Being Treated as if I’m Old

by Willem Lange
courtesy photo | Sam Walton’s bust on display at the Walmart Museum, with Willem Lange. Lange admits that Sam Walton was “a bit of a genius.”

EAST MONTPELIER – Much of the travel writing to which we’re exposed reminds me of the old fable of the six blind men inspecting and describing an elephant: it reports on only a portion – and often a small one, at that – of the reality of the travel destination. A bright, sunny piece about, for example, a Jamaican beach resort somehow misses the nearly toothless man beside the road just outside the walls selling for a penny apiece the tiny fish he’s caught. This effect of a complimentary vacation shouldn’t be surprising.

This past week, after over a year of COVID-related stalling (I’d even missed a granddaughter’s wedding), I traveled happily to northwest Arkansas to spend Thanksgiving week with my son’s family in Springdale, a town whose geographic relationship to Bentonville, Rogers, Fayetteville, and Siloam Springs I still can’t visualize. The maze of highways, intersections, and roundabouts had me perpetually staring at the car dashboard in search of a compass. It doesn’t matter. Nowadays I travel like a meadow vole through his tunnel, led by computer printouts, lists of regulations, boarding passes, and pure dumb luck, to (I hope) my destination. This trip had the irresistible promise of warm, creative hospitality when and if I got there, and the company of grandchildren. As the last surviving member of my family generation, I’ve become the delighted target of the attention, concern, and love once distributed among all the original five. Being there is a lot like doing one of those trust falls off a piano into waiting arms.

My concerns about weather and congestion were for nothing. It’s only two short flights from Burlington to Fayetteville, and the ogres of O’Hare, who have in the past bedeviled my passage, were apparently on a tea break. The kids operate like a well-oiled machine: my son met me at baggage and grabbed my duffel, while telling my daughter-in-law by cell we’d be right out front.

I’m still trying to get used to being treated as if I’m old. There are days that it’s not at all unpleasant, but it’s often surprising. I think the kids thought I might be tired from my trip. They’d bought a bottle of my favorite bourbon, which my son poured for me as carefully as if it were a dose of medicine. Which, of course, it was. A granddaughter and her fiancé came for dinner that first evening (barring catastrophe, I’ll be back for their wedding in June).

Next day, into the belly of the Beast – The Walmart Museum. It’s hard to hear a kind word about Walmart among my set of friends; and I’m instinctively allergic to hagiography. Still, I have to admit that Sam Walton, building energetically on one simple, brilliant idea, was a bit of a genius. I had my picture taken with his bust and his old pickup truck with hunting dog kennels in the bed.

Most of us are familiar with St. Johnsbury, Vermont, which clearly displays the effects of 19th-century philanthropy. Bentonville is in many ways its 21st-century equivalent. Hundreds of millions of Walmart money have endowed the place liberally. Ice skaters glided around an outdoor rink; mountain bikers by the dozen – on a weekday morning, at that – whizzed or labored past my son and me as we walked on trails stretching many miles. Stone artwork popped up here and there. I called it Alice Walton’s woods, after the main benefactor of the justly famous Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art that wraps around a pair of pools below the trails.

A great week. We hiked, and one day had lunch with another old-timer from Oklahoma who, like Sam Walton, was building a version of the American dream, in this case, sporting goods stores with a big climbing wall. We went out one evening for hot toddies, again with grandkids, at a place near the University of Arkansas campus. We dined at two tables for Thanksgiving dinner. Somehow I was relegated to the senior table, where, as I later found out, I was hearing two different Arkansas dialects, mid- and southern (almost in Louisiana). Wish I’d known before I sat down.

My last day there, we drove away from the sprawling corporate headquarters, chain stores, car dealers, and fast-food franchises, to the rural valley of War Eagle Creek, deeply incised into the ancient sandstone of the southern Ozarks. Here, on a bench at the top of a cliff on my grandson’s farm, was his “quiet place.” Next morning, I was off, back to my own snow-covered quiet place.