New ap­pre­ci­a­tion

What makes Arkansas worth it

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - GABRIEL LODGE Gabriel in­terned for Bi­cy­cling Mag­a­zine this sum­mer in Em­maus, Pa. He lived in Al­len­town, nearly equidis­tant from New York City and Philadel­phia. He was able to ex­pe­ri­ence both cities, and Penn­syl­va­nia’s heart­land, enough to love Arkansas e

In late June, I asked a Mary­lan­der to go out on a date with me at The Tav­ern on Lib­erty in Al­len­town, Pa. We met a few days ear­lier at Muh­len­berg Col­lege and ex­changed phone num­bers, which led to our Tuesday night ren­dezvous.

We planned to meet at 7 p.m. I showed up at 6:55, she strolled in at 7:05, and then we or­dered some beer. A lo­cal lager for her and a creamy oat­meal stout for me. Things were go­ing well.

“So, where are you from?” she asked.


“Oh, re­ally? Arkansas? I’ve never met any­one from there.”

“Ha. Well, I’m glad to be the first Arkansan you’ve met. I hope I’ll leave a good im­pres­sion on you be­cause it’s a gre …”

“Wait, what’d you call your­self? An Arkansan?”

I told her yes. She had never heard, or thought of, the term be­fore, so she found it funny to say.

“You don’t have a South­ern ac­cent, though.”

“No, I don’t.”

This is an out­line of a con­stant, cycli­cal con­ver­sa­tion I had all sum­mer with dozens of peo­ple. I’ve spent so much time these past 10 weeks an­swer­ing triv­ial ques­tions about the South from those who have never been there and likely never will be.

I know what they’re try­ing to do. They want to group an en­tire ge­o­graph­i­cal area to­gether based on their ex­pe­ri­ence with one per­son from that area. They want me to be Arkansas. Un­for­tu­nately for them, it’s a role I never suc­cumbed to be­cause it’s not a role I think any per­son de­serves.

To them, Arkansas is a place on a map filled with peo­ple. To me, Arkansas is the peo­ple.

A dy­namic, nearly square-shaped state with as many in­con­gru­en­cies as pos­si­ble, the peo­ple and all of their ab­sur­di­ties are what make Arkansas worth a damn. We’re a bunch of Repub­li­cans, yup­pies, red­necks, brew­ers, farm­ers, Democrats, lawyers, cy­clists, tat­too-clad skaters, Wal-Mart ex­ec­u­tives, hunters, Chaco-lov­ing hip­pies, God-fear­ing Bi­ble thumpers, and tax-evad­ing Lib­er­tar­i­ans.

You’re just as likely to find me on my fixed-gear bike wear­ing a Goodwill-bought T-shirt, jorts, Vans, and rock­ing the nas­ti­est mus­tache you’ve ever seen as you are to find me shoot­ing clay skeet with my cousins on un­in­cor­po­rated land in Cle­burne County.

Not wholly hip­ster, not quite a good ol’ boy, but def­i­nitely an Arkansan. In Arkansas the dif­fer­ence isn’t in the de­tails; it’s in our in­abil­ity to con­form to one way of think­ing and liv­ing. How bor­ing it must be to be sur­rounded by like-mind­ed­ness at all stages of life, only serv­ing to re­in­force un­chal­lenged be­liefs. In Arkansas, a 30-minute drive can take a jack­ham­mer to the foun­da­tion you’ve built your iden­tity on and the re­build­ing process is where you can learn why other peo­ple think the way they do.

Now, all this be­ing said, some peo­ple and places in Arkansas are ter­ri­ble. There are towns filled with peo­ple known to ad­vo­cate for white na­tion­al­ism, we only have the 39th best ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem ac­cord­ing to U.S. News and World Re­port, crime has in­creased in Lit­tle Rock in 2017, and the state’s vot­ers over­whelm­ingly elected a pres­i­dent whose ap­proval rat­ings are un­usu­ally low this early into a pres­i­dency.

De­spite my dis­sat­is­fac­tion with out­siders try­ing to use me to cre­ate their idea of what an en­tire state is like, it’s in­ter­est­ing how peo­ple can start to take after the land they in­habit.

The only ac­tive di­a­mond mine in the United States is at the Crater of Di­a­monds State Park in Murfrees­boro. One of the most valu­able, highly cov­eted stones in the his­tory of the world can be searched for, and oc­ca­sion­ally found, within Arkansas’ borders. These beau­ties started grow­ing a few bil­lion years ago, hun­dreds of miles be­low the earth’s sur­face at tem­per­a­tures your new oven can’t reach.

A slow, ar­du­ous process that takes his­to­ries of col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween heat and pres­sure cre­ates things so beau­ti­ful that we’ve come to use them as tan­gi­ble rep­re­sen­ta­tions of love. How­ever, think of all the muck that isn’t re­mem­bered, the dirt that was hated, the years of de­spair it took to cre­ate these lit­tle carats of per­fec­tion. Think of all the bad that sur­rounds so much good, and you’ll start to un­der­stand what it means to be an Arkansan.

So yes, I’m from Arkansas. But I’m not sure they know what that means.

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