Got another road trip tale for you.
As we do every other year, my family spent Christmas on Bess’ parents’ farm in northwest Tennessee, a stone’s throw from the mighty Mississippi as well as the borders of Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois.
More precisely, it’s near Newbern, Tenn. (You know something’s out in the boondocks when it’s near Newbern, Tenn.)
Anyway, we arrived Dec. 23 and planned to have a good visit but not break The Rule.
You know The Rule, right? It limits the amount of days you can reasonably stay with extended family and still maintain a peaceful relationship, provided you don’t mention religion, politics or children who haven’t been conceived yet.
For some people it’s The 3-Day Rule, and for other people – some of them named Bess – it’s The 5-Day Rule.
I proposed we split the difference and do four days. This would mean we’d leave the day after Christmas, which would allow us to drive to Shreveport, La., eat authentic Cajun food and watch Vanderbilt play in the Camping World Independence Bowl.
My entire family revolted. Bess, of course, wanted to spend another day with her parents and siblings, and my four children wanted to spend another day with their grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins.
But they all loved the idea of attending a college football bowl game, provided it was the Liberty Bowl, which featured the TCU Horned Frogs against the Georgia Bulldogs, of which my two oldest children now count themselves members.
But the Liberty Bowl was Dec. 30 and, in compliance with the maximum allowance of days under The Rule, we’d be leaving Bess’ family farm on Dec. 27. That left us three days to kill before the football game in Memphis, which was less than two hours away.
So the morning of Dec. 27, my family piled into the mini-van and drove over the big river, took a brief jaunt through Missouri, including Sheryl Crow’s hometown of Kinnett and another town called Braggodocio, and then headed across Arkansas on various two-lane highways.
In the hills of northern Arkansas, one of my children said, “This would be a great place to live if you were a fugitive from justice.”
That, plus the fact that most of us have read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the Flannery O’Connor short story about a family road trip and a pathological murderer named The Misfit, made our six-mile detour up a steep gravel road a bit creepy.
But we enjoyed the second most popular hike in Arkansas, including a picnic lunch on Hawksbill Crag, a giant rock outcropping that looks like a hawk’s bill. (The people who name hikes aren’t big on punctuation.)
Then we headed to Bentonville, Ark., home of Sam Walton, Walmart headquarters and the shiniest and happiest Walmart stores on earth.
We went to the Walmart Museum and saw Walton’s old Ford pickup, complete with shotgun on the seat, and an exact replica of Walton’s office, complete with shotgun in the corner. Oh, and letters containing the only three complaints ever lodged against Walmart. (My favorite: The fishing pole I bought didn’t catch any fish.)
My oldest son observed: “This is what Bedford Falls would be like if George Bailey had never been born.”
Our main reason for visiting Bentonville was Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a truly impressive collection of art from Colonial period to modern times, amassed by Walton’s daughter Alice.
Notable works include the iconic oil portraits of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, as well as paintings by U.S. artists from Norman Rockwell to Mark Rothko.
There’s also a Frank Lloyd Wright house disassembled brick by brick and beam by beam in New Jersey and rebuilt on the museum site. If you’re in the area, I’d highly recommend it. Everything’s free, but go online several days in advance to reserve your place on a Wright house tour.
A hidden gem in Bentonville is the Museum of Native American History, which boasts an awesome collection of arrowheads and peace pipes, as well as a cool calendar with drawings featuring highlights from the past year. For example, in 1835, “Lame-Deer shot a Crow Indian, drew out the arrow, and shot him again with the arrow.”
Crystal Bridges doesn’t open until 11 a.m., so if you’ve spent the night in Bentonville, you can swing by the native American museum, which opens at 9 a.m.
On Dec. 29, we drove back to Tennessee, stopping to hike 4-mile Seven Hollows Trail, the most popular hike in Arkansas and featuring a natural rock bridge and a grotto with waterfall. The day was chilly and sunny, perfect for hiking.
We spent the night in Memphis with Bess’ brother and his family, who took us to the sixth largest pyramid in the world. The former home of the Memphis Grizzlies, it’s now the world’s largest Bass Pro Shop, complete with a bayou filled with fish, ducks and alligators, a 32-story elevator, and a hotel with balconies where you can sit and watch people buy everything from fishing lures to $100,000 shot guns.
The next morning, we ate donuts from Gibson’s. In my humble opinion, the buttermilk drop donuts were the best. Then we headed for the Liberty Bowl, where the Bulldogs beat the Horned Frogs in a spirited contest. It was a beautiful day, cold and bright, and it seemed even brighter because our team won.
On the way home, one of the kids pointed out that this was our fourth bowl game (we’ve rooted for Vandy in two Music City Bowls and a Birmingham Bowl) and we’ve never lost.
Really, the whole trip was a victory. Instead of the usual 950-mile round trip to a Tennessee Christmas, this year we doubled our miles, saw some neat stuff and spent quality time together.
Until next time!