Nestled a short twenty-five miles from the Texas border lie a tiny, little town filled with simple folks, sub-par dining options, and more watermelons than you can shake a stick at. I stayed at the finest hotel in town, which turned out to be a dilapidated Holiday Inn Express. However, I was quickly reminded, by the homely hotel staff, that we were in the best location in town. As this hotel is physically located in the parking lot of Hope, Arkansas’ most popular stomping ground- Walmart…
After the five hour cruise, I was ready for a drink. How lucky I was, then, to be so conveniently located to Walmart. Of course, even without the help of liquor, my eagerness quickly washed away. I walked past isle after isle, clearly looking for something. Not one of the myriad of employees or, as they prefer, “associates” offered me any help, though I clearly looked hopelessly lost. Finally, I concluded, I would need to approach someone on my own volition, as I track down these beverages. At a checkout counter, I met with a dim and very unfriendly young man. “Where do you keep the liquor?” I asked.
“About twenty miles that way.” He said, as he pointed towards the back of the store.
“My, this must be the biggest Walmart ever!” I quipped. He then informed me that we were in some twisted black-hole of the world known as a “dry county”. Thankfully, I always travel with an emergency bottle of Hennessy. Still, I can’t imagine the pain that other, less prepared travelers must endure. My deepest sympathies lie with these unfortunate individuals.
A below average Mexican restaurant occupies the same parking lot as my hotel and Walmart. I would visit this diner-esque building twice during my abysmal stay, and while I’ve eaten worse food, I had trouble understanding how this dive had been voted the third best Mexican restaurant in the city of Hope. I asked my waiter how many Mexican restaurants were in this town. “Three.” He replied, quickly. With that mystery cleared up, I tolerated the food, and made my way back to the hotel.
I could hear slack-jawed idiots in the lobby talking about the upcoming election with the insight of a first grader and the vocabulary of a first grader held back a year. “Jeb Bush ain’t conservative enough to be republican,” said one voice. “A woman shouldn’t be able to be president. They’re too emotional,” squawked another. Needless to say, it hurt my brain waiting for the elevator in this environment of sheer ignorance and short-sidedness.
The following day, I printed out my fake press credentials and headed to the most popular, and only, event hosted in the “greater” Hope area- the 39th annual Hope Watermelon Festival.
I fell into my role; I believed I was there for the press. I was “on assignment”. Nobody needed to tell me this, for I already had decided it. I took a large digital camera, and then retrofitted it with some patented glare-reducing add-on. I’m not sure what it did, though it was easily attached with small screws- it made the camera look bulkier and more official. This was the kind of thing that could make or break a fake journalist.
By Friday, the festival was in full swing. People of all walks of life (though mostly within walking distance) arrived to decide on who grew the best watermelon. The townsfolk also came to judge who grew the biggest watermelon, as well as who had brought forth the oddest watermelon. If you dig melons, Hope was the place to be.
The festival was not host to guests such as Kenny Chesney- the guy that everybody thought was playing on Saturday. Though it did host that other country singer, from ‘American Idol’, that everybody wanted to be Kenny Chesney.
I was first introduced to this rumor by my kind cab driver. He was old, he smoked in the cab, and I saw empty liquor bottles at my feet when I stepped aboard. Who was I to worry? He was the one driving. Out of instinct, favor, or boredom he mentioned that he knew some bootleggers. Instinctually, I agreed that we should do business with one of these fellows. Together, we visited four houses and one trailer; No luck, times five (technically four and one-third.) My driver suggested that it had something to do with the festival. Eventually, we got a call back. It was from the first place we had stopped. I was just happy to get easily involved in something taboo. Hell, the guy was at his home, now. He, who shall remain nameless, asked if I wanted to go back. Well, of course, I did.
“Yeah. It’s fine. We do it all the time.” Replied my driver, repeatedly, with confidence.
In my experience, in this sort of endeavor, someone “vouches” for you. However, I was quickly awakened to the informality of the situation. As the bootlegger opened his door, I saw mountains of cases of cheap 30-packs of beer, as well as a small fortune of cheap bourbon bottles. As confirmed by my driver, “this is the place you go when you can’t make it to Texarkana. Otherwise, you just drive there.” Thoughtfully, I had already taken a fruitful drive to the Texas border. With 30 coors lights and two bottles of Hennessy, I knew I could survive this odd, tough-to-understand “dry town” on-the-border. Still, why the hell shouldn’t I have some fun with it? It took two hours to find a five dollar bottle, though that cheap liquor tasted finer under circumstance.
Saturday was THE day to be at the festival. The one guy, that had one hit song, was there. The temp was tipping a few singles above one-hundred degrees. The turnout was estimated at 300. One Hope resident described it as “the only thing that really happens here.” And, on Saturday the 8th of August 2015, Hope, Arkansas hosted one of nineteen national watermelon festivals. Only eighteen other places do this kind of thing, and that’s a statistic you can’t make up.