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A Yankee Notebook

April 16, 2012


FORT SMITH, ARKANSAS – Hmm...who knew? That’s what I find myself thinking whenever we travel. No matter how much I may have researched the places we’re going, there are always surprises that are (as they say of travel in general) broadening. Like, who knew the most beautiful village in France is hidden in the mouth of an orange limestone cirque not far from the coast of the Mediterranean? Who knew that a Scots barman will fight you over your American wish to put a couple of ice cubes into a glass of Laphroaig? Who knew the only restaurants open in Trondheim on a Sunday evening were a McDonald’s and a Big Horn Steak House?

Who knew? That was pretty much my reaction to western Arkansas. Mother and I are just back from about a week visiting our son’s family and getting a feel for this hitherto unknown-to-us part of the country, near where the infamous Trail of Tears ended for the dispossessed Cherokees.

I’ve got an old LP record at home, produced by the National Geographic Society, called “Music of the Ozarks.” Lovely stuff: pretty old-timey and banjo-punctuated, with a strong element of gospel and funeral songs. That’s pretty much formed my image of the place. So it’s been a bit of a surprise to me that Bill Clinton wasn’t born in a log cabin. Especially when we visited the house he bought for Hillary in Fayetteville. She’d turned down his proposals three times, but mentioned one day, passing the house, that she liked it. He bought it, told her what he’d done, and reportedly announced that his fourth asking was his last. She said yes; they moved in.

The geology of a place has a lot to do with its character; so of course I checked it before we came. I found the Arkansas River, now much impounded, flowing southeast across the state to a confluence with the Mississippi, which forms the state’s eastern border. The Arkansas flows in a valley squeezed between the Ozarks to the north and the Ouachitas to the south, much as the Champlain Valley was, between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks, by a similar orogeny.

The Ozarks aren’t really mountains, but a very ancient uplifted plateau much dissected by streams; the Ouachitas are folded ridges like the Appalachians of Pennsylvania. And though the continental ice sheets never reached this far south, the northeastern corner of the state is covered with glacial sediment, washed south by the swollen Ohio and Mississippi in the last stage of the Ice Age.

Who knew that Arkansas, and particularly Fort Smith, were the western edge of the American frontier in the 19th century? Not I. But our first trip of this tour was to the old barracks of Fort Smith, a US Army outpost contested a couple of times during the Civil War, abandoned afterward, and resurrected as a federal courthouse during (as the Lone Ranger’s introduction used to say, “the fight for law and order in the early western United States.” Fort Smith lies protected in a big loop of the Arkansas River; on the west bank is Oklahoma, at that time Indian Territory. Outlaws and renegades flooded into the territory after the Civil War, preying on natives, squatters, and emigrants. An old saying ran, “There’s no law west of the MIssissippi, and no God west of the Arkansas.” Then an earnest young judge, Isaac Parker, arrived in 1875, determined to bring legal order out of the chaos. He succeeded. In 21 years he presided over more than 13,000 cases, 344 of them for capital offenses. Of the men found guilty by a jury, he sentenced 160 to death by hanging; the rebuilt multi-felon gallows still stands about 100 yards from the courthouse. Only 79 of those convicted were actually hanged, but Judge Parker has ever since been called “The Hangin’ Judge.”

The long arm of Parker’s federal law consisted of a squad of deputy marshals, who ventured into the Territory to capture the wanted men. They received a bounty for each one they brought back alive; they got nothing for a corpse. The National Park Service runs a museum in the old fort, with a tall, lean man seated behind the reception desk clad and armed like an old-time marshal.. The museum records that over 100 marshals were killed “in the discharge of their duty.”

We saw nothing that exciting during Easter Week in Arkansas. We went to church services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, and rediscovered what invariably strikes Anglicans at a Presbyterian service: They’re at the mercy of the pastor’s creative impulses. I listened carefully to the accents around me. They weren’t the exaggerated cowboy drawl of Texas, or the honey-drippimg y’alls of the Deep South. They were sweet and musical, perhaps the most pleasant voices I’ve yet heard in America. They do talk a bit slower, though. During the congregational unison responses, I always – even talking slowly – finished about three syllables ahead

We traveled to Fayetteville to visit our older granddaughter at the U of A; and although it was also the week that football coach Bobby Petrino’s career was hitting the fan, we saw no hint of any excitement among the thousands of students trekking with their backpacks across the hilly campus.

On a sunny morning our son drove Mother and me to an old-fashioned train station just north of Fort Smith, where we boarded an Arkansas Missouri Railroad caboose and hooted out of town. We crossed rapid little rivers on wooden trestles, and passed tiny hamlets tucked beneath rimrock valley walls. It was our first look at Arkansas away from shopping centers and interstates and housing developments. The conductors, all volunteers and railroad enthusiasts, told cheerful stories of deadly landslides and burning trestles in the days of steam, and served a great ham-and-cheese sandwich for lunch. Later, back at the station, Mother browsed the main street of Van Buren while I picked up The Great Santini and The Best and the Brightest for 20 cents in a used book store and whiled away an hour in the shade. Who knew it would be so pleasant?

Photo by Willem lange