It’s move-in day and I’m dragging my overflowing orange cart along Baker Hall, eyes peeled for E410. I walk right past the door with the Bentonville, Arkansas tag, momentarily forgetting that I live there. While I’d only ever spent five days in the small town featured on the grainy photo taped to my door, it had somehow become a part of my identity. I was born in New York, grew up in Princeton, spent a year in Brazil, and returned to the United States an Arkansan.
Northwest Arkansas is home to America’s favorite franchise: Walmart. In the 1950s, Sam Walton made a living by selling general goods for just a penny or two more than he had bought them. In five years, the operation expanded to 24 stores across Arkansas, by 1987 to just under 1,200 stores across the United States, and by 2016 to about 11,500 stores worldwide. Walmart’s success has depended upon the exploitation of labor and natural resources. But the Walton family has also created a philanthropic foundation that supports their home region, as well as other lower income parts of the states, through cultural, environmental, and educational programs. Its latest project: an independent middle and high school in Bentonville that will hopefully diversify pedagogic methods and serve to remove the regional barrier between executives and migrant workers through financial aid programs.
My dad accepted the offer to become the school’s founding headmaster, simultaneously agreeing to bring my family from New Jersey to Arkansas. While my parents informed me of their decision from the other end of a Skype call while I was in Salvador, Brazil, it was not until I returned from Bridge Year this past June to a packed away home that I admitted we were heading down South. But I clung to the Northeast for most of the summer, eager to reunite with local friends but also unenthusiastic about spending time in what I perceived as a deadbeat, backwards part of the country. But when I did drop in on the new life that my family was creating for themselves and become a tourist in my own “hometown,” I was pleasantly surprised.
Bentonville’s best coffee shop, The Onyx, is modeled after a chemistry lab that also feels like a night lounge. It’s the only place I’ve ever been that brews coffee in Erlenmeyer flasks, serves Kombucha on tap, and has a selection of craft beers. The background music ranges from Johnny Cash to Kygo.
And the small town’s best bar, The Foxhole, resembles a quintessential spot in Tribecca or Brooklyn but also maintains its southern charm. One night I spent a couple hours at the deep mahogany counter with my mom, sampling a variety of artisanal concoctions the bartender was trying to perfect. He would ask for our feedback and scribble notes in his recipe book, promising royalties upon publication and overwhelming success. He picked up the tab.
While one could happily spend their days in Bentonville eating and drinking, there are actually a few things to do between meals. The region attracts people from all over the state to explore its network of biking and hiking trails, and from all over the country to tour the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Inspired and funded by Alice Walton and the family’s foundation, the collection beautifully traces the nation’s history from the Hudson River School through the 21st century. It features iconic American art including Durand’s Kindred Spirits, Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter among other pieces by Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Georgia O’Keefe.
So when people ask me how is Oklahoma or is it Alabama, ohh right I mean Kans –, I find myself responding, Arkansas is hip. But in advocating on Bentonville’s, on my dad’s decision’s, behalf, I sometimes overlook the distinct cultural differences between my old and new homes. But there certainly have been unsettling moments:
On my younger brother’s third day at Bentonville High School, he wrote in our family group chat, “lmao was just offered leen.” Leen, purple drank, whatever: a potentially dangerous cough syrup cocktail that’s stereotypical to the South. Granted, most high schools have their fair share of drugs and alcohol floating around. But it was this particular combination… at 1 pm on the first Wednesday of the year… that struck me as slightly suss.
And there have been those moments that remind me Bentonville is fastened into our nation by the Bible Belt. There were quite a few neighbors who greeted my parents with the standard welcoming inquiry: “what church do you plan on joining?” And the couple of short drives I’ve done across Northwest Arkansas have not only been characterized by an evangelical church on every other block, but also Christian rock on every other station.
Spending fall break in Bentonville the week preceding the election was also a sobering experience: I was shocked by the number of Trump/Pence signs in what I had thought might be the state’s liberal oasis. As my brother and I left the town hall after casting our early votes, we caught a glimpse of a man holding a sign that described Trump as a “winner, builder, patriot” and Clinton as a “thief, lier.” While this man’s campaign shouldn’t necessarily be discredited because it was misspelled, it does represent a link between certain political tendencies and the uneducated in these more rural parts of the country.
Despite this peek into the world outside our little blue bubble, I was sufficiently surprised and angered by the election results. But disbelief has become curiosity: I am inspired to delve deeper into the Bentonville and greater Arkansas demographic, to seek understanding of what values and paradigms were in line with our president-elect’s campaign. I hope that my younger brother’s experience at the local public school will connect the family to conservatives that challenge our own ballot. And I hope that my dad’s school will cultivate the younger generation’s ability to solve global problems through a tolerant, comprehensively humanistic approach.
Our nation is regionally divided and certain qualities, beliefs, and lifestyles are more present in the South than in the Northeast and vice versa. I don’t think denying stereotypes is necessarily productive (unless of course they are held to comprehensively represent a certain population). Rather, we should seek to understand the grounds of undeniable differences in order to achieve common ground and rebuild a unified nation. And in doing so, we can revel in the unexpected beauty of those places we didn’t anticipate identifying with.