“What are you going to do in Oklahoma?” people asked. “Why are you going to Arkansas?”
To go someplace just to see it seems like a luxury, frivolous. But to go to places in the middle of the country, in the south, a place usually flown over to get elsewhere, a place that liberal Northerners pooh-pooh–that is downright odd.
A few years ago a friend and I counted the states that we’d been to and realized we was getting close to all of them. I got the idea in my head to visit all of them by the time I was fifty—Fifty by Fifty I called it.
My friend has finished his fifty. But I procrastinated, and now, well, fifty is coming at me fast, like a dog in dark alley. I needed to get busy on the five states I had left. Oklahoma and Arkansas were two of them. They’re adjacent states, I could get them done easily, surgically. Get in, get out, and nobody gets hurt.
But what did I know about Oklahoma? Practically nothing. It produces a lot of beef and a Native Americans were forcibly removed there. Arkansas? Even less. The Clintons came from there. Pathetic for a traveler like myself with a geography bent.
So I went. I flew to Oklahoma City and drove to Fayetteville in Northwest Arkansas. Along the way I found many things, some I expected, some I didn’t.
Bible-Belt. My rental car radio was immediately filled with Christian Rock, Christian Country, and Christian talk radio stations as soon as I drove away from the OKC airport. There were crosses on lawns. There were churches: Baptist, Nazarene, Seventh Day Adventist. I felt immediately like an outsider, but it was OK. I was a stranger in a strange land but that was okay.
Homophobia. The AirBnB I rented in Oklahoma City was owned by a Lesbian couple. I thought of Oklahoma as a gay-unfriendly place, and possibly it is. But I was welcome to the city by family. When I arrived in Fayatteville, AR I talked to a man at a brewpub who told what I should do in NW Arkansas. “Oh” he said “and the town is filled with beautiful women.” Noticing my non-reaction to that statement he added, “If you’re into that. Otherwise we have those kinds of bars too.”
Flat and dry. I drove through the Eastern part of the state, which is in fact, is hilly, green farmland. I felt like I was driving through Wisconsin. As I got closer to Arkansas the hills turned into the Ozark Mountains, which we in the West wouldn’t call mountains, but were not flat nonetheless.
Indian Country. I drove through Cherokee country and stopped in Tahlequah, the capitol. I saw the former capitol building, the street signs written in English and in Cherokee script, and the Cherokee Nation license plates. Although the Cherokee are the best known tribe to have been forcibly removed to Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears, there are actually 39 tribes represented in Oklahoma. All of these tribes came to Oklahoma on foot from places as far away as Delaware and California. There were many trails of tears.
Timothy McVeigh. The Oklahoma City National Memorial sits on the spot where Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. Now, twenty years later, standing at the reflecting pond with 168 chairs behind me, one for each of McVeighs victims, I remembered that this was an attack on Americans, by an American terrorist. McVeigh’s psychosis lie in war, gun control, and racism—issues very much at the forefront today. The bombing remains an open wound for Oklahoma and for the entire country.
When I returned to Seattle I realized that this trip wasn’t frivolous, it was essential. To go to a place just to see it is a luxury, but is also important. In order to see this country, to begin to understand it, you’ve got to go to those place you might otherwise have avoided. Places that you might fly over or otherwise dismiss. I have three states left.