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What Happened When I Retraced Charles Portis’ ‘True Grit’ In Arkansas With The Oxford American


“I have a newspaper record of part of that Wharton trial and it is not an official transcript but it is faithful enough. I have used it and my memories to write a good historical article I titled, ‘You will now listen to the sentence of the law, Odus Wharton, which is that you may be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead dead! May God, whose laws you have broken and before whose dread tribunal you must appear, have mercy on your soul. Being a personal recollection of Isaac C. Parker, the famous Border Judge.’

“But the magazines today do not know a good story when they see one. They would rather print trash. They say my article is too long and ‘discursive.’ Nothing is too long or too short either if you have a true and interesting tale and what I call a ‘graphic’ writing style combined with educational aims.”—Mattie Ross

There is the fact, for starters, that I might’ve outrun the storm if I’d only driven faster and not stopped to check the radar. Or maybe that is fiction. There’s no way to prove this thesis one way or the other. What is provable is that I drove headlong into a thunderstorm capable of producing tornadoes. That was a bad idea.

People do not give it credence that a 42-year-old man would head off into such conditions but I will say it did not seem so strange then, although it did not happen every day. Nevertheless, I did drive headlong into such conditions, despite the warnings of a friend and sundry experts that I should do the opposite. The lightning wasn’t letting up, but the rains had abated. I focused on the latter. It made sense.

But in the moment, I didn’t realize it was a temporary abatement. Storms are wont to move about, I told myself. I’d just hit a curl or some other remnants of it. Better to forge ahead.

Even when the thunder rattled at the same time as the lightning struck, signifying it was alongside me and not in the distance, even as the rains quickened, I kept going. The corner was there, waiting for me to turn it.

Then Came the Monsoon

And it was, eventually. First, though, I had to endure the strobe effect of the lightning through my furious wiper blades, barely swishing away the buckets of rain that had reduced visibility to some number of feet. Then came the full monsoon. I had passed down trees, ripped billboards, and road signs launched into the ground. This was something else altogether.

Cars were pulled over, some unintentionally so. Spun into soft, muddy landings by the lake covering the pavement. I kept going. It wasn’t that I was well-prepared, or particularly well-equipped, I was just an idiot who persevered.

I slowed down, the elements battering me. I realized that when driving into a thunderstorm, it’s best not to taunt the universe. Somehow, though, about 80 miles from my destination, I emerged and turned off my wipers as my tires again touched dry pavement. If only the first 140 miles had been so easy. Then I had to turn my windshield wipers back on as the sky again spilled. I held my breath, but soon enough my trip returned to being an easy one.

Arriving in Little Rock

There were no more tornadoes to come up behind, no more carnage to witness and wonder what would have been had my schedule been slightly different. I survived and arrived, to park and promptly order an Uber to take me to a place for indulgences, not of the Catholic variety, and whiskey, of the Irish although not Irish Catholic variety.

Don’t get hung up on the fact that it wasn’t Catholic. Focus on the fact that it was catholic, as I’m sure Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn would appreciate. Also, don’t get hung up that I’m a kneeler, to borrow a phrase from Mattie Ross, which doesn’t place me in the Catholic camp, but semi-adjacent to the Cumberland Presbyterianism to which Mattie subscribed. That may be a matter of politics more than theology, though the politics are not important, even if they will show up again, with more relevance but an equal amount of unimportance.

Not that one would gather what a Cumberland Presbyterian is while reading “True Grit.” Charles Portis, through Mattie, assumes familiarity, or at least an ability to discern, without bogging the reader down in irrelevant details. That they’re there is enough, they don’t need explanation. It’s color for the sake of color or to place the story at a point in history, not information intended to signify some deeper meaning, as Jay Jennings, who knows and has written about Portis, would explain.

