at Fayetteville’s Baum Baseball Stadium. On the train there a woman with a pink-sequined headband and big winged glasses flagged me down. “Are you a reporter?” she asked with a laugh. “Come here and listen to our story.”

Her name was Debi, and she, her husband and two high-school friends had ridden over from Tulsa. Debi had come to the rally for 15 or so of its 16 years. One of those friends was going to test-drive a Harley at the stadium and they seemed a lively bunch, so I just tagged along with them for a while.


_C1_0741The four are a perfect example of the rally’s primary demographic: They have kids in college or older and jobs in sales and a hair salon and embroidery, but they love to ride. “You have the wind behind you — I think of nothing else,” Debi told me. On a bike you can actually smell the orange groves in Florida or the fields in the Midwest, she said. “I seriously feel like I have wings and I’m flying.”

They were good company and very patient with the reporter hovering around them, though they were jokingly dismayed to hear I’ve never been on a motorcycle before.

_C1_0710Later I went off to the county fairgrounds for a barbecue competition. It’s hard to walk past thousands of pounds of juicy, sauce-covered meat around dinner time and not be able to eat it because you’re on the job. One of the cookers did pass me a delicious sliver of a whole cooked hog. The rest of it looked mouthwatering.




_C1_1006I headed back to Dickson for the last day; they had a “parade of power” going on in the afternoon that I wanted to see, a procession of thousands of motorcycles end to end. This rally is intensely sensory, and on no day more than the last. Harleys roared past with their signature, visceral and deafening rumble; sport bikes screeched; steel glinted from every pipe and handlebar; cigarette smoke and the smell of fried food drifted on the air.



_C1_1216The rally gets two main complaints around here: the traffic — the entire corner of the state can get clogged up — and the noise. Tens of thousands of motorcycles are extremely loud. At some moments Dickson Street was unbearable, and when noise hurts your ears, it’s damaging your hearing.

Speaking of, I saw a patch on someone’s vest saying “Loud Pipes Save Lives.” The point’s well-taken; Debi and her companions said they’d lost dozens of friends over the years in traffic accidents because car drivers simply didn’t see them, and one bike on a highway, even a Harley, is quiet when compared to a thousand a few feet away. I still plugged my ears every now and then, and I wasn’t alone.




_C1_1397I’ll end with some more peaceful shots from around town in the meantime:



_C1_1007Thanks for lookin’. Take a look at that lunar eclipse tonight if you get the chance.


The Big Easy

IMG_9894By the time the ambulance arrived, the French Quarter intersection was completely clogged with revelers drinking and goofily dancing to the earsplitting jazz band playing on one corner. The police SUV with flashing lights got there first, but the officers were calm, hardly seeming to notice the party around them. Then the bus arrived, covered in black paint and inexplicably filled on a Saturday night with school kids who thumped the windows with the music.



IMG_9954The ambulance medics wound through the crowd and brought back a man who had his eyes closed, but they too seemed weirdly relaxed about being there. A small flock of cameraman with neon-green, “TV DOCUMENTARY”-emblazoned vests tailed them. Normal traffic was forgotten at this point, hopelessly stuck outside of this bizarre tangle. Still the tuba and trombones and trumpets blasted their energetic tunes from the corner, drowning out everything but a shout, and the people danced and drank.

I hope the guy on the ambulance ended up OK, but I couldn’t help but laugh at this crazy place. Only in New Orleans.


IMG_9961New Orleans is a city built and fed by music, story and water. The French founded it three centuries ago to be a port for a continent, overlooking a river that drains half of the present-day U.S. The city’s grid of streets warps and turns with the Mississippi’s curves. Wetlands of cypress cloaked in Spanish moss surround the city, and, of course, the Gulf of Mexico looms to the south, bringing a bounty of seafood and a long history with hurricanes.

Hurricane Katrina barreled through here 10 years ago, flooding most of the city, fixing a blazing spotlight on its poverty and inflicting a wound that still hasn’t fully healed. I often wonder whether people should really live here. Much of the metro area sits below sea level, and rising seas and more hurricanes are on the way. Still, though my mom’s family is originally from this place, I’m an outsider, and it isn’t up to me. And like the Southern live oaks whose strong, undulating arms reach over much of the city, New Orleans’ roots go deep.




