The Natural State – A Hidden Gem

This blog is about a little-known State in the US of A. Recently we spent three weeks there on a family visit. It was our second time in this gem of a state and it did not disappoint. If you’d asked me three years ago to pinpoint it on a map I could have indicated the general area – near the bottom and in the middle – but would not have been confident in the answer. So let’s try a little test.

This is a Southern State, bounded by Missouri to the north, Tennessee and Mississippi to the east, Louisiana and Texas to the south and Oklahoma to the west. Does that help?
The Mississippi River forms the eastern boundary and the main river flowing across the state from west to east has the same name as the state itself. Where it flows through the capital city, this river is as wide as the River Thames as it passes through central London.
This same river rises in the Rocky Mountains and for a large part of its course flows through another state which has a very similar name to the state in question. In fact there is only a two letter prefix that differentiates the two but the pronunciations of the two names are distinctly different.

Some of its famous sons and daughters include the singers Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell, the actors Alan Ladd and Billy Bob Thornton, the author Maya Angelou (who sadly died whilst we were there) and a recent President of the United States.

Its Central High School in the capital city, was the scene of a famous protest by a group of nine African Americans against racial segregation in the schools system back in the 1950’s. The use of the National Guard by the State Governor to try to enforce segregation made worldwide headlines and led to intervention by the Federal Government. The outcome today is a fully integrated education system that is one of the best in the United States.

Another son of the State rose to be its youngest Governor at the tender age of 32. He served for nearly ten years in this post before being chosen by the Democrat Party as its Presidential candidate. The campaign was successful and he went on to serve as President for two terms. In office, he was generally well liked both at home and overseas. He can reasonably claim that the US economy was in better shape when he left office than it was at his election. Unfortunately, he had a weakness which resulted in a legal attempt to impeach him. Although he was eventually exonerated, his image was distinctly tarnished. Since leaving office, he has worked hard to regain his reputation and recently had the honour of seeing the airport serving the State Capital renamed after himself and his equally famous wife. His wife may be the next President. Are you getting closer to an answer? If you are already there, congratulations.

Now here’s a “small” clue. The capital city is named after a little rocky outcrop that marks an ancient crossing point of the State’s main river. How does that help?

The river was used by the French in the late 18th and 19th centuries to explore and colonise vast areas of land in the Mid West between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains and as far north as Canada. To this day the river is still used for large-scale commercial traffic. To the west of the city there is a large dam across the river to help with the regulation of water flow and to help to create a major lake that provides a large part of the water needs of the city of ½ million people. An impressive pedestrian bridge spans the river above the dam and is affectionately known as “The Big Dam Bridge”.

Enough of the mystery, it is time to reveal all. The state is Arkansas and its capital city is Little Rock. The Democrat President was, of course, William Jefferson Clinton and his wife, Hilary Rodham Clinton, is front runner for the Democrat Party’s nomination in the 2016 Presidential elections.

Arkansas styles itself “The Natural State” and indeed it does have a lot of nature in every sense. It is truly a green state, with an abundance grass and trees. Apart from the two major rivers, there are plenty of other rivers and numerous lakes. Mountains abound, with the Ozarks spanning most of the northern half of the state and stretching north into Missouri. Although not particularly high – the high point is Mount Magazine at just over 2,700 feet – the Ozarks do provide excellent hiking territory with well-marked trails.

Arkansas has invested heavily over the years in State Parks. These parks are wholly owned by the state and are free to use. They are well maintained and each has at least one visitors’ centre well stocked with information leaflets and staffed by experts ready to help make your visit as rewarding and enjoyable as possible. If you are looking to holiday in a place with lots of rambling opportunities, where the terrain is not too challenging but the walks range from a less than one hour strolls to two days or more serious trail walking, then Arkansas is a great choice. There is also plenty of provision for mountain biking, canoeing and boating. An outdoor sports paradise.

And there is also the culture of the State. The Arkansas Art Museum is in Little Rock. It is housed in a fine modern building set in MacArthur Park which is named after a distinguished local son, General Douglas MacArthur. (The well-known song by Jimmy Webb and Richard Harris gets its name from a younger park of the same name in Los Angeles.) The museum’s permanent collection is not particularly spectacular but it does include works by Picasso, Sisley, Rodin, Matisse, Cézanne and Whistler. There is also an excellent collection of works by Signac the French impressionist who led the neo-impressionist movement after the death of Seurat. His paintings range from seascapes to coastal towns mostly on the French Côte d’Azur.

Where the museum excels is in special exhibitions. On a previous visit of ours, there was an excellent travelling exhibition covering the Bauhaus Movement of 1920’s and 30’s in Germany. This time the temporary exhibit was of the works of young Arkansas students ranging in age from 8 to 16+. The quality of the art was quite stunning, a tribute to art education in the State and the art education programmes run by the museum.

Whilst on the subject of art in Arkansas, no write-up would be complete without reference to another modern gallery at Crystal Bridges in the city of Bentonville in North West Arkansas. Bentonville is the home of the Waltons, not the TV family, but the founders of the world’s largest supermarket chain, Wal-Mart. The company is headquartered here and the city has obviously benefitted from having such a large and philanthropic employer. Of course, all is not rosy when it comes to employee terms and conditions. Wal-Mart does not believe in Trades Unions. However that is not a subject for this post.

Crystal Bridges is a world-class art museum set in extensive and beautifully landscaped grounds. The special exhibition, when we visited, was the private collection of William S. Paley, founder of CBS Records and past President and Chairman of the MoMa (Museum of Modern Art) in New York. He collected the works of French Modern Masters including Gauguin, Matisse, Cezanne, Degas and Picasso. Our viewing of these wonderful paintings was only marginally disturbed by the crowds of Wal-Mart shareholders who were in town for their annual meeting.

Sadly, this visit to Arkansas may turn out to be our last as our son is contemplating a company move to the Texas/Mexico borders. It sounds scorchingly hot, with little in the way of greenery or mountains. However, it is in the Rio Grande valley, so we can expect dramatic cliff scenery, and, with the Gulf of Mexico not much more than one hour away, there will be access to endless beaches.  But we will be very sad to miss out on the Natural State.



About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement based in Richmond, London. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels in North America, Europe and Turkey plus other places as yet unknown.
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