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story.lead_photo.caption Karen Martin

Diversions abound during a road trip from Little Rock to Bentonville and back: It's tempting to leave the interstate and visit a leafy park, a block of small-town shops, a scenic overlook, a lively flea market, a historic marker, a tiny museum. Yet we tend to blow past such attractions in the pursuit of shaving 15 minutes off the time it takes to get to a destination.

Not this time. Incorporating, for once, a flexible schedule, we were determined to take a few detours off our well-worn path of Interstates 40 and 49.

Back in the early 1990s, when I started this newspaper's tabloid Arkansas Weekend section, scavenging around the state for worthwhile destinations was a big part of my life. Mount Nebo, the wineries at Altus, Mount Magazine, Lake Ouachita, Van Buren, Blytheville, Helena, Russellville, Queen Wilhelmina State Park, Subiaco--I visited them all and wrote about their attractions, quirky and otherwise.

To say I saw some things would be an understatement. Heard some things too, that amazed a Rust Belt city girl. It was huge fun.

Now state travels mostly take me northwest to attend press previews of exhibits at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Momentary. They're usually rushed affairs that involve leaving central Arkansas in the late afternoon, arriving at Bentonville three hours later, taking a rapid walk around the area, grabbing dinner (Azul Tequila and Ramen Nara are favorites), and hitting the sack.

The next morning means getting up early for another walk and visit to the hotel's fitness center (some are better than others), checking out, heading to the museum for an exhibition tour with a curator, then hauling back to Little Rock in time to finish assembling the Perspective section for its Sunday publication.

The pace of my most recent trip slowed, thanks to the idea of bringing the dogs with us. We usually employ a trusted dog-sitter to watch the girls when we're away. What if we bring them along? I wondered.

So a plan evolved to include a stay in a dog-friendly hotel and an afternoon of doggie day care for the three terriers as we viewed the astonishingly original Nick Cave exhibit "Until" at the Momentary, Crystal Bridges' contemporary art space. No appointment times. No lunch or supper dates. No commitments. No deadlines.

And a multi-hour car journey with dogs requires stops along the way.

First stop: Spadra Park. Tucked into a corner of Clarksville (a college town--home to University of the Ozarks--in which the city-owned utility has invested in high-speed Internet that is considered one of the fastest systems in the nation and runs entirely on power it generates from solar energy) is this quiet, idyllic campground on Lake Dardanelle and the Arkansas River.

Heavily wooded and crisscrossed with wide easygoing walkways, its facilities include 29 campsites, a spacious picnic shelter, two boat-launching ramps, and spotless and accommodating restrooms with showers. The terriers enjoyed snuffling in the grass at the edge of the river while we chatted with a friendly fellow visitor who seemed set up for a lengthy stay with a small camper, a pickup, a good-looking Harley, and a fuzzy little black dog.

If I had a camper, or if I knew the first thing about tent camping, I would spend a lot of time here.

Other outings included a stroll around Bentonville Square, where a goofy three-wheeler bicycle race was going on and kids were threatening to leap into the square's central fountain. Fortified with snacks from Walmart Neighborhood Market (what a great idea to open one in the middle of downtown Bentonville), we investigated the ever-expanding restaurant scene and amused passersby with stories of how our dogs came to be rescued.

Another stop was the Fayetteville Farmers Market, where the girls served as excellent conversation starters with fellow dog lovers and market-goers on a pleasant morning that involved lots of coffee and wandering down Dickson Street. Other than the annoying need to pay for parking on just about every square inch of downtown Fayetteville, it was a delightful experience.

Then back in the car to visit Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park, a beautiful and evocative landmark threaded with dozens of dog-friendly trails that enable a a visitor to envision the region as it must have appeared to Union and Confederate soldiers who fought there on Dec. 7, 1862, in a battle that secured northwestern Arkansas for the Union.

I guess I need more practice at dawdling across the state, having returned to my obsessive time-crunch ways coming down out of the mountains and accelerating along I-40 east, getting home in an impressive two hours, 30 minutes. (Thanks, 75 mph speed limits.)

More zero-deadline road trips, accompanied by three experienced and good-natured little dawdlers that force me to slow down and take a look around the many intriguing wonders of this state, may be in order.

Practice makes perfect.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.


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