Further to the west, Earle, Arkansas is a place of desolation that makes Crawfordsville look positively thriving by comparison. The signs at Earle’s city limits state that almost 3500 people live there, but the downtown has the look of a true ghost town, with long blocks of long-vacant stores and shops, many crumbling beyond repair. Some are floors and vacant lots, a legacy of a mysterious string of arsons back in the 1990’s. Everywhere one looks in Earle, there is gang graffiti- Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples, Crips and Bloods.
I can’t really imagine how Earle got this bad, although I recall that the town had racial problems in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and union troubles at a local factory in the 1980’s. That had brought Jesse Jackson (and the national news media) to Earle. But now, as desolate as the downtown area looks, the Southside neighborhood below the railroad tracks looks even worse. Old abandoned motels with their doors torn off and open stand beside ramshackle tenements, project apartments, a handful of churches and the occasional store or restaurant. Young people walk in groups down the streets aimlessly in the summer evening, as there are no recreational opportunities in Earle. That might explain the gang graffiti that literally covers nearly any available wall, and not just gang signs and symbols are painted, but nicknames and streetnames, as if kids were yelling “Look at me! Pay attention to people like us trapped in these forgotten towns.” A woman driving an SUV on Second Street noticed me as I was taking photos of downtown and yelled “Take a picture of me,too!” Around the corner from where I saw her, someone had sprayed graffiti on the wall of a church that read “Holy City”, which wasn’t the name of the church. but I though to myself, there is no way they could have meant Earle, Arkansas.
I took a vacation day from work, and headed out I-40 into Arkansas on a very hot day indeed. I had decided to drive up to Greer’s Ferry Lake and check out Fairfield Bay, but I wanted to stop off in Little Rock at Arkansas Record Exchange and browse for some new music. Amongst the 45 singles, I found a copy of the Adolph and the Entertainers “Old Folks Shuffle” on the Alarm label out of Shreveport, a record that I had been looking for for some time. Then I headed on to Conway, where I stopped at the Marketplace Grill and enjoyed a late lunch. It was about 3:30 PM when I left Conway, heading north on Highway 65, which was an endless string of flea markets and antique malls. I would have liked to have stopped at all of them, but the day was rapidly getting away from me, so I only stopped at one that featured a big sign announcing “RECORDS”. They did indeed have records, although nothing much that I cared to purchase, so I continued north into Clinton, and from there headed east toward Shirley and Fairfield Bay. The terrain was more mountainous than I had expected, and the road made quite a few twists and turns before I came to the main entrance of Fairfield Bay. When I was young, Fairfield Bay had been a new resort development, always offering people from Memphis a free vacation if they would agree to take a one-hour tour/seminar about purchasing real estate, condominiums or timeshares. I always wanted us to do it, and my parents never wanted to, so I was surprised to see the rather desolate look of the place as I entered it on Dave Creek Parkway. In the intervening years, Fairfield Bay had changed from a development to an incorporated town, with a mayor and local government, but the first thing I noticed was miles of streets that were little more than gravel tracks leading deep into the woods, with no sign of habitation whatsoever. I had seen on billboards that Wyndham Hotels had taken over the rental management of the resort facilities, but the first thing I saw was an assisted living home, and then gradually I came to the Village Mall, which was supposed to be the business center of town. But here too, an air of tired desolation prevailed, for the Village Mall was almost totally vacant, and the Conference Center across the street had clearly been abandoned, with grass growing through numerous cracks in its empty parking lot pavement. There was a rental office in the area with cars out front, and I had seen a couple of open convenience stores, but back on Dave Creek Parkway were two abandoned restaurants, one of them a Pizza Hut with a “For Sale” sign out in front. Fairfield Bay was beginning to look like a venture that had obviously failed. As I headed further south toward the lake, I noticed a community park with miniature golf, and a farmer’s market, and there were people around there, but the wholse community had an eery, empty feel. I followed a sign off the main road toward the Bay View Club, which was in a beautiful, Old-English-style lodge, with a large, crowded swimming pool behind it. The club was primarily a restaurant, but restricted to members and guests, and I could not determine whether memberships were sold at the door, as they are at so many Arkansas establishments. At the road’s dead end, there was a beautiful vista of the lake and mountains to the south, but it was too obstructed by houses for me to photograph. Heading back to the main road and further south, there were more houses (almost neighborhoods, finally), and I kept heading toward the lakefront, following signs for Hampton Cove Marina. The roads were quite hilly even inside the community, and there were some beautiful lake views, but no public overlook, so I was unable to photograph anything, since I would have had to walk on private property. At Hampton Cove, there was another swimming pool, and it too was crowded with kids and parents, but there was also a walking trail down to the lake, but I soon found that much of it was under water due to abnormally high lake levels. I took some pictures there, and then headed back west toward the main marina area, but there, once again, lake levels had wreaked havoc, and roads were closed. I walked out to the marina store, and took pictures from there, noticing Sugarloaf Mountain coming up out of the lake to the southeast. There had been a snack bar at the marina, but a sign said it was closed due to high water. The beach area nearby was also underwater, but people were still swimming at the places where roads dropped off into the lake, and at that point I took some of the best pictures of the lake. It was getting late, however, and the sun was disappearing behind some clouds, so I headed up Highway 330 looking for a restaurant called the Back In The Day Cafe, but when I found it, it was closed and for sale. I decided to head on around the lake, wondering what economic holocaust had hit Fairfield Bay so hard. Summer should have been the busy season there. At the village of Edgemont, the road came close to the lake, and I came upon a restaurant called Jannsen’s Lakefront Restaurant, where a large crowd was milling around outside. I expected quite a wait, but I was taking a sort of one-day vacation, and was in no hurry, so I stopped there and put my name in for a table. The crowd of waiting people had spilled over into some formal gardens behind what seemed to be a motel or some apartment buildings. There had once been steps down to the lake, but high water earlier in the year had destroyed them. Nearby was a boatdock, where a pontoon boat had pulled up to the shore, and some kids were having a lot of fun in a mudbog nearby, although their parents weren’t too happy about it. I walked down to an old bridge in the woods that must have once been part of the main road, and took some photographs there, but my table was soon ready. I ordered a dinner of pacific rockfish, which was excellent, although I was tempted by the steak offerings on the menu. While waiting for my table, I had seen the homemade chocolate mousse pie, so I tried that as well, and was very pleased. Afterwards, with the sun setting on the lake, I parked at a gravel road on the other side of the bridge, and walked out on the bridge to take photographs. Then I headed out toward Batesville, heading back to Memphis. When I came to Concord, I remembered reading about an old pressing plant there, so I stopped at a gas station and asked the girl there if she knew anything about an old record pressing plant, or where it had been. She was young, but she did know about it, and told me that I had already passed the building down the road, but that the record in it had been given to a museum. Batesville was a beautiful town, lit up in a dark valley and visible for several miles, and from there I passed through Newport, which was a steamy, dark river town with nearly nobody on the streets. When I got to Memphis, it was about 11 PM, and I headed straight to the house.