Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Diamonds in Arkansas

I love the Natural State. It's the kind of place you constantly come across obscure little gems--literally. This spring break we committed as a family to discovering new wonders in Arkansas, and we have not been disappointed.

Our first surprise was a quick side trip into Clarksville on our way to Little Rock. Clarksville is one of those towns--when you first get off the interstate and drive through town, you think you have discovered Radiator Springs. But we ended up at an incredibly entrepreneurial radio station and coffee house for lunch. The local junior high English teacher opened it just sixty days ago.


Enter the coffee shop, and the radio show host is in her studio to your left--available to chat while she spins tunes, broadcasting commentary live in-between songs. It's a big open warehouse space, decorated with classic album covers. There's a side entertainment room for bands. The coffee is great, lunch was solid (especially the soup) and hipster baristas from area colleges staff the joint.

If you are doing the drive from NWA to Little Rock, skip Starbucks and stop here.

After lunch, we made our way to Little Rock. Stopped in at the state capitol. Since our first grader has been studying Arkansas politics, this was an appropriate destination. The house and senate were both in session. While we were there they upgraded the wearing of body armor while committing a felony to itself being a felony. This is really the type of legislation it had never even occurred to me existed.

Let it just be noted that many men who work there have really great hair and wear some pretty snappy suits. And everyone was really nice even when our clan was noisy.

Next stop was the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. Our children were captivated by the civil rights interpretive center, especially video footage of the desegregation efforts and the nine students who persevered in their attendance. It's a powerful monument to how far we have come, and an equal reminder of how far yet we have to go to overcome racial inequality in our nation.

Next we checked in to our hotel downtown and took a walk along the river. We didn't go to Heifer or the Clinton Library this visit, although these are two of my favorite spots in Little Rock. Instead, we ate at our favorite seafood joint (which currently has this banner hanging out front), and played on the great park equipment along the river (if you have small children, definitely walk the river here--there's the built in tunnel playground, an awesome elevated bridge, and a submarine to tour). We ran into a classmate from preschool, which means we are batting a thousand. It never fails, when we road trip from Northwest Arkansas anywhere nearby, we run into classmates from preschool. I think I might label it the "Preschool Event Horizon."

The next day we headed for Crater of Diamonds State Park. This is the only diamond-producing site in the world open to the public, and the eighth largest diamond preserve in the world. So far 198 diamonds have been found on the site this year. They average 2-4 per day. We brought a change of clothes because we knew we would get muddy, and some basic digging and sifting equipment. Hundreds of people were out there digging with us.

From a distance, it looks like a 30-acre recently plowed field. And it is. But since it is also an old volcano crater, the dirt isn't quite like the dirt I grew up digging in Iowa. For one, it's purple, because the dirt has silica mixed in. Second, as you walk the field, it is possible to come across diamonds on the surface, or dig and sift for them. Some are very large.

We did not find any diamonds, but we did have fun digging, and we brought some rocks home with us. It's quite a drive getting out to the site, but well worth it, because a) Arkansas is beautiful, and b) Arkansas is beautiful. This is logging country, so you also get to see that industry at work, and smell it.

After Crater of Diamonds, we drove south to Hope, Arkansas. Along the way, we discovered Historic Washington State Park. We didn't know it, but it is an entire 19th century village they are restoring to its original state. But we were on our way to another destination, so didn't stop.

Instead, we visited the birth place of William Jefferson Blythe III (otherwise known as Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States). He was born three months after his father died in a car accident. He received the last name Clinton as a teenager when his mother re-married. In any event, he lived in this house in Hope, Arkansas, for the first four years of his life, then another house in Hope for three years, before moving to Hot Springs for his teen years.

Hope also happens to be the birthplace of Mike Huckabee. For a town of its size it has produced some rather outsized political creatures.

We came to Hope late in the day, but the young park ranger was more than kind, and gave us a short private tour of the house. They've restored the interior almost exactly, as it would have been while Bill lived there from age birth-4. It's rather poignant, actually. He lived with his mother and grandparents.

These are not destinations on the way to or from anywhere. Located just south of the Ouachita Mountain Range and above the opening flats of southern Arkansas, they are their own kind of place, with a rolling beauty. But they give indication of what is great about Arkansas precisely in their remoteness and quiet gravity.

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