Hills and hogs dominate in Fayetteville

Monday, August 13, 2012 | 2:00 p.m. CDT; updated 12:07 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Fayetteville is home to the University of Arkansas Razorbacks but the fan frenzy about the football team permeates all of Arkansas.

*CORRECTION: The Arkansas Razorbacks baseball team took seven trips to the College World Series. An earlier version of this article misstated the number of trips.

Editor's note: This is part of the Missourian's "SEC Road Trip" special section.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — On the east side of Mount Sequoyah, a low cloud has turned the sunrise into nothing more than a faint orange glow. The flatlands and foothills below are sparsely populated.

It's 6:46 a.m.

To the west, the city of Fayetteville is bathed in gray. Sunlight has yet to make its way over the mountaintop. A few scattered clouds cling low to the horizon. It will be a beautiful early spring day in northwest Arkansas.

People get married on top of Sequoyah. There's a church retreat as well.

Overlooking a city of about 70,000 people, Skyline Drive is without car horns or city chatter. The trees are your company, along with the giant cross that sits atop the lookout point.

This mountaintop solitude is disturbed by a woman who pulls up in a silver Toyota Rav4. Cup of coffee in hand and windows cracked, perhaps this is her moment of clarity and sanity before a tough day.

Whatever it is, she doesn't want to talk.

"I'm only here for the view," she says.

People don't come to the top of Sequoyah to be bothered. Not when you can look down and see downtown, the square and Old Main, the University of Arkansas' signature building, situated on another hill across the city.

Beyond the first set of hills the land is perfectly flat, leading the 20 miles or so to the Oklahoma border. Fayetteville might be a southern town nestled in the Ozarks, but it's surprisingly close the great plains of the Southwest.

The woman in the Rav4 pulls out of the parking lot. The city starts to stir.

Liars table

At Rick's Iron Skillet, the "liar's table" is the one right next to the cash register. That's where Jim Slavens, a self-admitted "hateful old SOB" holds court with his buddies.

On this Friday morning, he is accompanied by Robert Cook and Don Paschal.

For 47 years, these men, and others from the rural areas just outside Fayetteville, have been coming to the location now known as Rick's to sit at vinyl-covered tables, harass the waitresses and drink their coffee.

"The bullshit's deep here," Paschal says.

Slavens, retired from a career in construction, moonlights as a wildlife trapper. On this morning, as he sips his coffee, a live coyote lies in a rusty cage in the bed of his pickup truck.

Fayetteville wasn't always the bustling college town it is today. It only takes a 10-minute drive in any direction but north to realize there is still a country feel to northwest Arkansas.

"This used to be a real, good old redneck town," Slavens says. "So many people come from other places and want to change everything. Now you can't hardly find a place to throw an empty beer bottle without hitting something."

The sentiment is the same at the White Star, a small bar in south Fayetteville, just across from the Tyson chicken plant. It's the kind of place where older men drink canned beer while being serenaded by David Allan Coe over the jukebox.

The kind of place where the smell of stale cigarettes permeates everything. Smoke and age have yellowed the pages of the tattered old books on the shelf next to the door. Street signs on the walls notify customers they are at the corner of "Bullshit Blvd." and "Retired and Broke Dr." Old Tyson nametags are scattered as well. Apparently Wayne, Robert, Mark, Nevin, Jim and Tabitha don't need them anymore.

Northwest Arkansas was built by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Tyson and J.B. Hunt, a transportation company. As those three grew alongside the university, Fayetteville transformed into the medium-sized city it is today.

That's why, when he finishes his coffee at Rick's, and when the men inside the White Star finish their beers, they head back out to surrounding areas such as Farmington or Elkins.

Fayetteville no longer belongs to them.

Up on the hilltop

Walking in Fayetteville is a workout.

In a city dominated by two large hills, going anywhere on foot challenges a pedestrian's calf and quadricep strength. For those without vehicles, tired legs could easily become a daily occurrence.

Nestled between the hills is Fayetteville's downtown, are a smattering of shops, restaurants and bars in old brick edifices that could be in any college town.

What distinguishes Fayetteville is the ubiquitous Razorback gear: T-shirts, posters and signs.

The home of the city's most delicious hamburgers sits completely underground. Eleven steps lead down from Block Avenue into Hugo's, a Fayetteville establishment since 1977. Exposed piping hangs over diners as they sample the midday fare that includes Hugo's specialty — the burger — but also the classic southern Po' Boy sandwiches, along with crepes and salads.

The décor is eclectic to say the least, a classic example of quantity over quality that includes a random selection as diverse as old portraits and a "Kangaroo Crossing" sign. The only consistency: Razorbacks signs, which can be found on every wall.

Eating a big lunch is an easy mistake to make when the burgers are as juicy as Hugo's, but it's a poor plan if you have ambitions to walk uphill to campus.

"The hills are part of what define Fayetteville," says Lincoln McCurdy, the kitchen manager at Hugo's. "You eventually get used to it, but at first, it's pretty rough."

The route from Hugo's to the heart of campus is a little less than a mile up Dickson Street, the heart of Fayetteville's nightlife and bar scene. The in-shape crowd might call it a nice stroll. Others would consider it more of a hike.

It takes 20 minutes to reach the massive red brick building that houses classrooms and offices and displays the seal of the University of Arkansas.

Old Main is a classic 19th century collegiate building. Two towers rise from its north and south ends, the latter sporting a clock on its east face. Ninety windows and a giant white door face a large courtyard to the east as well.

