Helena on Wheels

Bed and breakfast and backroads.

Admit it. When you think "weekend getaway," Helena, Arkansas, does not immediately leap to mind. In fact, it's probably fair to say, Helena would not be in your top 10. Oh sure, they've got a blues festival or two and there's that famous "King Biscuit" radio show, but "weekend getaway"? Nah. What could anyone possibly do in Helena?

The answer is, frankly, not much. But a weekend is only two days, and imaginative people can find lots to talk about while driving a lonely backroad. The important element of "weekend getaway," after all, is the getaway part. 

In Helena and surrounding environs, you are in the truest sense of the word, "away." And there are sights you'll never read about in any tourist guide, and hidden treasures to be stumbled upon, if you're open to spontaneity.

My wife Tatine and I head south on a scorching August Sunday. (Our "weekend" is actually a Sunday and Monday.) We decide that with the exception of our planned overnight at a Helena bed-and-breakfast, we will just wing it for two days, following our whims, taking any detour or diversion or off-the-beaten-path adventure that presents itself. No agenda and no timetable, just rambling around the north Delta.

For not being a plan, it's a great plan.

We take Old Highway 61 south from Memphis and soon find what would become our rhythm for the next couple days. We cruise at a leisurely speed, admiring the vast cotton and rice fields, the hawks and bluebirds and white egrets, the lush swampy lowlands, and exploring little towns with little town names — Maud, Dundee, Hamlin, Lula — where affluence and dire poverty are next door-neighbors, where the "Old South" is not so old — or distant.

We marvel at the kudzu, which in places has become nature's shag carpet, covering trees and trailers and abandoned cotton gins, and general stores, where you can almost still hear the blues. Almost. But if you can't hear the blues, you can surely still see them — in the faces of the poor folks sitting on their shanty porches or pedaling a rusty bike to nowhere under the broiling sun.

At Lula, Mississippi, Old Highway 61 runs into Highway 49, which heads west, straight as a Pentecostal preacher, to the high and narrow Mississippi bridge into Helena.

Kudzu Kingdom

The air is just as hazy and thick on the Arkansas side as it was in Mississippi, and there is little at first to suggest that Helena, though larger in population at 6,000 people or so, is much different from the little towns we've been passing through all afternoon. The phrase "down at the heels" comes to mind.

Driving into town, one of the first things we see is a massive brick structure that we later discover is the former high school. It has been swallowed by kudzu. "Ivy-covered halls" doesn't begin to describe it.

Helena is worn and faded like an aging beauty queen, though her elegant bones are still there. Sagging, ornate Victorian homes speak of old money and pride, and abandoned factories and warehouses, crumbling and, like seemingly every other structure hereabouts, are firmly in the grip of creeping kudzu. Some downtown backstreets are gravel or dirt.

We see signs of hope — a few houses that have been lovingly restored, an impressive community garden, a new KIPP school — but downtown Helena is entirely abandoned on this Sunday afternoon. We roll up and down the main drag, Cherry Street, stopping to take pictures of the empty storefronts and hand-painted beer-joint signs, making U-turns with impunity. We see no humans, not even a car. The only semblance of life is a blonde mannequin sitting in the ticket booth of the shuttered Malco theater, a little touch of humor that — however weird — we nonetheless appreciate.

After patrolling downtown, we decide to find our destination — the Magnolia Inn Bed & Breakfast. Our expectations are not high. Thankfully, we are wrong.

The Magnolia and its companion gardens and event facility, Carriage Square, sit on a hill just west of downtown. The house is impressive, and big — three stories with a wraparound porch and a charming cupola. Inside the Magnolia, it feels as if we've stumbled into a Victorian time-warp. The two front parlors, with their ornate carved fireplaces, over-stuffed furniture, old oil paintings, and hand-crafted woodwork, are just the beginning.

Our room on the second floor is equally period-perfect, except for the window air-conditioner — a most welcome anomaly. We have a small balcony, a lovely bath and shower — and the nine other bedrooms of Magnolia to ourselves. We are the only guests.

We wander from room to room. All are unlocked and all are beautiful. The honeymoon suite is at the top of the house in the cupola, and it's over-the-top. A large round bed sits in the small octagonal chamber. Carved, stained-gold wood frames a plump blue-velvet headboard. Afternoon light washes in through the arched window. How romantic.

But you're not alone, even if you are on your honeymoon. Looking down from above, circling all the way to the top of the cupola's interior, is a troupe of nosy cherubs.

Oh, if these little cupids could talk . . .

Tara It Up

The magnolia's manager, a genial woman named Patricia, can talk — and does — about our home for the night. She tells us the place was abandoned for years, until it was spotted and purchased by an elderly — and apparently quite wealthy — woman from California, who was passing through on a riverboat four years ago. The new owner has since poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the place, creating gardens, purchasing antiques, upgrading facilities and bathrooms.

"This is her Tara," Patricia says. "It's a labor of love."

"But not exactly a great business move," I suggest.

"No, but more and more people are hearing about the Magnolia and things are picking up."

At a modest $75-a-night a room, including breakfast, things will probably have to pick up considerably before the Magnolia's owner recoups her investment. But that isn't the point, obviously. And while it's here, it's a treasure and certainly worth a visit. Patricia adds that the owner has created a trust in her will to ensure the Magnolia's survival.

We ask Patricia if there's a good place to eat dinner — to ensure our survival.

"There's nothing open on Sunday night," she says. And by nothing, she means, quite literally, nothing. "You could go to the casino across the river."

