Vol. III, No. 4, Spring 1990


Of Elephants and Arkansas

by Crescent Dragonwagon



"Madi!" we shout. "Please, madi, evidai!"

This is Malayalam for "Stop, enough! Stop here? (There is no word for"please" in Malayalam). My husband, Ned, and I are in a taxi in the rural South Indian province of Kerala, a state not much visited by tourists, and we have just passed an elephant. We pound on the back of the front seat, trying to get the driver to stop so we can look more closely at this elephant. Finally we make ourselves understood, and he speeds into reverse until we shout "Evidai!" again. We stare out the window at the elephant and are about to exit for a closer look when a pair of gates set in a high wall on the other side of the read opens. School's out, and suddenly hundreds of Indian school children have poured out into the read. Our taxi is quickly and completely surrounded by these children, ail of whom are very excited, shouting and pointing. But not at the elephant. At us.

Travel 101: (A) Visitors always look for creatures, objects and experiences they cannot find at home. (B) To the locals, the same objects which intrigue the visitors are no big deal; in fact, they're practically invisible. What an elephant is to me, I am to a Kerala elementary school child.

Of course, I didn't need to go to India to discover this. I've lived in Eureka Springs, a town whose sole economic base is tourism, since 1971. No one who's been around here that long could fail to develop some understanding of the nature of travel and of tourists.

Too, nearly nine years ago Ned and I started the city's first bed-and- breakfast inn; and nothing--no market research, no theories, no surveys--puts a person in touch with the needs, preferences, and wishes of travelers as does directly providing them with those intimate needs, food and shelter. A good innkeeper listens and really hears what led visitors to make their choices to come to your place and to Arkansas. You learn what is special to them about the Ozarks. To guests from Colorado, lushness of the greenery. To guests from Los Angeles, the freshness and fragrance of the air. The low crime and sense of personal safety to guests from Memphis. And guests from Maui raved to a colleague in Melbourne about the fireflies.

Eureka Springs, Carroll County, Arkansas. This spa town sprang up almost overnight after its mineral springs (long known to Indians) was "discovered" by a white doctor in 1879. (Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism)
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Delight in the small local particulars doesn't surprise me. Having grown up in New York, I share this sense of wonder about Arkansas in general and the Ozarks in particular. Autumn clematis, affordable property, freedom from crime, mimosa trees, the wooden suspension bridge out near Beaver, scale and population small enough for a person to make a real difference, close-at-hand canoeable rivers, low taxes, wild blackberries and black raspberries, Eureka Springs, and being able to cash a check almost anywhere without six pieces of identification--all have, at times, filled me with elation.

When I first came to Arkansas, so in love with the state was I that the way some Arkansawyers seemed to take all this for granted puzzled me. Where was the delight, the sense of having escaped the fate of most of the rest of the nation? Of course, I was nineteen years old then, naive, full of the feelings common to any just-on-their-own young adult and so fresh to the place that I was almost evangelical.

But now, being older and having lived here almost two decades, I understand all this a little better and have some sense of what the natives put up with. I've been here long enough so that when I return to New York and give an address to a taxi driver he'll invariably say, "Where in the South are you from?" When I say "Arkansas," the odds are excellent that he'll either break into "I'm Just a Little Girl From Little Rock," or talk about the integration crisis, or, occasionally, hillbillies, moonshine, and hiding from the rev-a-noo-ers. Long enough to have had the travel editor of the New York Times look me over on our first meeting and say, "You know, you don't dress like you're from Arkansas.'' Long enough to have attended a publisher's cocktail party where I was introduced to that year's hot new wave New York novelist, who said, "You're a writer and you live in Arkansas? I didn't even know they could read in Arkansas?

Geez, I began to think, how did y'all put up with it for so long?

I think maybe, just maybe, none of us will have to put up with it much longer.

Nearly twenty years ago, in the book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler wrote that as technological developments occurred with ever-increasing rapidity, "enclaves" that kept the past alive, small-scale, and knowable, would become desirable. More recently John Naisbitt in Megatrends made a similar point--about human hunger for the natural and the sensual in reaction to the technological--when he spoke of "high tech/high touch."

If these men are right, Arkansas' time may be coming.., not through entrepreneurial success stories like Wal-Mart and Tyson and TCBY (though I mean no disrespect to these visionary companies), but as a sought-after and popular travel destination. Imagine... what if some of the things we've spent all these years apologizing for or feeling ashamed of or suffering because of turned out to be the very source of our salvation? What if the "amber of poverty" (in journalist Edward Harper's phrase) turns out to have protected the very Arkansas resources which, endangered in society at large, have now become more valuable?

As the changes in the world prophesied by Toffler and Naisbitt become truer by the day, the differences that Arkansas is rich in are becoming harder and harder to come by. Differences that are like elephants, in that however unique they are the locals may be the last to recognize them as such.