IMG_9992The entire city began with a small grid of streets and short buildings about five blocks wide and 10 blocks long: the French Quarter. The city is old, and here at the city’s heart, it stays old: It’s easy to imagine horses and carriages going down the narrow streets and soldiers from the War of 1812 drinking on the balconies of ornately curled wrought iron. The Quarter is home to Bourbon Street, the French Market and other well-known spots, and it was the first stop for my mom, Ryan (whom you might remember from the Great Sand Dunes) and me.









IMG_0163The weather was fantastic, in the 70s with low humidity, so we wandered down to the river and the nearby Audobon Aquarium of the Americas. It’s a pretty part of town. Near downtown and the tourist-heavy Quarter, it’s hard to tell Katrina ever came.







IMG_0088The aquarium shares its namesake with Audobon Park, a grove of those huge Southern oaks upriver. It was evening when we got there; I was on the hunt for a particularly massive oak I saw the first time I came here, but the light faded too fast this evening. We would have to come back the next morning to find the prize.





IMG_0236Here it is:

IMG_0302This lopsided giant is called the Etienne de Boré tree, after the first New Orleans mayor, who worked in that post before Louisiana was part of the U.S. and whose land included the present-day park. People also call it the Tree of Life, which is a little goofy. A little sign next to the tree says it sprouted sometime around 1740, making it almost as old as the city itself, and it’s huge, with knotted roots roiling the ground in a 50-foot span and branches so large and heavy they run along the lawn’s surface.

IMG_0271I say this about a lot of trees, but I love these oaks, and this one is just incredibly beautiful. The main limbs support growths of other plants such as the resurrection fern, named for its ability to come back to life after the harshest droughts. The neighborhoods near the park are also historic and worth exploring.





IMG_0326(For any “American Horror Story” fans, this is the house featured in the show’s third season.)

The next day started with some wandering around downtown before heading over to Louis Armstrong Park.






IMG_0359These interlocking bricks in the park mark the location of Congo Square, where enslaved and free black people on Sundays in the 1700s and 1800s would dance, play music, sell goods and generally keep alive traditions from their homelands. Those traditions eventually fed into jazz and hip-hop, and the area is still culturally significant to the nearby neighborhoods.

Another tradition tied to west Africa (and heavily promoted in New Orleans) is voodoo, a wildly misunderstood and caricatured system of beliefs and folklore that tells of spirits of the natural world and a single Creator god. I’m no voodoo expert, but I’ve read enough about it to know the popular image of it isn’t right. I bring voodoo up because it’s a big part of the allure of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the city’s oldest city of the dead, where they say Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of 19th-century New Orleans, is entombed. We headed there next.



Family members are often ensconced one on top of another in this walled maze of tombs and markers. The primarily Catholic cemetery has such a history of vandalism and surprise mugging that you can get in now only with a registered tour guide or a relative interred inside. Security cameras keep constant watch, and marking the graves isn’t tolerated.

A tomb near the front has a little bronze plaque claiming it’s the “reputed” resting place of Marie Laveau. She could be there, but our guide, a fellow named Nate Scott, said he knew better. The plaque is a ruse, a diversion to keep people who want the Queen’s blessing off her trail, he said. He instead led us to what he claimed is the real one, an unlabeled, crumbling monolith covered with trios of X’s scrawled in pencil and ink – visitors’ pleas for the deceased’s help. I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of the tomb to share; it doesn’t make much sense, but given its condition, I just wanted to give the thing a rest.



IMG_0380St. Louis No. 1 is an emblem of the city’s fog of myth and mystery. It holds several notable people, including Homer Plessy of the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that upheld “separate but equal,” as well as the mayor whose name is attached to that mighty oak in Audobon Park. But many of the graves have lost their markers, meaning their occupants’ identities might be lost forever.

Marie Laveau, meanwhile, could be in two different tombs, or in neither, for all I know – it seems best to be skeptical even of a registered guide’s word. She could have been a famous voodoo practitioner, but even then, her power or influence, like voodoo itself, probably was nothing like many people imagine. Our guide said Marie Laveau was mainly a healer and hairdresser whose reputation grew and grew into myth. It seems fairly plausible – every Marie Laveau biography I find is different, and the unknowns are fertile ground for legend.

