A travel essay about Little Rock, Arkansas by James Bonner

Discover Little Rock, Arkansas: A City Rich in African American Heritage, Civil Rights History, and Natural Beauty

Young and imbalanced, there is a grounding assurance about crawling from place to place, you can feel the weight and the protection of gravity—or of the uninhibited thrust of falling unceasingly through space, if that makes you more comfortable—on the weight per unit of surface: the thoughtless comfort of my hands, and sometimes forearms and elbows, and knees and shins anchored firmly to the ground beneath me. It was joyous. However, no one else seemed to be crawling from place to place, slithering out of their car seats, after fastening their knee pads and slipping on their padded gloves, onto the pavement below, finding that sweet spot and quickly crawling to their desk for a long, monotonous day of work.

In 1722, French explorer Jean-Baptiste Benard de la Harpe was exploring the Arkansas River and happened upon a rock outcropping, the first he had seen since leaving New Orleans, Harpe referred to the area as “la petite roche,” to distinguish it from a larger cliff on the opposite side of the river. More than 80 years later, settlers from the East Coast started coming to the central Arkansas area, and in 1820 the permanent settlement of Little Rock was founded. Little Rock is nestled—something about that word irks me, still, it’s the best word choice in this context—along the Arkansas River, is a city with a flat history, including, and pretty much limited to, the Central High School desegregation crisis when the Little Rock Nine were refused entrance by Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus, in the fall of 1957. Also, Little Rock is the home of the Bill Clinton Presidential Library.

Although Little Rock, Arkansas, is a city without much history, it does feel alive, Little Rock is lush with greenery and natural beauty. Take a walk or ride a bike along the Arkansas River through Burns Park, Cook’s Landing Park, across the Big Dam Bridge, and into Murray Park, through Rebsamen Park, and around old town, to the Little Rock River Market Hall, which comprises most of the Arkansas River Trail (if parks aren’t your thing, Pinnacle Mountain State Park is a short drive northwest of Little Rock), you get a nice sampling of Little Rock along the way. Then take a late morning pit stop at Nexus Coffee & Creative coffee shop before venturing out to tour the River Market District, where you’ll find the Museum of Discovery, the Little Rock Zoo, the Robinson Center Performing Arts Theatre, The Old State House Museum (the oldest standing capital west of the Mississippi), the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, and notable street art and sculptures. The River Market District is the beating heart and social center of Little Rock.

Although most of the best of Little Rock is in a relatively commutable area, several out-of-the-way experiences will allow you to explore the outlying Little Rock neighborhoods. The Old Mill, through the Park Hill Historic District neighborhood, at the north end of Lake Number Two, is a stunning old water-powered flour mill and park, a genuine must-see when visiting Little Rock. The Esse Purse Museum & Store, south of the Rock Town Distillery near downtown Little Rock, celebrates the “progression” of 20th-century American fashion and is an interesting exhibit for anyone, including husbands and boyfriends. And MacArthur Park in remembrance of General Douglas MacArthur is a nice walkabout with an interesting military museum on the grounds.

Little Rock, Arkansas, is a city that has devoted a great deal of attention to African American heritage, and to the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Central High School is now a National Historic Site in honor of the Little Rock Nine and offers on-site tours in recognition of the 16 days that the Little Rock Nine were refused entry into Central High School in 1957. The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center is a museum and cultural center dedicated to the African American experience in Arkansas, including entrepreneurship of African Americans, civil rights, and African American art, and one of the most notable experiences in Little Rock, Arkansas, in my opinion, a preference if one had to choose between the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center and the Bill Clinton Presidential Library. The Little Rock African American Heritage Trail is a guided tour of historic sites, museums, and cultural attractions, including murals and sculptures celebrating African American culture. The city of Little Rock hosts, too, an African American Cultural Festival in June.

Weary but open to the suggestion of the outside world, and after only seven short months of life, I reluctantly motivated myself to the uncertain world of standing, without an aide, on two small feet. Wobbly, and with a nominal balance, I stood inactive on several occasions evaluating the prompts of my parents and the other bipedals. Finally, to appease the giants, I marched one foot in front of the other, from one counterbalancing parent to another squatting and eager for gratification, my mother held out her arms as I trampled the furry carpet and accepted her warm embrace. I had taken my first steps in the living room of our home in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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