Travelers prize difference not only for exoticism but for balance and contrast. Opposites not only attract, they de-stress: in the summer when it's hot, we want to go to the mountains where it's cool. In the winter when it's cool, we want to go to the beach where it's hot. If we live in the city, we may vacation in a quiet summer home or back- pack in the Sierras. If the grass is greener, we want to graze there.

It's often said that the world is getting smaller.

Playing music on the court house porch at Mountain View, a tradition of Stone County, Arkansas. Note the distinctive bungalow style of the 1921 building. Mountain View is the site of the Ozark Folk Center. (A. C. Haralson, Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism)

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But, of course, it's the same size as ever. What's shrinking is diversity.

The emerging high-tech "information-based economy" where mass-communications and mass-transportation systems are larded with an ever-burgeoning number of service franchises (lodging, fast food, retail), makes the world and our life in it ever more uniform. It's not just that far-flung geographic areas are now linked. It's that those areas, formerly diverse bio-regions and cultural regions, have become more and more similar in appearance, taste, and feel--in human experience. This is what makes travelers, and all of us, crave something different.

Too, this erosion of diversity is happening fast. As a culture, we are indeed in shock. Who rents a VCR now--we've all bought 'em, though just a few years back we didn't even know what they were. We play our stereos somewhat nostalgically, knowing it's bye-bye albums, hello CD's. And remember back a few years ago to when Federal Express came in! Something absolutely positively had to be there overnight, and all of a sudden it could be done.

And now we have fax machines. Fax something from New York to California, and given the time zones, it can be there hours before you sent it.

Consider: if something had to go to California from New York 40 or 50 years ago, you mailed it or you took it. Let us say you took it and traveled by train, then the swiftest, most convenient way. From Manhattan to Los Angeles was a three-night, two-day journey and for many an electrifying, living, God-Bless-America epiphany of history and geography. You began in the cavernous Beaux Arts-style Grand Central Station on the Twentieth Century Limited; you ate dinner on board, rolling alongside the wide, cliff-edged Hudson River, which

gave way to the mountains of the east. By night, you approached the great industrial cities: Pittsburgh; Gary, Indiana. When you awoke, you opened your shade to the prairies. You changed both trains and stations in Chicago, where there was a six-hour stopover--long enough to walk the streets of that city and gain some feeling for it, or, if you were more high-toned, to lunch at the Palmer House and visit the Chicago Art Institute. That evening you boarded the Super Chief and watched prairie gradually give way to mountains again, then to desert with cactus, Joshua trees, and lush, spread-out, vivid sunsets. Flat desert became mesa, and you reached Albuquerque, another several-hour stop. Adobe. Indians hawking turquoise and blankets. Back aboard the Chief, the views gradually grew greener. Suddenly you were in orange groves--miles of them. At last, you disembarked in Los Angeles in the lofty, magnificently tiled mission-style Union Station.

You did more than reach your destination. You experienced a sense of time, distance, and the enormous geographic disparities of this country. You could never again sing about amber waves of grain and purple mountains' majesty without knowing them from the heart. You had crossed America. You were changed.

Today, this difference has been all but eradicated from the traveler's experience unless he or she really works for it. The most convenient New York to L.A. trip today is to fly from Kennedy to a virtually identical LAX in five hours; to stay in a nearby airport Holiday Inn or Sheraton identical to those you left in New York. You could eat identical meals from identically laid-out Burger Kings, McDonald's, and Kentucky Frieds. You could drive identical rental cars and get your cash from identical ATMs.

Can you really be said to have gone anywhere? Set against such a world, Arkansas looks good. If travelers do crave different experiences in reaction to pressures and stresses in their own lives, it's not hard to crystal-ball what some of those reactions might be, and how a place like Arkansas might serve:

In reaction to the uniformity of today's world, regional distinctions will certainly become a source of interest to travelers. The more strongly a place is one-of-a-kind, whether through architecture, history, geography, population, or even cuisine (look at Louisiana), the more vitally it will be positioned to attract visitors.

In reaction to the "high tech" nature of much of the workplace, the natural world will become more and more important to people. The environment--clean air and water, protected wilderness areas--will become issues of great concern. The more pristine the natural place, the more desirable a destination it will become.

In the Boxley Valley, Boston Mountains, Newton County, Arkansas. (Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism)

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In reaction to hard-edged new technologies, sensual amenities will become increasingly important in tourism. Objects, places, and activities which please the senses will be sought after. Sensual amenities will combine with the obsession of the last decade, health and fitness. We'll see fitness vacations that combine work-outs or treks with indulgence (legitimate massage, for instance). The rise of small, first-class hotels and inns will continue. Fine food, landscaped gardens, fresh flowers, and spas will combine to create "high touch" travel experiences.

