Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Out and About in Arkansas, Part II

AKA the State and Federal Parks edition. 

In addition to the obvious national park, the one that's the easiest to get to*, the incredibly photogenic one from the view point of a former architectural historian (see photo above), we've visited a couple other parks in the past couple of weeks. 

First up was the William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site (WICL), the place Clinton and his mom called home for the first four years of his life. The park was a first for me: I took zero photos. Maybe it was just too gray a day. The photo of the house I'm using in this post is courtesy of the National Park Service.

The park was interesting, but probably not in the way that supporters of the park would appreciate. Before I saw it, I'd been thinking "Why?" As in "why is it a National Park Service site?" And I'm still thinking that. I don't buy the argument that just because someone was President that automatically makes places that person lived historically significant. And even if the places associated with a past President merit preservation and interpretation, not every one of them requires National Park Service management. The Clinton early childhood home could have easily remained in private nonprofit organization hands or become a state park, but, nope, the NPS got stuck with another money pit. (The house has foundation issues. Work that would cost a private homeowner or a local nonprofit maybe  $20,000 will end up in an NPS budget as $2,000,000.)

I will say WICL has done a decent job of having the house more or less accurate to its period of significance (late 1940s). The furniture fits the time period, there's nothing notably out of place. I did have a few minor quibbles -- the medicine cabinet, for example, could have used some editing. Everything in it might have been accurate to the pre-Korean War era, but having similar products from different retailers struck me as anachronistic. You know, how many rolls of adhesive tape does a person need and, if you want more than one, why get multiple brands? 

On the other hand, the Hopalong Cassidy bedspread on Bill Clinton's bed was a nice touch. Clinton reportedly was a huge Hopalong Cassidy fan as a child. He did like Westerns -- Louis L'Amour was (is?) a favorite author. Whether or not he ever actually had such a bedspread as a child is unknown, but it does tie in with things he has said he liked. The only item in the house that did actually belong to Clinton is a child's picture book; everything else in the house is just stuff that's the right age and kind of matches the few family photographs that show the interior. According to the interpretive ranger leading the tour, Clinton himself thought some of the furniture had actually belonged to his grandparents when he visited the home after it became a museum.

From the town of Hope we ambled a few miles down highway US-278 to Historic Washington State Park. Washington is one of the oldest towns in Arkansas and has two claims to fame: it is where the Bowie knife first saw the light of day (a local blacksmith is credited with its invention) and it served as the Arkansas Confederate state capitol for two years during the Civil War. It is also known for the remarkable number of really old (by U.S. standards) houses and other buildings that have survived. We had lunch at the sort of historic Williams Tavern before checking out the park. I say "sort of historic" because although the building is pushing 200 years in age, it's not on its original site. Arkansas State Parks moved it approximately 7 miles in 1985 and rehabbed it as a restaurant. 

We did enjoy checking out the exhibits in the courthouse (pictured above; it stopped being the county courthouse when the town of Hope won a local election that moved the county seat) and then ambling around town admiring 19th century architecture. There is a replica blacksmith shop commemorating the invention of the Bowie knife, although to be honest I'm not sure just what would make a Bowie knife much different than any other knife available at the time. I did some googling and it appears the blacksmith (James Black) celebrated in Washington did make a knife for Jim Bowie that incorporated some improvements on previous versions of a common type of hunting and/or fighting knife, which isn't exactly inventing the knife, but close enough for the super short sound bites common on signage at state parks. Whatever Black did or did not do, he developed a reputation for good quality work and built a successful business producing knives better than the usual ones available in the 1830s. 

There is a memorial to James Black, although it's a bit odd looking. The blacksmith's shop does have an actual blacksmith doing demonstrations, although we happened to hit a day when the smith wasn't there. The park sells wrought iron items made by the resident smith, e.g., plant hangers. Reasonably priced but I was in full spend-no-money mode thanks to our truck still sitting at the garage in Missouri. 

The park has an event planned for March, a jonquil festival, that sounded like it might be fun. Washington is less than an hour's drive from Hot Springs so we may check that out. Assuming, of course, we have our truck back by then and I'm no longer afraid to spend any money.

The following weekend we decided to head for the southeastern corner of the state, get down into the Arkansas/Mississippi delta country, and visit Arkansas Post National Memorial and Arkansas Post State Museum, but I think I'll do a Part III instead of making this post even longer. 
*Photo is a shot down Bathhouse Row at Hot Springs National Park. The nifty dome graces the Quapaw Bathhouse, one of the 8 historic bathhouses along the Row. Seven are open to the public: one is the park visitor center, one is still a functioning bathhouse with traditional thermal baths, one's a brew pub/restaurant, . . .back when I worked for the Park Service 16 years ago most of the bathhouses were mothballed, but NPS management has done a good job of finding tenants.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Out and about in Arkansas

One effect of the transfer case falling out of the truck has been to make me extremely reluctant to go anywhere or to spend any money. No trips to the local quilt shops, no wandering around flea markets, limited casual browsing at Books-A-Million, no going to see "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish" in an actual theater. Just general frugality because we still have no idea just how much the truck repairs are going to cost. A lot, obviously, and even though it probably wouldn't make much of a difference if we indulged in an occasional frivolous expenditure, part of me doesn't want to part with a single dime until after we've got the truck back. 

Still, as the Younger Daughter likes to point out, it's not good to just sit in her living room binge watching "Maine Cabin Masters" and brooding about the possible outrageous prices of miscellaneous Ford parts. It will not do anything to improve my mood if I have time to spend wondering just how many payments the mechanic has left on his bass boat. We need to go out occasionally, venture out into fresh air and sunshine, and the venturing out should involve more than just going to the closest Dollar General for toilet paper and milk. So we've been doing things like checking out  campgrounds and RV parks as possible sites for Magee and visiting state and national parks. 

We've done windshield tours of several privately owned RV parks in the Hot Springs area. One struck us as acceptable, another was slightly better, and then there were the "Holy wah. People actually pay to stay here?!" gems. When the sites are uneven gravel and the RVs are parked so close together you have zero privacy you really wonder what the attraction can be, especially when none of the privately owned parks are cheap. 

On the other hand, there are a couple campgrounds in the Ouachita National Forest that aren't bad -- well maintained, lots of space between the sites, and best of all, Free -- that are tempting. They're basic -- no amenities other than the availability of a privy -- but Free when I'm busy stressing about money sounds pretty good. One campground looked okay to me, although I had qualms about the road in there. It's barely one lane wide with no where to go if you meet a vehicle. Someone would have to back up, and that could be a headache when towing Magee. The Forest Service does put a 14-day limit on how long you can stay on one spot, but even limited Free is better than paying every day. 

We also checked out a Corps of Engineers campground near Lake Ouachita. It's small -- only 9 sites -- but has full hook-ups. Our geezer pass would get us half-price rates, which would make it cheaper than any of the private parks, and it's got a nice lay out. Lots of space, no feeling like you have to worry about hearing every belch a neighbor emits. Photo above is from the COE campground. There were only three RVs there when we did our inspection tour. I checked on recreation.gov. Lots of open dates, including some really long blocks. The Corps sets a 14-day limit, too, but there's a loophole. It might be possible to do almost two full months without having to move Magee, or at least not move out of the campground, just shuffle over to a different site, because it's the off season. 

At the moment I'm definitely leaning toward the COE campground. Now all we need is the truck. As soon as we hear from the garage I can go online to make reservations so when we're able to pick up Magee we'll know where we're dragging him. 

Friday, January 13, 2023

Pulitzer Project: The Stone Diaries

It's been awhile since I bothered reading any Pulitzer Prize fiction winners. Back in 2021 I hit a couple that were such duds that I lost interest in bothering with Interlibrary Loan to work my way up the list. But after we got to Hot Springs, a city large enough to have a public library that hasn't overdosed on Danielle Steele, I checked the online catalog and then asked the Younger Daughter to check the 1995 winner, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, out for me.

The book turned out to be surprisingly good. Not great, but definitely readable. Shields could write. The book is  structured as a faux biography (or possibly memoir) of/by Daisy Goodwill Flett, a woman born in a small town in Manitoba in 1905 who manages to make it into her 80s before a bad fall triggers a decline in her health. 

By the time The Stone Diaries was published, Shields was an established author with a good reputation in Canada. She was in the comfortable position of feeling free to play around with formatting, perspective, style. . . she even inserts a section of vintage photos to mimic the type of old family photos a reader would expect to see in a real biography or memoir. That particular literary trick didn't go over very well with me. I'm not sure if Shields meant for there to be a disconnect between the way a reader finds herself visualizing the characters and the supposed photos of them (a character described as "morbidly obese" appears to be not especially fat, for example) or if the incongruities were simply an accident, but the end result was that to me that section just felt weird. 

Some sections are told in the first person, some in the third, but all are more or less the story of Daisy's life. Some of the narrative is from Daisy's perspective, some is how things may have looked to the people around her. For example, at one point a college friend of Daisy's visits for a few days, and the author gives us two radically different interpretations of how that visit went. One version describes a happy home, well behaved children, and a Daisy who seems to have her life pretty much together. The other version has Daisy as a fraud, her kids rude, and depicts a household the visitor would be happy to never visit again. 

So who is Daisy Goodwill Flett? In most ways, a rather ordinary woman. She's smart, but not brilliant; attractive but not necessarily stunning; hardworking but not ambitious. She's like most of us: she goes through life behaving appropriately but not making many waves. Her life has had some tragic blips -- her mother dies in childbirth, when she's eleven years old her foster mother is killed in a bicycle accident, her first husband manages to kill himself by falling out of a second floor window on their honeymoon -- but other than hearing the splat when Husband Number One hits the pavement she's not a witness to the events. She was present when her mother died, but witnessing a death when she'd only been breathing for a few minutes herself probably didn't make much of an impression. She is, in fact, remarkably untouched by events happening around her. 

And maybe that's the point. Maybe Daisy represents all of us. We all go through life experiencing various blips but most of the time we all just muddle on. 

So was the book worth reading? More than most of the ones on the list, although still not one of the truly good ones. On the usual scale of 1 being the worst, 10 being the best, it's a solid 7. Decent writing, not a whole lot of work to get through, but in the end not that special. The Younger Daughter asked me what makes a book merit a Pulitzer. Sometimes it's because it's an amazing work of literature and sometimes it's the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. Even though the announcement may say the award is for The Most Recent Work the reality is the prize is actually acknowledging the half a dozen or more better works the author cranked out decades earlier. Not being familiar with Shields' previous work I don't know if The Stone Diaries qualifies as a lifetime achievement award candidate, but it feels like it could. 

Would I recommend this book to other readers? Sure, why not. It's decently written, moderately interesting, and inoffensive. This book, in fact, proved to be such a relief to read compared to some of the others I suffered through as part of this Pulitzer Project that I've already moved on to the next one on the list, Richard Ford's Independence Day*, the 1996 winner. At this point, I'm within 25 books of the most recent winner and have already read three of the 25 out of order, it looks like I could actually live long enough to read them all. . . especially if there's a year or two between now and whenever I get to the end that no prize for fiction is awarded. 

*Also surprisingly readable. I'm already about a third done with it.