Everyone should visit Arkansas. As an eastern, city gal, I had no idea of the wonders that awaited me in the lovely home of former President Clinton’s high school. My daughter and I decided to spend our winter holidays in Hot Springs, far from 20-degree Washington, D.C. It sounded like a place with the antidote to snow, ice, wind and rain and we were right.
We flew into Little Rock wrapped in heavy coats and donning the usual winter gear, quite necessary as we escaped the blustery, lower-than-freezing District surrounds. Sonic restaurants and Dollar General stores dotted the landscape as we drove our compact rental car with Tennessee tags along the highway, bounding south from Little Rock toward the city of Hot Springs, our ears popping all the way.
Congress, which we left relentlessly debating the budget, the START treaty, and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, seemed so far away as we cozied up to our condo looking out over a cove off of bounteous Lake Hamilton. Hats, scarves, and gloves came off immediately and we contemplated donning bathing suits to partake of the ubiquitous baths, hot tubs, and heated pools in the nearly 70-degree environment. Kids played on the swings and at the swimming pool outside and boats flitted along the surface of the silvery lake.
The real fun began the next day when we headed about an hour and a half southwest towards the modest town of Murfreesboro. My daughter’s dream has been to go to the Crater of Diamonds and prospect for shiny things in the dirt. As distasteful as this might sound, it actually proved to be quite entertaining, if not the most rewarding diversion. First, because of the mega-fresh air of the surroundings, I could breathe again. Immersed in pristine air, our allergies, headaches, and stuffy noses seemed to fall to the wayside upon arrival and our psyches relaxed. The crater actually feels like a flat surface surrounded by a forest of tall pines and firs and covered by gentle sunlight. Second, we met people from all over the world, including a handful of Asians in this tucked away spot, looking like I would imagine lost archeologists hunting for dinosaur bones would appear. Everyone had a tale to tell of grandkids and sapphires as well as the bad weather they each had fled. I enjoyed their talks as much as our diamond-hunting walks.
It only took two days for me to finally unwind from the frenetic lifestyle of the coast and adapt to the calmer, somehow more sane and relaxed demeanor of the area. All of the people we met were kind and polite, taking their time to give us directions or suggestions for making the most of our weeklong visit to their state. They gifted us with free maps and really seemed to care, to connect—making strong eye contact and listening to every word uttered. I felt as though their answers were well considered and deliberate, rather than the pat responses and fast-talking we are accustomed to back east.
More importantly, the food was fabulous and exceeded all expectations. After figuring out that Sonic took the place of McDonald’s here, we abandoned the chain for more native fare. Nothing beats catfish and sweet tea at Buddy’s café after a long day breathing earth’s finest air and expectantly searching for white, yellow, and brown sparklings in the taupe-colored soil, except for Brandy’s Key lime pie. I want that recipe; each bite was a taste of heaven.
Exhausted and well fed, we retired at the more than comfortable and extremely hospitable Queen of Diamonds Inn for the night. We’d seen large white signs along the highway promising a good night’s rest and continental breakfast in the morning. The room came with a fridge, microwave, large-screened LG TV, and two queen-sized beds. Unfortunately, we were so comfy and snug in our beds that we barely noticed any of these accoutrements, slept in, missed breakfast, and went straight to the crater again in the morning.
I cannot quite describe the anguished disappointment we suffered when we returned that evening hungry and dehydrated to find that Buddy’s closed on Tuesdays. I responded by driving non-stop the full hour-and-a-half-long ride back to Hot Springs, refusing to consider any other restaurant along the way. Fortunately, once we arrived, we found the fare at the Back Porch Grill most satisfying. The fried avocado appetizer was a pleasant surprise and the grilled steaks and seafood did not let us down. No sweet tea to be found, we washed it down with an endless supply of lemonade.
Interestingly enough, there is no disappointment at the dig site. Everyone is quiet, perhaps prayerful, walking like novitiates having taken vows of silence through the furrows along the plane, scouting for stones that glint in the sunlight. The silence is palpable, peaceful, and soothing. No cell phones, crackberries, iPods—just you and God, walking the garden together. Whatever you find is a blessing, including the other seekers who share their stories as they sluice through dirt full of rocks and hope.
I do believe this is God’s country. My daughter counted at least 32 churches ranging in denomination between Hot Springs and Murfreesboro, a number that amazes considering the sparse population in and around those two locations. We also saw a respectable number of cattle, horses, and deer, not to mention the myriad evergreen trees and occasional log cabins, but not many people. Each person we did meet seemed a well-developed character from an American classic play waiting to be written. Folks were honest, straightforward, and generally guileless. They seemed more intrigued by our easternness than by our caramel-colored skin. We quickly fell in love with the vast open spaces, mountain air, and simple joys of Arkansas and, before we’ve even left, have started to make plans to return.