I am writing this blog more than a week later than planned. As will become apparent, a painful accident has stopped me from using a keyboard. It has now improving and I can type with two hands so here is part one of a catch up.,
If you read my last blog – What’s the Appeal of the New World?- I left off with us driving out of Dallas Airport and heading North East towards Little Rock, Arkansas and the Temple of the Grandchildren.
Dallas is a rich and prosperous city covering a vast metropolitan area collectively known as the Dallas Metroplex. There are miles and miles of highways which make route finding for a stranger a bit of a challenge. But the agent at Thrifty Car Rental desk was first class. I said that we wanted to get onto the Interstate I-30 route that would take us to Little Rock and which way did she suggest would be the easiest to follow. She said that the fastest route would be heading east via the Expressway network but that these are now all toll roads which could make for a steep learning curve to be in the right lanes at the toll booths and at the interchanges. The suggestion was to head south on route 360 which would take us to the I-30 on the western side of the city and then turn to the east skirting Downtown Dallas. And what a good route that turned out to be. Not only was the route-finding dead easy, passing the Downtown area gave us a great view of the idiosyncratic collection of skyscrapers that is Central Dallas. It wasn’t the shortest route but by about 7pm we were leaving the Metroplex behind.
It is about 350 miles from DFW – Dallas Fort Worth Airport to give it its full name – to the Temple. Too far for us to travel tonight especially as our body clocks were telling us it was now after midnight. The first town we could see on the map was called Greenville, not a place of any significance as far as we could tell, but it was bound to have a few hotels. And so it turned out.
Sign-age on American highways can be a little sparse but they are very good at signs for eating places, fuel and hotels. As we approached Greenville we took the first slip road that pointed to hotels and almost immediately found ourselves in front of a modern Best Western hotel. For about $80 (£50) we got an excellent, well-furnished room with two double beds and an en-suite bathroom. And we were told that the price included a buffet breakfast. The hotel didn’t have a restaurant but across the car park was a Cracker Barrel, part of a national chain which we have sampled on other occasions. As the blurb says on their web site “Visit Cracker Barrel Restaurant and Old Country Store, where pleasing people with our delicious homestyle cooking & gracious service defines our country spirit.” Howdee!! The food was fine – grilled pork chop for Margaret and grilled catfish for me. There was just one downside that had slipped our memories, Cracker Barrels are homely and DRY!
Dinner did not take long and it was soon back to the hotel and into bed. It was now 4am at home in Richmond, so sleep came very easily.
We had a leisurely start in the morning. The self-service breakfast had a range of yoghurts, cereals and fruit juices; scrambled eggs, grits and sausages; make-it-yourself pancakes (which defeated us); a range of breads and jams. Not exactly cordon bleu but definitely fit for purpose.
The route for today took us north-east towards the town of Texarkana – funnily enough straddling the borders of TEXas and ARKANsas. We stopped off at a Target store – Margaret can’t let us go past one without a visit. She’s had a love affair with them since we were first introduced to one in Athens, Georgia nearly 20 years ago. Target is a general purpose hypermarket selling everything from clothes to garden furniture and electronics to bicycles. In most stores they also sell groceries and have a pharmacy. It’s a kind of Aladdin’s Cave of a store where you go in to buy to buy a $10 T-shirt and come out with a bill for $100, if you’re lucky.
My purchase was two prepay SIM cards with top-ups, costing about $35. True to form, our bill at the checkout was nearer $150. I’ll be checking our route out in advance over the next few weeks to make sure we avoid as many Target stores as possible.
We crossed the State line and immediately noticed that the standard of road surfacing had improved dramatically. Texas may be a prosperous state but the roads are full of potholes and the surface varies between tarmac and concrete at random intervals. In Arkansas the road surface was tarmac, smoothly finished and with clear road markings. A joy to drive on.
After a short distance there was a sign indicating that we were approaching the Arkansas Visitors Center, an opportunity to get maps and guide books. A swing right onto the entrance road took us into the car park. The building was an elegant wooden structure. Once inside the main door we were greeted by a voice saying “Welcome to Arkansas” in a strong southern drawl. The greeter turned out to be a very friendly man of about our age – not young – who asked if this was our first visit and where we had come from. Once we had mentioned the “Temple of the Grandchildren”, he became even more friendly and helpful. A good introduction to the State.
As we proceeded up the I-30 towards Little Rock we passed the town of Hope, birthplace of President William Jefferson Clinton, followed by the town of Friendship. What optimistic names.
However we were not so optimistic about the weather. To the north and east there were heavy clouds and the forecasts on the car radio indicated that tomorrow would be a day of heavy rain in Little Rock. Good job we had brought waterproofs.
It was not long before we were entering the beautiful, wooded, well-doing, Little Rock suburb of The Heights and arriving at the “Temple of the Grandchildren”. Time for big hugs all round and the start of many stories about their new house, new schools, friends they had made, soccer and the piano, which both of them play.
By early evening it was time for dinner. The suggestion was to go to a down-town fish restaurant which would give us a first view of the city centre. We all piled into their van (large people carrier), and headed down the hill towards the city. It was great to see that we were in a real city with a few skyscrapers, a State Capitol building, art galleries, a railway station and a large modern glass building which proudly announced itself as the William J Clinton Presidential Centre. We parked alongside it.