Even the practice of entombing people above ground is clouded by untruths. Most people would tell you it’s because of the city’s high water table, but it actually has its roots in Catholic and European tradition. I’ll just say this: Bring lots of grains of salt if you visit this city.



To wrap up the day, we took the streetcars to City Park, which includes the city’s art museum and a pretty impressive sculpture garden. It was the last stop in our tourist-ing.



IMG_0444(“Una Battaglia” [“A Battle”] by Arnaldo Pomodoro)

IMG_0450(“Karma” by Do Ho Suh)

IMG_0457The next morning, we set off on the 10-hour drive back to Fayetteville. We went straight through the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta area. Flat fields of cotton, soybean and corn stretched to the horizon, criss-crossed by abrupt slivers of swamp. It’s not really a delta, but it has its beauty, especially with gems like the tiny town of Transylvania, Louisiana, and a creepily abandoned elementary school. Farmers were out tilling and burning in the fields throughout the day, making the sky hazy as dust devils twirled across empty stretches of farmland.




IMG_0469It was a good trip. Thanks for looking and reading! This was a long one, and I hope it was worth your while.


Fairs and Elephants

Nothing can deliver nostalgia quite like a county fair — other than the clothes and the cars, they probably look just the same today as they did decades ago in the days of The Sandlot and A Long Way from Chicago. It’s good, pricey, old-fashioned fun, with the added benefit of being a reliable photo-taking ground.










_C1_0304It was an old-fashioned holiday weekend for me, starting with the Washington County Fair, then continuing up in Missouri with some of the most old-fashioned fun there is: exploring a pair of state parks with the family.

First was Elephant Rocks State Park, sitting about 80 miles south of St. Louis and named for its very own herd of massive, rounded granite boulders and hills nestled within the Missouri forest.



IMG_9731These behemoths look like they could have tumbled in from elsewhere, but it turns out rain and wind carved them in place over millennia. The boulders are very big – one of the biggest weighs in near 700 tons, or about the same as a hundred actual elephants – and very old. Granite forms when magma cools underground, and this magma did its cooling about 1.5 billion years ago, perhaps before life had even ventured outside of the Earth’s oceans.

The rocks are also fun to climb.







Nearby sits Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, a stretch of the Black River that winds through outcroppings of tough rhyolite rock that’s around the same age as the elephant granite, worn smooth as carved marble to form a really beautiful maze of little water slides and wading pools.



IMG_9820Rhyolite forms from molten rock, too – it’s the same stuff as granite, but it cooled above ground and quickly instead of below and slowly, giving it that smooth texture. Missouri was active and full of lava back in the day, apparently.

An upstream reservoir ruptured in 2005, flooding the park, but its shut-ins seem unharmed, and the human-made buildings have been rebuilt better than ever. (No one was killed.) I love this place. I could wander between its rocks for hours. Watch your step, though, if you ever go; getting around the smooth rock takes a fair share of scooting and pulling.



IMG_9859Thanks for looking!


The Goatherder

_C1_8812I’ve been sitting on these photos for a while: This is Ella Kraft, a 10-year-old 4-Her and goat raiser in Fayetteville, feeding one of her animals as she prepared for this year’s Washington County Fair. Her grandmother, Wendy Walker, reached out to us at the newspaper back in June, saying one of Ella’s goats had just given birth to quadruplets, a remarkable feat among goat-kind.

I headed out to Walker’s house shortly after that with a notebook and a camera to see what raising goats is about. As I wrote in a story in Monday’s paper, Ella was caring but all business:

“They kind of grow on you,” Ella said with understatement one June afternoon as she tended to a small flock of bleating goats at her grandmother’s barn east of Fayetteville. She hugged and kissed the animals on their foreheads while feeding the little ones from a bottle as they wagged stubby tails and climbed over each other. Ella looked over the group with the cool and appraising air of one used to the commotion.




_C1_8823Devoting the time to raise and show animals as a kid these days seems more remarkable each year, even for someone as grounded as Ella. She’s one of thousands of people descending on the fairgrounds this week for the fair, which started today. Good luck, everybody!

Thanks for looking,