Photo by Grav Weldon
(This is an excerpt from Bill Paddack’s interview with Kat Robinson that was featured in the summer issue of Good Roads magazine.)
Kat Robinson is widely recognized across the state for her series of books about Arkansas food, her blog and TV shows on Arkansas PBS.
She’s the Natural State’s foodie extraordinaire. Since she travels throughout the state, we’re asked for her thoughts on Arkansas’ roads.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic – which has affected just about everyone’s travel – about how miles did you average traveling each year and about how many restaurants did you visit per year?
I average about 30,000 miles a year – more when I’m working on a book. For instance, I spent about 18,000 miles on the road just researching and shooting photography for 101 Things to Eat in Arkansas Before You Die and 102 More Things to Eat in Arkansas Before You Die. It’s very important to me to make sure the entire state is considered in these sorts of books.
As far as restaurants go, I probably visit between 300 and 400 restaurants a year. Some of those restaurants are repeat visits. I tend to seek out older restaurants as opposed to the up-and-coming eateries, because there are a lot of people out there doing “food news” and few chronicling our state’s food culture and history.
With that many treks all over our state each year, you may just know our infrastructure as well as the Arkansas Department of Transportation does. What are some of the main highways you are on frequently and what are your thoughts of them?
I have spent a LOT of time on U.S. Highway 65, end to end. The highway has progressively gotten shorter through the years, particularly in the deep Ozark hills. I’ve been thankful for the four-lane improvements between Little Rock and Lake Village, but still love the way the highway “bucks” through the Buffalo National River valley. It’s an eclectic drive that takes folks through many of the different terrains our state has to offer.
My favorite highway is Scenic Highway 7, and I’d love to see more promotion of the route. While it doesn’t pass through the Delta, it does cover everything from the deeply forested timberlands of Lower Arkansas, the gorgeously eroded Ouachita Mountains and Diamond Lakes region, the large verdant swath of the River Valley and the nooks and crannies of the Ozarks. I can remember as a child the celebrated tourist stops all along the stretch between Russellville and Harrison. It’d be neat to have some sort of celebration of the route.
To be honest, I’m on a LOT of highways, quite often. In both 2018 and 2019, I visited every single one of our 75 counties. I think we have a lot of underrated drives – like Highway 9 between Horseshoe Bend and Mountain View – probably one of our more challenging curvy, mountainous spans. There are also the stretches of Highway 8 in South Central Arkansas, with its miles and miles of scenery uninterrupted by towns. We’re lucky to have so many varieties of terrain here in Arkansas.
Any other specific roads you love or ones that you feel need a lot of work?
There’s the Great River Road in Arkansas. Many people know about the route in other states along the Mississippi River. On our side, from Blytheville to Eudora, it’s marked but it’s a very eclectic mix of roadways. I’d love to see better interpretation of the entire route – particularly the side routes into Elaine and out to Rohwer. There’s also a great deal of the route that’s underpaved or not paved at all, particularly the stretch from Mississippi River State Park at Marianna down to the north side of Helena-West Helena. I realize this isn’t a particular single route or highway, but it could be incorporated into the current system. It’d certainly boost the economy for our Delta region.
Similarly, the Crowley’s Ridge Scenic Parkway is a magnificent trip to take along one of the most unique land formations in this part of the world. I’d love to see updated signage through the entire length. I’ve driven it many times and have noticed the signs that are there are well-faded, and several areas where it’s hard to follow because signs aren’t around.
As far as good drives that really need to be considered, the stretch of U.S. Highway 70 between DeValls Bluff and Brinkley really needs to be reset and paved. The location of the area does restrict what can be done, but it would be wonderful to have a long stretch of that road built up, re-concreted and a roadside pull-off or two constructed. Right now the roadbed is uneven, and driving the stretch in a hard rain is a frightening journey.
On a historic front, I would love to see ARDOT and the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism get together and do something to commemorate the Dollarway (the historic road at Redfield that was built in 1913), which at one point in time was the longest span of paved road in the United States.
What safety concerns do you have on Arkansas roads?
For the most part, Arkansas roads are being tended well. I do find some rather strong frustration with the Pig Trail, partly because of inevitable washouts but more so from the lack of places to pull over. Traffic often crawls to a halt because of a single driver or truck that is having a hard time negotiating curves.
I’ve also been wondering what could be done for our roads in parts of the state that have been prone to flooding these past couple of years. Several times in the past decade, I’ve had to detour from a Highway 7 route north of Camden because of high water, and last year’s epic flooding on the Arkansas made clear that even its crossing at Dardanelle had issues. Flooding is indeed more of an issue for the Army Corps of Engineers when it comes to the Arkansas River – but perhaps something could be done in our smaller communities.
I’d love to see video integration into the iDrive Arkansas app. We were really lucky to be the first state to really GET what an app could do for us, and I love that I can just pull up my phone and get the information I need on construction and road closings. I’d love to see what could be done to have tiny, inexpensive cameras tied to the system with wireless links so drivers could see what’s going on at different locations, whether it’s for traffic in construction areas or weather at distant spots.
I know our roads get a rough rap sometimes with our residents, but for the most part we’re doing quite well. Few people know we have one of the largest highway systems in the United States, with more than 16,000 miles of state-maintained roadbed – we’re 12th in the nation. Part of that comes from the creation of our state-level highway system of designations in 1926, which continues to have repercussions today. When we started naming our stretches of existing road as highways, everyone and their dogs wanted in, and everyone wanted a highway near their home or district. So we’re a highway-dense state as well as a terrain-varied state. Our road needs are quite different in Washington County and Desha County. ARDOT does a pretty good job of maintaining it all and improving it all.