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A Little Rock, a Little Roll

August 12, 2014

Welcome to Arkansas

Monday morning did not start out very well. For starters, we woke up in the same disgusting Days Inn we went to sleep in, which is to be expected but part of me was hoping to have been somehow transported to a mediocre motel as we slept. Additionally, after the ridiculous and unexpectedly late night we had, Sam would not get out of bed for anything. By the time I dragged him out of bed and we got through our morning ritual, we were already behind schedule as we got on the Interstate and put the Days Inn behind us both literally and figuratively.

Making matters worse was our pressing need for our second oil change of the trip. I had already pushed it off for a few days, and we were about 1,000 miles overdue. We’ll be driving a few hundred more miles on Tuesday, so it really couldn’t wait. Luckily we found a Wal-Mart with an auto center right along the highway in a city ridiculously named Arkadelphia and there was nobody on line ahead of us. On the plus side, while we waited for the oil change we were able to do a little bit of needed shopping, restocking on produce, getting new windshield wipers, and procuring one more DVD to keep the Hamster entertained on Tuesday’s long drive. (I picked Goonies. He wasn’t happy about it, but after he watches it tomorrow he’ll be thanking me.)

Not to get too far off topic here, but Sam and I have spent a good deal of time mocking the state of Arkansas. Most of our mockery is focused on names. For starters, the name Arkansas is pronounced wrong and is simply a poorly disguised rip-off of Kansas. (If you like Kansas, you’ll love Arkansas!) Then there’s the similarly unoriginal names of the cities. I already mentioned Arkadelphia. And don’t forget the city right by the Texas border that’s also near Louisiana and is thus named Texarkana. They’ve got a few cities named after abstract concepts (Hope and Friendship), and tonight we stopped for gas in Palestine. Oh, and the city where we’re spending the night? It’s a few miles west of Memphis. Wanna guess what it’s called? Yup: West Memphis. This is what happens when a state spends too much time fighting to keep its school segregated and not enough naming its cities. But more on that later.

By the time we left Wal-Mart we were about an hour behind schedule, but at least we had been reasonably productive. I worried about how that hour would affect our day in Little Rock.

In the end everything worked out fine. Some reordering of the day’s stops so we’d get to everything before it closed helped, as did my overestimation of the time we’d spend in several places.

First up was the state capitol, which was very nice if a bit typical.

Arkansas State Capitol

What was unusual about this one for us is that we actually went inside, less because we were interested in seeing the interior and more because Sam desperately needed to pee. He found a bathroom, and we got a mini-self-guided tour of the building on the way, so everybody wins. The nicest feature of the capital, though, was a statue on the east lawn of the Little Rock Nine walking to school.

Little Rock Nine statue

Despite not having a degree in history, I taught 11th grade U.S. History and Government a few years ago. Needless to say I know plenty about the Little Rock Nine and the events at Central High School in 1957. (Click on the link if you need a quick refresher of your own. It’s OK, I won’t judge you for not remembering clearly.) Sam, however, had never even heard of the incident, despite a pretty solid knowledge of the Civil Rights Era for someone his age. I figured this out before we arrived in Little Rock, so I gave him a quick briefing before we arrived. This helped immensely when we got to Central High School, which still operates as a public high school but is also a National Historic Site. For legal reasons, the historic site is technically not the school but the gas station across the street from the school, which was used as a base for the dozens of reporters who covered the events as they unfolded. (It had a pay phone, which reporters desperately needed in those days).

Little Rock Historic Gas Station

 

On another corner of the same intersection is a robust Visitors Center. It’s so robust, in fact, that we ended up spending two hours there watching videos, reading placards, filling out the Junior Ranger booklet, and watching an Oscar-winning short film that follows up on the nine kids seven years later. Despite a few previous attempts at various National Parks, this is the first time Sam has actually completed a Junior Ranger booklet, thus earning himself the title (and badge) of Junior Ranger. He had a cute little swearing-in that included a promise to always treat people with respect and to never take school for granted, which I thought was a nice touch.

For me, the most fascinating part was learning more about Arkansas’s desegregation plan, which was originally designed to start gradually in the elementary schools but was changed to start with the high schools after vehement complaints from white elementary school parents. After the fiasco at Central High it took years, and Arkansas schools didn’t finish integrating until 1972. Yeah! In 1971 Arkansas still had some whites-only public schools. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Arkansas couldn’t think of any good names for cities, considering how long it took them to acknowledge that people come in more than one color.

