Holy Jesus, Arkansas

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Little Rock street art: signs of hope in a land of frightening certainty.

Little Rock street art: signs of hope in a land of frightening certainty.

I’ve been rather busy the last two months. The way consulting works is you spend six months in terror of impending destitution, then you get a year’s work of work that you have to finish in eight weeks. Hence my absence from the blog, the twitterverse and everything else in my life. I was stunned to find out this morning that I had a wife and a dog.

Early in this period I did have a vacation of sorts. Okay, it wasn’t a vacation, but the fulfillment of an obligation. My wife dragged me to Arkansas for her family reunion and even with my heavy workload, she refused to give me a pass. So, after fourteen hours in what passes for an air transportation system in the United States, we arrived at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, drove the rental car to President Clinton Avenue in downtown Little Rock and found our hotel (no, it was not the Chelsea Inn).

When I visit a city, the experience imprints an emblem on my mind. Sometimes it’s an obvious landmark, like PPG Place in Pittsburgh or Puerta del Sol in Madrid. Sometimes it’s a gestalt of the experience. When I think of Atlanta I think of freeways and Waffle Houses. When I think of Milwaukee I think “pointy brick buildings.”

When I think of Little Rock, I’ll think of parking lots and really bad coffee.

They’re trying to spruce up downtown to take advantage of the tourist attraction that is the William J. Clinton Presidential Center (which should be renamed The Clinton Center for Unabashed Self-Promotion). It looks like they have a promising downtown renewal plan, because they really need one. What I remember most about walking around downtown is lots and lots of half-empty parking lots.

The people are friendly and polite, as is true of many places in The South. They can’t make espresso to save their lives, and the food is so bland I can’t even remember what I ate. We spent a couple of days there before heading off to the reunion.

This family gathering took place in a crumbling town of about 3,000 souls in the Ozark foothills. There’s a downtown area that would take about five minutes to walk, and even less to go into the shops, most of which were closed or near-death. The haute cuisine consists of a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut.

Summer is spent avoiding the omnipresent heat, humidity, violent thunderstorms and insect swarms. When the residents are active, which is a rare occurrence outside of the need to cut the grass that grows a foot in a week, they go to church. There are about thirty churches, all some variation of Christian fundamentalist. As that’s about one for every 100 residents, some of the congregations are on the small side. One of my wife’s relatives told me that he used to go to a church that counted eight souls in its flock.

The reunion centered around a pot luck, consisting of various forms of inedible goop in casserole dishes. The primary topics of conversation were Jesus, who’s dead and who’s about to become dead. Several times I heard people talk about next year’s reunion and end the conversation with, “Well, if you can’t make it, we’ll all see each other at the pearly gates.”

What was most remarkable about this gathering of a hundred or so human beings was their stunning lack of mobility. Eighty percent of them had been born and raised there and were planning to die there. Most had never ventured out of the immediate area and none expressed the slightest desire to do so.

For a boy born and raised in California, this was a world turned upside down. I remember numerous times in my life where I’d be with groups of people and find out I was the only one actually born in the state. All of my family members have moved far away from our Silicon Valley hometown, modeling my mother who, ironically, was born in Arkansas. I’ve been to something like twenty-seven different countries and many of the people I know are eager world explorers. Even those who haven’t been anywhere dream about other lands and plan fantasy vacations.

Even more jarring was the absolute certainty that all of these people wore as a badge of honor. They had never seen any other part of the world and had only been exposed to other cultures through satellite television, which is usually tuned to a 24/7 Christian station anyway. They were absolutely committed to living their entire lives in a sealed vault. Their belief in the good book had given them an ironclad certainty that they knew everything there was to know in life, so it was pointless to venture beyond the nest.

Many of them are connected with farming in one way or another, and I did feel envious that their life rhythms are tied to the passing of the seasons. In my hectic modern world, I often don’t even notice what month it is and all the seasons tend to run together. What I certainly don’t envy is their complete lack of curiosity and their complete obedience to ready-made solutions for any problem that life has to offer. As far as these people are concerned, the world might as well be flat.