Walking into the main street, President Clinton Ave of course, took us passed a number of arty looking places that looked worthy of visits another day. And then we came to the restaurant, The Flying Fish. To call it a restaurant didn’t really describe it properly. As you go through the street door there is a queue leading to the back of front room and through to a back room. Surely this wasn’t the queue for tables. And indeed it wasn’t, it was the queue to place orders for food. The procedure was to order your food and pay for it, pick up your drinks, find a table in one of the four or five rooms at canteen type tables then wait for the food to be ready. It all seemed a bit chaotic but actually worked out well and within about ten minutes we all had our food. While waiting you couldn’t miss a vast collection of Billy Bass’s covering the walls. This certainly added to the quirky atmosphere.
The food was excellent. Katie and I had a laden bowl of boiled shrimps in their shells served on plain rice and plenty of chilli sauce. One of my favourite dishes. Henry had a three filet catfish basket with fries and hush-puppies (fried balls of corn bread).
After dinner we took a walk around the local area. Downtown Little Rock sits on the southern bank of the Arkansas River which at this point must be around 250 yds wide. There are three road across the river at this point, one modern expressway and two normal urban highways. And there also two converted old railway bridges that now serve pedestrians and bikes. As we would find out a couple of days later, Little Rock is very bike friendly with miles of cycle tracks.
The next morning it was raining and, as in so many near tropical latitudes, when it rains it can rain. This put an end to ideas of walks around the city, but, nothing daunted, we all set off in the van to visit one of the most important sites in Little Rock, the Central High School. It was here in 1957 that nine students decided to defy the segregation laws and demand places in the school. It was to prove a turning point in the battle for civil rights. The visitor centre gives a moving account of the background, the attitudes of many white people at that time and the gradual improvement in black rights. A short description of battle for desegregation can be found here. For a longer description follow this link here. At the end of next summer, our Henry will be graduating from his current school, the Pulaski Heights Middle School and starting 9th Grade at this very school.
By early evening the rain was easing off and it was decided to dine at a Brazilian restaurant in the adjoining suburb. Bossa Nova was the genuine article. Katie, our daughter-in-law has spent time in Brazil and speaks good Portuguese (plus Spanish). She took us through the menu and made excellent suggestions.
The next morning the sun was shining and, being Sunday, there was no school or work to go to. A good day for a bike ride. Katie offered me the use of her bike as she was happy to walk with Margaret and Beatrix. So before piling the bikes into the back of the van, I decided to adjust Katie’s bike so that the saddle was at the right height. Having raised it a couple of inches it was time to check it was now at a comfortable height. It was too high but in trying to get off I found myself heading slowly but surely to the ground, hand out to save myself. Wallop. There seemed to be no damage bar a grazed and bloody knee.
We set off, taking two cars, down hill to the river and to The Big Dam Bridge. At nearly a mile from start to finish this is reputed to be the longest purpose built pedestrian and cycle bridge in the world. It gets its name from the fact that it straddles a dam across the Arkansas River with a large shipping lock on the south side and a hydro electric facility on the north side. With all the rain we had yesterday plus even more storms that had hit higher up the river in Oklahoma and Kansas, the river was in full flood. There were lots of pelicans on a sandbank upstream from the dam and another small group doing battle with the currents on the downstream side.
With Oliver, Henry we all got onto our bikes and started up the ramp of the bridge. It was moderately steep and I was grateful for the 24 gears on Katie’s bike. You had to keep your wits about you at all times as, going in both directions, were regular small groups of pedestrians, a few slower bikes and many more fast-moving cyclists. A very popular place. Once on the north shore the cycle route continued downstream. Eventually it would link with trails going right into downtown. We went for about 3 or 4 miles, mostly on tarmac surfaces but for about ½ mile on a diversion through the woods on an off-road trail. It was here that we came across three riders on horseback – they get precedence over bikes. Most of the ride was on the level but the last ¼ mile or so was uphill to the edge of a golf course. We then reversed the route and met up with Katie, Margaret and Bea picking blackberries by the riverside. Then it was back over The Big Dam Bridge to the car park. Oliver and Henry then set off on an upstream cycle path and it was agreed the rest of us would drive to meet them.
It was about this time that I noticed that the wrist of the hand that saved me earlier was actually getting very sore. So much so that I couldn’t apply the torque to remove the front wheel from my bike to put it in the car. In fact, it wasn’t just sore it was excruciatingly painful.
Well, to cut a long story short, I finished up in the Emergency Room of the Baptist Hospital getting x-rays for a suspected broken wrist. Fortunately it turned out that there were no broken bones only a severe strain. The wrist was strapped up and the main instruction was to apply cold compresses as often as possible.
Contrary to our view from NHS Land in the UK, the American system is not all driven by money. At each stage from entering ER, through the triage process, to the x-ray room and finally to the diagnosis room, I kept offering my travel insurance details but the only response was ”we’ll deal with that later”. When finally the diagnosis had been delivered, we were asked to wait for the accountants. After a few minutes a lady arrived and started to take down details. Once she realised they would need to make a claim on a foreign insurer she explained that she had never made such a claim before. The outcome was that she said they would probably not pursue the claim. And to date that seems to be what they have decided to do. So there is “free” healthcare in the United States, at least some of the time.
And so, for the last week, I’ve been a one-handed typist. At first I couldn’t drive but, after a couple of days, I could use my right hand enough to engage the automatic shift.
It’s now time to do a bit of catching up. In my next blog I will cover a trip to the Ozark Mountains where we stayed in a log cabin, sampled country entertainment, visited an amazing cavern system and did a bit of trekking. And I nearly forgot, an encounter with a couple “enjoying themselves”. You’ll have to wait a couple of days for that story.