This Week (and Last Week) in Awkwardness

I read an article recently about a company that wants to build a huge complex on the north rim of the Grand Canyon complete with a cable car system capable of taking 10,000 people a day down to the bottom of the canyon.  The argument for this is that it would bring money & jobs to the local Navajo community, as well as allowing everyone to experience the beauty & serenity of the canyon bottom.  But if there’s 10,000 people through there on any given day, what beauty or serenity will be left?  Never mind the gaudy souvenir stands on the rim and the ugly slash of a cable car down the side – I shudder to think what the bottom of that canyon will look like once millions of people have been through it, tromping over the vegetation, leaving garbage everywhere, and carving their names all over the rocks.  If you destroy something in your effort to experience it, what exactly have you experienced?


Book Finished:

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

My Larson kick continues….

In the years leading up to World War II, American ambassador William Dodd and his family lived in Berlin, watching as the Nazis consolidated power, Jewish Germans lost their rights, and Hitler rose into a dictator.  Larson tells the story from the perspectives of Dodd and his daughter, Martha, using diaries and memoirs to give us a first-hand look at the New Germany.  I was surprised to find out how naive everybody seemed to be about what the Germans were really up to, as well as how sympathetic seemingly sane people were to the “Jewish problem”.  This was a good follow-up to Dead Wake, since that book deals with some of the attitudes & politics leading up to World War I, which contributed to the attitudes & politics leading up to World War II and was a subject that historian Dodd discussed a few times with his high-ranking Nazi hosts.

Favorite Quote:

“With few exceptions, the men who are running this Government are of a mentality that you and I cannot understand.  Some of them are psychopathic cases and would ordinarily be receiving treatment somewhere.”

– American consul general to Germany George Messersmith, in a dispatch to the State Department.


Added to the Travel Map:

Fort Hancock, Sandy Hook, New Jersey – an abandoned Nike missile site, now part of Gateway National Recreation Area.

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – an abandoned prison.

The Corner House, Rīga, Latvia – former headquarters of the Latvian KGB.

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Destination: Northwestern Arkansas

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Arkansas has been a place of cultural clashes for at least the last 200 years. Westward expansion, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, civil rights – it’s intense. With that much history it’s no surprise that the state is packed to the brim with memorials and battlefields.  If you think of Arkansas as a square divided by a diagonal line the northwestern half is rugged and mountainous, with winding roads and fields of cows in the valleys, while the southeastern half is flat and wet, containing many small towns surrounded by cropland. I don’t know if Arkansas just has better parks than other states or what but all the ones I went to were stunning, and by some miracle free of charge, so it doesn’t cost a thing to get out and experience the incredible beauty on display here. They don’t call it The Natural State for nothing, and I was super happy to be out in the woods again after so many months of dirt & rocks in Arizona.


A Journey

On the very western edge of Arkansas, right on the border with Oklahoma, is the town of Fort Smith, once the very last outpost before you left the United States and entered the frontier. The infamous Trail of Tears passed this way heading out to Indian Territory. The fort itself once imprisoned the ruffians that made the West wild. Major clashes of the Civil War were fought nearby as the Confederates tried to make some headway on the border state of Missouri. It’s almost overwhelming trying to take it all in.

Fort Smith National Historic Site consists of a large park on the Arkansas River as well three buildings from the second incarnation of the fort: the gallows, the commissary, and the courthouse.  The courthouse holds a very nice museum covering the long and varied history of the fort, the frontier, and the Trail of Tears.  In those days this was the end of civilization, with Indian Territory just a few steps away.

Heading north on Scenic Byway US-71, I stopped at Devil’s Den State Park is a great place for hiking or swimming.  Caves, boulders, cliffs, and waterfalls dot the forest.  I never did figure out which one was the Devil’s den and which was the Devil’s ice box, or why people insist on giving these Satanic place names.

devils den

Just outside the small town of Fayetteville, where I wandered into a farmer’s market in the town square and spotted a local chef buying his produce for the day, is Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.  There’s not a lot left of the original landscape, but there is a nice museum and a walking path with buildings from that era.  The interesting thing about Prairie Grove is the driving tour through town.  Pick up a flyer or buy a CD at the visitor’s center for the information pertaining to each stop, and try not to ogle people’s front lawns too much.  They’ll start to think you’re weird.

