010: Arkansas, the Natural (and surprising) State!

We’ve been slowly developing our own “RVing style”. Something that full time RVers do talk about a lot when we meet or on online forums,

 “Take your time, try different things and you’ll discover what sort of RV life suits you best”.

 It takes a while to find your ‘niche’, find a way of life that’s comfortable but thrilling enough to keep it interesting! Based on that simple description, I’d say our ‘style’ is about exploring small towns and larger urban areas mixed with downtime stays in natural settings such as national and state parks. Our urban versus green settings ratio is about 60/40, which seems to feed our curiosity about the local history, the culture, offers opportunities to engage with the locals in shops, parks, farmers’ markets, cafés, micro-breweries and/or wineries, while providing enough rest and relaxation periods in natural settings.

A good example of our particular roving lifestyle is our recent journey in Southeast ArkansasWest Tennessee and North Mississippi. This was our first foray into the Deep South; we were excited and intrigued as to what we would find, and eager to test our ‘Yankee’ preset impressions of these states.

More importantly, we had to get mentally reacquainted with the hot & humid temperatures (our US hometown, Seattle, has lovely dry, cool summers) and be aware of (and keep away from) late Spring extreme weather such as thunderstorms, flash floods, tornados… Climate change has Mother Nature very confused. These weather events are now affecting an increasing large chunk of the US South and Midwest. Road traveler beware!

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With all of that said & done, off we went… first to Arkansas, the Natural State and shining subject of this blog post.

Hot Springs, AR

Located in the Ouachita Mountains about 55 miles (89 km) east of Little Rock, the State capital, Hot Springs gets its name from several natural springs still flowing up and through the area to this day. It is also the oldest federal reserve in the United States, known as “Hot Springs National Park”. Yes, the whole town is a National Park!

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The city has an illustrious if infamous past… Starting in the mid-1850’s Hot Springs developed into a successful spa town and was home to Major League Baseball spring training camps. But it was also heavy into illegal gambling and speakeasies—a favorite hang-out of gangsters such as Al Capone—plus horse racing, still in operation today at Oaklawn Park.

Main Street is where one finds “Bathhouse Row”—a half a dozen heritage buildings, some of them still offering spa services. Downtown Hot Springs is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

One certainly gets the impression of what a grand old lady Hot Springs was and perhaps, still is. Its spring water is bottled by Mountain Valley Spring Water, today owned and operated by the Cott Beverage Company. (Apparently, John & Yoko would have cases delivered to their Dakota Apartment in New York City!).

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Hotels have been or are in the process of being refurbished to their past glory. Its spring water products & services as well as its architecture are key parts of the city’s culture and Southern flair. As our first introduction to ‘the South’, Hot Springs was perfect!

Throughout our 13-day stay in Hot Springs, we settled in a quiet little campground, Treasure Isle RV Park, located on Lake Hamilton, part of the Ouachita River system. There was a particular spot nearby our RV site that I adopted as my ‘zen’ place… that will remain on my personal list of all-time favourites.

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My Zen place

LITTLE ROCK (via Lonoke, AR)

Spring 2019 has been a particularly rough season for hundreds of communities along the Mississippi River and its main tributaries, the Arkansas, Illinois Missouri, Ohio and Red Rivers. Our reservations at two RV Parks—one in downtown Little Rock and the other one on the shore of the Mississippi River in West Memphis—were cancelled due to flooding of the Arkansas River in Little Rock and the Mississippi River in Memphis.

While keeping track of weather patterns in ‘our’ area, we learned about the delicate balancing act it takes to control the Mississippi Waterways. Currently maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), their job is to protect the integrity of flood control measures through extensive levee systems. This past Spring, however, engineers were faced with a “Damned if you do/Damned if you don’t” conundrum. Which levee to shut down or open up? What are the consequences? The results were that certain areas had to be flooded in order to preserve others – the Arkansas River overflowed its banks all through Little Rock at the time of our visit.

Thanks to Boondockers Welcome, a free overnight RV parking on private property app, we quickly found another place to stay in a tiny hamlet along Highway 40, just east of Little Rock. Hosts Chris and Elka welcomed us at their farm in Lonoke and told us to “please, pick as many blueberries as you want!”

Chris, a retired machinist at a nearby L’Oreal/Maybelline factory, mentioned that these two popular brands of cosmetics sold all over the US and abroad were all made right here in Lonoke, in the heart of Arkansas. Who knew?

Little Rock Central High School… “All the World is Watching Us”

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Little Rock Central High School is the only operating high school in the nation to be designated a National Historic Site.  An accredited comprehensive public high school, it was the site of forced desegregation in 1957 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional three years earlier. Nine African-Americans teenagers enrolled and had to  be ‘escorted’ to school by police as riots ensued. The struggle endured over the years by the original nine African-American students and others who enrolled in the ensuing years, was heroic to say the least. The historical exhibit, located across the street from the school, is well documented, the photography real and raw.

For Mark and I, it was a sobering experience. It is one thing to study the US civil rights movement from books—or indeed in our case to actually remember the reporting of these events in the media—but it is quite another to be right there at one of the schools where it happened… especially in light of what is happening today, with racism still so acutely felt and politicized.

We have a lot to be thankful for the bravery of these nine African-American students who by sheer persistence opened doors to those seeking equality and education across the country.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Park

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Little Rock is also home to the Clinton Presidential Library. Bill Clinton was the 42ndPresident, from 1991 to 2001. There are 13 Presidential Libraries in the United States. This was the third Presidential Library we visited (Ronald Reagan in Simi Valley, CA and Lyndon Johnson in Austin, TX were the other two). The Clinton Library is exceptional in its architecture as well as archive presentation. The second floor that relates the timeline of the Clinton administrations was inspired by the Long Room in the Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin, which Clinton first saw when he was a Rhodes Scholar.  The result is quite striking…

The Clinton Presidential Park is right on the Arkansas River and at the time of our visit, the flood damage on its banks was still very visible. The Library buildings, located on a hill overlooking the river, were not affected.

 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY FUN & FUNKY…

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After buying fresh produce at the downtown Little Rock Farmer’s Market, we went for a bit of window shopping in the SOMA (South Main) neighbourhood, just off downtown Little Rock. There’s a distillery, wonderful cafes & restaurants and plenty of colourful shops frequented by tourists and locals alike.

 

However, the very best for me was our visit to the Esse Purse Museum—a purse museum!—a well-curated display of purses and handbags that follows the evolution of 20thcentury American woman through the bags she carried and their contents.

In the end, I couldn’t resist buying my husband an Arkansas Y’All T-Shirt, a very touristy thing to do, I know… but he wears it so well!

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PEOPLE WATCHING PICS (Hover on each image to see caption)

COMING SOON IN NEXT BLOG 11:

THE AMAZING MUSIC TRADITIONS OF THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA BLUES AND ITS INFLUENCES OVER SO MANY ARTISTS & BANDS FROM ELVIS TO THE BEATLES TO U2 TO BEYONCE & JAY Z. 

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