The Bigfoot Hunter of Arkansas
A Special Backwoods Edition Roadtrip Short Story
“I came back with clothesline and clothespins — and they started pinnin’ up $100 bills every which way across the motel room. The bags of money got wet from the swimmin’ cross the river, right? We had to dry em out.
Boy, never did get caught for that one…”
Before I reached Toad Suck Park (yes, really) and the Bigfoot Hunter in Arkansas, the Buick smoothly moved through the rest of Oklahoma.
After a morning of my stationary writing, the smoothed-out Buick was keen to move some ground. We easily covered the rest of Oklahoma in the afternoon.
I pulled over to a rest stop as the state border approached. I smiled, entering the beautiful picnic area for some push-ups and simple yoga. Yes, I’m That Guy from necessity. Sitting, car or anywhere, wears on me tremendously. The Buick’s bench seats are fine — for about 2 hours at a stretch.
My body reset after some motion. The world cleared up again.
I watched different groups of people move in and out. The term “rest stop” gained new meaning.
Each of them needed to move or pause or respond to some waiting communication — to reset from the constant drone of stagnant highway driving and clear its debts.
A father and son moved carefully out of their small Toyota. They lay down a mat in the grass near me. My eyes shifted between their Muslim prayer ritual and the looks of an older man wearing a cowboy hat as he paused his map-reading to watch for a moment. He raised his eyebrows and I imagined a simple “Hmm” came out. He went back to the map, no concerns. The father and son finished their prayer and quickly rolled up the mat to resume their travels.
The itch to explore Arkansas hit me at the same time.
After an hour or so, signs for and of the Arkansas River came up. We cut off from the highway and wandered.
The sun fell rapidly. Seeing a campground sign, I remembered the tent in the trunk. After a few random turns, I found myself on a county road somewhere in Western Arkansas.
Didn’t I pass a campgrounds sign a while back?
As we turned off to a random piece of land, a great tiredness swept over me and the backseat looked really appealing. I pulled my pillow from the trunk and laid myself out on the back bench with open windows.
It was cooling down, not so sticky. For the first few minutes, I thought “this is pretty nice, this could work fine.”
Then the mosquitoes came.
It should have been no surprise. I was near the river, and I was in an Arkansas summer. They were dark, big, spotted things — and experts at deception. I felt ~ 10 bites start to itch within a few minutes.
They had found new blood and they really liked it.
Cranky and tired, I rolled up the windows, and finally got out to pitch the tent. It was dark and my first time setting up a tent in a while — I’m still amazed at how fast I was able to feel it out. Within 10 minutes, I was inside the tent with a sleeping bag.
At some point, I calmed down and fell asleep to the crickets, the occasional car in the distance, and the sounds of an Arkansas night. The stars were out and I thought how nice it was to have missed the rain from earlier in the day, to be able to camp randomly like this. The gratitude put me to sleep.
In the morning, I felt a rush of energy and accomplishment. I packed up the tent and drove back towards the campground sign.
Sure enough — “Toad Suck Campground” it read. I pulled down a winding path, parking in one of the many empty sites to take in the river. Everyone seemed still asleep.
Wonder if I can swim it?
“What year is she?” I heard from behind.
I turned and saw a shirtless man, with a variety of tattoos and a braided ponytail, smoking a cigarette as he approached.
“A ’65" I replied.
“She’s a beauty. Start her up for me?”
“Sure man” I said, and cranked the Buick on.
“Oh damn, she sounds good. Watch that rust now- it gets in under the chrome on the windows, seeps down from there.”
I introduced myself.
“Hey, I’m Ronnie, Ronnie Wilkinson. Pleased to meet you. We got some coffee going if you want to come by — the tent just over yonder.”
After washing up some in the spotless campground bathrooms, I was sitting with Ronnie and his girlfriend/tent mate Tina, who preferred I call her “Star” — referencing the huge star tattoo on her shoulder and back.