Stop at the Daisy Air Rifle Museum ($2) in Rogers for a quirky history lesson and more Red Ryder than you can handle.  I had no idea the history of air rifles was such a long one, but they’ve got guns dating back a few hundred years.  Some of the memorabilia is way hyper-masculine but I guess that’s their demographic.  Confusingly incongruous with being called Daisy though.

Just a few miles shy of the Missouri border is Pea Ridge National Military Park, where the land has been maintained much as it was during the decisive Civil War battle that was fought here.  The only remaining building is the Elkhorn Lodge, and even it is a rebuild from shortly after the end of the war.  The driving tour supplemented with foot trails takes you through the battlefield, onto the ridge above it where soldiers hid from their enemies, and to a couple of memorials placed later by veterans from both sides of the conflict.  As much interest as I have in historic battlefields, I struggle to really understand them.  Some group from some place with a certain number fought with some other numbered group from a different place.  Eventually one group left.  Yay.

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This part of Arkansas is incredible and it’s definitely a place I’d like to explore further in the future.  It’s just too pretty.  I can’t stand it.

This Week in Awkwardness

I spent most of the week in various parts of Arkansas.  I’d heard of the Ozarks and wanted to see them, but I had no idea how beautiful this entire state really was.  It’s so stunning I don’t even know how I’m going to cram it into blog posts.

They seem to have three major obsessions here: Walmart, Bill Clinton, and antiques.

I figured out that I’ve spent a grand total of $26.50 on activities on this whole trip so far.

I got a cabin for a couple days and accidentally left the heater on while I was gone for a few hours.  When I got back it was nice & toasty, and there were hornets quite literally coming out of the woodwork.  I got a different cabin and spent the rest of the evening freaking out at everything.

In the second cabin I was joined by some new friends for breakfast on a couple mornings:

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Crossed Off the Travel Map:

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Rogers, Arkansas

Bentonville, Arkansas

Walmart Museum, Bentonville, Arkansas

Alma, Arkansas

Keo, Arkansas

North Little Rock, Arkansas

Maumelle, Arkansas

Event: The Battle of Mackinac Island

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In one of the earliest battles of the War of 1812, British forces captured Mackinac Island from the Americans.  Fort Mackinac had a highly strategic position in the Straits of Mackinac, controlling the entire trade route from the Western USA to Detroit & New England, and since the Americans didn’t actually know they were supposed to be at war, it was pretty easy for the Brits to take them by surprise.  Landing on the uninhabited north end of Mackinac Island, (a spot referred to as British Landing to this day) they climbed up to the highest point (Fort George) under cover of darkness, pointed their single cannon down at the fort, and fired a single shot.  Badly outnumbered, the 60 Americans realized they would never be able to defend the fort and save the town; they had to surrender to the hundreds of Indians & Redcoats.  What else could they do?

American forces didn’t show back up to retake the fort until 1814, but when they did they used the exact same tactic.  Turned out the British were prepared to defend against the same move they themselves had made two years before.  Who knew.  So, the Americans came tromping up from British Landing only to find themselves face-to-face with British soldiers.  The two armies shot at each other across a field for a while in true 19th century style, with each side trying to outflank the other.  After being ambushed in the woods by Menominee warriors, the Americans were forced to retreat.  Fort Mackinac wouldn’t return to American hands until war’s end.

More details on both battles here. Fort Mackinac ($12 adults/$7 kids) remains intact and along with its recreated mainland neighbor Colonial Michilimackinac ($11/$6.50) open to visitors as a living history museum, telling the story of the Straits of Mackinac and its importance to the many groups who have called the area home.  Their staffs of interpreters along with volunteer reenactors recreated the battle on its bicentennial this past August.

Under American control Fort George was renamed Fort Holmes, after an officer killed in the battle.  The earthen rampart remains, but the single blockhouse burned to the ground.  It was rebuilt for visitors, and burned again.  And rebuilt again, and burned again.  They’re rebuilding it yet again this year, and plan to have it open to visitors for the next summer season. (don’t light any cigarettes while you’re up there, OK?)

Most of the original battlefield now lies under the Wawashkamo golf course on one side of British Landing road, with a historic marker in a small clearing on the other.  The rest is obscured by forest.

The beach at British Landing is always open, although there’s not much there besides a historic marker & a cannon pointed out into Lake Huron.  It’s a good halfway resting/bathroom point on any walking or biking trip around the island; the nearby Cannonball Drive In restaurant offers lunch, ice cream, and drinks.