CLINTON COUNTRY There's more than Hope in president-elect's home state

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Shortly before publication of "The Red Badge of Courage," Stephen Crane visited Arkansas while free-lancing for a Philadelphia newspaper. "As soon as the train reaches the great pine belt of Arkansas," he said, "one becomes aware of the intoxication of the resinous air. It is heavy, fragrant with the odor from the vast pine tracts and its subtle influence contains a prophecy of the spirit of the little city afar in the hills."

This winey-piney aroma is ever present around Hope, Hot Springs and Little Rock. Those who grow up breathing pine air sorely miss it when they are away for long, especially in springtime when the sap is rising. The pine, naturally, is the official state tree. White House groundskeepers should not be surprised if the new president orders a few loblollies planted around the Rose Garden.

The Hope, Hot Springs and Little Rock pine country is only one part of Bill Clinton's home state. During almost 20 years of political campaigning, Mr. Clinton canvassed each of the 75 counties numerous times to shake hands with most of the state's 2.4 million inhabitants. If there is a Guinness record for most handshakes, he surely is the holder. Clinton Country, therefore, includes all of Arkansas from Missouri southward to Texas and Louisiana, and from the Mississippi River westward to Oklahoma.

Arkansas consists of four regions as distinct in some ways as four small European countries, but Bill Clinton has made himself native in all of them. The northwest is the Ozarks, with Fayetteville as cultural center. There, at the University of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton taught law for a time and then launched his first political campaign in 1974 against an entrenched congressman. He campaigned through the Ozark counties, losing, but learning how it was done.

Mr. Clinton was born on the Coastal Plain, a triangle of green across the southern part of the state, running from Texarkana almost to Little Rock and then southeast to the edge of the Delta on the Louisiana border.

Some Arkansans call this region the Timberlands because of its vast stands of pine that grow rapidly under warm rains and hot suns. But this is also a country of oil wells, tomato fields, catfish farms and deer-hunters' stands. Mr. Clinton inherited the Coastal Plains' attitude that life can be hard, but the land and the Good Lord provide ways to beat it if you try.

A third region encompasses the Ouachita Mountains in the southwestern part of the state. A line running between Texarkana and Fort Smith forms an artificial western border (the mountains extend into Oklahoma). The Arkansas River on the north and Interstate 30 on the east are the other boundaries. Within the Ouachitas is Hot Springs, an anomalous city with a large share of bizarre characters and tolerant traditions. Hot Springs is also influenced by straight-laced fundamentalists, so that the city sometimes has the characteristics of a split personality. In his youth, Bill Clinton, Baptist and lady-killer, acquired the divided spirit of Hot Springs and the Ouachitas.

Eastern Arkansas is the Delta, a flat and rolling agricultural land of soybeans, rice and cotton. During the last generation, rapid improvements in agricultural machinery drove white and black farm workers off the land and north to Illinois and Michigan in search of employment. Occasional license plates from those states on cars parked around Delta farmhouses indicate that family ties still prevail.

There is no typical Arkansan. If there were one, he or she would be a mixture of races, and would probably answer to names such as Buddy or Sissy or Sonny or Bill. Arkansas was settled by people escaping from something or somewhere. They are cordial to strangers, yet suspicious, and may express sotto voce some doubts about the newcomer's reliability and validity. To most of them, Bill Clinton is another Arkansas boy who has done well in life, and some of the 47 percent who did not vote for him openly admire what he has accomplished. Yet they hope and pray that all the hullabaloo he has created will not damage or alter the sweet ambience in which they've chosen to spend their lives.

This expectation may be wishful thinking. Mr. Clinton's victory is cause for tourism officials to celebrate. So for those who wish to experience Clinton country, the most dramatic highway entry to Arkansas is from the booming country music town of Branson, Mo., south to Harrison and then down state Highway 7 over one of the continent's 10 most scenic routes. In autumn the constantly changing hills and ridges display almost every shade of color, and in springtime one of the games of travelers is trying to name all of the 88 varieties of green that cover the mountainsides.

Although Highway 7 will take travelers directly to Hot Springs, various side trips are tempting along the way. Four miles below an amusement park called Dogpatch, a bridge crosses the Buffalo, the first designated National River in the United States. Venturesome travelers will turn off here at Pruitt's Landing, rent a canoe and proceed for a day's float to the next landing. Arrangements for return to one's car or for overnight camping can be made with the outfitters, who work under the direction of the National Park Service. The waters of the Buffalo are gentle enough for silver-haired retirees.

Eureka!