Off We Went, and It Seemed Entirely Too Comfortable

My own journey to the tour was far more harrowing, and in line with Mattie’s mission to capture Tom Chaney, than the tour itself. It’s not that I expected to get shot at or lose an arm. But initially, it seemed like there wasn’t much of a focal point given it’s a tour about “True Grit.” We didn’t stop in Dardanelle, or explore anywhere else, on the way to Fort Smith. We just progressed and arrived without a preponderance of narration. Don’t pester me that the book did the same.

The first destination, admittedly, didn’t even have a direct connection to the story, other than it was a mansion originally built by a Confederate sympathizer. That was the point, I’d figure out later. It wasn’t about live-action role-playing “True Grit,” which would have been horrible, but learning new things about the time and the area in which the book took place.

To make matters worse, or so I thought at the time, the only hostility I encountered that day was mild and at lunch at that mansion, shortly before I discovered that at one time there existed a utensil known as a lemon fork. While not a fugitive myself, it had been figured out that I was a writer. Two couples I’d grown friendly with asked if I was a right-winger.

Not wanting to get into the finer points of my own flavor of libertarianism, any more than Mattie explained what a Cumberland Presbyterian was, I said yes. Then we ate sandwiches and they attempted to share an extra cookie with me. I declined, not for political reasons, but because I needed to save room for other refreshments.

After lunch, we were given time to roam the mansion, to study the finer points of Civil War-era silverware and furnishings. That, and maybe a beer, offered a solid foundation to move from newfound familiarity with lemon forks to our next stop and headier topics. And off we went, continuing our journey.

We did so, arriving at our second destination, the Fort Smith Museum of History, which stands near the bank of the Arkansas River. There things started to get more tied together, if still lacking in gunfights and snakes. We began that leg by crossing the border—the old border—into Indian territory. There we saw where Mattie conquered the river with Little Blackie.

It’s a lot deeper these days, as barges need more water to deliver their freight, but on that day it was really cold, so we had that going for us even if we didn’t get to ford it. Which is likely just as well, as I’d forgotten my jacket, plus I didn’t have a horse and, if there were a man we were to track, our guides hadn’t informed us of such.

‘Hell on the Border’

We headed back over the border and went inside, starting in the original jail. Here, again, I’m not going to complain about a lack of reenactment. The jail, affectionately known as “Hell on the Border,” was less than quaint, even as our tour group was filled with delightful people and no known outlaws.

The fireplaces in Hell on the Border held no fire when the jail was operational, because it’s apparently a bad idea to mix criminals and burning clubs. One fireplace housed a trough, the other the wash bucket, the drinking water, and the glass. Yes, glass is singular. Usually it only took a couple of months to get a trial, which isn’t so bad unless you’re innocent.

Hell on the Border, outfitted with buckets as a historically accurate trough has yet to be located.

As we’d learn, Anna Dawes of Massachusetts took up the cause of making the jail less of a hell on earth and a more humane one after a visit in 1885. She succeeded. New cells were built. Prisoners were even segregated based on the crime committed, a form of segregation I think we can all agree on. No one thinks murderers and bootleggers and teenagers should be forced to cohabitate, share knowledge, and come up with new schemes. We’re not trying to create better criminals, but to hopefully rehabilitate them.

The Hanging Judge

None of those improvements to the jail altered the truth that those prisoners were awaiting trial with the hanging judge. Yes, we have to discuss him. For despite his reputation, Judge Isaac Parker was admirably opposed to the death penalty, and equally admirably in favor of upholding the law. Certain crimes, of which he was prone to hear given his territory, carried a mandatory hanging if the verdict was guilty.

Judge Parker pardoned some, as was warranted. For the others, those who would face the noose, he mourned from a distance. The judge’s window looked directly upon the gallows. Rather than watch and celebrate the hangings his rulings produced, he’d stay home and avoid the spectacle altogether.

For that is what it had become, a spectacle. A time in which the community would come together and celebrate the hangings. Judge Parker detested the atmosphere surrounding them, the festivity in the air, so he had a fence built around that final destination. Tickets were issued, and they were free, but hangings were no longer to be a cause for celebration. While justice sometimes demanded them, justice was not to be jubilant.

