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2016 Best of Arkansas editors' picks 

A few of our favorite things.

click to enlarge DAMSITE BEST: A painted bunting.
  • DAMSITE BEST: A painted bunting.

Best city wildlife drive

Thibault Road, named for the family that farmed in the area in the 19th century, and Frazier Pike, which Thibault turns into south of Welspun Pipes in East Little Rock, pass through pecan groves and wet fields en route to the David D. Terry Lock and Dam West Recreation Area. Except for little wooded areas here and there, the route looks uninteresting to those who barrel down it en route to somewhere else. But the road itself is a destination, and if you creep along it you will, yes, irritate the drivers behind you, but you'll also see all manner of wildlife, changing with the seasons. In spring, look to the south when Thibault makes a 90-degree turn just before it hooks up with Frazier Pike; if the fields are wet you can see long-legged wading birds and their squatter cousins probing the mud for a meal. If the fields are dry, you'll see grassland birds. In winter, in a lone tree on your left just past the 90-degree turn is the Merlin tree, so-called because a merlin, a kind of falcon you don't see much around here, returns to the tree every year to hunt from a perch there. Sometimes you'll see an enormous snake or two in the roadside ditches; this may or may not appeal, but since you can see them from the car, enjoy! As you continue due south on Frazier Pike you'll see all sorts of birds on the wires or flying over the fields, dickcissels and scissor-tailed flycatchers in spring, marsh hawks in winter. Then turn left onto Damsite Road to see llamas and donkeys and cattle grazing in the field on your left. Sometimes, youngster cattle will gambol up to the fence to see you. Frankly, I can't get enough of donkeys. In spring, Damsite Road is a rest stop plus multistory housing project for innumerable species of birds. Orioles build their pendulous nests here while burbling their musical songs; red-headed woodpeckers dart in pairs; thrushes lurk along the forest floor; grosbeaks, their breasts splashed crimson as if pierced by an arrow, pass through; and vireos are everywhere, as is the way of vireos. From the parking lot at the end of Damsite Road you can see and hear the roaring river churn from beneath the dam, feeding gulls in winter; terns in spring. On the wooded side of the drive is the piece de la resistance, the painted bunting (spring and summer), our astonishing parti-colored perching visitor. If you're lucky, a male will be singing from atop a snag just across from the parking lot. South of the dam, back on Frazier Pike, a winter drive's may be rewarded with sandhill cranes, who like to flock in the same place every year, way off in the distance, which means you'll need to bring a scope, which means the cars will just have to pass you. Forget the gestures; just smile. There is signage on the road that indicates it is a bike trail, but bikers face even greater threats to personal safety than birders. LNP

click to enlarge SALLUSTRATION: Sally Nixon makes the mundane droll.
  • SALLUSTRATION: Sally Nixon makes the mundane droll.

Best person to follow on the internet

Little Rock's Sally Nixon illustrates scenes of mundanity in vivid colors. Mostly of women, who are mostly doing unremarkable things they do when no one else is watching: putting on socks, eating toast, brushing teeth in the shower, napping on the dog. They're unposed, usually unsmiling, and typically offset by brilliantly patterned wallpaper or an upholstered chair. Until recently, Nixon was doing an illustration a day for a year (see them all at sallustration.tumblr.com). Though that's finished, she remains incredibly prolific. She's most active on Instagram (@sallustration), where she also posts pics of freelance work she's done (she illustrated the cover of the Arkansas Times last month and recently did an illustration for Lenny Letter and designed a tote bag in collaboration with Lenny and Fab.com). Be sure and check out sallynixon.com and buy stuff on her Etsy page, too. LM

Best use of offal

According to my email records, Hillcrest Artisan Meats began offering the braised beef cheek sandwich somewhere around September 2012. Perhaps the fact that the sandwich warranted mention in an email is telling enough, but more importantly, that was probably not an isolated case. In the course of its infrequent appearances on the butcher shop's menu over the last several years, the sandwich has become the early bird's worm, a chief incentive to click the "like" button on H.A.M.'s Facebook page for the daily specials, and an example of good technique; it's much easier to make a marvelous sandwich, after all, when you start out with something other than bovine facial muscle. Perfecting the unsung heroes of a cow's body takes some effort, and a more pretentious joint, having gone to all the trouble of coaxing a rich velvety quality out of the often-neglected cut, might serve the cheeks stacked high in a vertical tower on an enormous and mostly-empty platter, layered between things like microgreens or parsnip mousseline. The Kavanaugh crew smooshes it unceremoniously between two halves of a baguette with some Gruyere and caramelized onions and probably some other ingredients that elude memory because Arkansas summers are apparently a time when rational people forgo beef cheeks for things like heirloom tomatoes and brick-pressed fig and Brie. When I, like so many before me, asked H.A.M.'s owner Brandon Brown about the beef cheeks' return, he said he "almost ordered some this week," and assured us the treasured sandwich will be back on the menu semi-regularly "when it's not a thousand degrees." SS

Best interstellar open invitation

About once a month — sometimes more, sometimes less — anyone with vehicle access and at least one functional eyeball can peer through the telescopes of the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society during one of its public star parties. Comprised of local amateur astronomers generous enough to allow the masses to press greasy faces to their well-polished eyepieces, CAAS is the best sort of club: the kind that shares its toys with everybody else.

