Growing Pains

A transplant on putting down roots in her adopted state

LastWord

THE FIRST TIME I CLAIMED ARKANSAS, it came as a surprise.

I was at a Christmas party in my native state, Tennessee, when friends of friends asked the inevitable: “Where are you from?” They knew the party’s host had graduated from college in Kentucky, where we had met, and expected I would claim the Bluegrass State. Meanwhile, a handful of high school friends, picking over the dessert tray while discussing our next class reunion, believed I would wear Tennessee Orange forever.

I surprised everyone, I believe—myself included—by saying, “Arkansas.”

I had moved to Arkansas only six months previous, to begin my master’s program. As a Southern writer, I applied exclusively to Southern schools—Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, Georgia, Virginia—but when I visited Arkansas, there was a peculiar pull. The soil here seemed to say, we will help you grow.

But as I learned in those first few months, one source of growth is hardship. Within six months, my car was hit by a drunk driver, we lost a family member, and I discovered a health problem. My parents offered advice about insurance and remedies, but I just wanted them nearby … to feel their hands on my shoulder. I was young and homesick. It seemed likely I would leave Arkansas.

But each time I considered leaving, I remembered my first hiking trip to Petit Jean State Park, in early August. At the time, I practically wilted—the Arkansas heat heavier than expected—but someone had mentioned a waterfall, and I couldn’t leave without seeing it.

I heard it first—the thundering, the hum, powerful as static. Separated from the waterfall by a narrow cliff, I had to be helped across by a nearby hiker. I finally found myself underneath the overhang, water pounding, and sat on a nearby rock, tired but gratified. As I listened to the falling water, I reflected on my first month in Arkansas. And it occurred to me that even though I’d spent my first days lost—trying to navigate new neighborhoods and highways, experiencing the shock of a place unfamiliar to me—it had been a happy summer. In some sense, in its newness and excitability, the time reminded me of childhood.

So I plunged into the water—literally—and hiked back smiling.

Maybe this is why I claim Arkansas—because I feel a connection to the land, despite my less-than-average hiking skills and clumsy inclinations. It could also be the people: Native Arkansans, both rural and urban, are proud of where they live. Like most Southerners, they’re aware of stereotypes and the best ways to dismiss them.

Don’t get me wrong, though—we’ve got grits, hand-rolled biscuits and the best chicken-fried steak north of Texas. Arkansas embraces a variety of Southernisms. One native I know cooks posole, a stew with hominy, green chilies and a slew of other fixings—a New Mexican family recipe on his mother’s side that he weds with Arkansas cooking. Another speaks reverently about the Chuckwagon Races in Clinton—a horse race with a downhill run straight into the river. Natives befriend others easily, realizing upon meeting that so-and-so’s high school teacher is the husband of so-and-so’s softball coach. The longer you’re in Arkansas, the more the state becomes an animated collection of places, of people—of branches that vary, with roots all the same.

But many Arkansans are transplants, like me. It’s difficult to spot us among the natives, because we also share an eager oneness with the state and are constantly looking for new ways to make it our own.

When others ask me about Arkansas, I mention the restaurants in Little Rock, the shopping in Fayetteville, the thrice-college town of Conway. But lately, my favorite part of Arkansas has been my own kitchen window.

It’s a foot and a half wide, paneled and white, with small cranks used for opening. Our kitchen table is aligned inside the frame, and the curtains are always open, so I stare at the green house across the gate, and the way leaves mingle with gravel like trail mix, and how pine trees border my building and when it snows, they’re peaceful, like skeletons in dresses. This is where I go each morning to read and write and daydream over grapefruit and tea. And each day, it is a quiet moment in what seems like a messy life, when I grant myself thankfulness for where I am and whom I’m becoming in this new place. There is a reflective magic in Arkansas that I am desperate to harness.

I discussed this once with a friend, a Georgia native whom I met in Kentucky but has since lived in Louisiana and Alabama. We’ve both considered ourselves Southern explorers, if not nomads, but she has always answered the inevitable—“Where are you from?”—with her birth state. She knows my Southern history: a young Tennessean, a grownup Kentuckian and, now, a recent Arkansan. She finds my connection to Arkansas amusing, if not strange. But a new home arises much like love, I tell her—quickly, unexpectedly and just when you thought you’d never have another.

Rachel Hoge is a writer currently living in Little Rock.