Hope and Hot Springs

Nov 1, 2010

Miles 8748 – 8922

Little River, AR to Jessieville, AR

When I first saw “Hope” on a map of Arkansas, I thought that it was an interesting name for a town, then I wondered why I had heard of it before, and finally it dawned on me that it had been the birthplace of Bill Clinton, our 42nd President of the United States.  While therefore of historic importance, I figured that I would go around it, stop in Hot Springs, AR, and then check out the Ozarks for a couple days before heading north into Illinois and the road home.  When I woke up that morning, however, I didn’t want to miss whatever Hope had to offer, and I headed down there to see what that might be.

It was a cool, gray Monday in early November, so tourist traffic was at a low point and the town was probably not looking its best.  There were a lot of vacant storefronts and homes, and it seemed as though the town itself hadn’t changed since Clinton was a boy there.  According to all of the literature, though, Hope used to be a vibrant community with several daily passenger trains and a bustling commercial and entertainment district.  To be honest, all Southern towns look a little run-down to me.  However, I once heard a woman from a Pacific Northwest city refer to Chicago’s brownstone two-flats (mostly occupied by decent middle-class families) as “squalid,” and ever since then I’ve been wary of judging places by the standards of a different region.  So I’ll stop trying to describe Hope itself and jump right to the tourist attractions.

The old train depot has been turned into a Historical Museum, with a prominent display about Bill Clinton and the era in which he grew up.  Mike Huckabee is also from Hope, it turns out, and there was another display on his life and times.  The rest of the museum featured the stuff of most small town museums – including a special section on Hope’s biggest claim to fame (other than the Prez): watermelon.  Yup, Hope is the Watermelon Capitol, and world record watermelons continue to be grown and shown there at the county fair.

I moved on from there to “Bill Clinton’s Boyhood Home” and the accompanying museum.  By now the house has been taken over by the National Park Service, but at the time they were still awaiting that transition.  The lack of backing by a wealthy federal agency was apparent, as the museum was not furnished richly, though with a lot of care.  The boyhood home is actually Bill’s grandparents’ home, where he spent his first few years and which he always afterwards thought of as “home,” wherever else he moved.  It was re-decorated in period furniture, appliances, etc. – which was a little bit curious.

Recreation of the Oval Office in the museum next door to Clinton's "boyhood home"

Think about it – Bill Clinton was hugely popular among “baby boomers” because he was one of them – he graduated college in nearly the same year as my parents, and my mom wracked her brain trying to remember the young Hillary Rodham that graduated high school the same year as her, just one suburb over.  What that means, of course, is that the house in which he and his mom lived when he was a young boy did not look too different on the inside from my grandmother’s when I was growing up.  It’s a little bit odd to tour a house that just looks like it could be just anyone’s house… but to a certain degree, I think that’s the point they are trying to make.  Clinton billed himself as just an average guy, growing up in an average town with his average family, and that certainly is exactly what it looks like.

Display in the Clinton Museum in Hope, AR

Careful, I’m going to wax a little philosophical here for a minute.  I’m not usually overly-patriotic, nor do I idealize our presidents, even the ones whom history has proven great.  However, after checking out the museums and being reminded of all that Clinton stood for before, during, and since his presidency, I was pretty impressed.  I remembered how enthusiastic people had been about him when he first ran for President, and he was the first guy I got to vote for, when he was elected to his second term the year I turned 18.  Though I can never say that I agree with all of the decisions that any politicians make, I’m proud of Bill and Hillary for continuing to fight for peace and justice both abroad and at home.

Okay, that’s done – I hope I didn’t just lose all my readers with that little sermon.

I left Hope around mid-day and headed west to Hot Springs, AR… a story that will have to wait until next time!


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