Star parties are most often held at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, occasionally at Woolly Hollow State Park in Greenbrier or elsewhere. It's true that the night skies over Pinnacle may grow a little muddier every year as Little Rock's sprawl continues its westward seep, but they're still dark enough for you to see, depending on the hour and the date, Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, globular clusters, spiral galaxies and any number of other wondrous objects out there in the unimaginable deep. Whenever there's a high-profile astronomical occurrence to be observed (last fall's "super blood moon," for example), the CAAS telescopes train their lenses on it as well, and the public is invited.

The next star party at Pinnacle will be 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20. For more details, or for future dates and times, visit caasastro.org. BH

Best herb

No, not that kind, you hippies. I'm talking about elder, 2013 international herb of the year (yes, there are folks who organize such a thing), which happens to grow with vigor in these parts, especially, I'm told, in ditches by roads on the east side of the state. It looks like Queen Anne's Lace, but bigger, lumpier, with purple stems, each head eventually producing hundreds of berries about the size of mini M&Ms. My mother, a pharmacist by trade gone over to the dark side (i.e. unregulated, naturally occurring herbals), keeps a few elderberry bushes along the edge of her garden, and every fall at family gatherings conscripts us into berry-harvesting regiments around the supper table, which, let me tell you, is meticulous work, as the stems contain cyanide. The fruits of our labor she soaks for a few weeks in jars of pure grain alcohol, resulting in the vilest elixir I know short of Jagermeister. Don't let her hear you complain of a sniffle or a raw throat, or you'll get a shot of elderberry tincture quicker than you can utter the words "Z-pack." It's powerful antiviral stuff, capable of stopping a measly flu in its tracks and completely annihilating the common cold or any rogue bands of marauders that might be about. If you can force it down, it does wonders for a head filling up with gunk. Buy it at natural food stores in tincture or capsule form. It also comes in sweeter guises: The berries themselves are pretty tasty, even better as jam or pie, and the flowers can be used to make syrups and liqueurs (St. Germain, anyone?). I was skeptical at first, but elder is my go-to now when I find my immune system in need of reinforcement. MB

Best leather

The current fascination with the handmade and the handcrafted has its roots in a lot of things, but it's probably mostly about Walmartization, the manufacture of consumer goods — even supposedly "luxury" consumer goods — stamped out in mass quantities, often with not much more personality than the presses that make them. While some might dismiss the Etsy ethos as a millennial thing, it's really a kind of rebellion against a disposable, impersonal world. If you want to get into life as a craftsperson, a good place to start is the Little Rock outlet of Tandy Leather, underneath Professor Bowl just off Rodney Parham. They've got leather out the wazoo, along with enough tools, dye, finishes, rivets, stamps, adornments and cutters to beautiful the hides of a thousand former cows. Manager Brian Deputy is a font of enthusiasm and knowledge about the subject, and never fails to have a suggestion or two if you're stumped. Too, it's the best smelling place in the known universe. DK

Best legal off-leash dog walk

Honestly, I get tired of walking my dog: the straining, the wheezing, the simple small annoyance of clutching a leash. But let her off her lead for one second, and the next thing I know she's blocking traffic or nibbling on a neighbor child or indulging her bottomless online gambling addiction. Until the day arrives when cybernetics render her a mindless automaton programmed to goose-step her own way around the block, the best means I have of taking my dog on off-leash walks is the section of the Ouachita Trail just west of town.

