The Clinton Trail
If so inclined you can trace the early years of President Bill Clinton. Born near the rail tracks in Hope (now an NPS Visitor Center), you will find his boyhood home. ‘Hope’ seems a pretty inappropriately named town nowadays, as the center seemed to be a ghost town (see above).
In Hot Springs he went to High School and you can see (but not visit his home there). He got married and lived with Hillary whilst he taught and took his first politcal steps in Fayetteville. Here the State operates the house and you can spend an interesting 45 minutes.
On to Little Rock and of course he is featured in the State Capitol. But the grandest monument is the Clinton Library, on top of which is an appartment he stays in when in town.
Clintons first home with Hilary, Fayetteville >
Childhood home in Hope
Arkansas is a pleasant State with lots of hills, woodlands, numerous streams and rivers, lakes, trails and lots of State Parks to enjoy….so take your walking shoes. The trails are fairly easy and I walked in Hot Springs SP and Lake Quachita, for example, in pleasant, scenic and very quiet areas.
Hot Springs became ‘hot’ over a 100 years ago as the well to do came for the hot waters and a series of Bath Houses emerged and which can still be visited. Gambling, gangsters and Spring Baseball all have roots here to be explored. Central Avenue with its Bath Houses, the grand Arlington Hotel, the trails of the National Park all make this a place to happily potter around. Drive by one of President Clintons childhood homes at 1011 Park Avenue.
Fascinating Fact: the water that emerges in Hot Springs has been circulating underground for over 4,000 years, before it makes it to the surface!
Another State Park is in fact a village. Historic Washington SP, in western Arkansas. This tiny place was, during the Civil War, for a short time, the capital of Arkansas. Look out for the huge and very old Magnolia Tree too! This location was on the Trail of Tears, a part of history in the glamorized pioneer times that should not be forgotten (but according to a teacher I met in Little Rock is!). It revolves around President Jacksons 1830 Indian Removal Act, which in truth, turned out to be an act of genocide.
Pretty – History – National and State Parks of note – Easy-going & Surprising.
Likely not at the top of the list for visitors as it does not have a ‘Grand Canyon’ type of top identification, nor is it especially easy to get to. Arkansas will likely draw the comment ‘so why are you going there?’.
My answer is always ‘because I have not been’, but it is also to see and explore places and possibly dispel preconceived ideas. Given today’s American political, social and economic divide between the middle bit of the USA and coasts I am interested in those differences. In Arkansas I just met lots of nice, friendly and helpful folk who I like to think were just like me…..except with a different accent. True, as the 5th poorest State you can see poor housing, trailer parks, maybe a Horseshoeing School, or a Bushwacker Museum, gun stores, shabby or deserted strip retail buildings and seemingly depopulated rural areas, but equally you can see pleasant, thriving towns such as Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville.
As elsewhere it is not difficult to come across what folk describe as a ‘distrust of Government’. One lady, for example, said that she thought that things like preventative flu shots or child vaccines are part of ‘a plot’ from ‘people up there’ she said gesticulating. Turned out, of course, that she worked for a State organization and depended on it!
As pretty and pleasant as the countryside and the people are, one does not have to look far to see the struggles of the smaller proportion of people now making a living in the countryside.
Many of the towns are clearly shadows of their former selves. But this is not to do with recent globalisation or China, this has been going on since shortly after World War 2. Agriculture and its processing of products, simply means a lot fewer people today as mechanization of course, has progressed. Cotton is no longer a staple crop. Hope is an example of a struggling town.
Outside of town’s deserted houses dot the roadside and a fascinating display of rusting vintage cars decorate the gardens!
Add to this that younger people want to live in towns such as Little Rock, Bentonville or out of State and you have an unbalanced demography.
< the village of Waldron ‘center’
It is clear that a big part of the current divide in America is the feeling of having somehow ‘missed out’, by rural communities with industries having moved or agriculture requiring less labor. This is well illustrated in a driving tour around Arkansas and much of the rural housing stock is awful and old. Several places I visited have ghost towns as centers. Since cotton declined and other agriculture needs fewer workers, which has really been going on since the 1950’s (apart from the chicken ‘factories’) decline has been inevitable. Some are realistic and when asked ‘what people do for a living’ in a small town a lady in diner cheerfully replied ‘well there is really no reason whatsoever for anyone to stay here’.
Northwestern Arkansas is really quite different. Fort Smith was home to the frontier to Indian lands and housed a fort and troops from around 1817. There is a Parks Service Visitor Museum and adjacent is the Fort Smith History Museum which houses a broader history of the rise and gradual decline of Forth Smith. (Nearby is a rail and trolley museum too!).
Fifty miles north are the now vibrant towns of Fayetteville and Bentonville. Both are a substantial contrast to the down at the heel villages not 20-30 miles away. Both now have an active arts and dining scene and Bentonville is famous for being the home of……Walmart! I was not excited about visiting The Walmart Museum (photo left) located on the pretty central square of Bentonville, but I was wrong, it tells a great story in about 45 minutes. Afterwards you can have a classic meal at The Flyin Fish, or have an ice cream in Walmart’s period diner.
More recent history can be seen nearby in the hardscrabble town of Hope Arkansas, the birthplace of President Clinton and also where he lived for a while in a second house not far away. Hope has fallen on hard times and is clearly in terminal decline.
No visit to Arkansas is complete with a visit to Little Rock though
My top travels ideas in Arkansas
Hot Springs, Little Rock, Hope, Washington Historic State Park, Fayettevile, Bentonville, Fort Smith (frontier town, see sign right>) and a State Park for hiking or boating
- Maps – and planning: distances can be long and lead to lengthy drives
- Work out ways to get in conversation with locals, maybe a church or a club you belong to, or arrange a Guide. You’ll likely learn a lot if you are not from the central or mid west, region
- Pick a couple of the State and National Parks to visit (some travel ideas below) and take your walking shoes