The drive from Oklahoma City to Little Rock was composed mostly of long, flat stretches of highway through paster land and prairie, punctuated by road work. Interstate 40 is a main artery of transportation, with mostly semi-truck traffic. It has been neglected for many years and now the highway buckles and crumbles. You have to be alert as you dodge potholes while negotiating through the tailwinds of sixteen wheelers.
Once I get closer to the Arkansas border, hills rise up and become soft, ancient mountain sides. I am approaching the Great Smokey Mountains, the oldest of our mountain ranges. This brings back memories from when I was 16 years old and came to the Smokies to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail. We were 16 high school seniors and juniors from the private school, St. Andrew’s, helmed by two teachers. The year prior, they had led the same hike with another group of students and it was warm. An early spring. But this year was 1978. And it was the end of February. And we didn’t have cell phones to call for help or check the weather. We hiked right into the Blizzard of 1978 and for 10 days struggled through driving snow, ice, wind and subzero temperatures with only summer weight sleeping bags and no tents – just tarps. It was insane and most of us developed hypothermia and mild frostbite, but because our “leaders” thought it would pass and was also “character-building” we trudged on, risking quiet literally life and limb.
Somehow, we all managed to survive with only minor injuries, but my fear of camping was deeply instilled from this moment and even today I refuse to camp if the weather isn’t perfect. I know all too well how nature can turn and how fragile our bodies are when faced with freezing temps and poor gear. But our “struggle” for a week in the cold was nothing. In a few hours, I would come to realize how my problems and so-called “struggle” was petty when compared to what happened to another group of high school students at the Little Rock Central High School back in the late 1950’s. My troubles paled in comparison and I had to check myself.
My memories of that camping trip came flooding back to me as I approached the Smokies, and I was still a ways away. Arkansas was almost at peak fall foliage time and now I welcomed the diversity of trees that only exist in the eastern portion of the lower 48’s. Instead of yellow-turned forests of cottonwood and aspen, suddenly there were patches of red maple and orange oak trees.
The transition from dry deserts of the southwest to the lush, wet forests of the eastern seaboard is dramatic when you are driving west to east. I realized at that moment that I had been following the autumnal changes of the country: first northeastern early changes of sugar maples back in early September in Massachusetts and New York, followed by yellowing cottonwood and larch in the Upper Peninsula to Aspens in Wyoming and Montana, and on to Idaho, Washington, California, then back east in October to find the lower states’ trees changing from green to gold, red, orange, brown. It was a Fall I will never forget. And lucky for me, when I returned home at the end of October, I found my community still wrapped in the colors of autumn. I could still enjoy a walk in the Arboretum and see the changes before the rain and winds of November took the leaves down into piles to be raked and turned into compost for the spring planting.
For now, I enjoyed the rolling hills of Appalachia and pondered what life must be like up there in the hollows of rural Arkansas. A hard life, I imagine, even now as developments rise up and golf courses overtake pristine farm land. And I also considered how diversity is not only beautiful, but important, both in nature, and in our communities. We learn, we grow, and we benefit from not just surrounding ourselves with the same. Getting out of our bubbles, politically, socially, and culturally leads to better understanding and appreciation. These thoughts carried me through the hillsides and into suburbs of the capital city of Little Rock.
The highway turns right and merges with other smaller highways looping through the suburbs. I join Highway 30 and cross over the Arkansas River into the city proper. My Waze app misdirects me into a poor city neighborhood and down to a dead end road where small workers’ houses are falling into disrepair and neglect. Clearly, this is not the hotel, but I am grateful for the accidental detour. So often, you miss the real places when you stay on the road or keep to the tourist centers. Small detours, such as when you pull off the highway to fill up, are when you get a glimpse of what real life is like in rural Tennessee or urban Little Rock.
I call the La Quinta hotel for directions and I am lucky to talk with Gina. She is a feisty lady with a deep southern accent and a sense of humor. “Don’t panic,” she says hearing my flat northern voice, “I’ll stay with you and get you here.” I laugh to myself knowing this is probably not the first call from a confused (possibly panicked) tourist she has gotten when they realize they are lost. With a few simple turns, I am back on track and pulling into the hotel’s portico, where guests sit smoking cigarettes out front and notice my plates.
“You’re a long way from home!” the middle aged, white man in a stained T-shirt says to me as I step out of my car. “Yup. I’m from Boston. On a two month road trip,” I respond. “You don’t sound like your from Boston,” the woman states as she takes a drag. I’ve heard this before. Most people know Boston from movies like The Departed, so they assume all people from Boston sound like Matt Damon. “Well, I’m originally from Delaware,” I confess and this satisfies them.
Inside the La Quinta, the hotel is hoping. They are hosting a convention for families with members who are developmentally delayed. All of the people in the lobby mingle and laugh and seem to be having a great time. I look forward to coming back down after a rest.
At the reception desk, another sweet and happy face greets me. Most of the staff are African-American and honestly happy to welcome people into their hotel and city. I feel the southern hospitality and immediately feel at home here.