For those not interested in canoeing, a westward excursion of 40 miles to Eureka Springs over U.S. Highway 62 is good for a day or an overnight stay. No longer a watering place for Chicagoans and other city-dwellers who once came by railroad, Eureka is now geared for passing tourists. Visitors can ride in old-fashioned passenger cars behind a wood-burning locomotive, or see the quaint residences from a bus resembling a trolley car.

Eureka's intellectual center is Dairy House Hollow, a bed-and-breakfast founded by Crescent Dragonwagon and her husband, Ned. When their literary friends and relatives assemble from New York and elsewhere, the place becomes a sort of Algonquin Round Table of the Ozarks.

For years this up-and-down town has attracted artists and eccentrics such as the saloon-smasher Carry Nation and Gerald L. K. Smith, who created the controversial Christ of the Ozarks. The towering statue is admired by half the population and heartily disliked by the other half.

Back on Highway 7 again, and through the beguiling county seat of Jasper (pop. 519), a motorist may notice his engine beginning to labor. The land rises sharply into the Ozark National Forest, and for the next 50 miles remarkable scenery will unfold and surprise. The trees are hardwood with a mere scattering of pines.

Only three tiny villages are on this route, and an unalert driver may pass them by unnoticed even at 30 miles an hour. It is unwise to hurry much faster than that around the hairpin turns and narrow curves. Plenty of overlooks have been fashioned out of the bluffs for stopping and gazing, and then there are always the stops at quilt and handicraft entrepreneurs, who are ready to talk and deal.

Too soon the traveler is out of the forest and into Dover, leaving the Ozarks behind and the Arkansas River just ahead. Across the river is Dardanelle, its name probably derived from an early French explorer. A pair of nuclear cooling towers far off in the distance reminds that this is the age of technology, partially forgotten while enjoying the Ozarks.

After leaving the Ozarks and crossing the Arkansas River, one is truly in Clinton country, the region in which he spent his youth.

Moving farther southward from the Ozarks, visitors may detect subtle differences in Ouachita Mountains speech, a more nasal, higher tone in the voices. Students of Arkansas dialects can hear least five varieties -- Ozark, Ouachita, Coastal Plain, Delta and a mingling of all these in the Arkansas River Valley. Bill Clinton still has traces of Ouachita Mountains in his trained cadences, and occasionally has trouble with the region's tradition of using the pronoun "I" instead of "me" as the object of a preposition.

Smallest park

Highway 7 comes into Hot Springs by the back door and runs along Bathhouse Row (Central Avenue) because there is nowhere else for it to get through this smallest of the country's national parks, which is squeezed in between two mountains. Those searching for Mr. Clinton's roots can obtain at the convention center adjoining the avenue a map and guide to his homes, schools and church.

Central Avenue, in the words of Stephen Crane, "undoubtedly typifies the United States better than does any existing thoroughfare, for it resembles the North and the South, the East and the West. . . . The street is bright at times with gaudy gypsy coloring; it is gray in places with dull and Puritanical hues. It is wealthy and poor; it is impertinent and courteous."

In most part, Crane's description still holds. A politically ambitious teen-ager growing up in the 1960s in this least provincial of Arkansas towns -- mingling with professional gamblers, fancy women, retired carnival and racetrack people -- was bound to acquire a bit of the cosmopolitan. He might also have observed that adults of the state often are able to stand on both sides of a controversial subject: Gambling in casinos is immoral, but gambling on horse races is good clean fun. (Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller closed the casinos in 1967.)

High on the list of other places in Hot Springs that should be visited is the restored Fordyce bathhouse that is now used as Park Service headquarters. No baths are offered there, but the nearby Buckstaff provides superb bathing services with waters from the area's natural hot springs. For pleasant nostalgia, enter the Arlington, a hotel whose history parallels that of the city. The enormous lobby is so purely 1920s that one expects to see Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow chatting in a corner.

From Hot Springs you might want to take a short trip to "a place called Hope." On the Coastal Plain, it is only 80 miles down Highway 7 and Interstate 30.

Bill Clinton's connection to Hope is his birth and only five or six years of childhood, but during his recent campaign, Hope created a far better PR image than Hot Springs or Little Rock. For years the town's fame has been "Watermelon Capital of the (( World," and some Hope melons are so large that two strong men are needed to lift one of them. A Hope restaurant that caters to tourists has a billboard-sized painting of a watermelon on one wall, unless it has recently been replaced by a portrait of the president-elect.

To reach Little Rock from Hope, Interstate 30 is the only direct route, and although truck traffic is heavy, the place names along the way are soothing -- Pleasant Hill, Friendship, Social Hill. Bill Clinton has lived more years of his life in Little Rock than any other place and may very well think of it as his real hometown. Recently the city has been in a state of amoeba-like fission, with a new business district forming a dozen miles west of once-busy Main Street. So there is no longer a center.

