by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – I’m sure that O’Hare International Airport (ORD) is a work of genius and the cutting edge of systems mechanical, electrical, structural, organizational, and computational. But to me, it’s always been a troll lurking beneath the bridge of my travel either east or west across the country.
Imagine, then, my delight that a speedy wheelchair (pushed by speedy Melissa) was waiting for me at the ramp as we got off our Boston-Chicago flight. It was a long haul to the gate for a connecting flight, and I’m not skipping along quite as sprightly as once I did; so Melissa was a sight for sore eyes. With my friend trotting gamely beside us, we made the gate with five minutes to spare.
O’Hare failed to get me this time. We were off only several minutes behind schedule, and with our destination of Northwest Arkansas (XNA) a fairly quiet airport, worries-free. Besides, I knew that the kids, with their cell phones and computers, could track both the flight and – just to make sure I was on it – the location of the phone in my pocket. Sure enough, just as the baggage carousel started up, there was my son, a big smile on his face and car keys twirling in his hand.
There’s a yin and a yang about visiting your kids and grandkids. On the one hand, they’re so competent and practiced at what they do, and so warm and welcoming, that it’s almost like a spa treatment. On the other, that very competence, which they practice with their little rectangular illuminated devices, can make you feel impossibly old and out of it.
I needed a suit for the wedding of a granddaughter in Arkansas in June. For some reason, there’s not a single haberdasher left anywhere near the capital of Vermont. So I figured I’d get measured for one and buy it there, leave it there while the tailor did the cuffs, and find it waiting in June. That would save schlepping it back and forth. No problem. Out came the cell phones, thumbs twiddled, and we had the hours of the store. I no longer trust my taste in modern society, so I let my son pick the suit – lightweight worsted wool in a sober black. Added the option of suspender buttons in case I lost more weight in the next two months, paid with plastic (the kids could have done it with their phones), and we were ready for whatever came next.
I suspect that many Vermonters have an image of Arkansas that includes moonshine, country music, and gap-toothed hillbillies. I’m far from an authority on the state, but I’d venture that nothing could be farther from the truth.
Granted, its next elected governor will probably be Sarah Huckabee Sanders, press secretary under Donald Trump. (“Name recognition,” my son explains. “Her father was governor, and the people liked him.”) But here in northwest Arkansas, home of the corporate offices of, among others, J.B. Hunt, Tyson Foods, and Walmart, the boom is on. Cattle graze placidly beside busy highways, on fields doomed to development for tract housing.
The state derives a good portion of its identity, as well as its pride, from the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. A lot of license plates feature the bright red tusker charging toward the numbers beside it. Entering the sprawling campus, you pass multiple stadiums for just about every outdoor collegiate sport imaginable. The names of the benefactors are ones you recognize.
Just north of Springdale, where the kids live – Interstate 49 runs north and south, connecting everything – is Bentonville (home of Walmart, which is building a campus for its headquarters), which calls itself the Mountain Biking Capital of the World. A bit south, the city of Fayetteville is developing a large, multi-sport recreation center. Kessler Mountain, rising above it, has dozens of miles of marked and maintained bike trails running everywhere. My son rides there, but deigned to walk with us to a couple of overlooks where we shared our altitude with soaring vultures.
We paid a return visit to the magnificent Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a personal project of Alice Walton, one of Sam Walton’s heirs. Bierstadt, Homer, Stuart, Peale, and hundreds of others, arranged by theme or period. We finished the day with supper at a barbecue joint. I thought we were early, but by the time we finished our ribs and brats and potato salad, the line was stretching out the door into the cool Arkansas evening. Next day, we turned our faces resolutely toward home and our regular lives. I’d been warned in emails that mud season was still in full cry.