Brinkley, Arkansas sits on the flat delta plain between Little Rock, AR and Memphis, TN. Once upon a time much of the Delta was covered in bottom land hardwood forests, swamps, and bayous. Now it has mostly all been drained, cleared, or cut and what's left turned to farmland. Thus Brinkley, a little farming community next to I-40 interstate, where the tourist dollar means stop-over traffic gassing up between Little Rock and Memphis.
Last weekend I was such a Brinkley tourist. Mama and I stopped over on our way up to Memphis. This was my idea as I had recently read a book on the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which also included an admiring description of breakfast in Brinkley. Only Tim Gallagher, author of The Grail Bird: The Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, had neglected to give the name of the place. We pulled over at a gas station and I took the opportunity to ask the clerk if she knew a good breakfast in Brinkley.
"You mean besides MacDonald’s?"
"Well not Waffle House. I wouldn't eat at the Waffle House in Brinkley if you gave it to me for free. And not the Kentucky Fried Chicken. Don’t eat Kentucky Fried Chicken in Brinkley. Try Gene’s Bar-B-Que."
So Mama and I rounded the bend and found Gene’s. Inside there was the smattering of the local people that had so struck Gallagher (although his experience was in hunting season and I imagine a room full of camo is a more impressive sight). Mama wanted to know what book it was that I was reading that knew about breakfast in Brinkley. So I explained about Tim Gallagher and his fascination with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, rare among rare birds, called the Lord God Bird on account of its size and beauty, and thought to be extinct since the 1940s. Little remains of the birds' old haunts (ancient swamp forests of cypress) and it was assumed that logging had killed the last of them. Still, narrow fingers of bayou survive with a habitat that might hide the bird and in 2004 a team of scientists from Cornell (including Gallagher) claimed to have sighted an Ivory-Bill in Bayou de View, just outside of Brinkley.
I wasn't living in Arkansas at the time but I still remember the news of the rediscovery on the cover of an international newspaper. Sufjan Stevens, the singer/songwriter who has made a career of sussing out the profound from mundane landscapes, wrote a song about it. Now, however, it has been four years and dissent about the bird's existence is growing.
At Gene's BBQ (Home of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker) we sat in a corner with some coffee. A ceramic Ivory Bill sat perched on a log on the wall. People indifferently munched their breakfast underneath a massive artist rendering of an Ivory Bill in flight.
Mama peppered our waitress with questions. She was soft spoken.
"They come out here and set aside all this hunting and fishing land so nobody would get on it."
"Did people mind about that?" I asked.
"No," she said, "they was happy about the bird."
Then she said there had been a team from Cornell down this winter. They still haven't found the bird. I ordered breakfast and flipped over the menu.
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