My wife said it all as we drove past the roadkill on our way back to Little Rock. “The scary thing is that all of those people vote . . . religiously.”

Amen.

The Fifty States: Alabama to Georgia

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Without much intention of doing so until I hit #45 (North Carolina), I recently completed a journey stretched out over several years through the fifty states. I saw about half of them thanks to business trips that I often extended to take advantage of the opportunity to make a business trip un-boring. Several others were vacation destinations, and a few fall into the category of “What the hell—,” like traveling to Alaska in January to watch the Super Bowl on television.

I’m happy to report that America is still a very diverse country, despite the same-o, same-o shopping malls everywhere and the irritating ΓΌber-presence of Wal-Mart. Mississippi is still very different than California which is very different than Indiana and so on.

For the most part, Americans are still friendly people, despite the noise of the political and ideological divides. I found the friendliest people in Montana, Indiana, Alaska and North Carolina; the chilliest in the New England states, Oregon and Washington state.

I live in Washington at the present time, and it certainly isn’t for the social opportunities.

The states where I remember the experiences of greatest natural beauty were California, Montana, Vermont and anywhere in the Midwest during a thunderstorm. That said, I don’t believe I’ve ever taken a vacation to “be in nature.” I’ll take big cities over nature any time. I’m passionately interested in how people live, think, feel and choose, and you don’t find that many people in the middle of nowhere (though when you do find people in the middle of nowhere, they are often very unique and interesting).

What follows are my impressions of the states, based on my experience, however limited (although I never counted changing planes as a visit). I spent a lot of time in some states, maybe an afternoon or an evening in others. I’ve seen parts of some states and may very well have missed the best parts. My journey was opportunistic and rarely planned, so there are gaps. I will preface my impressions of each state with a brief summary of the experience so you can take my observations in context.

Often I’ve heard people say things like, “Texas? Yecch!” I don’t think there is a single state in the union that deserves blanket praise or scorn; the states themselves contain varying degrees of diversity. You can’t base your impression of the state of New York based on a weekend in Manhattan any more that you can say that everyone in Texas is a flaming liberal because you spent a few hours in Austin.

I’ll go through the fifty states and the District of Columbia in alphabetical order, 10 per post (this one has 11 because I’ve included D. C.). Here goes!

Alabama: I visited Anniston with a friend on a day trip from Atlanta in 1995. Anniston was the closest city of any historical significance; one of the buses carrying the Freedom Riders was burned back in 1961. We arrived about 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning and the streets were completely deserted, like the town’s inhabitants had been sucked up by an invisible death ray. Of course, they were all in church. To kill the time we found a flea market outside of town and I bought a pair of rusted wire cutters from a big fat Bubba with three teeth (Pair uh snips? Two bucks!) Afterwards we went back into town and everyone was having iced tea on their front porches, the whites on one side of town and the blacks on the other.

Alaska: An odd combination of events led me to watch the Super Bowl in Anchorage in the dead of winter, 2006. A good friend of mine had blown the whistle on some unethical business people and, as a result, couldn’t find a job anywhere near his home. He wound up throwing everything into a severely abused pickup and rumbled his way to Anchorage to pursue a nursing degree. As it happened, my spouse had a business trip to Anchorage the week after the Super Bowl, so what the hell, let’s do it! I remember flying in over the frozen ocean and thinking we were landing on the moon. We drove through banks of piled-up snow a dozen feet high to our hotel and spent the rest of the first evening strolling through downtown Anchorage admiring ice sculptures. After the Super Bowl, we had a great dinner in a very lively restaurant, and the next day my friend took me down the peninsula to see more of the natural beauty of Alaska. The scale of things is immeasurable there; it’s as if the mountains, the ice and the stillness had all been blown up to ten times their original size. Very friendly, warm, down to earth people who felt like old souls—nothing at all like Sarah Palin.