When we were finished at the Visitors Center we walked over to the school to get a closer look. The building itself is so gorgeous that I actually fantasized about teaching there.

Little Rock Central High School

I also wondered what it might be like to be a history teacher in a high school where history actually happened. But I had to cut my daydreaming short as it was already 3 p.m. and there was much of Little Rock still to be seen.

The day turned out to be quite educational even though I hadn’t intended it to be so, 

This was due in large part to our next activity, which was visiting the headquarters of Heifer International. In case you’re not familiar, Heifer International is a humanitarian organization that aims to end poverty and hunger around the world in a variety of ways. The focus is always on teaching a man to fish (sometimes literally), as Heifer workers travel throughout the most poverty-stricken parts of the developing world to teach farming techniques and to gift income-producing livestock (and occasionally plants) to families and communities. My family has been donating to Heifer for several years, and when I found out that its headquarters is in Little Rock and that there’s an interactive “village” where you can learn about all the great work they do, I decided to take the Hamster there. The first thing that impressed us is the building itself, a modern metal structure surrounded by an actual moat, all on a site that used to be an abandoned rail yard.

Heifer International

It’s won awards for both sustainability and design, and there’s a separate (free) tour we didn’t take in which you learn all about the design and construction of the building and how it manages to consume a fraction of the energy of similarly sized buildings. 

Sam had a great time exploring the kid-focused exhibits, learning about efficient farming techniques, worldwide food consumption, livestock care, fair trade coffee, and more. And the whole visit took maybe half an hour.

Heifer International is also very conveniently located, in that it’s across the street from both the Clinton Presidential Library and the River Rail Trolley. Like we did at the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois, we looked at the Clinton Library but did not go inside, as presidential libraries are not exactly on most 12-year-olds’ summer to-do-lists. We did, however, get on the trolley.

River Rail Trolley

The Rover Rail Trolley costs just $1 and makes several stops along a loop around downtown Little Rock. It’s meant as both a tour of the city and a convenient means of transportation, depending on who’s taking the ride. We hopped on one of the last trolleys of the day, so we were the only riders and we had fun moving around the trolley to get better views of various sites as the driver pointed out landmarks. We even noticed an SUV with Alaska plates, the fourth vehicle with Alaska plates we’ve seen since we left New York.

After about half an hour the trolley dropped us off in the same spot where it had picked us up, and we jumped back in the car for one final Little Rock landmark: the Big Dam Bridge.

Big Dam Bridge

The Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis is the world’s longest pedestrian and bicycle bridge. The Big Dam Bridge, however, is the world’s longest pedestrian and bicycle bridge that was built specifically for that purpose, as Chain of Rocks was originally used for vehicular traffic. The bridge sits about 30 feet above a dam as both structures span the Arkansas River. It’s relatively new, having opened in 2006, but it’s quickly become a popular destination for locals and tourists. The bridge sits between two beautiful riverside parks and is part of an impressive network of bike and jogging trails that run through these parks. It also offers fantastic views of the river and the surrounding parks and neighborhoods.

Big Dam Bridge

Big Dam Bridge

 

While walking over the bridge we noticed the breeze and talked about how it must be fun to bike over the bridge because the breeze keeps you nice and cool despite the hot sun. And then Sam randomly said this:

Every time I go to a Chinese restaurant I look at the menu and I see “Hunan” and I think it says “Human” and I gasp for just a second.

I have no idea what prompted this sudden declaration and I couldn’t help but laugh. He wasn’t done saying oddly interesting things, either. About an hour later, as we ate dinner at a highway rest stop on our way out of town, he got annoyed by a couple of flies that were hanging around us. He yelled at them to go find a garbage can, and then looked at me and said:

You know, a garbage can must be like paradise to a fly. It would be like if I found a free pizza store.

I was worried early on, but we ended up having a really nice day. Little Rock, though very small, is beautiful, accessible, and fun. Sam learned a lot and enjoyed doing it. We did everything we had hoped and a little more. And we did it all early enough that we had time to grill dinner without rushing, drive most of the way to Memphis, and get settled in a clean motel in time to get a full night’s sleep. The day started out a little rocky (Get it? LITTLE ROCKy?) but we ended up on a roll.

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