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OPINION | DANA STEWARD: In perspective

Riding the Great River Road by Dana Steward Special to the Democrat-Gazette | October 31, 2022 at 4:10 a.m.

On a gorgeous autumn day recently, Mr. Wonderful and I took a day off from our usual heavy retirement schedule to take a ride down the Great River Road in south Arkansas (an easily navigated gravel stretch that sits atop the levee holding back the Arkansas River from the rich farmland surrounding it). This portion of the Arkansas is designated "Wild and Scenic" since it flows unchecked between the last dam on the Arkansas, the Wilbur D. Mills, and the Mississippi River.

Wild and scenic it is. We saw raccoon, armadillos, snakes, birds, and one shy bear. As a result of the low water, miles and miles of sandbars almost touched in the middle of the lazy flow. Virgin hardwoods, a riot of wildflowers and tangles of vines, and circuitous oxbow bayous will set your imagination back centuries, especially if you have stopped by the Arkansas Post National Memorial near Back Gate and heard about the adventures of Frenchman Henri de Tonti and his dealings with the Quapaw Indians more than four centuries ago. Touching the enormous ancient bodark (Osage orange) tree that dominates the visitor's center is a lesson in humility.

Although on this day we were rambling on its banks, we have explored this portion of the Arkansas by canoe on two occasions, putting in at the dam and taking out near a grain elevator a few miles down the Mississippi. A third trip was aborted when we were blown off the river by a tornado, a real adventure story for another day.

Camping on the river, listening to the owls and the coyotes and the barge bells on the adjacent White River and following the spectacle that is the Milky Way is a singular experience, even for those of us who spend considerable time in the woods of Arkansas.

Riding the levee with the wildness of the wilderness on one side and the acres and acres of cultivated cotton and beans on the other left us, as it always does, feeling like we are citizens of a rich state, a land that has so much to offer to us ... because we are. Yet as we turned west from the river at Callie Lake, headed for Tillar, we saw another side of Arkansas as well.

The poverty of southeast Arkansas is apparent, a stark counterpoint to the expensive commercial farming equipment and a reminder of inequities, especially racial inequities, that show little sign of righting themselves.

Nothing is more stark, however, than a pilgrimage to the Rohwer Internment Camp historical site nearby, where more than 8,000 Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. It is impossible to remain unmoved as you stand at the monument in this isolated place and let your eyes run down the list of the individuals treated so unjustly who perished fighting for their country.

Our drive back to Little Rock was uneventful, and regretfully my thoughts returned to the issues of the day as I occupied myself reading political signs stringing up and down U.S. 65.

Yes, once again we get the chance to go to the polls and firmly declare whom we choose to lead us (if we can negotiate the phalanx of new laws mean to curate the voters). I refuse to let that thought ruin a beautiful day; in fact, I am grateful. Our vote is still a right and responsibility so many people in this world do not have.

As the signs whiz by, I am stirred from the luxury of a day of peace. I wonder about these people who have boldly placed their names before us for election. And by extension, not just these but the candidates across Arkansas. Do they think they have answers to their town or county or state's problems?

What do they see, what do they feel, when they ride the river road or walk where de Tonti explored and Native Americans were exploited and slaves tilled the land and Japanese Americans were detained? Where some small farmers fought the flooded Arkansas and prospered and others flooded out? Where even now some children have plenty and others starve, some people have access to good health care and some do not?

Do they think there is still a place for the bear? A place where Arkansas remains beautiful, not sold off to the highest bidder? Do they see a better future, with new opportunity and better schools and health care and less drugs and more access to jobs? Do they see room for diversity of populace and opinion, in which individuals worship as they see fit, read what they see fit, love whom they see fit, a diversity that recognizes that in this country religion does not speak for science and science does not speak for religion?

I believe people of good will all over this state, from the Delta to the Ozarks to West Memphis to Fort Smith, are wondering the same things. I am hopeful that the self-dealing, the nearsightedness, the smugness, and the just plain meanness that has permeated our politics in Arkansas has run its course. I pray that we choose those who would appeal not to our fears, to our nostalgia, but to our best instincts and to our future.

Dana F. Steward is a retired writing teacher from Sherwood and editor of the nature anthology "A Rough Sort of Beauty: Reflections on the Natural Heritage of Arkansas."

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