At the bottom of the steps, the year 1876 is carved in the sidewalk, and under it, nine names. These are the first graduates of the University of Arkansas. Leading away from Old Main, every graduate's name from 1876 to the present is etched into stone over the course of almost five miles of sidewalk.

As the sun begins to set behind Old Main's south tower, the green grass of the courtyard and the names on the sidewalk are awash in a golden light. It is easy to see why students would want to come to school in such a beautiful place.

Proud athletic tradition

Baum Stadium, home of the Razorbacks baseball team, is a short drive from the heart of campus. While football and basketball are the school's most popular sports, the strong affinity for Arkansas baseball is unique.

The stadium, which could easily be mistaken for AAA-level ballpark, holds 8,237 maroon seats, but it's the 2,500 fans on the grass berm in the outfield that make Baum Stadium the liveliest place in Fayetteville during the spring.

Fans bring coolers full of beer and make use of the charcoal grills scattered about the area, turning what baseball fans might consider to be the worst seats in the house into a tailgate party.

The team is no slouch either, with seven* trips to the College World Series to its credit.

Driving away from the stadium, however, it's still clear that even though it's only March, all eyes are focused on August and football season, despite the fact that former Missouri coach Mike Anderson's Razorbacks basketball team is still playing.

"Let's talk about quarterbacks in the SEC," says T.J. Carpenter, who hosts a show on 99.5 The Hog each weekday afternoon. "We're going to rank them from one to 14."

Missouri's James Franklin checks in at No. 6 and Arkansas' Tyler Wilson is No. 1, according to Carpenter.

It appears Carpenter has mastered the important radio skill of knowing his audience. The only thing more pervading than the speed bumps that litter the roads of Fayetteville is love for the Hogs.

"We're on a little bit of a sports island," McCurdy, the Hugo's kitchen manager, says. "That's the thing that sets Fayetteville apart, we've got no (major) pro teams."

Razorbacks fandom isn't limited to Fayetteville either. Lucas Bauer, a student at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, says the Hogs gospel is preached statewide.

"It doesn't matter where you go to school," Bauer says. "Everyone in Arkansas is a Razorbacks fan."

Rick Boone, owner of Rick's Bakery, went as far as to become the only bakery in town that has licensed the Arkansas logo.

"It's kind of a pain and it costs," Boone says. "But ultimately we're the only ones, so it's worth it."

Rick's uses the logo on top of its cakes and cookies, but its specialty is petit fours, French for "small cake." Vanilla icing surrounds delectably moist white cake, topped, of course, with a miniature Razorback.

Amanda Hancock, an Arkansas student from St. Louis, says the tradition in Fayetteville far outweighs anything she would have experienced had she stayed in-state.

"The tailgating, the tradition, the culture of the SEC, Missouri doesn't really have that," Hancock says. "The entire city revolves around this campus and the entire state focuses in on this city."

High-priced whiskey, low-priced beer

The sign hangs above the bar at Grub's just off Dickson Street.

"Countdown to Arkansas football season," it reads. There are 182 days and some change remaining.

Underneath the sign, Jordan Pridgin leans against a pole. Dressed in a checked blue Polo dress shirt, whiskey and Coke in hand, it's not a stretch to guess he is in a fraternity.

"Sigma Nu," he says.

According to the University of Arkansas website, 22 percent of students belong to Greek organizations, exactly on par with the most recent statistics available from MU.

"There's a lot of support behind it," Pridgin says. "The houses here are very prestigious."

Prestigious enough, says Pridgin, that they require a very specific and strict dress code. Emblems on shirts are discriminated against — moose (Abercrombie), seagulls (Hollister) and eagles (American Eagle) are all no-no's. Horses (Polo) and whales (Vineyard Vines) are the preferred brands.

Jeans are watched closely as well: The rule of thumb is to keep it simple: Any sort of designer brand is frowned upon.

"High-priced shirts, low-priced jeans," Pridgin says. "Just like high-priced whiskey, low-priced beer."

On Dickson Street itself is Shotz! — a Fayetteville tradition. Brightly lit inside, chalkboards line the walls and provide a list of the miniature liquid refreshments customers can sample. Two fake palm trees sponsored by Corona hang over the heads of the masses inside.

At the far end, one chalkboard lists the "Shots of the SEC."

The last stop on a night out in Fayetteville is the crowded Z330. Enter before midnight and the bar colloquially known as "Z's," is deserted, but for the late-night crowd, it becomes a mass of humanity. Getting to the restroom requires shoving and the occasional thrown elbow, and ordering a drink can take what feels like an eternity.

Z's knows its role. The bartenders, some of whom don't even report for duty until 12:30 a.m., wear T-shirts with the following on the back: "You may not start here, but you'll always end here."

But there was one more place to visit in Fayetteville before this day ended.

Mountaintop hop

Darkness has long set in, and upcoming dawn is closer than the night's sunset.

It's 2:56 a.m.

The hills to the west of Sequoyah are merely shadows, illuminated only by the lights of the city's major thoroughfares. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard cuts a white swath in between two hills, leading west 25 miles to Oklahoma.

The few that are still awake are students — probably pouring out of Waffle House or Jimmy John's, the two staples of drunken late-night snacks on Dickson Street.

There is no woman in a Rav4 at this hour. No one walking their dogs, no churchgoers on their way to a service and no couples up here taking romantic photos.

At this hour, on top of Sequoyah there is true solitude.

The river of students and their intoxicated shouts below might as well be in another time zone.

At this hour, on top of Sequoyah, there is peace.

This is the Fayetteville men like Jim Slavens are looking for.

Silhouetted against the sky, the light towers of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium rise above the hill on which campus sits, looming in the distance.

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