We must admit that when we found ourselves spending a week in the heart of Arkansas we didn't expect much more than the carrying of dozens of boxes from one house to another while helping parents move. But in the downtime between loads of books, kitchenware, and knickknacks we enjoyed family company while uncovering a hidden gem.
Even well into November, this southern city has inviting outdoor opportunities with gorgeous fall weather.
Our first observation was that Little Rock is an incredibly bike friendly town. Then, while riding its trails, we discovered all sorts of interesting tidbits such as yes, there really is a little rock. It's on the river right downtown, just off the bike path.
Back in 1721 the French explorer and trader Jean-Baptiste Bénard de la Harpe dubbed an outcrop on the river bank La Petite Roche which is French for the Little Rock, as opposed to the much bigger rock formation a little further up The Arkansas River. Actually the little rock was bigger back then, big enough that boats would use it as a dock, but much of it was destroyed in the building of the railroad bridge.
From what's left of the rock we set out to make the fifteen mile loop of The Arkansas River Trail up one side and down the other, from The Clinton Presidential Library to The Big Dam Bridge. Wait, what? Yup, The Big Dam Bridge, as in "yes, it's a big dam bridge," which legend has it was said by Pulaski County Judge F.G. "Buddy" Villines at the opening ceremony. From that point on nobody called the bridge over Murray Dam The Murray Bridge anymore. Truth is it is one big dam bridge, in fact the longest in North America ever exclusively built for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
After we crossed the big bridge, we headed back into the center of town. Once downtown we followed the River Rail Streetcar Line, a line of replica vintage trolleys that run to the Clinton Presidential Center and Park. The center is a seventeen-acre complex that includes the Clinton Presidential Library, the Clinton Foundation, archives, a replica of The Oval Office, and the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.
The main building was designed to represent a bridge reaching across the river, inspired by Clinton's "Bridge to the 21st Century" campaign theme.
To our eyes it missed the mark a bit, and we're not alone since many locals refer to it as "The Giant Doublewide."
Near The Clinton Center we stopped in at the River Market to grab a bite. The market district has been refurbished over the last fifteen years to become the city's hub of arts and entertainment. Galleries, theaters and restaurants have filled the formerly rundown buildings around the central marketplace.
The old market shelter now hosts a farmer's market twice a week. We missed that, but every day has a cornucopia of chow down choices inside the Market Hall. Like a giant food court, vendors offer cuisine from every corner of the globe. After some Thai and tacos we spotted an interesting dessert option.
All natural, handmade right in the shop, gourmet ice lollies at Le Pops. We were intrigued, but after the proprietor, Lori, offered us a sample we were hooked. The flavors most certainly aren't the typical frozen treat types, with salted caramel, avocado, and pineapple with cilantro among them. We tried avocado, different yet delicious, the somewhat more conventional tropical and tasty pineapple with coconut, and the seasonal selection, pumpkin pie, which tasted like it was fresh from the patch.
After another round of relocating boxes we took an autumn afternoon off to absorb the history of Little Rock Central High School and The Little Rock Nine. The school became ground zero in the Civil Rights Movement when President Eisenhower sent troops from the 101st Airborne to enforce the Brown v. Board of Education ruling to end "separate but equal" segregated schools.
In 1957 Governor Orval Faubus refused to allow nine students, who had volunteered to attend the school to begin integration, to enter the school. The governor went so far as to deploy the National Guard to block their entry. After several weeks federal soldiers escorted the students into the school, but that hardly settled the issue. The rage of the segregationists grew so nasty that after an agonizing 1957 school year the entire Little Rock school system shut down for 1958 rather than allow integration.
The school is still in operation so we only got to see the outside, but in 1982 the site was designated a National Historic Landmark and The National Park Service opened a visitor center. Inside the small center we found a trove of information, mostly audio and video, that gave us an excellent understanding of just what these students, known as The Little Rock Nine, went through. By mixing clips from the time of the unrest and recent interviews with some of the nine, the entire story is brought to life in a moving, meaningful way.
Our last excursion through Little Rock came as a celebratory completion of the move. As a thank you for our help, we were gifted with a tour on Segways. We were pretty fired up at the prospect because ever since seeing people riding Segways in Prague we had wanted to give them a try. So with all of the boxes safely stashed, we took off with Mom & Pop to the sidewalks on these two wheeled marvels.
Our guide for the tour, Nez, began by showing us the ropes in a parking garage. The Segway is designed to sense your shifts in weight and respond by moving forward or back while expertly remaining balanced. It's amazing, and within minutes we all felt perfectly comfortable commanding our vehicles with just the slightest shifts of our bodies.
WATCH: As we Segway though Little Rock's hot spots!
Confident in our new Segway skill set, we made our way through downtown to Riverfront Park. Nez filled us in on details via headset as we rolled along through the artwork and historic markers, past the little rock, and back toward The Clinton Center.
Just before reaching the Presidential Library we turned off into the Bill Clark Wetlands. This small preserve has a wooden boardwalk that winds through bringing walkers, cyclists, and - yes - Segway riders in for an up close look at the ecology of the Arkansas River's edge.
Rolling on through the grounds of the Presidential Center, Nez pointed out the adjacent headquarters of Heifer International. Heifer is an organization that has distributed cattle and other livestock to farmers in over 125 countries in an effort to create a more sustainable solution to hunger.
We made our way back along the trolley route and completed our Segway tour without incident, something that seemed improbable just ninety minutes earlier. Sort of like finding a jewel in the middle of Arkansas.
Or maybe not. Arkansas is the only state in the union where diamonds can be found... you just need to know where to look.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
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