Arizona:Β I’ve visited Arizona several times over the years, primarily Phoenix, Tucson and environs. During a two-month stay in Tucson, Β 9/11 occurred. I remember vividly the haunting stillness of the blue desert sky during the no-fly period. This is why I feel a stronger connection to Tucson than most places; it was home at a time when I had a strong need for home. I’ve been to Phoenix and environs a few times; the most enjoyable trip was going to Spring Training while staying at the Arizona Biltmore, where breakfasts like Mexican Chocolate Waffles make it my favorite breakfast spot in the world. The beauty of Arizona is in the clean lines of the mountain ranges during sunset; it’s as if they were drawn by an exceptionally fine artist with a keen eye for detail. Delightful in winter, dreadful in August (especially during a monsoon), asphalt-melting heat in June. Despite the “maΓ±ana” service that is very frustrating to a high-speed city-dweller, I prefer Tucson to Phoenix. Tucson is more friendly and has killer Mexican food in South Tucson.

Arkansas: I drove over from Memphis one afternoon, where I spent the day witnessing the poverty along the Mississippi Delta. Heart-wrenching sights of seven-to-a-shack in ragged clothes, poorly-fed, mostly black. My mother was from Arkansas, so I have some familiarity with the culture, but I probably need to go back and see more of the state to balance a rather unfavorable impression.

California:Β This is home state, where I lived most of my life until 10 years ago. I grew up in the Bay Area, lived a few years in the Wine Country and eventually settled in San Francisco. California is still my favorite state for its combination of natural and human beauty, to say nothing of its endless diversity. I think I’ve vacationed in all of the vacation spots from San Diego to Tahoe to Mendocino . . . you can do pretty much anything in California (except you have to drive to Vegas to smoke now that the health nazis have taken over the state). The fundamental problem with California is that there are simply too many people there and if 20 million of them decide to leave tomorrow, I’ll be on the first flight home.

Colorado: I’ve taken several trips to Denver and environs. One assignment I had involved followingΒ around a pay phone repairman as he attempted to repair all the pay phones that had been vandalized during the All-Star Game at Coors Field. I also watched a game at Coors and it was dreadful to see a batted ball carry so far off the bats of no-talent nobodies. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s a strange tension in Colorado, like something is out of alignment. Denver could be a much better city than it is, but has too many rough patches. Why they put the airport a billion miles away from the city is beyond me.

Connecticut:Β I visited here as part of a New England vacation one autumn and for some reason I can’t remember I traveled along the part that borders Long Island Sound. I thought it was the least remarkable of the New England states and Hartford is the epitome of dull.

Delaware: Dropped in from Philly some time in the 90’s. Spent some time putzing around the countryside and had lunch somewhere in Wilmington. It didn’t leave much of an impression. Felt like a large suburb of Philly.

District of Columbia: Two visits, most recently in 2009. Did all of the sights and museums, all of which are must-see. Horrible weather, moldy carpets on the Metro, nice ball park. Too many government buildings.

Florida: Several trips to Miami and Tampa-St. Pete. Hated the humidity and the corresponding smell. The dominant impression is that Miami is blue and St. Petersburg is pink. Lots of transplants give the place a temporary feel. Great nightlife in Coconut Grove. Tampa has a great airport. No, I haven’t been to Disney World and have no intention of doing so.

Georgia: Several trips to Atlanta and environs. Ate at my first Waffle House outside of Atlanta and used 11 napkins to soak up the grease on my grilled cheese sandwich. Atlanta’s not much; the city center is kind of a drag and the metro area has expanded Silicon Valley style. I took a drive through the country north of Atlanta, which was reasonably pleasant. I do have to say that Georgia has the most beautiful women of all fifty states.

Photo Credit:Β Β© Striker77s | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos