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Column: It was a lovely, dark and stormy trip to Arkansas

  • Will Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 6/4/2019 10:30:23 PM
Modified: 6/4/2019 10:30:16 PM

My son, Will, and I were rolling north on an Arkansas highway in his silver Silverado. “Wow!” I said. “Look how black the sky is up ahead there.”

“Yep,” he answered. “That’s where we get our weather from — Oklahoma.”

Half an hour later, as we browsed a newly opened Duluth Trading Co. store ($75 pants meant very quick browsing for me), we heard big sirens going off. I hadn’t heard that sound since the Second World War; in this case, it was a tornado warning. A clerk came by and offered us the safety of their storm shelter. We decided to skedaddle instead, and a few minutes later, as we retreated south as fast as we dared, and electronic roadside billboards flashed a red “Tornado Alert,” we were in as violent a rainstorm as I can remember. For fear of damaging hail, Will shortly pulled into a laundry business’s covered drive-through and picked up his dry cleaning while we waited.

Then it was off to Susan’s (an Arkansas version of Montpelier’s Wayside Restaurant) for lunch. I got soaked hustling from the truck to the door and spent half our time there shivering and wishing they’d turn on the gas fireplace. Hot coffee helped. The skies were clearing by the time we finished.

What you’ve just read is an attention-getter: the travelogist’s equivalent of opening lines like “It was a dark and stormy night,” or “A shot rang out and I felt a searing pain in my groin.” Because Arkansas isn’t all tornadoes and sirens. It’s lush and green, and in this northwest corner, underlain by a limestone karst basement spouting cold springs of sweet water. The early inhabitants — Osage, Kadahadacho and Quapaw — must have found it paradisiacal; but they were pushed out to what are now Texas and Oklahoma by Congress and Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. If it weren’t for the obvious effects of global warming, I’d suspect their ancient spirits were sending the violent weather.

The kids — my son and his wife — have flown me down here for my birthday. They’ve just moved to near Fayetteville to be closer to their daughters and the airport, so the girls had reasonable drives to get here for the occasion. Olivia, the younger, just graduated with a master’s degree in accounting, and she’s a demon cook. She made my favorite spice cake, a tradition that goes back about 75 years with me. Few of you know anymore what a laundry box is, but once a year, through prep school and college, my mother shipped me a birthday cake padded by my laundry. All my buddies seemed to know when it was coming, and followed me to my room from the post office like dogs behind a butcher.

The older daughter, Alexandra, works at Walmart headquarters and was here with her fiancé, who’s beginning a doctorate in law in New York City. It’s hard for me not to compare ruefully the chaos of my life at their age to such carefully planned progress.

One thing I’ve discovered about Arkansans this trip: They love to talk. Especially the old guys. On our way out of the Duluth Trading store, I saw a trim, ex-military-looking old fellow obviously waiting for his wife. “Whaddya think?” I asked him. Turned out, quite a lot. You’d’ve thought we were old pals catching up, and if his wife and the tornado hadn’t intervened, I suspect we’d be there yet. Then, on our second trip to Susan’s for lunch, I spotted again an old cowboy in a huge white hat and asked, “What? You come here every day?” He ’lowed as how he did, pretty much. But people behind both of us prevented the conversation that we obviously wanted to continue. It’s an entrancing trait — if you’re not in a hurry.

A lovely week. My daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, took me with her to the gym when she went so I could do my uphill mile on the treadmill and watch CNN right in front of my face. All of us visited Crystal Bridges, a spectacular museum of American art endowed by Alice Walton and perched over a pair of ponds fed by springs on a hill above. Besides the Bierstadt, Wyeth, Moran, Peale and the Native American art, there was a Winslow Homer painted in the Adirondacks featuring a young guide from Keene Valley, and another, of the old iron mines in Port Henry, on the west shore of Lake Champlain.

Bentonville’s Walmart Museum parks Sam Walton’s old pickup truck out front on the street. The effects of corporate money here remind me a lot of St. Johnsbury, which got the same kind of attention 100 years ago. Quite a far cry from Fort Smith, where the kids lived until they recently moved to an elevation about 900 feet higher, where it’s cooler and drier than down in the river valley. They currently must be feeling rather like the last of the Israelites who skipped out of the Red Sea just before the pharaoh’s chariots caught up to them. Shortly after they closed on the sale of the old house, the Arkansas River began to rise — and rise — to unprecedented heights, with more on the way. Each day I saw them checking their iPhones to see how far underwater their old neighborhood was. See? I told you Arkansas wasn’t just all tornadoes and sirens. Tough as it may be at times here in northern New England, we’ve got it pretty nice.

Willem Lange can be reached at

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