My phone was now dead, but my ears worked well. With no audio capture of the interview, you’ll have to take my word for the contents. I wrote some down in my notebook as we spoke, and have done my best to extract some of the actual conversation nuggets from memory.
Ronnie told me he was sent into the mountains of Arkansas with his brothers when he was a boy to grow up with his grandparents.
He learned to live off the land — to fish, hunt, find, and grow food. It was a childhood in the wild.
Star and Ronnie were now heading west. When I asked my go-to question on Home, he had instant thoughts.
“This place doesn’t feel like home anymore. They’ll lock you up for the littlest thing now, everyone’s afraid of the law — and they’re done up like the military here, its crazy. Everything’s opposite from how it used to be. It’s time for me to move on. I’m heading to Arizona, going to a little hippie retreat before then in Colorado.
Pressing for more, I asked “What happened, why do you think things changed?”
The South has gone to shit. The dope game ruined it.
Value of life is gone. No one cares about the other.
Some of these folks comin’ from ‘cross the border — they don’t help.
He had identified drugs, loss of community, and then reached for the outsiders argument.
We continued on his life.
Never been to a doctor in my life. Most folks think I’m in my 30s, but I’m 47 now, fixin to be 48 in a few weeks.
Hell, I swam across that river just last week . I wouldn’t tell anyone to do that unless you’re half assed nuts though. That Arkansas River’s deadly.
He told me stories of past crime — robbing banks in town and escape routes gone wrong.
The biggest steal ended with a dive into the river carrying bags of money. They swam across the river to the Camelot Motel on the other side. His brothers sent his for clothesline and pins to hang and dry the money — and never did get caught for “that one”.
“We were farmer rich then. No sense of the city. Just came down from the mountains where we were raised and made trouble.”
By “farmer rich” — he meant the windfall after selling crop for the year.
By “city” he meant Conrad, a nearby town of 65,000 people — you know, Big City folk. It reminded me of my dad telling about his sisters playing “Altoona Lady” — a game they played in their hometown of Belwood, Pennsylvania where they dressed up as fancy women from the nearby “city” of Altoona (population 50,000).
Ronnie had only been to the city once before when he was eight years old. He was shocked to see someone with a different skin color in a store.
He asked his grandma “what happened to that man’s skin? Was he burned?”
“She slapped me hard across the face and said ‘don’t you ever say that, that’s a black man. There’s plenty of ’em around here.’ ”
“I’d never seen one before in my life. I didn’t know there were people with different colors of skin”
The innocence of his question at that age…I couldn't help but think of the non-judgement he must have had. He was concerned with a difference, he noticed it, yet had no ill thoughts, only concern and curiosity for the story behind the person’s difference. It was quickly and harshly slapped out of him. He learned to simplify, label, place someone in a category rather than ask and investigate their individual characteristics.
Now, Ronnie roams and gets sponsored to look for, document the “North American Ape” — yeah, that’s right: Bigfoot.
It sounded like he was searching for purpose. He was certain of certain events and beliefs, and very unsure of his place in an unknown future.
I rose and shook hands with Ronnie and Star. They were ready to talk for days. My listening capacity was full, my knowledge base rebalanced — time to move on.
“Good luck on ‘yer project, Travis. We’ll be looking for you and our story.” Star said with a full smile.
Had I just met an anomaly? Ronnie was like a Bigfoot himself — rarely seen, unbelievable (unbelieved) to most, and at odds with “civilization.”
The Army Corps of Engineers officer, an man in his 70s, Rufus Graves came out to greet me from the camp station as I fumbled with pay envelopes.
“you don’t have to pay nothin, that’s your tax dollars”
“You got no boat to launch, all else is open at no charge. Govern-ment don’t give much here though”
“Why is that you think?” I auto-responded and reached for my phone to record instinctively.
“Dunno, must of spent it somewhere else.”
The accents ran thick in the back roads of Arkansas.
At a random gas station a farmer in overalls asked if I was driving a Plymouth, reminded him of an Ambassador too. He like the Buick, gave me a nod for how smooth it ran — at least I’m pretty sure that’s all he said.