Judging by how stepping outside feels akin to locking yourself inside a black van stashed at airport long-term parking, another summer in Arkansas is upon us, with all the fun, joy, sorrow and flesh-on-hot-car-seat agony that implies. Never fear. It’ll be over at some point between now and late September. And besides, it sure beats Plague Summer, which is what we had last year. Any July where the breath of other people isn’t liable to kill you is OK by us.
In a normal year, The Observer turns things down a notch in the summer, moving a little slower and not getting up too much during the heat of the day. Summer in Arkansas sure ain’t no time to be working for a living. We do as little as possible of that while the heat is on. We still, however, crave entertainment in the Dog Days. Given that, we thought we’d share a few suggestions, stuff we hope will help you weather the first post-coronavirus summer in Arkansas history and get the most out of that vaccination stick. Check ’em out below, and as always: Stay cool, citizens. Now that we’ve survived both the reign of Mad King Donnie and a genuine global apocalypse, there’s no sense getting whacked out by a heat stroke if you can help it.
“The Reign of Wolf 21” by Rick McIntyre
The Observer has never been out to Yellowstone National Park or had much dealings with wolves other than the one laid low by the woodcutter for identity theft in “Little Red Riding Hood.” That said, we have to recommend “The Reign of Wolf 21” by Rick McIntyre. The second book in McIntyre’s “The Wolves of Yellowstone” trilogy, “Wolf 21” is the true story of the Alpha wolf that led Yellowstone’s powerful Druid Peak Pack for a few hard years. While you’d think a book like that would be all about red tooth and claw, the strong running down and ripping the weak to bits for their daily elk steak, it turns out that in the vivid, endearing personality of Wolf 21, we found a model for creatures of all sorts who must walk the line between vulnerability and strength. Far from the Alpha Wolf fantasies embraced by emotionally constipated douchebros all over America, Wolf 21 ditched the John Wayne stereotypes by being tough when he had to be but also generous to friends and family, kind to puppies and females of his species and merciful to his enemies even though, as King Wolf, he didn’t have to be. The result is the story of a fleeting, vibrant life that will change your mind not only about wolves, but about what a leader should do to project confidence and strength when the chips are down. From the first line to the last, it’s a beauty.
Quapaw pottery at Saracen Casino down in Pine Bluff
At the urging of Junior, who is finally old enough to frequent local gambling halls and drinking establishments, The Observer got down to Saracen Casino in Pine Bluff the other day. Owned and operated by the Quapaw Nation, it’s a sizable thing with a parking lot like Disney World, haunted by masses yearning to breathe rich. Junior just wanted to go look around, never having been inside a real casino and all, so one afternoon, knowing it would be cool inside, we motored down there, lost $14 and had a good ol’ time amongst the neon. The Observer has never been one for gambling, always a bit too sure that The House Always Wins and a little too broke to find the entertainment in plugging actual currency into a machine for a chance at a dopamine hit. We did, however, find something at Saracen that is totally free and lovely: a large collection of traditional pottery by Quapaw artist Betty Gaedtke. It’s arrayed in glass cases just as you walk in — dozens of red clay pieces depicting people and animals, many adorned with cosmic swirls or details like tiny, hand-woven baskets. Most visitors stream past those cases without a second look on their way to the slots, but Yours Truly just couldn’t stop staring. It’s all gorgeous: beautiful vessels, many in the shape of people or animals, including crayfish, bears, fish, a cougar and what appeared to be a two-headed horse. The Observer managed to peruse the pottery so long, including snapping a few pictures of our favorite pieces (possibly against the rules given that it was a casino and all) that a security guard eventually appeared, no doubt sizing up whether we were planning an “Oceans 11” style takedown of the joint. Eventually, however, she realized The Observer was just nerding out over beautiful and heartfelt artistry. If you get down to Saracen, be sure to take a moment to do the same.
Korean Bulgogi BBQ (317 Oak St. in Conway)
The Observer didn’t get out much in the past year, so when we did, we tried to make it count. One of our best discoveries of the pandemic was Korean Bulgogi BBQ in Conway, which we found the way we find all things these days: through a friend’s post about it on Dr. Zuckerberg’s Book o’ Face. Having been vaccinated and all, we recently ate inside their dining room for the first time ever, but we’ve been haunting their drive-thru window for a solid 10 months now, slowly eating our way through everything on the menu. It’s a family-owned joint with super-friendly service, which might be enough to keep us coming back all by itself after the year we’ve had and all the restaurants we’ve seen closed. But as an added bonus, it’s one of those places we run across from time to time where literally everything we’ve ever tried has been uniformly delicious. We’ve never had a bad dish from the place. As for what to order, our go-to appetizers are the mandu dumplings (always great) or the Kimbab mini sushi rolls. For an entree, Spouse usually goes for their Sesame Chicken on fried rice. It’s a knockout, the chicken clearly hand-breaded and fried when you order, covered in a sticky-sweet sauce that tastes of honey. It’s crazy good. The Observer, meanwhile, always gets the steak bulgogi on fried rice: paper-thin slices of steak, with equally thin-sliced sauteed onions, carrots, broccoli, cabbage and zucchini, all tossed in a delicious sauce. When they ask if you want the fried egg on top, say yes.