That leg of our journey ended at the fenced gallows, though a recreation. When the Western Court lost its jurisdiction over Indian Territory, the gallows became unnecessary. As such, Fort Smith dismantled them and burned all the wood.

The fence we stood inside was also a recreation and, as our guide informed us, wasn’t actually as tall as it should have been. It was sufficiently tall to help block the wind coming off the river. Thankfully, no one encountered the fire ants rumored to dwell inside the enclosure.

The gallows.

Time for Whiskey and a Trip to the Brothel

Back to the bus we headed, being handed a cocktail named the Rooster as we boarded. It featured whiskey, naturally, and some other ingredients. Given Rooster Cogburn’s sweet tooth, he may have actually enjoyed this cocktail, despite the addition of other ingredients to perfectly good whiskey. Not that those additions rendered it overly sweet. Rather, it was refreshing and just lubricating enough to get us ready for the brothel.

Maybe it’s not a functioning brothel these days, another thing I’m not going to complain about. Visiting a brothel, even when on assignment, is not a piece of history I’d like to recreate, much less try to explain.

Rather, this brothel is now home to Fort Smith’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. But in its heyday, it was Miss Laura’s Social Club, a place for affluent citizens of Fort Smith, and not the marshals or other rough types heading through the town. This distinction would explain why Miss Laura was able to secure a mortgage to purchase the building in 1898. She paid off the $3,000 note in 17 months.

By 1911, though still legal, such gentleman’s clubs were facing increasing political and community opposition, particularly after the “night of the lingerie parade,” and Miss Laura sold the place. For $47,000. After that, it only stayed operational for another four decades or so.

At this point, we were all getting tired, having imbibed a number of beverages of an adult nature. Visiting a brothel also takes it out of you. That, combined with the cold, meant our final walking tour turned into a scenic drive around downtown Fort Smith instead.

These days, the downtown color comes not from colorful madams, but from outdoor art. You may wonder what that has to do with retracing Charles Portis’ “True Grit.” The Oxford American has an answer for you. First, though, a sample of what we saw.

‘The Complexity and Vitality of the American South’

Now, here’s what that has to do with our trip. The Oxford American’s mission is to explore the complexity and vitality of the American South through excellent writing, music, and visual art, which was very much in line with the mission of our trip. While I initially thought the “True Grit” tour lacked such a mission, I now realize that’s because I went in with the wrong preconceptions about what was to happen—and no, I’m not talking about tracking criminals or trying to shoot corn dodgers out of the air.

Just as Mattie left Fort Smith different than when she entered it, so did I, albeit I didn’t have to lose an arm in the process.

Instead of suffering through what could have been a pitiful reenactment of the book, I came away having a deeper appreciation and understanding not just of the period in which the tale is set, but also a deeper appreciation and understanding of my own state’s history. And a new level of curiosity about all of it. Just as Mattie left Fort Smith different than when she entered it, so did I, albeit I didn’t have to lose an arm in the process.

The bus departed, all of us fully conscious, unlike young Mattie when she left Indian Territory. Smokey and the Mirror took the mic to play us home as we travelers finished off the remaining booze, though I think a few more bottles would’ve been polished off if we’d been given the chance. (It’s good we weren’t given the chance, although at least one of us would have lost consciousness.)

As we rolled down the road, we all had fun, sharing inside jokes that had arisen during the day, conversing, enjoying the music and the passenger who whipped out his harmonica and joined the band. Soon, we pulled back into our starting point, all passengers intact.

From there we dispersed, just as did the trio in the book, with me heading back to my hotel. As you may have inferred, I had to drive to get to the starting point of the trip, which meant I had to sleep and get up and drive home and think about how to describe it all, especially given all I’d learned that day.

Thankfully, the weather was much better for that drive home than the one down, and it afforded me the opportunity to think about my ephemeral mission rather than the terrestrial one. This ends my account of how I did so. And if any of my bus-mates should happen to read this, particularly my lunch companions, I’d be pleased to hear from them.