But sensuality comes in many forms, not all high-falutin'. Combine hunger for touch and thirst for regionalism and you get good, drippy, messy, spicy barbecue, preferably at funky places where you swat the flies and smell the smoke. And you get festivals like, say, the Hope Watermelon Festival, the Pink Tomato Festival at Warren, the Peach Festival at Clarksville, the Arkansas Rice Festival at Weiner, the Grape Festival at Tontitown, the Crawfish Festival at Dermott, Chicken and the Egg Festival at Prescott, and the Mt. Nebo Chicken Fry.

In reaction to the relentless barrage of new information, technology, and the transience and rapid pace of contemporary life, the historical and the archaic will have new prominence and meaning. Even as today's travelers recognize that they cannot live in the past, they crave a time and place when things were slower, safer, more relaxed, more comprehensibly scaled. They will look to the past to make sense of the present and to become rooted.

In reaction to the depersonalization inherent in dealing daily with data and machines, travelers will seek human contact. Personal services and personal recognition will become increasingly valued in choosing a travel destination. We crave the personal touch because our world offers less of it now than ever before. We want to be called by name. We want friendliness and warmth. We want someone in a restaurant who remembers we're allergic to strawberries. We don't exactly expect this, but how delighted we are when we find it!

In reaction to the erosion of individuality that tends to occur as a side-effect of a depersonalized, highly technological work place, arts and historical / cultural goings-on in the context of a particular place will become vital to travel. When we travel, we crave meaning in the context of the particular place being visited. Local festivals; galleries featuring local artists; community theatres presenting the work of local playwrights; events showcasing those musicians, painters, poets, potters, and weavers who are connected to the specific, unique locale--all will be sought out and valued. We want something one-of-a-kind, in experience or in an object--a concert in a small park, a street musician or mime, a painting of a vista visited, a piece of pottery made from clay dug from the cave just explored. And just as we love being treated as individuals, we love the sense of knowing individuals--meeting the artists and the historians whose work is grounded in the place we are visiting.

Okay now. Ask yourself, who could be more regional than Arkansas? We have six totally distinct

bio-regions, astonishing for a state of our size and mid-south/mid-west location. Too, our poverty, our geography, and our relatively small mileage in paved roads has kept us isolated. We always thought of this as a drawback, but with it came the preservation of our strong, sweet, unadulterated regional flavors. Not only are we not like everybody else but we're not even like each other.

Who could be more natural? State and national parks, a national river, protected wilderness, Game and Fish Commission lands, national wildlife refuges, protected rivers, National Forest land--we live up to our motto. But let me raise one huge and essential caveat. If our wild places do become sought-after travel destinations, we will need careful management of these "endangered places"--their rarity, even more than their potential appeal to visitors, must make us vigilant in protecting them. We must safeguard against the tolls that heavier use will otherwise take. Who's more sensual? Now "sensual" doesn't mean decadent; it means feels-good-to-the-senses. We have a hands-on, bodies-in approach to all the natural world we live in here: we boat, swim, and fish. We have festivals and plenty of "good old down home cooking." We have a few very good hotels (we need more), some fine inns and one-of-a-kind bed-and-breakfasts, and, at last, a range of good restaurants. And we have one unparalleled-in-America Victorian era sensual experience; that of taking the waters, European spa style, in Hot Springs.

Who's more historic? Well, what state was by and large too poor to modernize and thus preserved its historic architecture admirably, though unintentionally? On the other hand, think of the entirely intentional, impeccably done Fordyce, Hot Springs' glorious bathhouse-turned-visitor-center; think of downtown and residential Eureka Springs; think of Old Washington, whose potential has not yet even been scratched; then add three national historic sites, including Pea Ridge. There's the Territorial Restoration, the Shiloh Museum, the Great Southern Hotel, the Arkansas Alliance for Historic Preservation (great group), and the 13 Main Street projects in Arkansas, started by the National Trust to revitalize downtowns but now funded by their municipalities. Now think of all I've left out.

Who's more personal? Anyone in the tourism business in Arkansas regularly hears the gratifying words, "Everybody's so friendly here? I know, in your mind you're probably running through every rude Arkansas waiter, salesperson, or political figure you know, but since so many people from elsewhere are convinced we're nice, maybe we really are, by and large.

Who's more contextual? Here we need some work, but we have an excellent example of what we could be in the Folk Center at Mountain View and in Eureka Springs' May Fine Arts Festival--put together by the artists themselves, not the Chamber of Commerce.

I think our day is coming. Sometimes I think it's already here. Once, at the Arlington in Hot Springs, I asked an older waiter of elegant mien about an item on the breakfast menu, "Arkansas grits."

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"What in particular," said, "makes these 'Arkansas' grits?"

The waiter replied, "They're grittier." Arkansas is grittier. And in a world in which distinction has been sanded nearly smooth, that's a good thing to be.

Crescent Dragonwagon, with her husband Ned Shank, operates Dairy Hollow House, a country inn and restaurant in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. A shorter version of this article has appeared in Arkansas Times.
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