The trail winds its 223-mile way across the western half of Arkansas clear to Oklahoma, but it reaches its eastern terminus at Pinnacle Mountain State Park. In Roland, there's a trailhead that picks up near Lake Maumelle and traverses the north shore of the lake. This is a great spot for walking or running with a dog — but (cue stern voice) if and only if it's a well-behaved sort of creature. The U.S. Forest Service's website urges pet owners to keep their dogs "under verbal or physical restraint at all times" on the trail, which means "if your dog doesn't come when called and play nice, keep it tethered firmly to your person." Nobody wants a swarm of invasive pugs infesting the Lake Maumelle watershed, so please don't bring your dog off-leash to the Ouachita Trail unless you're sure you can bring it out again, too. BH

Best state agency social media presence

Arkansas Grown is the state Agriculture Department's initiative to promote produce that's — you're not going to believe this — grown in Arkansas. Small growers can connect with potential buyers, and consumers can find exactly what they're interested in, from rutabagas to raspberries. There's a website, but I think the better resource is the Arkansas Grown Facebook page (which, full disclosure, is managed by a friend; also, our sister publication, Arkansas Food & Farm has a parternship with the program). It provides a steady stream of local food miscellanea from around the state: seasonal recipes and goat milking workshops, small-town farmers markets and updates on what produce is in season where. BH

Best shoe repair

Even in this age when every new shoe in the world is available 24/7/365 — many of them on the cheap — sometimes only the old faithful shoe will do. The problem is by the time you get your favorite clodhoppers broken in, the soles are worn out, or the heel is coming off, or they're covered in nasty scuffs. Rather than add to the overflowing landfills, however, be good to some old friends and walk on down to Cobblestone Quality Shoe Repair at 800 Reservoir Road in Little Rock. A few months back, the missus had a pair of suede boots she loved but were coming apart at one sole. After a few days of stewing on whether she should toss 'em and restart her eternal search for The Right Boots, she took them in to Cobblestone. Less than 48 hours later, they'd been returned to her, fixed up good as new, and for a small fraction of what a new pair would have cost her. She's a regular customer now. If you care about your footwear, you should be, too. DK

click to enlarge cover_story2-3-3db9fff3e4e23a41.jpg

Best place to watch a meteor shower

The last time the Swift-Tuttle Comet passed by Earth was in the early '90s, sometime during the radio reign of Boyz II Men's "End of the Road," and it sprayed its trail of sloppy astral litter into the atmosphere so vigorously that Earth passes into the path of its leftovers every year. Our atmosphere causes them to heat up and disintegrate and, aside from a handful of panicky predictions of eminent galactic traffic collisions, we reap the visual benefits. Loon Point Park on Lake Maumelle's Farkleberry Trail is a prime spot to view the momentary majesty of such a meteor shower and, although a wiser stargazer might keep that information to herself, I'd never have found it anyway were it not for a tip from a friend, so consider this karmic upkeep. The 0.13-mile trail is little more than a picnic spot with a loop curving out to Lake Maumelle and back to the ample parking lot along Highway 10, but there's plenty of coastline on which to lay a sleeping bag and chill out while your eyes adjust to the darkness enough to behold showers like The Perseids, which gave a stunning showing last August. The Perseids have since been meddled with by Jupiter's gravity, causing them to clump together in prime position for an "outburst" in a couple of weeks (Aug. 12-13), during which they will streak through the sky at double the rate they did last year, according to the American Meteor Society. Moonset is at 1:20 a.m. on Aug. 12, and at 2:03 a.m. on Aug. 13, after which the showers will be in full effect. Trek on out, give your eyes about 30 minutes to adjust, put some "Cooleyhighharmony" on the playlist for old Swift-Tuttle's sake, lie back and watch the show. SS

Best place to hear new 'classical' music for free

In January, I heard a live performance of composer Sydney Hickok's "Hey," a short a cappella piece for three women's voices. Hickok described the piece's goal beforehand: to evoke the feeling one experiences when she runs into someone she knows, likes and hasn't seen in a while. The lyrics — the word "hey" repeated over and over to a catchy rhythm — evoked just that, and provided a prime example of how effective a song can be when it keeps a tight focus. The piece was part of a program put on by the Conway Composers Guild, and it ranged widely in scope and in instrumentation: Jorrell Bonner's pop-inspired songs for cello and violin, the premiere of Karen Griebling's sublime "Dialogues d'amour et de la mort," a sprawling aquatic piece on fretless electric bass from Michael Yoder, a fiercely difficult oboe trio from Paul Dickinson called "DDG" (Duck, Duck, Goose) inspired in part by that instrument's tendency to "quack," and Ryan Key's McBeth Memorial Competition award-winning trio for euphonium, tuba and piano. While we've got plenty going for us in the way of formal symphony concerts in our part of the state, the Guild is carving out a decidedly casual space for Central Arkansas's composers at all levels to share their work in performance; they're letting the audience into the laboratory. If you're a fan of instrumental or choral music, especially when it's hot off the presses, check the Guild concerts out when you can. The next installment features local composers and guest composers Mei Han and Randy Raine Reusch, and takes place at 3 p.m. Sept. 25 at First United Methodist Church in Conway, at the corner of Prince and Clifton streets. Admission is free, but they will gladly accept your donation. SS


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