The dirt bike riders tip on the casino accommodation was a good one. Business is quiet at the casino. It's not exactly Vegas but I'm not complaining. It's $45 for a room and because it's Sunday, beer is $2.50 rather than $6.00. Praise the Lord indeed. I sit at the bar and eat my meal. The girl behind the bar is busy telling her life story to a couple of regulars. They look like they've heard it before. Boy she can talk.
Early Monday and I cross the iron bridge over the Mississippi River that marks the state line between Mississippi and Arkansas. Once into Arkansas it's straight onto dirt roads and within an hour I spot the sign approaching the town of Marvel for the TAT stop off. The TAT Stop cabin is run by Percy and Glenn Kale who are father and son. Glenn was out harvesting on their farm on the day I pass through but 80-year-old Percy is already on the front step of the cabin to greet me before I'm out of the Land Rover. Percy mans the cabin every day for travellers passing through on the Trans Am Trail and provides free drinks and snacks to callers. It's customary to stop and sign the visitors book and Percy has become something of a TAT legend. The postman and neighbours will call Percy to tell him someone is heading his way. Even if someone doesn't stop Percy enters his own log in the visitors book, 'Rider going east. Waved but didn't stop.' Percy was a lovely guy who in between picking his horses on his iPad gave me suggestions on where to stop for the night.
Percy's cabin was full of the kind of stuff you see on the American Pickers TV show. It turns out they had heard about Percy's collection and contacted him to ask if they could visit. 'I told them they can come, but I aint selling' Percy told me that he was waiting for the temperatures to drop and then he was going to paint the cabin roof.
As I entered my own details in the visitors book I notice the last 4x4 entry in the book is a Jeep from Canada from yesterday. Weird. I've been on the TAT a week and not seen them. I stop for lunch later that day and a Toyota Land Cruiser pulls up. Percy had told them about the British guy in the Land Rover and they'd been following my dust cloud for some time wondering whether it was me up ahead. They were a family of three and two big dogs in their well loaded truck. They'd had punctures and a busted brake line. 'Toyota's eh?' I couldn't resist.
The Arkansas trails are good and easy to navigate. The GPS sends me to a campsite that turns out to be a rundown trailer park. I give it a miss. I take an alternative road south that will join back onto the TAT sure that I'll find a motel en route. I don't. I ask the GPS to find me the nearest hotel instead. It's a 20-mile detour but it's been a long day and I don't care. As I pull into the Super 8 motel I spot a mud splattered Jeep Wrangler in the parking lot. Could this be the Canadian's? It turns out is it is. Wes the Jeep owner had seen the Land Rover pull into the parking lot and came out specially to introduce himself. He's a prison guard in a maximum security prison in Ontario and is doing the TAT with a friend riding shotgun. He looks over the Defender and is envious of the space I've got in the 110 compared with his short wheelbase Wrangler with two up! We swap TAT stories and bump into one another in the local Walmart an hour later. We're both struggling to locate the beer section. It turns out we're wasting our time. It's a dry county. Coffee tonight it is then.
The Ozark mountains of Arkansas are a surprise highlight. Endless miles of gravel roads and lush green forestry stretching as far as the eye can see. The downside. Dust. Lots of it finding its way into the normally hermetically sealed confines of the Defender...
Approaching the town of Oark, I come to a Mud Terrain howling emergency stop when I spot a field full of rusting vintage pick-up trucks. As a sucker for American cars and trucks I grab some pics of the pick-up truck graveyard when a Massey Ferguson tractor pulls up. The tractor driver is Roy Melson, the owner of this rusting collection of vehicles. He tells me he got offered 150 cars in the seventies for £500. He weighed in the 'rubbish' (he listed the stuff he scrapped that's now worth a fortune!) and kept the stuff he liked. He was passionate about late 40s, early 50s trucks. 'That was the best era for those trucks. Guys coming back after the war, marrying their sweethearts and setting up with a little farm and a new truck' He recalls riding in the cab of his dad's truck as a kid. 'There'd be four or five of us sat in those tiny cabs with the kids all stacked up on top of one another. When you got too big to sit up front you've had to ride in the back. It was all dirt roads round here back then so we'd have to stop off the creek to wash the dirt out of our teeth before we got home.' Roy in his filthy work clothes sat atop his tractor with mower and lazy southern drawl looks every bit the good ol' boy but he had no time for Donald Trump and his 'fantasy' policies. 'But you can't tell the people down here. They love him!' he says shaking his head. By the number of 'Vote Trump' garden posters, there's no doubting that this is Trump country.
The TAT maps come marked with gas station locations. Vital info for the dirt bikers who make up the majority of people on the TAT. The town of Oark has Arkansas oldest store and has a gas station, but they don't sell diesel... Michelle the waitress at the Oark Store asks if she can come outside and look at my 'Vee-Hickle'. 'What kind of truck is that y'all driving?' It's a question I'm now getting used to. It's either that or 'Is that a Jeep?' I ought to have a T-shirt printed. Michelle asks if I'll take her back to the UK in my Land Rover. I tell her I would love to but right now I haven't enough diesel. With no diesel for sale, I'm down to less than half a tank. It's 120 miles to the next fuel stop marked on the map but as I've discovered there's no guaranteeing that it will have diesel. I search for the nearest gas station on the SatNav. It's only around the corner. Result. It too doesn't have a diesel pump... After an hour round trip to get diesel I'm back on the TAT. I buy a jerry can too.
The route climbs up into the Ozark's and I find myself on a track called Warloop Lane. It sounds familiar. As the track suddenly narrows and begins a steep descent down a washed out gulley, I remember why it sounds familiar. This is the infamous section that all of the TAT blogs and forums talk about. It's definitely a gnarly track and by far the most severe I've been on anywhere up to now on the TAT. I don't have pictures to illustrate how bad it was because I didn't fancy my chances outside with the angry looking bugs as large of my thumb that were hitching a ride on the hood of the Land Rover. As the springs twang and flex under the truck as I walk it down the axle twisting steps, I'm acutely aware of being on my own in the forest with no phone coverage...
Bed for the night is in the pop top on a campsite in Fort Smith, Arkansas - 'Spinach capital of the World'. As I check in I spot the poster on the wall of the campsite reception. 'Venomous Snakes of Arkansas.' It's a big poster.