When growing up demands looking back
It was pretty close to midnight by the time I arrived at the Clinton National Airport in Little Rock. My journey there had seen both flights delayed, plus a necessary dash through the Chicago O’Hare airport to make sure I made it on time. All credit due to the thunderstorms and weather patterns of the American Midwest.
Upon arriving in Little Rock, I found my mom waiting at an empty gate and we made our way to the rental car areas.
When Deanna and I got engaged, we hadn’t even gotten off the pier where it all happened when my mom approached me and said that before we got married, she would want us to go on a mother-son trip, just to connect one more time with me as a single person through travel, one of the things I enjoy most.
As life started getting busy and full this year, the trip almost didn’t happen, but I had a light enough schedule and I was able to find a means to take enough time off to enjoy a weekend away. And so, I decided we needed to go see Little Rock.
Seems like a pretty random choice, yeah? Prior to the trip I knew very little about Little Rock, and most of the time I either heard it in reference to the Marilyn Monroe musical number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or used as a punchline– as a place with little appeal for visitors or those who have to live there. Of course, I always get skeptical about these punchline-places. I often find that turning a place into a running gag in the long run means it gets overlooked, and soon enough, it becomes one of the country’s best kept secrets.
So, I selected Little Rock under the prospect that it would actually be a pretty underestimated city.
Within hours of landing, all the differences between my mom and I came into light.
We booked an Airbnb at an artist’s eclectic studio. To me it looked like a fun place with personality, but it didn’t take long before my mom started trying to make guesses about the owner’s mental health. Did she have to be this way about everything unfamiliar?
Then we went to get things from the car, and accidentally locked ourselves out. I tried getting ahold of the studio’s owner while my mom wasted no time in booking a hotel. Did she always have to get out of problems just by spending as much money as possible?
On top of all that, we were soon approached by a homeless guy asking for change. My mom immediately acted on the assumption that he was a serial killer, while I tried to be cautious while keeping my prejudices at bay. The homeless guy didn’t do himselves any favors when we told him we didn’t have anything and said he would wait right there.
I eventually got ahold of the owner, and got the key, but my mom had already booked the hotel. She justified staying there by saying a good night’s sleep would be worth the cost, and I justified staying there by remembering that I wasn’t paying for it.
It was an eventful night, I wouldn’t have chosen, and things got tense as I realized how different my mom and I were in our approach to everything.
And then I heard that small inner voice ask a very valuable question.
What’s so bad about that?
And I had no answer.
I mean, of course my mom and I are going to have our differences, we’re just different people. And I decided to approach the rest of our weekend with much more willingness to simply let that be the case.
After a country breakfast, I sought out the Arkansas River Trail, a footpath that took us from North Little Rock, across the river via one of the city’s many industrial looking steel bridges, and right into Riverfront Park, which offered quite a lot. The kids’ play equipment actually had all-ages appeal, and I gave my mom the info I knew on what she needed to appreciate the modern art sculptures all around. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. We found THE little rock, the one that the city was named after. Thankfully we didn’t look too hard, because that was a pretty underwhelming attraction, but it’s still kind of interesting.
We stopped for a snack at the Little Rock Farmer’s Market, still a walk away from the park, and at that point, we were right on the cusp of Downtown Little Rock.
That was day one, and it was primarily our day to be tourists and to do the most obvious things. We spent some time at the State Capitol Building… I’ve seen about half of the state capitol buildings and I think Arkansas has one of the more impressive ones. Outside were statues of the Little Rock Nine, the band of teenagers who were at the frontlines of the desegregation of schools in the South. Later, we would get to see the high school itself.
We also caught a look at the Clinton Presidential Library… a showcase of Bill and Hilary memorabilia, and a storage unit for all the presidential records an eight year presidency can accumulate. Took me a while to convince my mom it wasn’t like the San Diego Public Library. My favorite part of the Clinton Library was the top floor which featured a display of gifts the Clintons had received from visiting dignitaries throughout the years. The former president of Azerbaijan gave him an epic looking sultan’s sword. Nelson Mandela found a Xhosa carving to present. My personal favorite gift to the Clintons, though, came from Michael Jordan, who gave them a small bronze statue of… Michael Jordan. When you’re like Mike, giving the sitting president a statue of yourself as a gift is totally fair game.
The library was pretty interesting, with all of its records embedded into what I’m pretty sure is structural support for the building. Binders that lined an entire hallway gave you the “short version” of the story. As much as presidents are low-hanging fruit for the world to criticize, you’ve got to wonder what your own life would be like if every single minute over the next eight years of your life were to be well documented and publicized. Would you leave a story behind to be proud of?
As it turns out, a lot of the trip I took with my mom did flashback to the Clinton years, for reasons having nothing to do with Bill himself. Since it was going to be my last time to see her before my wedding, she took the chance to pass on a lot of old stories and family mementos, including old photos and videos, an uncle’s personal autobiography, and some letters from my dad. I got more of a look into life in the early nineties, of decisions to move houses, and to Philadelphia, and my dad getting sick, and his siblings stepping in to help. Of course I lived through it, but getting a different angle on everything that happened was enlightening. A good reminder that all of the adults at the time were also just trying to figure stuff out themselves.
The next day, we took a chance to see what Little Rock might be like if I was a local. It didn’t take too long before I found what would probably be my favorite coffee shop if I were a resident. Mugs Café in Argenta had the good menu, music, and Cubano, and would likely be my regular place to set up camp and do work. Nearby was the restaurant named Good Food, which is one heck of a confident name for a restaurant. I got to try a Diamond Head Pilsner- the first Arkansan beer I’ve tried. Food wise I got a veggie roulade and a charcuterie plate, which put on way more pâte items than I would’ve expected. Arkansan pork, though.
After coffee, we went to Hot Springs, boyhood home of Bill Clinton (Arkansas really spells out his life story for you) and the home of Hot Springs National Park. The city that surrounds the park was larger than I would have expected and first impressions were that it was filled with antique shops.
Hot Springs National Park might have been the ultimate meeting point between mine and my mom’s different styles of travel. I like roughing it, hikes, and being outside, and she prefers the resort and spa type arrangement.
Hot Springs National Park is a National Park… but barely. It is definitely the most urban of all the National Parks as its geographic center is a main street full of restaurants, shops, and bathhouses. There are some really pretty parts to it that make for some good hikes. But in no way does it feel like the enclosed, protected space you would assume from a National Park.
It was a good compromise because I could still do a short hike and be surrounded by all the green that gives Arkansas its “Natural State” nickname. While I thought we would get more Hot Springs out in the wild, it turns out that the hot water funneled into the bathhouses, and so they were accessible via jacuzzis. We decided to go for a dip, since that’s what we anticipated anyways.
The next day I flew back to Portland, carrying newly discovered family mementos in my backpack. I had the chance to introduce my mom to some Southern fried seafood, among other things. One of the most freeing parts of getting to this stage in life is learning to see your parents as they are– simply humans doing their best. By the time I came on to the scene, my mom was only a little bit older than I am now.
Growing up, adults give off the impression that they’re all knowing, which makes sense since they are twice the height as the top of your head. But as you catch up with and surpass them, you see things from their eyes. Namely the fact that they aren’t all knowing, and that in spite of inevitable missteps along the way, the way they had to make do given the bumps they encountered along the way is pretty impressive.
Admirable, I’d say.