My husband's grandmother remarried late in life to her childhood sweetheart, an Ozark Mountains farmer who had begun writing her letters. He retrieved his new bride in Florida, drove her to his 40 acres in Seligman, Mo., and killed a raccoon for their wedding dinner. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, their marriage did not last.
Yet, through a complicated series of bequests, we ended up with five acres of the raccoon hunter's property. It is sloping, forested and landlocked (all of the surrounding plots had been deeded away with no provision for access) but my husband John has paid the tax, around $56 a year, for decades. He likes owning a secret, wild spot.
In February 2016, John sent me to check on the Missouri property. It was a diversion: Winter in Minneapolis had been gray, and my business was slow. He suggested I go to the assessor's office, visit his brother's family and get some sun. I found a cheap flight to the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport and a hotel in a place called Fayetteville.
I landed on exactly the kind of day I'd been craving: 60 degrees, a breeze and golden light shining on gray-green hills. This seemed like a miracle after only two hours in the air. Still, that raccoon dinner haunted me. I wondered if and where I'd find a decent meal.
The hotel clerk offered a catalog full of options. Fayetteville, it turned out, was less coon-meat country than small plates, farm-to-table, artisan coffee and craft beer. I cleaned up and drove (coatless!) through blue twilight to a twinkling Latin bistro called Rolando's, where I had a serviceable glass of Rioja and a steaming Cuban platter of black beans, grilled vegetables and spicy sauce.
Was it like landing in Havana? Probably not. But in that moment, sitting alone at a table in a glowing room, surrounded by fake Picassos and drawling servers who called me "ma'am," I could not have been more content.
My nephew Jeff picked me up the next morning and we headed up over the Missouri-Arkansas border. Getting to Seligman took just 45 minutes but it felt like time-warping back to rural 1978. Every driveway had an oblong mailbox with a red flag and a "No Trespassing" sign.
But the woman who answered her door not only allowed us to cross her property, but she handed me a pair of knee-high rubber boots and said, "Honey, those shoes'll never do. Just leave these on the porch when you're done."
Our five acres was as promised: hilly and covered with silver trees. Beautiful but useless, Jeff told me — except maybe as a sanctuary for deer. I said I could live with that.
The next day I drank coffee at Arsagas, a coffee shop and roaster in downtown Fayetteville, and watched as people came and went. Old, young, black, white, Spanish-speaking, a few in Muslim scarves. A young man with a dark beard, wearing a denim miniskirt and spangly tights, was waiting tables, laughing with a bunch of retirees in caps. My preconceptions about the South hadn't included this.
Reasons to return
In the summer of '17, my son and I went on a road trip. We headed for Memphis and Little Rock, Ark., where we ate barbecue in breathless heat, then swung home through Fayetteville. There, we found cooler temperatures and a farmers market on the square, full of local peaches and honey, woodcraft and raw milk. Also a table full of older gentlemen who had founded a religion based on the belief that Jesus advocated smoking pot.
"Yeah, I can definitely see you here," Max said.
I was remembering this when John came home one day in the fall and announced that his downtown Minneapolis office would be unreachable when the Super Bowl came to town. Employees were being told they could work wherever they chose in late winter. I proposed Fayetteville. We made an Airbnb reservation that night.
We arrived on a chilly Sunday afternoon. It had been an unusually cold January in Arkansas: no snow, but near freezing with a biting wind. Few people were out. We wondered if we'd made a mistake.
Our host home was roomy but odd. There was a shoddy kitchen with two mismatched pots. But the bed was firm and we had a family room overlooking a deck and a woodsy yard. We hauled in the dog's bed and bowls and hung up our clothes. We were no longer tourists — this was our life for the next three weeks.
The first thing we noticed, walking the neighborhood, was a pervasive yard sign that said "Y'all means all." I immediately sent a photo to my people back in Minnesota — many of whom were skeptical about our decision to visit Arkansas.
There's something I need to get out of the way: the Walmart factor. For many and varied reasons, most of the people I know in the Twin Cities disdain Walmart and its founders. But the picture you get in northwest Arkansas is very different. Here, the Walton name means culture.
Take Crystal Bridges in nearby Bentonville. Built and funded largely by Alice Walton, heir to the Walmart fortune, it's possibly the most "woke" museum in America, according to the Washington Post. John and I went twice, once to see the permanent collection and again for opening weekend of "Soul of a Nation," a narrative of the Black Power movement in art.
The 120-acre campus is a network of walking paths, natural vegetation and sculpture. The building itself is a wonder, designed by Boston architect Moshe Safdie. But the single best thing about Crystal Bridges is that it's free, every day of the year (special exhibits cost $10), making art genuinely public — available to everyone.
The Walton Arts Center, for performing arts, is located at the juncture of downtown Fayetteville and the campus of the University of Arkansas. It's a newly remodeled angular structure made of steel and glass. When we were in town, they were hosting a big Broadway musical — not to our taste. So we went around the corner to the associated TheaterSquared, a 175-seat black-box theater, where for $35 a ticket we saw "The Humans," a Tony Award-winning play with a cast of visiting actors from Chicago and New York.
But for us, the greatest joy of Fayetteville was its public library. A stately building with one of the deepest collections I've ever seen, it had dozens of private rooms where John could work, a sun-filled cafe and a patio with adult-size swings. The weather warmed quickly and I sat outside reading for hours. (We're not the first to discover the Fayetteville library: It's won many "Green Building" and "Best in the nation" awards.)
It was 4 below zero in Minneapolis, where people were ziplining across the river. Some team won the Super Bowl. But we missed it all because we were hiking the Kessler Mountain and Mount Sequoyah trails. Evenings, we walked around Lake Fayetteville and through the stark winter Botanical Gardens.
Just outside of town, in the foothills of the Ozarks, a crew was filming the third season of "True Detective." People at my gym spoke casually of running into Mahershala Ali.
John and I packed up sadly when it came time to leave Fayetteville. After one last run to Arsagas for coffee that stretched into an early dinner of soup and thick bread, we went to Columbus House — the small dog-friendly brewpub we'd found, run by two environmental scientists who had met in grad school and decided to marry and make beer.
Over Imperial Stouts, we said goodbye, and the owners reminded us that we should return in May for the Bentonville Film Festival, founded by actress Geena Davis, or in September for Bikes, Blues & BBQ — a Fayetteville motorcycle rally that funds charities, such as the Single Parent Scholarship Fund of Northwest Arkansas.
But once back home, I learned quickly that I needed to be careful whom I told where we'd been. "Arkansas?" one potential client said, her nose wrinkling like she had caught a bad smell. "I'd have thought you were more, ah … progressive than that." I did not get the job.
This is why, John reminded me, he's spent two decades in the Twin Cities "cleansing" his Southern accent. People in our circles simply do not like the sound.
I remind myself of that first time I descended into the area, worried I'd have to drink moonshine and eat raccoon. And I adjusted the way I talk about this place.
"First," I'll start, when someone questions me about Arkansas. "It's not what you think."
Ann Bauer is a writer from Minneapolis, and she is planning more escapes to Fayetteville.
If you go
Fayetteville, Ark., is a university town with plenty to do. For information, go to arkansas.com. The Bikes, Blues & BBQ event will take place Sept. 26-29 (bikesbluesandbbq.org). For information on the annual Bentonville Film Festival, April 30-May 5, 2019, go to bentonvillefilmfestival.com.