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— When we decided to visit all the state parks this year, we knew that in doing so, we would see more than the parks themselves.

With fairly even distribution throughout the six natural geographic regions, our travels would also give us a good cross view of the entire Natural State.

That was an important component of the plan. We would getoff the intestate highways and drive through small towns - past businesses, homes, schools, churches and neighborhoods.

We would travel narrow twolane highways past farms and crops, through hills and flatlands.

Along the way, we hoped to talk to Arkansans from the different regions to hear what they had to say and to listen to different dialects. In conclusion, we wanted to experience Arkansas - not only to learn more about her places, resources and history, but also about her residents.

Each time I check off another park, it puts me closer to meeting my goal of seeing all of them by the end of the year. We only have about a dozen state parks and three more Arkansas national parks remaining.

In my excitement to see the list dwindle, I sometimes forget momentarily that filling the map with check marks is only one part of the plan. Seeing and learning more about our state isanother benefit. As that happens, it further convinces me that Arkansas is a great place with a rich history, beautiful scenery and lots of interesting people.

One way we learn more about areas we pass through and the people who live there is by dining in local restaurants - you know, those places off the beaten path that are frequented mostly by people who live there. We sometimes ask store clerks or gas station attendants for recommendations or we wander around until we stumble upon some place that looks interesting.

We found just such a place one morning after spending the night at Daisy State Park in the Ouachita Mountains. Anxious for a cup of coffee, we pulled up to a building that looked like a hometown cafe. With a second look, we realized there was nothing on the outside of the building that advertised this place as a restaurant or any other business except for the lighted "Open" sign in the window.

The windows were tinted and we couldn't see what was inside, but there were several vehicles in the parking lot, so we headed for the door.

Earl read an imaginary sign, "Locals Only Welcome." We laughed a little and kept walking.

We must have looked a little unsure of ourselves as we paused at the door, because one customer looked up and said, "Come in."

Another from a nearby table greeted us with, "How ya' doing?"

Feeling welcome, but still a bit out of place, I quickly sat down at a small table and began to take in the setting. The walls were retro-green and decorated with aged family photos.

The waitress brought our coffee, then stopped again on her next trip past our table as if she had waited as long as she could before she asked the burning question, "Where ya'all from?"

I told her the name of our hometown and she seemed to bewaiting for more, so I explained where Gentry is located and a little about what brought us to her area.

Soon the attention shifted from us - the strangers - back to the conversation being carried on by the locals around the room. I say "conversation" because all the tables appeared to be taking part in the same one.

Without purposefully eavesdropping, it was easy to follow the banter. These folks obviously knew each other well and chit-chatted across the room like old friends, discussing their families, how much fishing they had been doing and other similar everyday topics.

After the waitress brought our food, the cook emerged from the kitchen with his own breakfast plate and coffee cup and joined customer-friends at a nearby table. The topic of conversation shifted as he reported in amazement that somebody they all seemed to know was claiming to have been married for over 40 years without ever having hadeven one argument. Admiration for such a feat was expressed around the room, even though some agreed that this sounded next to impossible. One gentleman at a table to our left disclosed to the group that he and his wife had several arguments during their years of marriage, including a few "knock down drag outs."

"And a couple of them in public," commented a woman across the room to our right.

Chuckles could be heard around the diner and that's when Earl and I, who had been sitting in silence, looked at each other and smiled as though we were thinking the same thing. Along with our ham and eggs, this morning's country breakfast included a side of friendly, local entertainment.

We got up and paid our tab.

"Y'all have fun today," the waitress said.

"Thank you, we will," I answered.

"It's already started," I was thinking to myself.

Opinion, Pages 5 on 08/05/2009

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