Favorite building

This year Mr. Clinton unintentionally created a center a block west of Main on Markham Street by using the Old State House as the site for announcing his campaign to a small crowd, for celebrating his victory before an enormous crowd, and for holding his first press conference as president-elect. He has said that the Old State House is his favorite building in the world. It has been standing for more than 150 years and is the work of Greek Revivalist architect Gideon Shryock, who designed the Kentucky State Capitol and several splendid houses in the Ohio River valley. Only 17 blocks due south of the Old State House is the now-famous Governor's Mansion.

No travelers can say they know Clinton Country until they've seen the Delta, which is a triangular area running from northeast Arkansas to near North Little Rock and down to southeast Arkansas. A 30-minute drive out of Little Rock on U.S. Highway 165 takes one quickly into the Delta. The land flattens and is alluvial-rich. Hardwoods, cottonwoods and cypress replace pines. In summer the crops are lush -- soybeans, rice and cotton. The Delta is the opposite of the hills and mountains to the west -- different in appearance, in attitudes, in economy, in speech.

The Delta is the richest and the poorest section of Arkansas. Differences between the few wealthy and the numerous poor are chasmic. To overcome this poverty, politicians occasionally organize ventures such as the Lower Mississippi River Delta Development Commission, of which Mr. Clinton was chairman.

Among his expressed hopes was that the Mississippi River might someday become like the Rhine of Germany, with flourishing industries and tourist boats furnishing employment to the Delta's people.

Highway 165 zigzags on its way toward the Mississippi, from Scott to England to Stuttgart, the heart of riceland, and home to the World Championship Duck-Calling Contest, one event of the Wings Over the Prairie Festival. The road leads eventually to Arkansas Post National Monument, where the territory had its beginnings. Repeated floods have changed the face of the land so that no one is certain where once existed Mark Twain's favorite Arkansas town, Napoleon, and the "prettiest and the most accomplished girl in the whole Mississippi valley."

All along the Mississippi, up to Helena and West Memphis, the ghost of Mark Twain persists. Helena was one of the greatest steamboat ports and still is the state's leading town in river traffic, mostly barges now. Mark Twain liked to go ashore there while freight was being unloaded. "One of the prettiest situations on the Mississippi," he said. Today the town is remindful of an aging aristocratic doyenne trying to stay stylish on declining resources. Every October, however, Helena bursts forth in song when blues singers from far and wide gather for the King Biscuit Blues Festival.

And so we stop in Helena, facing the Great River, the only natural boundary of Clinton Country. We still have not taken the roads to Petit Jean, Fort Smith, Fayetteville, Pea Ridge, Mountain View and a hundred other exotic places with their multitudes of friendly folk. Another time, another journey, for sure.

IF YOU GO . . .

For a free Arkansas vacation and planning kit, write to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, Ark. 72201; (800) NATURAL; for more detailed information, call (501) 682-7777.

For information about specific regions in the state, contact the following regional tourism associations:

* Arkansas Great Southwest Association, P.O. Box 1006, Hope, Ark. 71801; (501) 777-7500 or (501) 722-2532, FAX (501) 777-2374.

* Arkansas Land of Legends Travel Association, P.O. Box 5069, Pine Bluff, Ark. 71611; (501) 535-0110.

* Arkansas River Valley Association, P.O. Box 1, Dardanelle, Ark. 72834; (501) 968-3941.

* Arkansas South Tourist Association, P.O. Box 1271, El Dorado, Ark. 71731-1271; (800) 866-2782 or (501) 862-8780, FAX (501) 863-6115.

* Great River Road Region, P.O. Box 1728, West Memphis, Ark. 72303; (501) 732-7598.

* Greers Ferry Lake and Little Red River Association, P.O. Box 1170, Fairfield Bay, Ark. 72088; (501) 884-6880.

* Heart of Arkansas Travel Association, Attention: Michelle Ketzcher, P.O. Box 3232, Little Rock, Ark. 72203; (501) 376-4781.

* Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box K, Hot Springs, Ark. 71902; (800) 772-2489; (501) 321-2277.

* Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 3232, Little Rock, Ark. 72203-3232; (800) 844-4781.

* Northwest Arkansas Tourism Association, P.O. Box 5176, Bella Vista, Ark. 72714; (501) 855-1336; FAX (501) 521-1791.

* Ozark Gateway Tourist Council, P.O. Box 4049, Batesville, Ark. 72503; (501) 793-9316.

* Ozark Mountain Region, P.O. Box 579, Flippin, Ark. 72634; (501) 453-8563.

*Western Arkansas Mountain Frontier, P.O. Box 1668, 612 Garrison, Fort Smith, Ark. 72902; (501) 783-6118.

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