When you imagine the world headquarters of Wal-Mart, the retail behemoth founded by Sam Walton in 1962, you probably don’t imagine a town like Bentonville. Located in the far northwestern corner of Arkansas, near the state’s borders with Missouri and Oklahoma, this town of about 40,000—roughly the size of Friendswood—has a pleasant, small-town feel. The quaint, tree-lined town square is ringed by homey cafes, local attorneys’ offices, a 19th-century courthouse, and the kind of mom-and-pop stores Wal-Mart has become notorious for putting out of business across the country.
One of those mom-and-pop stores is, as it happens, the original Walton’s 5 & 10, which has been turned into a hagiographical museum devoted to the empire builder himself, known locally as Mr. Sam. Unlike most of its big-box successors, however, the original Wal-Mart doesn’t overawe its neighbors. Instead, it’s just one store among many in an area that, except for the late-model vehicles parked along the roads, hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years.
After peeking into some various cafés and bistros in search of lunch, I eventually settled on a spot a block off the town square, Tusk & Trotter American Brasserie, which French-trained chef Rob Nelson opened in 2011 in a midcentury building that once served as Mr. Sam’s general office and warehouse. As its name suggests, the restaurant is devoted to all things pork, especially those wild hogs known as razorbacks that the state is famous for. The walls were covered with razorback-related paintings and photographs, and hog meat featured prominently on the menu. But this was no greasy roadhouse; Tusk & Trotter has won statewide awards for best restaurant, best chef, and best bartender.
As soon as the food began to arrive, it was easy to see why. My mango habanero margarita—complete with a sugar-and-cayenne-pepper-coated rim—delivered just the right kick. Having to decided to go, yes, whole hog (when in Arkansas, etc.), I ordered the Hogzilla sandwich, a porcine monument that included a wild boar patty, house-made bacon, face-bacon jam, and Gorgonzola aioli on a locally made potato bun. It was utterly decadent and utterly delicious.
Thanks to its distinction as home to the world’s largest retailer and private employer, Bentonville boasts a few attractions that other similarly-sized cities can only dream of, the most famous of these being the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Founded by Mr. Sam’s daughter, Alice Walton (herself the 13th-wealthiest person in the world), it opened in 2011 in a spectacular complex of buildings designed by the internationally renowned Israeli-American architect Moshe Safdie. Walton lives primarily in Fort Worth but decided understandably to build the free-admission museum in the town that gave rise to her fortune, which means that art-lovers from around the world now flock to northwestern Arkansas to see one of the world’s most important new art collections.
Her family’s wealth may have come from selling discount merchandise, but Walton paid top dollar for the museum campus and its enviable collection, which includes “Kindred Spirits,” an iconic landscape by 19th-century artist Asher Durand, a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington (a version of the one on the dollar bill), and countless others, forming a collection that includes masterpieces of American art from every period from the 18th century to the present. When I visited this past July, a gigantic purple Jeff Koons heart hung from the ceiling of the museum restaurant; the artist himself spoke at Crystal Bridges later that day.
Situated along a natural ravine, the 93,000-square-foot complex consists of a series of wood and glass pavilions encircling two spring-fed ponds. Like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the museum seems to blend into the natural landscape, its organic, undulating forms complementing rolling hills and winding creek beds. Inside, it provides some of the best natural lighting for a collection that I’ve ever seen.
Again and again on my trip through Arkansas, I was forced to revise my preconceptions about “The Natural State,” the motto emblazoned on all its license plates. Yes, there is indeed an abundance of beautiful flora and fauna, and the drive through the Ozark Mountains, past deep, heavily-wooded valleys tufted with low-hanging clouds, may be one of the most scenic in the country. Hot Springs, the popular Prohibition-era resort town nestled in the Ouachita Mountains, is still a tourist magnet, home to the Hot Springs National Park (although only a few of the original spring-fed bathhouses remain in operation). I stayed at the cozy Lookout Point bed and breakfast on the shore of Lake Hamilton, where I could sit on my private balcony drinking Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon moonshine (named after the legendary Nascar driver/bootlegger), listening to motorboats blasting Alan Jackson across the wide lake.
But as I’d already discovered, Arkansas isn’t just for lovers of the outdoors. In Little Rock, the state capital and its largest city, with a population of around 700,000 (this in a state with a population smaller than Houston’s), I found a remarkably cosmopolitan ambience. When I checked into my room at the historic Capital Hotel, which was built in 1872 and has long served as the informal center of Arkansas political life, I found a copy of the Oxford American, the high-toned literary quarterly founded in its Mississippi namesake but now published in Little Rock. After enjoying drinks on the hotel’s grand balcony, where it was easy to imagine cigar-wielding politicos wheeling and dealing, I went for dinner one door down from the Oxford American’s offices, at the trendy restaurant South and Main, which often co-hosts readings and other events with the magazine.
Like Tusk & Trotter, South on Main is housed in a renovated historic building, which in this case featured a coffered ceiling, exposed brick walls, and wooden booths, filled with stylish Arkansans sipping cocktails. I decided to join in, starting with a King Creole cocktail, a hearty concoction with a hint of gumbo flavoring, which paired well with my order of pickled beets and herbed goat cheese. For an entrée I went with the rabbit leg (when in Arkansas, etc.), which was served on a bed of lentils and carrot mash. Like Arkansas itself, the meal reflected a mixture of Southern, Cajun, and local influences.
Bill Clinton may enjoy a mixed reputation elsewhere in the country, but the former president’s home state proudly claims him as a favorite son. Clinton-related tourist attractions are scattered everywhere—you can take a “Billgrimage” that includes visits to the house in Hope where the president was born, as well as Bill and Hillary’s first home in Fayetteville, where Bill taught law at the University of Arkansas. The William J. Clinton Presidential Center opened in 2004 in a contemporary-style building cantilevered over the Arkansas River in Little Rock, where Clinton served two terms as Governor. Predictably, the building, which is supposed to evoke Clinton’s promise to “build a bridge to the 21st century,” offers little in the way of historical objectivity. Adulatory handwritten letters from actors Dom DeLuise and Whoopi Goldberg and life-size stuffed animals resembling Socks and Buddy, the White House pets, set the tone.
For more sobering historical reflections, I also visited the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, commemorating the nine African American students who, following the Supreme Court’s 1957 Brown v. Board of Education decision ruling segregation in public schools unconstitutional, attempted to enroll at all-white Little Rock High, only to be blocked by state police called in by the governor. The event drew international attention and helped shape the way we think about the state, even to this day. The school is still in operation—with a roughly equal number of black and white students—so the historic site devoted to the Little Rock Nine is housed in a visitor’s center across the street, which features a moving exhibition documenting the bitter fight for integration at the school.
On my final morning in Little Rock I had breakfast at The Root, a funky, vegetarian-friendly shack crowded with health-conscious, workout clothes types. The menu provided plenty of vegetarian and even vegan options to go with locally-roasted RoZark coffee. After finishing my distinctly non-vegetarian biscuits and gravy, I wandered across the street to the Green Corner Store, which stocks organic cleaning products, organic seeds, and locally-made preserves, and boasts a soda fountain dispensing all manner of allegedly healthy libations. I decided to order a kombucha-infused iced tea for the road.
When in Arkansas, etc.