March 11, 2017
It’s a good day to be off the bike, although I can hear the voice of my friend Doug Miller, one of the most committed bicyclists I know: “What’s the matter? It’s not raining at the moment, it’s above freezing, and why would you waste a perfectly good Saturday by not being out there on your bike?”
Yes, the temperature is 42 degrees, and the rain is still likely some hours away, but there’s a cold, raw, damp wind blowing pretty strongly out of the east, not an auspicious direction for outdoor activity. And yesterday in 50 miles I got all the hills an old guy and loaded bicycle tourist could ever wish for, a total of more than 3500 feet of vertical climb according to my high-tech bike computer. That’s an important indicator of cycling difficulty, and let’s just say that only the youngest, fittest rider would call that anything less than a hard day.
After 32 days, I have caught up with the ragged underside of spring, or more accurately, it has caught up with me. March can still have some anger and power in it; it’s easy to forget that in a year of almost perennial early, pleasant spring or even summer by some definitions. Even in Southwest Arkansas, the temperature will plunge to the freezing point tonight, and the big question is whether the raindrops will also contain some wet snowflakes or ice pellets (more likely in the northern portion of the state). Of course I note that back on my home turf the forecast is for an inch or two of snow squalls and a predicted low of 14 degrees. Canada exports more to the United States than manufactured goods and oil from the Alberta tar sands.
My day off today finds me in Mena, Arkansas, nestled into a wide valley at the edge of the Ouachita Mountains (pronounced “WASH-a-tah” in these parts). What the mountain range lacks in terms of elevation (the highest peak is a less than 2800 feet) it makes up for in the steepness of its hills and its surprising beauty. Leaving Texarkana, I was blessed with the flat valley of the Red River and tributaries, and then suddenly (though I could see the hills five or six miles ahead), I turned a corner and “hit the wall” of an 8 percent grade (again, my bike computer measures such things) that forced me into my bike’s “granny gear” for about half a mile of huffing and puffing. With only a few exceptions where the road directly parallels the main line of the Kansas City Southern Railway, it’s been like that ever since. I think I can safely conclude that of the relatively brief 147 miles I will spend in Arkansas, all but about 30 of them will be spent either climbing or descending.
Arkansans make up for their rugged terrain with a remarkable sense of solicitude and friendship, even exceeding what I found in Texas. Notable examples are my hosts in two of the towns I have stayed. In Mena I am at a very comfortable bed and breakfast overseen by John and Jolynn Vacca, transplants from Fort Worth and childhood friends in West Texas, who retired here because it was where their children settled. John had called me on the phone on several occasions to ensure I was all right and would not lose my way. Yesterday as I was in the final stages of my strenuous hill climb, he showed up eight miles out and offered to take my trailer and bags back to the B&B. That level of service is well beyond the norm and turned the last 45 minutes of my ride into a much more pleasant trip (it’s amazing the difference losing 60 pounds can make).
In De Queen, my starting point for yesterday’s climb (I should have picked up on the fact that people there told me I would be riding “up the mountain” to Mena), I was contacted by Patrick Massey, the young (29) editor of the newspaper The De Queen Bee and president of the chamber of commerce. He insisted I stay at his home and offered dinner and conversation. I arrived in town a little early and was riding around to get a feel for the geography of the place. Unknown to me, I passed by his office window. You know a town is small—and friendly—when someone sees you, comes out, gets in their car and follows you to stop and say hello.
Patrick had an interest in my trip because the ending point, Winnipeg, is where he spent a good portion of his youth and graduated from high school. “I don’t find many Canadians in Arkansas,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to meet you.” Despite a 40-year age difference, we had more in common than our countries, except that his background was even more international. Born in Germany, to a U.S. soldier stationed there and a German mother, he moved to the U.S. at a young age. When his parents separated, his mother met a Canadian and eventually remarried, taking the family to Winnipeg. Then Patrick decided to attend college in Arkansas, where his paternal grandparents resided.
“Yeah, that’s how a Canadian boy became an Arkansas boy,” he said. His wife Caitlyn is Arkansan through and through. “I couldn’t marry anyone in Arkansas,” she said. “I was related to them all.” The Masseys seem to be committed to turning Canadians into Arkansans. The latest arrival is Patrick’s brother Tyler, who has been living with them for the past year and a half. For the first time since leaving home, I detected the faint but noticeable strains of a Canadian accent.
Patrick is a reminder that knowledge and wisdom don’t necessary have to wait for age. He’s remarkably well-informed, not such a surprise considering his profession, but also well-read, a fact I attribute to their refusal to subscribe to cable TV and internet service. It makes them decidedly old-school and out of sync with their generation, but it also broadens their interests and forces them to seek other sources. For Caitlyn it’s largely old—and new—films, and for Patrick it’s books.
We spent a wide-ranging evening immersed in conversation of the kind I remember so fondly from my own youth and still savor today. Patrick is a font of information about the community, but also of ideas and how the world is connected. He says he’s seized an opportunity that was created when the nature of the area changed with the passage of NAFTA in the mid-1990s. This brought a number of new jobs to the region, typified by Pilgrim’s Pride, the largest poultry processor in the U.S., that built a plant in De Queen employing more than a thousand people and slaughtering an average of more than 100,000 chickens daily. Patrick said most of the frozen processed meat is not consumed domestically but instead shipped to nations such as China and Russia.
The jobs have largely been filled by immigrants from Mexico, who came because many local residents were not interested in such work. “We don’t really ask whether they’re documented or not,” Patrick said. “They’re too much a part of our economic base.” In the last census, more than 38 percent of the town’s population is listed as being of Hispanic origin. The influence is considerable, from the numerous Mexican restaurants to the addition of a Spanish-language version of the newspaper Patrick edits.
Not all the local residents were happy with the changes, to the point where some of the business leaders and old families have left, he says. “I suppose people of my generation have taken up some of the slack. Not everyone understands what globalization means,” he continues. “You know that every time the price of oil drops it means that Russians have less money to buy international goods such as the chickens we process here. We’re all connected.
No, the new jobs aren’t like the old manufacturing jobs. But we’re not economically depressed like in the Rust Belt. The unemployment rate is actually lower than the national average, and the newer residents are happy to be able to raise their families here.”
Patrick remains concerned about the prospects for the rest of America. “Frankly, I’m not sure what the answer is for some places such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. In the end it may be U-Haul.” As a parting gift, he presented me with a hardcover copy of J.D. Vance’s popular and recently influential book, Hillbilly Elegy, about the problems of white working-class Appalachian Americans who migrated throughout the Midwest from the 1920s to the 1960s. It’s a book I’ve been hearing a lot about and one high on my prospective reading list.
It was a pleasure to find such conversation and ideas in Southwest Arkansas. It gives hope that not everyone, especially among Millennials, has given up reading and thinking.
The Sevier County Courthouse in De Queen, Arkansas:
My surprisingly and widely knowledgeable and accommodating young hosts in Des Queen, Patrick and Caitlyn Massey:
The location of Patrick’s office and employer:
I’d pedaled the length of Texas, thinking I’d find this scene somewhere, but I had to wait for it in Arkansas (no, it’s not for the squeamish):