Welcome to only the best month in Arkansas, better, even, than April or May. October's mild days of subtle sunlight lure you to the winding inclines of the Big Dam Bridge for heart-pumping exercise. Cool nights tuck you in for sound, serene sleep.
This is the month that explodes the thick camellia bushes with hundreds, or maybe it's thousands, of blooms. It turns the Japanese maple a deep and mesmerizing crimson. But it keeps the leaves attached to the oaks for a while longer, deferring the sheer drudgery of raking and bagging until next month.
Usually this is the month that defines the college football season, by which I refer to something really important around here. In Houston Nutt's day, the Arkansas October offered slapstick — in the way the team managed somehow to lose, in the way the frothing fans angrily responded on the radio and via the Internet and in the way the coach whined and made excuses. Bobby Petrino seems altogether less comical, perhaps not funny at all. But his Octobers may prove as interesting, maybe even for improvement. Here's hoping this month will bring his team a running game and pass defense, in which case it could be dangerous.
October in Arkansas presents our state's two best festivals, and that's not even counting the State Fair. One is tucked against a levee on the Mississippi River off Cherry Street in historic downtown Helena. The other takes place in an old movie house nestled amid the hills on scenic Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs. The one in Helena gets called the Blues and Heritage Festival anymore.
Crass trademark problems took away the more appropriate King Biscuit name. The festival had been called that to honor the Delta blues music program broadcast since 1941, and even still, from a downtown Helena radio station. But the event goes on with the same spirit, bringing an invasion of white folks with their coolers and fold-up chairs into what is now mostly a black folks' town.
These white folks pile out of their SUVs to lounge on the grass and revel in what was black folks' music until white folks over at Memphis absconded with it to add a touch of vanilla and change history. Eventually some white folks began to appreciate the blues on its influential and undefiled terms.
This year's festival begins Thursday and continues until late Saturday night. It's always been free, but this year, trying to keep financially viable, they're going to need all of $5. Well look for hopeful signs that Helena, or Helena-West Helena as it's now called by smart merger, is rallying a bit. The KIPP school is educating kids better there on Cherry Street, which has perked up in recent years. The Boys and Girls Club of Phillips County is doing good things, we're told. One of the festival's performers will be legendary showman Bobby Rush. One of the documentaries to be shown at the other festival — The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, from October 16-25 at the Malco Theater — will be about that same Bobby Rush.
You can avail yourself of the Hot Springs festival by going over some morning, buying a day pass for $20 and watching as many 45-minute to 90-minute films as you wish or can stand. Occasionally you can sit in on a session with the filmmaker. Then you can take time out to walk past the bathhouses and galleries for fresh air and something to eat.
They'll be showing dozens of documentaries and you can find a schedule at hsdfi.org. There's always one film that beckons especially. This year it's “About Face,” said to be about a woman who, as an infant in 1980, was thrown atop a campfire by her mentally disturbed mother. Saved by a man who heard the crying, she sets out 28 years later to cope with her scars and find her mom. The promotional trailer ends as she walks to a woman on a sidewalk.
Might it be?
So there you have an ode to the Arkansas October, which, among other things, offers our last chance to catch a breath before the bombardment of the holiday season. Christmas shopping now begins, you know, after the last call of “trick or treat.”