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Arkansas1 is a state in the United States which has the Mississippi River as its eastern border. Arkansas - nicknamed 'The Natural State' - is not well known overseas because of its small population, but when it is recognised, it is usually as the home state of former President Bill Clinton2. This is rather ironic because the majority of Arkansans ('ar-KAN-sans') are conservative Republicans and very vocal critics of most anyone who disagrees with Rush Limbaugh3. Arkansas has a backwoods reputation, but much of it is actually technologically on a par with the rest of the United States. As an indicator of its cultural advancement, Pokémon is on television twice a day on weekdays.
However, Arkansas' backwoods reputation is not totally undeserved. It has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any state in the US, as well as the highest number of methamphetamine labs4. Arkansas does in fact have a rather small population (somewhere around 2 million) and low rankings in education and average income.
Thanks to this reputation, Arkansas is ranked very low on the list of favourite destinations, which is exactly how many Arkansans want it. Many of the best places in Arkansas are beautiful, natural, isolated spots which would be ruined entirely if they received too many visitors. However, there are plenty of places in the state that you, whether you're a visitor or a resident, really should see.
Arkansas is bordered by Missouri to the north, Tennessee and Mississippi to the east, Oklahoma to the West, Louisiana to the south, and Texas in the southwest corner. Arkansas itself can be split up into six major divisions: the Ouachita mountains, the Arkansas river valley, the Ozark mountains, the gulf coastal plains, the Mississippi delta and Crowley's ridge.
The Ouachita mountain region is probably the most fun part of Arkansas. It's the gorgeous, sunny, lake-dotted area in west central Arkansas. The big attraction here is Hot Springs (see below), but while you're there, you might as well take a dip in Lake Ouachita.
The Ozark mountain area is the one that gets Arkansas the uneducated redneck reputation. This is the area where you'll find smalls towns and people with strong Southern accents, but if you're looking for the best rivers and the best mountains, you may not want to go anywhere else. The big city there is Fayettville, the capital of the Bible Belt5, but instead of going there, you should check out the Buffalo River.
Arkansas River Valley
The Arkansas River Valley is the most populated area of Arkansas. It is held together by Highway I-30 - an infernal stretch of road - and the Arkansas River. Try to avoid this road if you can, as it's in a poor state of repair even if it means driving on the shoulder.
Gulf Coastal Plain
The coastal plain is arguably the most beautiful region in Arkansas (but only by a very small margin). The coastal plain is a sunny, relatively flat area with small, ageing towns with poorly-stocked gas (petrol) stations and friendly people. The best part about this region is bouncing along the roads and watching the fields of crimson clover in the Spring.
The Mississippi Delta is the area of Arkansas which probably has the most history. It is the home of the Arkansas Post - the first capital of Arkansas - and it was the mainstay of cotton plantations before the American Civil War. Today it grows most of Arkansas' rice and soybean crops. It has no major outdoor landmarks of note.
Crowley's Ridge is a strange little mountain range that got lost and ended up in the middle of the north Mississippi Delta. It is a thin hilly region, formed by the awesome New Madrid fault. Not the place to go for shopping, it's a beautiful place for camping.
The Arkansas River is the second most important geographical feature of Arkansas. It is a fast, high-volume river, which would no doubt be a major venue for interstate transportation if it went anywhere important. As it is, it helps hold together intrastate commerce, and it is something to look at from Pinnacle Mountain (see Little Rock, below).
The Mighty Mississippi River
The Mississippi gives Arkansas a priceless chunk of the most valuable waterway on the continent. Through the Mississippi, Arkansas moves its agricultural produce to the rest of the world, which is good, because if it had to go by road you'd never get it.
Little Rock is the big city in Arkansas. Boasting a population of 180,000, Little Rock and its sister city North Little Rock rest along a stretch of hilly, wooded land on the Arkansas River. Some places to check out are the State Capitol, which is a scale model of the Capitol building in Washington DC; the Market District, a pretty cool area downtown with great restaurants; Pinnacle Mountain, a very peculiar mountain a few miles outside the city limits; and The Box, a really great burger restaurant in North Little Rock.
No one's going to tell you that Hot Springs isn't any fun. Hot Springs is the home to the Oaklawn racetrack, the world's only horse race where you can apparently win thousands of dollars on bets without technically gambling. It's also the home of the Vapors nightclub, which was at one time a hangout for organized crime. Then of course, if hot water springs are your thing, this is the place to go.
This isn't really a very important city, but it sure has a lot of good restaurants.