Not our style.

"Wait," she says. "You could call Uncle Henry's over at Moon Lake and see if they're open.

Hope Floats

When i ask the woman who answers the phone at Uncle Henry's if they're open, she seems somewhat unsure. I hear her muffle the phone and speak to someone.

"Yes," she says, a few seconds later. "We're open."

"Do I need to make a reservation?" I ask.

"We'd prefer you did."

"Is 7:00 okay?"

"Yes. We'll see you then."

It was all rather cryptic and strange. But this was a getaway, after all. And Uncle Henry's sounded like a trip. So, an hour later, back over the bridge into Mississippi we head. We pass the gaudy lights of the Isle of Capri casino and drive the few miles to Moon Lake Road. We find Uncle Henry's right away, just across the road from the lake. It is totally dark inside. There are no cars in the lot. Hmmm. We are a half-hour early, but the place appears deserted.

"Let's just drive around the lake for a while and look at the houses," my wife suggests. "Maybe they don't open until a little later."

It is as good a plan as any, so off we go, admiring the gorgeous sunset over the lake, the houses and docks, the big cypress trees, the great blue herons. Moon Lake, an old Mississippi River ox-bow, is huge, and by the time we circle around to Uncle Henry's again, it's 7 o'clock. There are still no cars in the lot, but the lights are on, so we pull in under an enormous magnolia and park on the gravel.

Uncle Henry's is a rambling, old white-frame building with an outside staircase on the front. It's set in a grove of trees, with a nice view of the lake just across the road. Inside, we find a small bar with a television showing Fox News. Not a good sign, as far as I'm concerned. The place has the look of an old roadhouse, with its rudimentary bar and adjoining room with a dance floor.

A woman emerges from the kitchen and introduces herself as Sarah, the woman to whom I'd spoken on the phone.

"Would you like to eat here or in the dining room?" she asks. We opt for the dining room.

The decor is eclectic, to say the least. On the walls are clips of newspaper articles and old family photos from the '30s and '40s — pictures of giant fish pulled from the lake, men in straw boaters, women in aprons, tow-headed children. There are plastic flowers in straw baskets, confederate flags, odd pieces of art, visible plumbing pipes under a low wooden ceiling, and the omnipresent window unit air conditioner.

Imagine if Roadhouse-era Patrick Swayze had married Miss Daisy and they had cojoined their decorating ideas. (And try not to think about the fact that the female half of that union would be named Daisy Swayze.) The place is kitschy, sentimental, but somehow irresistible.

The menus arrive and bring another surprise — sophisticated food and big-city prices. Uncle Henry's, it seems, is full of surprises. The style of cooking is decidedly New Orleans, with etouffees and other Crescent City dishes listed, plus filets and a 16-ounce rib-eye. I go for a filet. Tatine orders the crabmeat etouffee. While our food is being prepared, we wander the room looking at the pictures and reading the clippings. I learn that Tennessee Williams was a cousin of the original owners and stayed here often as a youngster, and that whenever he referenced "Moon Lake Casino" in his plays, he was writing about Uncle Henry's.

The place was once a hotbed for gambling, beating the casinos to the punch by 60 years or so. Upstairs rooms were wired with alarm buzzers to tip off gamblers that the fuzz had arrived. By the time our delicious salads arrive, we've become quite fond of the old joint. There's something intrinsically Southern about having a fine dinner — and it was very good — in such a funky place. It feels like we've learned a secret.

After dinner, chef and proprietor George Wright takes us on a tour of the upstairs rooms and shows us the buzzers — and lets us know Uncle Henry's is also a bed and breakfast. We are charmed and vow to return to spend the night, sleeping where Tennessee Williams once snoozed.

As we pull out of the driveway, I hop out of the car to take a picture of the lighted Uncle Henry's sign. Before I can focus, it goes dark. Uncle Henry's dinner crowd — us — has left the premises. The place is closed for the night. Suddenly. Last summer.

Monday Morning, Leaving Town

Monday morning in Helena dawns hot, cloudless, and muggy. We stroll around the lovely gardens at the Magnolia in the early morning dew, snapping pictures and pretending we own the place. Patricia cooks us a huge breakfast and we bid farewell over coffee.

We decide to visit a couple of Helena attractions we'd read about in our research, er, I mean, in some pamphlets we found in our room.

The literature about the Delta Cultural Center described what sounded like interesting exhibits on the blues and the area's history. Sadly, as we soon discover, it is closed on Mondays.

No worries, we think. We'll just go around the corner and meet the enterprising folks at the Quapaw Canoe Company, who've just set up a kayak and bike-rental operation in downtown Helena. Maybe we'll paddle a kayak around the harbor or bike down the levee trail, we think. But — you guessed it — closed on Mondays.

It's hot, time to give in to the inevitable. We head to the Isle of Capri and the melodic toodling sounds of the slots. Our karma is good. An hour later, we walk out $220 ahead of the game.

Back in the car, we decide to play "road roulette," a little game I like to play wherein you just start taking backroads to see where they lead. No turning back, unless the road dead-ends. We motor through deep woods, vast fields, and small clusters of houses that aren't on any map because they're too small to even be small towns.

Thirty miles of gravel and blacktop later, we emerge from the back-country to find a buzzing four-lane: Highway 61 revisited!

And, miracle of miracles, there is a handy outlet mall right in front of us, with a couple dozen stores just waiting to relieve us of our hard-earned casino cash.

Ah, civilization. And you should see my new running shoes. 

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