If you drive east out U. S. Highway 82 from El Dorado, Arkansas, after about twenty minutes you will come to the town of Strong. Turn right at Strong onto State Highway 129 and the road will take you past Ramona’s City Grill and Strong High School. Continue southeast on Highway 129, also called Huttig Highway, past the Union Baptist Church and the swaths of timber that have been clear-cut by the Georgia Pacific Corporation, and you will soon come to Dollar Junction Rd. Follow the Dollar Junction spur and within minutes the road will deposit you in Felsenthal.
The town of Felsenthal sits at the boundary of the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge. This virtually assures that it will never grow much larger than it is right now. People come here for access to the Ouachita River and the surrounding woods and swamps, which are a paradise for hunters and fishermen. The town is a hodgepodge of hunting camps, fishing cabins, camping trailers and the houses and mobile homes of the one-hundred forty-seven people who live in Felsenthal year-round. My brother-in-law, I’ll call him Alvin, is one of the one-hundred forty-seven.
Several times since I have been married, we have made the trip to Felsenthal to see Alvin. We usually go in July, because my wife seems to like being there at the zenith of mosquito season. The highlight of the trip is when Alvin fries up a mess of catfish and hush puppies, which we eat on his porch in front of a box fan so large it could easily cool a commercial chicken house. The fan helps keep the bugs away. After dinner we entertain ourselves by counting the trucks pulling fishing boats that pass by his house, headed to and from the river. The record for a single afternoon is 267.
Alvin lives across the road from an old general store his grandmother once owned. After she died they removed all the perishables and locked the doors, so today it is exactly the same inside as it was in 1971, but with more dust. Alvin takes care of the place and he rarely lets anyone go in it, even his own family. Muslims are less protective of their holy shrines. For years the Cracker Barrel people pestered him about buying the store’s contents, but Alvin wouldn’t give them the time of day. Last year a film crew used the store to shoot a scene for a documentary about a civil rights leader named Daisy Bates, who grew up nearby in Huttig. They had Alvin play a butcher and I believe he got paid for it, which would make him Felsenthal’s only living professional actor.
My wife remembers her grandmother raising chickens in a coop behind the old store. At least three times a year she regales us with the story of how, during dinner one Sunday afternoon, it came out in the conversation that the main course was a chicken she had always considered her pet. She can’t seem to remember she has repeated this tale least a hundred times over the years. I never thought she meant the chicken was a pet in the same sense as a dog or a potbellied pig, for instance. She didn’t walk it on a leash or sleep with it, as far as I know, but she obviously bonded with this fowl in a disturbing and unnatural way or she wouldn’t keep harping about it. She named it Henrieta, I think, or Cooper, or something equally absurd.
One year we went to the Fourth of July fireworks show in Huttig. It was held in an open field next to the sawmill, so we parked in a line of cars facing the field and watched two guys shoot fireworks that we could have purchased ourselves at any roadside stand in the state. The townsfolk didn’t seem mind at all. They honked and hooted like they were watching the Bicentennial Celebration on the Washington Mall. Fortunately Alvin, a veteran of these events over the years, had the foresight to bring along a large cooler of beer. He knew instinctively we would need it.
When driving the streets of Felsenthal you have to pay close attention or you could crash into a deer or a wild turkey or somebody’s rooster. There are a lot of animals just milling around, thanks to the close proximity of the wildlife refuge. My wife claims a bear crossed the road in front of her one day as she drove on Dollar Junction Rd. I doubt she would know the difference between a bear and a chow-chow, but she becomes unpleasantly disagreeable when challenged on things like this, so I have learned to just go with it.
Driving down Dollar Junction Rd. myself one day, I saw a sign that said “COON 4 SALE.” When I say “sign” I mean someone had painted these words on a board and nailed it to a tree. Raccoon is considered a delicacy in Felsenthal, along with squirrel, opossum, feral hog and swamp rat. Alvin said once, “ If anyone around here ever invites you to dinner, don’t go, cause you never know what might be simmering in the pot.”
It was good advice, but I don’t think there is much chance anyone would ever invite me to dinner, because even though I was born and raised in Arkansas, I’m seen as a turncoat Yankee for moving north. A good number of people still fly the Confederate flag in that part of the country. Some fly it underneath the American flag, and some have just dispensed with Old Glory altogether. It reveals a lot about the mindset of a certain segment of the populace. I’m pretty sure you could still wrangle an invitation to a cross-burning if you asked the right people.
Felsenthal floods a lot because it is so close to the river. My wife tells another story about the great flood of nineteen-sixty something, when she claims she had to be rescued from the porch of the store by boat. I did some mental calculations once and concluded that the water would have been about two feet deep there, but whenever I point this out she shouts at me and says I don’t know what I’m talking about, then she goes to look for someone more sympathetic.
It’s been a few years since our last trip to Felsenthal and my wife is talking about going sometime this summer. Normally, I complain about how inconvenient it is to travel to the edge of nowhere, but that is all for show. Secretly, I kind of look forward to it. I can taste the catfish and the cold beer already.