A venture to this state park is on the must-do list for many, the park being the only spot in North America where you can dig for diamonds and other gemstones and keep your finds.
The Observer made a trip to Washington, Ark., a couple of weekends ago, the closest thing to Williamsburg that you'll find in Arkansas. The Confederate capital, now a state park, has restored and imported from nearby several houses from the early 19th century so that now the park is beginning to resemble the town it once was. The state's largest magnolia tree (planted in 1839) is there; it has spread its limbs so far into the road that runs by it that the road's been closed. Trees need preserving too. The horse-drawn buggies that now give the tourists rides can pass by, but not cars. You can park nearby, though, and walk over to stand under this champion.
It's Washington, we're told, not Old Washington. But we'll always call it Old Washington because of our halcyon days there in the 1980s with the amateur archeological crews that dug in back yards of the extant historic homes looking for where the kitchens and wells and privies once stood. The pace of the town mimics the 1800s and delivers instant relaxation. The food at the quaint Tavern is approximately 1,000 times better than you'll find at any other state park eatery. There's a courthouse and a WPA-era gym and a forge and the Bowie knife and the oldest Methodist church in Arkansas. Service starts at 9 a.m. on Sunday. If you get there early, you can ring the bell to summon the faithful.
We got to stay in an 1840s cabin owned by one of those bell-ringing, history-loving Washingtoners. The cabin was hauled to his farm from a place called Blue Bayou near Lockesburg. We ate by candlelight. We drank coffee from old transfer print china. We studied the pasture, with its baaing sheep and bleating goats. Other historic cabins, a barn. Honking geese, some ducks. So Constable. Except for the camel.
The camel came to the farm a couple of years ago from Missouri. Don't ask us to explain that. There was a giraffe once too, but it expired. The camel, called something that sounded like Saeed, is an amazing creature that makes amazing noises. It did not spit at us. It did look at us funny.
It strikes the people in Washington as funny too. They call the farm — what else? — Camelot.
There will be another archeological dig there starting this weekend, in the town's now empty mercantile block. You can go down and take a peek and see what the state Archeological Survey, powered by the amateur Archeological Society, is adding to what we know about Washington. It's one of the great things about Arkansas, this reconstructed town. And there's a legal limit to the snow there, we hear.
A few weeks back, The Observer wrote about designated driving our cuz and a friend out to Jimmy Doyle's Country Club on I-40, an old-line joint that might be the area's purest remaining expression of the country/western honky tonk. We use that phrase with all the love and respect of one who craves The Authentic. As seen in that dispatch, we loved the vibe of the place in general, with its big dance floor, neon, back room full of pool tables, and laid-back clientele, but had especially good things to say about the band. They rocked 1970s outlaw country and bluesy numbers all night, with the lead vocalist — a bearded, 6-foot-5 mountain of a guy in a black suit — pulling off the greatest cover of "Blue Spanish Eyes" (including the falsetto high notes) we've ever heard, while simultaneously managing to be one of the best guitar players we've ever seen live and in person.
Over the weekend, we got a call from one of his friends. The guitarist is named Wendell Craig, and he's part of the Arkansas River Bottom Band, the standing, Saturday night house band for Jimmy Doyle's. Craig has been kicking around Arkansas music for years, the friend told us. Back in the day, he used to be an Elvis impersonator. Though we're pretty sure he's got a few inches of height on The King, we'd still pay good folding cash to see him T.C.B. in the lamb chop sideburns and the spangly jumpsuit.
If you get a chance, get out to the club some Saturday night, pay your $5 cover, buy a pitcher of beer, and catch Wendell and the rest of the band. They take requests (if it's Waylon, Willie, Johnny, Hank or Elvis, they can probably swing it) and they're pretty dang fine.
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Best of luck. Will look forward to watching the results with high hopes for him.