For fans of the modern Western there are few tales that compete with True Grit. In Arkansas literary history, there are few authors who have engendered the public and enjoyed such critical acclaim as Charles Portis – John Grisham and Maya Angelou being notable exceptions.
Put these elements together and you have in the author and his work a masterpiece that stirs the imagination even today and should produce particular fondness among native Arkies.
There are many ways by which we, as a society memorialize our heroes – myriad halls of fame, statues outside of sports stadiums, presidential libraries – but few elevate the memory of our artists. This, in part, is because their art is their monument, and arguably a more enduring one than that made of marble or stone. True Grit, released in 1968, is regarded by critics as one of the great American novels and is still taught in literature classes, which to its late author is sufficient enough, publicity shy as he famously was.
But time makes fickle friends of us all and in our microwave society, it becomes necessary to provide reminders of our heritage and heroes lest they be relegated to Wikipedia entries filed under “Whatever happened to…” Enter the True Grit Trail, an Arkansas-born attraction that seeks to harness the enduring allure of the famed novel and its characters for a new type of traveler seeking their own brand of edification.
“Growing up, I had heard that there had always been an interest in doing something with True Grit,” begins Tom Shay, a Yell County native who splits his time between Dardanelle and Fort Smith and a driving force behind the trail. “I had seen several pieces from Dardanelle in years past but there were no attempts at doing it.
“A few years ago, I was in Minnesota, driving along. I passed by an interstate sign that says, ‘Exit here for the Lake Wobegon Trail.’ That’s what turned the lights on in my head. I go, ‘This is it! This is what we need. We need the True Grit Trail.’”
The novel True Grit traces the quest of Mattie Ross of Yell County to avenge her father, killed at the hands of ne’er-do-well Tom Chaney. She sets out from Dardanelle to Fort Smith where she hires U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, a hard drinking but effective character when it comes to hunting down criminals in the territory.
Mattie hires Rooster to help bring Chaney to justice, a quest that soon attracts Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, who’s also on Chaney’s trail. There’s friction between the two lawmen, neither wanting to share the reward for the outlaw, but discovering that Tom Chaney is running with the Lucky Ned Pepper gang, they agree it prudent to work together. The trio track the outlaws into Indian Territory where the final showdown plays out.
Armed with that tale and the places fourteen-year-old Mattie the narrator name-drops along the way, Tom approached his local state representative at a town hall in Dardanelle.
“I had always heard great things about everything that [State Representative] Mary Bentley did for her constituents and so I said, ‘I’ve got an idea,’” Tom says. “I said, ‘What if we were promoting people to come here and see what’s going on and learn about the landscape of True Grit? What would it take to get the legislature to honorarily name Highway 22 the True Grit Trail?’ In a heartbeat she said, ‘We got this.’”
As good as her word, Rep. Bentley filed House Bill 1628 to create the True Grit Trail on February 28, 2019, with multiple co-sponsors in both the Arkansas House and Senate. The bill passed both chambers unanimously on March 14, 2019 and became law with Governor Asa Hutchinson’s signature on March 20.
With dizzying speed, Tom and his fellow proponents of the trail got what they wanted. The next question was what to do with it to promote the trail and the towns that reside along the route.
“We have this very unique concept. Our whole purpose is to help businesses in the seven counties along the river to tell the story and help them invite people to come there,” he said. “We are on a first-name basis with Charles Portis’ surviving brother, Jonathan. He welcomed us into his home, we talked to him and told him what we’re doing. He’s very gracious in giving us permission in what we do.”
To get businesses on board, a logo was designed by Bob Gray, a longtime friend of Tom’s. Backers started knocking on doors to recruit businesses who were willing to be active promoters of the attraction.
“We tell businesses, if they’ll create a meal, or design T-shirts or create a wine on the True Grit theme, we’ll let them have the use of the logo, for free,” he says. “We don’t want a royalty; we want them to make money. Then we take and promote the business with the things that we’re doing.”
Examples from participating businesses thus far include the Trails Head Flea Market by Yesterday’s Antiques in Dardanelle; True Grit Grounds coffee shop in Paris; and Country Monks Brewing at Subiaco Abbey, which introduced True Grit Ale.
An even more intriguing part of the project, mapping the trail apart from Highway 22, fell to four EAST Lab students at Dardanelle High School, Michael Finkenbinder, Ryan Knight, Diego Hernandez and Robert Keech. The quartet researched the novel for hints as to where the events of the story took place.
“They were brilliant,” Tom says. “We wanted to create a series of exhibits to be in the public libraries up and down the river who are part of the same network. So, we called [EAST Lab] and said, ‘We need kids to read the book and we need them to help us figure things out.’”
The students platted the Arkansas portion – Dardanelle to Fort Smith through Subiaco, Paris, and Charleston – before crossing into the Oklahoma leg to Sallisaw then south to McCurtain, Robbers Cave State Park, Wilburton and McAlester. From there, the trail turns back east to Hartshorne and ends in the Winding Stair Mountains within the Ouachita National Forest.
“One of the big questions was, when did the book really happen, because Portis never tells you,” Tom says. “We found an article in the New York Times that said True Grit happened in 1883, but the students came back and said this person was mentioned in the book at this point and this is when they would have been alive, or this would have happened.
“Based on that, we now believe it’s 1878 to 1880 as the correct years. The fact that four kids from Dardanelle, Arkansas, got it right and the New York Times didn’t just tickles me.”
Of course, being a work of fiction, one needs to make room for imagination in both the telling of the tale and the creation of the trail. Tom says talks are underway with owners of a structure on Mount Nebo, all but the foundation of which is lost to time, with the intent of one day promoting it as the family retreat Mattie Ross mentions. To literalists it’s a stretch, but certainly more authentically rooted than the movie locales – the 1969 version shot in Colorado and the 2010 film in New Mexico and Texas.
“Some people are like, ‘You realize that’s not true.’ I go, ‘You ever gone to Disney World?’” Tom says. “Paris has a train engine they are trying to preserve. That train engine would have been in existence in Mattie Ross’s time era. She could have ridden it. Our message to the people in Paris was why not make it an attraction as part of the True Grit Trail to tell the story of this engine.”
Other events to promote the trail, brought under management of the Yell County Historical Society in 2020, are underway in partnership with various communities’ chambers of commerce and convention and visitors bureaus. Tom is tight-lipped about details, saying only that there lies great potential for the project to play a visible role in sharing the unique bit of Arkansas history, both actual and literary.
“There’s incredible Western heritage in this part of the country. All the neat people you read about who came through here, lived through here, died here,” he says. “Look at all the incredible things that Fort Smith has done, like the U.S. Marshals Museum. Of all the places in the United States it could have been built, we got it!
“Now here we’ve got this novel, about a young girl from Dardanelle who comes to Fort Smith, written by a very famous author who comes from Arkansas. We just believe that there are some really neat things that we could do here. It has been fun to watch.”
To learn more about the True Grit Trail, please visit truegrittrail.com.