'Texarkana is Twice as Nice!' or so says the sign. Texarkana is pretty interesting because, for one thing, it's the only noteworthy city in the coastal plain area (unless you count Pine Bluff). Texarkana is split in half by the state boundary between Arkansas and Texas.
A cute little town in northwestern part of the State nestled in the Ozarks. It's been a tourist trap for over a hundred years, and it's carrying on the tradition. The town was founded because of the supposed healthful properties of the spring in town. What's really surprising is that it's a town in the Ozarks (which are known for their hillbillies and moonshine) that openly accepts a variety of alternative lifestyles. It's a town with many secrets that will never all be discovered by any one person. Start your trip by going to the historical museum and taking the walking tour.
The land now known as Arkansas was inhabited by Native Americans for centuries before the arrival of history-writing Europeans. The tribes that we know about are the ones that were there in the 16th Century, when the conquistador Hernando de Soto explored the area. These tribes were the Osage, the Caddo, and the Quapaw.
The Spaniards didn't stick around, and Arkansas was more properly charted by French explorers Marquette and Joliet in 1673. Robert de La Salle claimed the territory of Arkansas for France nine years later, giving it a name which designated the Quapaw tribe, who lived in villages near the mouth of the Arkansas River. Their Sioux neighbours to the north, in the Ohio River valley, called the Quapaw 'Akansea', meaning 'downstream'. The French, in their way, spelled this word 'Arkansas', with a silent 's'.
Being part of the French Empire, Arkansas needed, among other things, a capital city, so Arkansas Post was founded by Henry de Tonty in 1686. This remained the capital until 1821. Before that happened, the territory was ceded from France to Spain, and then secretly back to France, who finally sold it to the USA as part of the massive Louisiana Purchase in 1803. As this huge tract of land, stretching from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, was carved into territories, Arkansas was part of the Missouri Territory for a while, and then became the Arkansas Territory in 1819, with its present borders.
The Territory of Arkansas became the State of Arkansas - America's 25th state - in 1836. Two years before this, the last of the Quapaw tribe, for whom the land was named, were moved from their homeland to a reservation in what is now northeast Oklahoma, where a few of their descendants live today.
Along with most other Southern states, Arkansas seceded from the Union in 1861, and 60,000 Arkansans fought for the Confederate States in the American Civil War. (Interestingly, 15,000 Arkansans fought for the Union.) The war ended in 1865, and the Confederate States returned to the Union.
Diamonds were discovered in Arkansas, near the town of Murfreesboro, in 1906, and Arkansas is currently the home of the only diamond mine in the United States.
In the fall of 1957, the nation's eyes were on Arkansas as one of the great dramas of the civil rights movement unfolded in the State capital, Little Rock. The US Supreme Court had ordered the racial integration of schools three years previously, and now a group of African-American students - 'The Little Rock Nine' - were attempting to exercise their rights and attend Little Rock Central High School. There were huge public protests as the school year began in September. These demonstrations gave way to violence against the black students, with the Arkansas Governor, Little Rock Police and the Arkansas National Guard helping to keep the students out of the school. Finally, President Eisenhower6 sent US Army troops to escort the Little Rock Nine to their classes. These events were a major landmark on the road to educational equality in the South.
Things to Avoid
Tornadoes are intense cyclones, an extremely destructive and unpredictable feature mostly limited to the United States. (If you would like to learn more about tornadoes, there is an excellent documentary called Twister7, although after you watch it, you might never leave your cellar.) Arkansas occasionally gets tornadoes, especially in the Spring and Summer. Since it is so hilly, Arkansas gets far fewer tornadoes than somewhere like Texas, and because of this the tornado warning systems in Arkansas have historically been rather poor. In January, 1997, a set of tornadoes devastated the city of Fort Smith8. Fort Smith is now the home of a state-of-the-art doppler radar system which continually scans the entire State.
Unbeknownst to most people, northeast Arkansas is the home to the New Madrid Fault. As this fault hasn't had any real earthquakes in nearly 200 years, seismologists say it's overdue, and the next one could be a big one. This is especially bad when you consider that the last earthquake, which struck in 1812, had an estimated magnitude of 8.1, caused the Mississippi River to run backwards, and rang church bells in Boston. However, the chances of an earthquake interrupting your stay are slightly lower than the likelihood of Rogers, Arkansas, voting in a Communist representative, so relax.
Nuclear 1, Russellville
The Nuclear 1 power plant outside Russellville is considered one of the more dangerous nuclear facilities in the US nation. It isn't likely to melt down, but a minor leak is a possibility...
You'll want to stay away from these. Although all of Arkansas' roads are driveable, few make for comfortable rides. If you get motion sickness, just bring a bicycle.