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24 hours in Fort Smith

Arkansas's West.

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'BAD LANDS': Mural art has made the historic buildings in Fort Smith come to life.
  • 'BAD LANDS': Mural art has made the historic buildings in Fort Smith come to life.

Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old protagonist of Charles Portis' "True Grit," does not think Fort Smith actually belongs in Arkansas. She cannot help but notice "that big wide street there called Garrison Avenue like places out west" and that "the buildings are made of fieldstone and all the windows need washing." In all honesty, Ross decides, "Fort Smith ought to be in Oklahoma instead of Arkansas."

It is only the Arkansas River, after all, that separates Fort Smith from Oklahoma. Nowadays, unlike during Ross' time, one can drive instead of gallop down Garrison Avenue (still unusually wide for a Southern town and evocative of the West) and over into the Sooner State within minutes. This gives Fort Smith, Arkansas's second-largest town after Little Rock, a unique feeling of mixture. Add to this a sizable immigrant population and the town's history as an outpost in colonialist pushes against Native Americans, and you've got a place that can be hard to describe. In the past two years, Fort Smith has become less known for its Hanging Judge Isaac Parker and more for its astonishing public art project, "The Unexpected."

So see the murals

If there's only one thing you'll do in Fort Smith, make it a driving tour of the massive murals that adorn historic buildings downtown. A project of local booster group 64.6 Downtown (646downtown.com), "The Unexpected" project has since 2015 brought artists from around the world to transform Fort Smith. At the OK Feed Mills, 700 B St., for example, Australian artist Guido van Helten has turned silos into something spectacular with his three portraits of blue-jeaned folk collectively called "American Heroes." On the front of the Kress Building at 800 Garrison Ave. is Houston artist (and Puerto Rico native) Ana Maria's painting of a winged bug man and an octopus woman eyeing each other. London street artist D*Face, whose "War Paint" mural of a Native American woman using a paintbrush as an arrow went up last year in the Park at West End, also installed five 1,100-pound arrows near North B and Grand Avenue, a work underwritten by the Choctaw Nation, and is the creator of "Bad Lands" at 317 Garrison Ave. There are 25 murals, three public art installations and more work on the way.

UNEXPECTED: Another mural, Okuda San Miguel's "Universal Chapel," covers an entire structure.
  • UNEXPECTED: Another mural, Okuda San Miguel's "Universal Chapel," covers an entire structure.

Let the kids run off some energy

Just like Mattie, take a walk down Garrison Avenue. It's the main drag for Fort Smith and in the heart of downtown. If you look up, it still has the wide berth and big sky of the Wild West, but down below are the trappings of any normal downtown for a mid-sized city: nice restaurants, boutique businesses (there's a fancy popcorn shop) and a Ferris wheel. Wait, what? Yep, there's a Ferris wheel, at the aforementioned Park at West End, along with a small collection of other amusement park rides right along the river.

Eat Vietnamese food

Here is one of the fiercest battles in Arkansas: Pho Vietnam, at 2214 Rogers Ave., or Pho Hoang, at 2111 Grand Ave.? For those who are not acquainted with this debate, let's go back to the beginning. Some people are asking: Why is Vietnamese food the go-to eating option in one of Arkansas's most Southwestern towns? In 1975, after the Vietnam War, a great number of Vietnamese people were resettled by the U.S. government in Arkansas, first at Fort Chaffee. Restaurants and grocery stores catering to and owned by the immigrants soon followed. Both Pho Vietnam and Pho Hoang are great, though Pho Hoang has better pho. It's also got a great indoor design, with its name pasted on the fluorescent lights. But if it's a banh mi sandwich you want, you might want to go to Pho Vietnam, its banh mi is a bit better. Maybe go to both.

GOING FOR PHO? Try Pho Hoang for its Vietnamese soup.
  • GOING FOR PHO? Try Pho Hoang for its Vietnamese soup.

Back on your feet

Walk around the Fort Smith National Historic Site complex at 301 Parker Ave. to soak up a little history. The first Fort Smith began as a military outpost at Belle Point, the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers, in 1817; its foundations can be seen today. Soldiers were sent there to create peace between two Native American tribes, the Osage and Cherokee, who'd been pushed into western Arkansas by colonialist expansion. In the 1840s and '50s, Fort Smith became one of the gateways to the West as families and soldiers headed for the Gold Rush or to fight in the Mexican-American War; in 1851, the federal government established the Western District court of Arkansas in Fort Smith, and it was there that famous Judge Parker sentenced 160 people to death in a 21-year tenure. At the historic site, you can walk the Trail of Tears, lined with informative panels on Indian removal, see the Commissary building, the oldest on the site, which stored food for troops; and the Visitor Center, which includes the barracks, courthouse and jail buildings.

Miss Laura's brothel, er, Social Club

Miss Laura's, 123 First St., is right beside the historic park, so you can finish off your stroll here. It's a former brothel that now operates as a welcome center where you can see what the bordello's rooms used to look like. It's famous, primarily, as emblematic of many houses of prostitution that stood on the edge of Native American territories, where outposts lay. We'll let you decide how to explain that to the kids.

BOUDOIR: At Miss Laurel's.
  • BOUDOIR: At Miss Laurel's.

Relax for a bit

Booklovers will want to now chill out in the perfectly dusty Snooper's Barn, at 208 Towson Ave. If you're looking for the newest hardcover, this place probably does not have it. But there are stacks of every romance novel and Western seemingly ever written — entire shelves for the Longarm Westerns (there are 436 in the series). In the back are stacks of yellow and fading National Geographics, some folded into plastic to keep them from tearing. You can flip through and see old photos. This place is everything you want in a used bookstore. Where else can you find a book dedicated to teaching hygiene to high school students in the 1980s? Or, a self-help book featuring a man crazily grinning on its cover? Once you've got something weird to read, there's a coffee shop down the road called Fort Smith Coffee Co., at 1101 Rogers Ave., where you can get a jolt of caffeine.

More food

If you went to Pho Vietnam for lunch, you can complete the Gas Station Gourmet Tour of Fort Smith and go R&R's Curry Express at 1525 Rogers Ave. (Pho Vietnam is located in what used to be a gas station and R&R is located on the side of what still is a gas station.) It's got great Indian food for cheap — most items are below $10. Two great Salvadoran options are Pupuseria Viroleña, at 1517 N. 11th St., and Restaurante Salvadoreño Norita, at 2901 Midland Blvd. Emmy's German Restaurant, at 200 N. 13th St, is a pricier sit-down restaurant with schnitzel and sauerkraut. If you're looking for a beer, Bricktown Brewery, downtown at 318 Garrison Ave., is an outgrowth of an Oklahoma City-based company with fun comfort food like Jalapeno SPAM fries.

'AMERICAN HEROS': Guido van Helten's murals on the OK Feed Mills cover 12,000 square feet.
  • 'AMERICAN HEROS': Guido van Helten's murals on the OK Feed Mills cover 12,000 square feet.

Spending the night?

If you don't want to do the Holiday/Hampton/Hilton shtick, see if Michael's Mansion at 2900 Rogers Ave. appeals. The three-story bed and breakfast, built in 1904, is on the National Register of Historic Places and features stained glass windows, quarter-sawn oak woodwork and other neoclassic glamor. It has an art gallery, too.


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