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Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta

Sunday, 8 February 2004
written by Teresa

I still find myself sorely tempted to pronounce Arkansas as it looks rather than with the "saw" on the end and with a view to overcoming the urge I sought clarity on the Internet. Music Room In the process, I discovered that at one point, following the 1881 decree by the General Assembly, it was actually illegal to use the Ar-Kansas pronunciation, so I better watch out!

Set amongst the hills of western Arkansas is the town of Hot Springs, home of the National Park, where the waters, both hot and cold, surface at forty seven sources giving rise to a town built on the notion of "Spa" and in it's heyday a play ground for the rich. The Park's visitor centre is in the old Fordyce Bathhouse and stepping inside is a journey back in time. The richness and decadence of the place speaks from every aspect, the commissioned stained glass, the tonnes of marble, the stunning mosaic floors and the gentility of the ladies lounge with its grand piano. The treatment rooms with their shiny metal steam cabinets and white paints have a vaguely clinical air that no doubt bolstered the 'health' aspect of the experience. It was clearly a place to be pampered, to have every nook and cranny thoroughly cleaned, toned, massaged and beautified, that's if you had the money and your skin was the right colour.

Sunset-lit Factory Just south of the town, the campground at Lake Catherine State Park looks across the waters to an industrial plant on the opposite shore. In the setting of the rural wooded hills it comes as quite a surprise but as the days passed it somehow blended into the landscape even managing to exude it's own beauty bathed in the light of the setting sun. The lake is host to many wintering birds and as we breakfasted one morning a bald eagle landed on the shore just by the camper causing a flurry among its feathered cousins.

Away from the apparent opulence of Hot Springs, the overall feeling of the state is not one of wealth. Travelling east onto the flood plain of the Mississippi, the personal poverty is evident amid the empty cotton fields. In the humid heat of summer, wealth is reaped from the rich alluvial soil but seems to pass by those living in the small towns dotted across this part of the Delta that straddles Arkansas and Louisiana. Houses that appear to defy the laws of gravity barely manage to stand in their dilapidated condition. In frightening contrast, the wealth and opulence of a much smaller number of large brick houses somehow seem an affront and it's hard to believe that they do not engender anger in the hearts of those grinding out an existence. These are towns with small desperate supermarkets, unpaved roads and launderettes with only two working machines, the rest quietly rusting away but not removed. It is hard to believe that we are in the richest country in the world supposedly at a time of economic recovery. Someone, somewhere is getting very rich indeed if the average takes this into account.

River Border Left to its own devices, the Mississippi River is alive and on the move, a giant snake twisting and side winding back and forth across the immense flatness of its own creation. The arbitrary line marking the border of Louisiana and Mississippi was originally drawn along the river but the waters shrugged it off, refusing to be bound by anything so flimsy. Unlike the neat straight lines of so many state divisions, here it is a thing of intricacy and beauty, tracing the previous course of the river with it's numerous curves and goosenecks still evident, captured by a line drawn on a map, a previous skin abandoned in the on going growth and movement. The river itself runs another course, in some places synchronizing with its previous incarnation, but more often than not inexorably moving on, slowly twisting into new contortions leaving oxbow progeny in its wake. The rivers natural propensity to flood and enrich the earth has been curbed by those wishing to farm these rich lands, the levees stretching endless miles, corseting the waters within their straight unnatural confines. The romantic image of driving south along the Mississippi is a pipe dream, the levees blocking all view of the river, the fantasy harking back to an earlier time when the river ran its natural course.

As a state, Louisiana is wet, vast tracts of the land covered in bayous, swamps and marshes; egrets and herons at every turn, the bright red of cardinals flashing through the undergrowth, flocks of red winged blackbirds dropping like stones from tree branches to feed on the ground below. Bald Cypress It's a land of blossoming camellias and unbelievably large magnolia trees. Abandoned oxbows litter the flood plain, bald cypress with their protruding knees stand in the shallows, moss hanging in thick veils from the branches, the width of the lakes hinting at the size of the river. The camper sits feet from one of these shores in hearing distance of the lapping water, birds swoop and dart above the deeper channels, visible through the mossy drapes, lacy curtains of fine tendrils. Lake Bruin State Park has little else to recommend it but this setting forgives a multitude of sins; sitting by a fire as the light fades over the lake, the sky turning a mellow shade of pink reflecting in the water mirror below, the plaintive sound of a hooting owl drifting in on the cold silent air, it is hard to wish for much more.

New Orleans is the metropolitan face of Louisiana. This is a city that flaunts itself, celebrates its very existence and invites the world to join in. It has a distinctive appearance and character initiated by early French settlers and epitomized in the French Quarter of the city, mimicking the narrow streets and balconied buildings of many small towns in their homeland, its distinction found in the straightness of the grid system. The French Quarter Mardi Gras colours already adorn the buildings ready for one of the largest street parties anywhere in the world. As Lent approaches and the time of abstinence looms, preparations for a few days of decedent excess are well underway. Shops devoted solely to the sale of beads, streamers and other paraphernalia in purple, green and gold are gearing up for the big event but as yet stand strangely empty, devoid of prospective partygoers.

The other popular faces of the city are never far away. Old wooden trolley buses trundle along the central reservations beneath the huge outstretched arms of the impressive Live Oaks, the mansions of the Garden District look back to a time of immense wealth, tarot readers sit behind their small card tables in Jackson Square promising to reveal the future, a local jazz band entices tourists to sit in the afternoon sun listening to the distinctive musical style of the city, collection buckets awaiting the rounds. Names, shops and myths hint at the presence of voodoo and the supernatural although whether historical or contemporary is a little unclear. For all its interesting aspects, the hard pavements of the city soon fatigue our feet, the noise and speed dulls our senses and we're ready to move on. Maybe we'll come back for the party, one year.

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