My room is clean and comfortable and after a brief rest, I am ready to join the crowd in the lobby, but when I exit the elevator, the families are gone and it is quiet and sedate. I am also disappointed to find out that the bar/restaurant is closed. The cook quit and until they hire someone new, it is closed. Bummer.
But behind the reception desk I find the happy staff, and Gina, my telephone guide from earlier. She reminds me of a character from one of those reality shows based in the poor south, like Duck Dynasty or Honey Boo Boo. She is probably in her late 30s but looks older. She has long, stringy, blond hair and is short and round and missing a few teeth. I immediately start to judge her based on her looks and this pisses me off. Why do I do that? I hate that rush to judge and assumption. It does not help any of us. And to my delight, I later find out that she is smart, educated, politically aware and so sweet and nice that I don’t want to leave Little Rock, I feel so loved.
Gina suggests that she drive me down to the river front where I can find some nice restaurants and possibly, live music. I’m game. She goes to get the hotel van and I meet her out front. Inside the van, is one of Gina’s two daughters, Kaitlin. She is a beautiful young bi-racial woman of 22 and we immediately start to talk about Little Rock and it’s history of segregation and struggle.
Gina and Kaitlin take me on a little tour of downtown Little Rock first. We drive up to the Clinton Presidential Library, where they joke that it looks like a double-wide trailer. It does. And we all have a good laugh. Probably not what the Clintons intended.
I am dropped off at Stickyz Rock’n’Roll Chicken Shack, where Gina says the fried chicken is awesome and there is always live music. I am having such a great time with these ladies, that I ask if they can join me. Alas, they have to work, so they drop me off and tell me to call whenever for a pick up back to the hotel. And this is a free service by the hotel! I love that.
Inside Stickyz, the atmosphere is artistic and colorful. The walls are painted with funky artwork and rock posters. The live music is a sweet older couple singing and playing on their keyboard standard reggae and classic rock. I go up to where they are playing and make eye contact with the woman who beams me a big smile as she sings The Beatles All You Need is Love. Perfect.
I take my usual seat at the bar and strike up a conversation with the tattooed bartender. She is young and woke. We talk about the up coming midterm elections and about Little Rock and how it has changed into a hip place to live for young people. I like it here. And the fried chicken is really good.
After my dinner and beer, I get up and tip the musicians. They are a married couple and have been coming to sing on Sunday nights at Stickyz for years. They love each other and they love their music and it fills the rest of us here with same emotion. I place a few dollars in the jar and thank them. I wish it was more since they have given so much of themselves, but I am light on cash, and they appreciate the gesture, no matter what it may be.
I call Gina and this time, she picks me up with both her daughters. I meet Rachel, the 19 year old, and she is also a beautiful young woman. We take up our conversation from earlier about Little Rock’s rocky history and struggle with segregation. I ask if we can drive by the Little Rock High School, where the battle lines were drawn back in the early 1957, after the decision for Brown vs. The Board of Education declared segregation illegal. But Gina and her daughters have a better idea: They take me to the memorial for the Little Rock Nine.
It is dark and a Sunday night, so no one is here. We park the van and all get out and walk over to the memorial. It sits atop a small mound to the right of the State Capital Building, and the sculptures of the nine, brave students are lit from below, giving it an even more profound and dramatic affect than if I had seen it in the daylight.
I am immediately reminded of the memorial in Oklahoma City from the night before. Here I stand looking at another memorial commemorating a struggle against hate. A hate that is unique to America. Hate for another American or an American institution. Domestic terrorism. It will take another day or two for me to realize how suddenly it can rear up, when I sit in my motel room in Nashville watching the staff at CNN evacuate their studio because of the discovery of a pipe bomb sent by a Trump supporter who has gone off the rails, emboldened by a President who calls himself a “Nationalist”.
But at this moment, I am concentrated on past hate, and thankfully, struggle and hope for a better country. Rachel tells me that she met Elizabeth Eckford when she came to her high school to speak to the students a few years back. What a privilege it was, she tells me. She also tells me of how it was originally 11 students and that they endured years of abuse before the National Guard was called in to protect them. By that time, two had dropped out from fear they might be killed. Understandable. The remaining nine, persisted and are now memorialized for their heroism. And then I thought of how privileged my life had been as a white woman with the opportunity to study at a private school, sheltered from anything more threatening than an ill-planned camping trip. I have been lucky and we all need to remember this and not get caught up in our own story and selfish way of looking at the world.
The four of us silently walk around the sculptures, reading their names, and giving them the respect they deserve. Back in the van, we are all clearly moved from the experience and we vow to continue to work for racial equality in the face of a government determined to undermine democracy and focused on voter suppression.
Back at the hotel, we say goodbye with emotional hugs. I feel lucky to have met these women and been inspired by their strength and intelligence. I have hope once again that we can overcome racism and injustice. I also realize that many of the ingrained prejudices I carry from my family and early years can be shattered when I let them fall away and listen to people without making assumptions. We all have a long way to go before we can erase racism, but the more we can confront our own prejudices honestly and openly, the better chance we have to eliminate them.