What makes Arkansas worth it
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.