Thursday, 7 June 2007

Issue 16 - Hillbilly

16 November 2005

This year, Kim and I decided to take our annual holiday in Arkansas.

That little announcement caused no end of consternation amongst my colleagues in the office, who already believe me to be in the same class as the babbling crazy people they cross the road to avoid in the big city. They, like everyone else in the world, only know Arkansas exists because Bill Clinton started his career as a seducer of interns here.

It look us five days of asking people (and everyone is very friendly) before we found anyone who has even been to New York. That makes sense, because in New York, there is simply no-one who would be prepared to be seen dead in Arkansas.


Arkansas suffers from a sort of uncertainty as to its identity, mostly because the entire state disagrees on how to pronounce itself. It took a great deal of internet research (thank goodness for the broadband connection in the apartment), but I have finally established that it was all the fault of the French. The true Indian name for the river which the state is named after is Arkansa (AR-kan-saa), but to say it properly the French explorers who got here first needed to add a letter which had to be silent, and for reasons known only to them, they chose an S. The correct pronounciation is therefore Ar-kan-saw - Arkansas exists for correct spelling purposes only. For the purpose of clarity, and in keeping with the American custom of dropping correct spelling for the purpose of saying things as they are spelt, I will use the Arkansaw version for now on, for the benefit of my international listeners.


We have a kind of cool car from Enterprise rentals. Apparently, the Arkansaw state department of motor vehicles insist all rental cars are registered with Hillbilly plates (as opposed to other states, which allow you to display out-of-town plates on rental cars, so that locals can ensure they can treat you with the disdain you deserve for choosing to live in another state). The funny thing is that you don't have to register your rental car for 30 days after it arrives in Arkansaw, so for 30 days you get to drive around without a number plate at all.

Our super-cheap-please-upgrade-me-what-are-you-serious-you-refused-to-pay-a-measly-4-dollars-a-day-upgrade-fee rental car is a black Saturn Ion - with absolutely no number plates at all. It looks like it has been stolen, except no-one would steal a Saturn (because it would break down during the getaway, and it would rattle too much if you put hip-hop on the stereo). It's definitely black, so from a distance, it looks kind of mean without any tags - a bit like a mafia staff car for Soccer Moms.


Having no tag should be cool - we can go as fast as we want past speed cameras and be safe from tickets.

Except there are no speed cameras in the US. No-one knows exactly why: some argue it is because there is a clause in the constitution which say you must be able to confront your accuser in court (making a speed camera tricky to call as a witness); others because posted speed limits are simply too low; but most simply say they would vote against any politician who supports them. Sadly, speed cameras have been shown to be an effective deterrent to excess speed in any country they have been used in. Sometimes lawmakers in the most developed country in the world fall for the most self-servingly simplistic and childish arguments which Tanzania or Bangaldesh would instantly reject.

Some amusing limitations imposed by courts and state legislatures are summarised by Wikipedia at

In the absence of speed cameras, Arkansaw uses blanket coverage of highways by State Troopers to ensure compliance with traffic laws - we pass 2-3 police cars on every 20 minute trip, except after dark, when all state troopers (and drunk or speeding drivers) are in bed of course.


We are staying in a timeshare apartment, in a gated community about 20 miles from Hot Springs. The apartment is very nice, and the location on a lake in the forest is beautiful. The scary thing is that we are by 40 years the youngest people between here and the nearest international airport.

A gated community "Down South" appears to be a retirement village or subdivision, complete with a guard at each entrance, and its own police force and tax regime. This particular community seems to be a good 20,000 people, all retired, and all with an overpowering desire to live next to a golf course (there are 8 golf courses surrounded by luxourious houses here, all in a row along the main road through the town).

The interesting thing about the population being 99.99% over 65 is that the only available labour force is also over 65. This means that the staff in the post office, in the Walmart, and acting as security staff at the gate house look likely to keel over if you crept up behind them and said "boo" too loudly.

It is definitely peaceful here in the village - we just can't find a restaurant with anyone in it after 6pm.


We had lunch in a local restaurant in Hot Springs, on the main strip ("Bathhouse Row" - named for the bath-houses built side-by-side on top of the springs at the turn of the century).

The decor was basic (as with all the restaurants in town) - sort of a cross between dodgy London greasy-spoon cafe, and desperately depressing retirement home. The staff were local (y'all'r not from arouwn' heeer urrrr' ya?), and the menu was deep-fried scary with a side order of something deep-fried. I'm pretty sure the napkins would have come deep-fried if we'd asked for them that way.

I opted for the deep-fried fish, and asked which of the complementary vegetables was most recommended. Passing up the suggested deep-fried french fries and deep-fried corn puffs, I tried another approach and asked what would be the healthiest of the complementary vegetable options.

I am not sure that question has ever been seriously asked in any Arkansaw restaurant before - it seemed to elicit the hillbilly equivalent of a syntax error.

I'm sure they will be debating the answer in the kitchen of that restaurant for weeks to come.


The city of Hot Springs is certainly not famous for its night life. As any tourist town of 11,000 people will tell you, it's hard attracting international entertainment out of season. After spending the first four days asking around, we did manage to find one person under the age of 60 working in a crystal shop, who directed us to the entertainment district. The directions were perfect, but the description was optimistic. There are three buildings in a block housing restaurants in Hot Springs, all of them owned by the same family. We did have a reasonable meal in what was clearly the best restaurant in town, and were tempted by the invitation to the martini bar with live music upstairs. Upstairs however, the Thursday night crowd consisted of three sad souls keeping the bartender company at the bar, and at least 100 empty seats surrounding a similar empty stage. Take me back to New York, all is forgiven.


If you buy a Ford truck here, the dealer will throw in a free 22-gauge shotgun.

I'm not kidding.

If you buy the redneck truck, the redneck toy comes free.

It seems only fair that deer in Arkansaw should be issued with kevlar vests.


We actually came here to learn to play golf.

So far, after some lessons, three visits to a driving range, and two rounds of a par-3 golf course, I have established one thing - golf is a really sh*t game if you are not very good at it.

Enough said - it will spoil the rest of the holiday if I summarise all of the disappointments which go with the golf we have played this week.

Suffice to say, my tee shot on the 18th today was good enough to allow me to retire forever from golf on a high. There were a LOT of practice shots this week leading up to my final 18th hole, so it was fortunate that there is something good to remember.

Who knows, once I can afford to retire to a gated community where there it simply nothing to do but play golf, then I will take it up again.

But not before.


Photos to follow.....

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