The Arkansas River bisects the Delta from northwest to southeast. In earlier centuries, it was an important waterway, carrying explorers and visitors west into vast territories occupied only by Native Americans for more than 10,000 years. There is a persistent legend that gunfire was exchanged between Federal steamboats and Confederate troops at Pine Bluff even before the action at Fort Sumter.
By the time I was a child, the river had become impassable due to massive sandbars. In the heat of the summer, one could almost walk across it. It seemed forgotten and lonely.
In the 1960s, when America was still dreaming great dreams, we made the river navigable again with a massive system of locks and dams from Tulsa, Oklahoma to the river’s intersection with the Mississippi. Now one can watch barges filled with goods winding their way inland or to the sea, loaded with goods. The river has also become a major source of recreation and, once more, a source of pride.
Along my walking route in Little Rock, several bridges span the river and two are dedicated solely for pedestrians and bicyclists. It is a wondrous feeling to stand on the center span and watch the sun rise over a river that has wandered its way eastward since time immemorial. It causes a skip in the heart, like catching the smell of a rose petal on a spring morning.
Maybe there is some archaic memory in our species—the same one that Huck Finn felt—that makes us want to follow that river just to see where it takes us. Maybe it is a companion gene to the one that makes us curl up with a new book of an evening, take brush in hand to paint, or simply grapple mentally with a new idea.
Maybe it is what made William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston want to write their stories about the South.