AS I DROVE UP INTERSTATE 40 from Little Rock, I passed the exit for Dardanelle in Yell County, where Mattie proudly hails from. Farther on, I made out the flat top of, as Ms. Tartt’s voice intones, “beautiful Mount Nebo where we had a little summer house so Mama could get away from the mosquitoes,” now a state park and a favorite launching point for hang gliders. As much as the book is identified with Oklahoma (the writer Robert Dumont has called it “The Great Oklahoma Novel”), Mattie is an Arkansas homer, never missing a chance to sing the glories of her native state, much like “the meadowlarks of Yell County trilling a joyous anthem to spring.”
She thinks Fort Smith looks as though it “ought to be in Oklahoma instead of Arkansas,” the “big wide street there called Garrison Avenue like places out in the west,” and it’s true Fort Smith was founded in 1817 as a bulwark for the federal government against the depredations of the wild western territory. After the Civil War, the federal government moved the troops out, and the barracks became the court of Isaac Parker, famous as the “hanging judge,” who oversaw the punishment of lawbreakers brought back to Fort Smith by men like Rooster Cogburn.
The sprawling grounds at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers, where the original fort was established and where the remaining structures stand, are now part of the Fort Smith National Historic Site, which documents the history of military operations and Judge Parker’s court. A replica of the gallows has been constructed, and when I wandered through the enclosure on the cool but sunny Saturday afternoon, a boy of not more than 4 was blowing in and out on a “Civil War harmonica” sold in the gift shop ($9.95); the sound he produced, given the setting, evoked a genuine melancholy. The exhibits inside the old barracks stick close to the facts — a re-creation of the judge’s courtroom, a history of the city’s place on the Trail of Tears, information about the court’s longtime hangman, George Maledon — but one wall touting “Fort Smith in Fact and Fiction” displays posters from the first movie and a hardcover copy of the book. (Perhaps more will be made of Rooster at the proposed $53 million U.S. Marshals Museum, which has bought land on the river and plans to break ground in September.)
For me the book came most alive when I strolled the paved path along the Arkansas to what would have been the ferry slip at the end of Garrison Avenue, which now continues to a bridge over the water. The land slopes down to the river, and I pictured Mattie in that indelible scene, with Cogburn and LaBoeuf crossing on the ferry without her, as she “wheeled Little Blackie about and rode him down the bank for all he was worth ... going like blazes across a sandbar.” The river is wider now, made navigable with a series of locks and dams, but it’s still easy to see how the layout caught Mr. Portis’s imagination.
Like Mattie, Rooster and LaBoeuf, I first headed northwest out of Fort Smith, following Interstate 40, then turned south at Sallisaw toward the Arkansas River, with Robbers Cave State Park my goal. The roads were flat and straight until I turned south on Route 2 and began to wind through the Sans Bois Mountains.
With its name and the legends attached to it — the James gang, Belle Starr and others are reputed to have stopped there — Robbers Cave is the likely model for the hide-out of Lucky Ned Pepper that Mr. Portis places in the Winding Stair Mountains farther south. The “cave” is not much more than an overhanging rock, but you can follow a three-quarter-mile loop trail around it that affords some dramatic views of limestone ridges and passes a natural rock “corral” that indeed appears a convenient place for rustlers to rest their mounts. In a letter answering questions from the superintendent of the Fort Smith National Historic Site in 2000, Mr. Portis wrote that his “research methods” “were alternately intense and slapdash. ...I read whatever books and pamphlets came my way, and I did walk the ground where the events in the story take place. ... If I couldn’t confirm something, or locate a particular fact I needed, I would just make something up.... Still, you like to get things right.”
After my park stop, I aimed for McAlester, which, during the time of the book, consisted of little more than J. J. McAlester’s “store building and a few smaller frame and log structures of poor description,” as Mattie tells it. The Old Town section of the city, north of the main commercial district and adorned with antique street lamps, promotes its history with an annual Wild West festival, making liberal use of the “True Grit” connection, complete with a John Wayne impersonator. (McAlester has other literary claims: Tom Joad is released from prison there, and John Berryman was born in the town.) The site of the original store is now J. J. McAlester’s Antiques, and you can grab a lunch from a selection of sandwiches and salads across the street at the Whistle Stop Bistro.
Tracking Tom Chaney required me to move rapidly to the Winding Stair Mountains, just as the three in the book did: “We loped across open prairies and climbed wooded limestone hills and made our way through brushy bottoms and icy streams.” In one day’s hard riding, they covered some 50 miles, as I had in an hour when I reached Talihina and the beginning of the Talimena Scenic Byway (the name comes from the two ends of the road, at Talihina, Okla., and Mena, Ark.). The roller coaster of gentle curves and dips made my trip more pleasing than Mattie’s as she’s “slipping and sliding when we were climbing the steep grades.” Numerous overlooks along the 54-mile route through the Ouachita National Forest allow contemplation of the “thick pine timber in those hills,” as she puts it.
Back in 1968, in preparation for the first film, Mr. Portis shepherded a location scout for the director Henry Hathaway through the area, and the writer “bought him a baloney and Miracle Whip sandwich at a country store,” Mr. Portis remembered in the letter to the Fort Smith superintendent. “The sandwich didn’t please him,” he added. I passed up this culinary delicacy as well. Mr. Hathaway decided to shoot in the dramatic peaks of Colorado, and when Mr. Portis told him that the book “wasn’t really a Big Sky Western, he said, yes, he knew, but it didn’t matter, because all Western movies were fairy tales, more or less, and a spectacular landscape was expected.” Likewise, the Coens filmed their version in New Mexico.
THE SCENIC BYWAY runs more or less parallel to the Ouachita National Recreation Trail, which stretches for 223 miles from Talihina to Pinnacle Mountain outside Little Rock. It crosses the byway at several points, and it’s easy to hop off for a hike into the woods, on paths with evocative names like Horsethief Springs and Deadman’s Gap, for a sample of the often-rocky terrain Mr. Portis describes through Mattie.
After Mattie falls into the snake pit, Rooster hoists her out with the help of LaBoeuf and dashes with her down the slope on Little Blackie, crossing flatter terrain until he reaches the Poteau River, where she’s transported back to Fort Smith for treatment. Neither bitten nor in a hurry, I drove the rest of the byway all the way to Mena, where the easiest path for me to return to Little Rock was due east.
My journey had given me a new admiration for the novel and the author. From the history of Fort Smith through the surprising topography of Oklahoma, I could see the mind of a master storyteller at work, transforming fact into fiction, imagining fully alive characters galloping across this landscape, depicted in spare but stirring language. The author heeded well his own standards in asserting that “you like to get things right.” As I headed home, Mattie’s plain-spoken closing line inspired my own: This ends my true account of the true “True Grit” trail.Continue reading the main story
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