Travel Log: Hidden Gems

The Red Boat

(Niceville, Florida; April 10, 2018) Phase 2 has been completed–I’m back in Niceville, Florida.  Phase 3 (Hawaii) is coming very soon–April 12!  Check out the state map at very bottom for a recap of Phases 1 and 2.

Last time I covered two states in one column. I’ve decided to up my game and take you on a tour of three states—three states that hide some extraordinary cultural, scenic, and historic treasures!

Arkansas gets a bad rap due to its lack of overt wealth. Arkansas is largely an agricultural state, so, right there, Arkansans deserve a bit of respect for the fact their state feeds us everyday. Get off the interstate and actually see the state. You will find some of the most amazingly peaceful landscape imaginable as the foothills of the Ozarks ripple across the land.

Northwest Arkansas
To drive through Arkansas is to be immersed in rolling hills and grand vistas of peaceful beauty.  (Nathanael Miller, 5 April 2018)

The northwestern corner of Arkansas is home to the small town of Siloam Springs and its local college, John Brown University (named for the evangelist John Brown, not the abolitionist John Brown of Harpers Ferry fame). I am blessed enough to have a personal connection to this town and JBU through the friendship of Breck and Robbie Castleman.

I met the Castlemans many years ago in Tallahassee, Florida. Breck was the pastor of my church (and is still one of the wisest men I’ve ever met). Robbie ran the Florida State University InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, keeping herd on us unruly, know-it-all college students. I got to visit them April 5th as I continued through Phase 2 of my Grand Tour. Robbie teaches at JBU and Breck just retired from pastoring a church in Siloam Springs. If you get to visit the lovely JBU campus, keep an eye out for a dark-haired, glassses-wearing dynamo moving at warp factor 10. That’ll be Robbie. Introduce yourself to her and you’ll get (in order) the love of Jesus, a huge hug, and a fast-paced verbal dissertation on the history and benefits of JBU. The school has a fixed tuition and never borrows money; every building you see was saved for and paid for before being built.

In order to avoid the “town and gown” phenomena that divides so many universities from the cities hosting them, JBU built a lovely walk and park along its side of Sager Creek for the general public. The school also took responsibility for Siloam Spring’s most important historical artifact: the Simon Sager cabin. Dating to 1837, this is the cabin of the man who founded the town. It was relocated from its original site to JBU’s campus where it has been meticulously restored and cared for. JBU uses it as a functional building while keeping it accessible to the Siloam Springs public. Robbie will (speed) walk you around the campus while telling you that many of Siloam Spring’s local kids gravitate towards JBU due to the sense of community fostered by the school.

Simon Sager Cabin
Restored and cared for by John Brown University, the 1837 Sager Cabin was the home of the founder of Siloam Springs–Simon Sager.  (Nathanael Miller, 5 April 2018)

This familial relationship between Siloam Springs and JBU is one of the best civic/academic success stories I’ve ever seen, and Robbie Castleman fairly bursts with gratitude at being part of it. Of course, the woman is fairly bursting with energy anyway, and this makes her a very popular teacher. During the afternoon she and Breck showed me the campus and town, several former students of hers stopped us to greet her, and one young lady had actually been looking for her that afternoon. She had a friend with her she wanted to introduce to Robbie as this friend will be taking one of Robbie’s classes.

When a school seeks out this caliber of faculty, you know the school is serious! JBU is a top notch school if you want to study medicine, engineering, family and human services, etc. Some of JBU’s more famous alumni include Jimmy Driftwood, Janet Huckabee, and Jim Winn. JBU also partners with Walmart in hosting Walton Scholars, a program that brings students from economically depressed areas of Mexico and Central America to JBU to study so they can go back home and improve their own communities. Global improvement on a generational scale!

Once my brief visit with Breck and Robbie was over, I took their advice and headed further west to a point just south of Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The road to Tahlequah is a windy one through more incredible scenery the likes of which most people only see in movies. Tahlequah itself is the capital of the Cherokee Nation and home of Cherokee Heritage Center. This is a small cultural museum that details one of the darkest periods in American history—the Trail of Tears. It’s not an easy place, but it is a hidden treasure that will open your eyes to the incredible story of the Cherokee and other native peoples who were pushed to the limit, and yet have gone on to reclaim their national identity and heritage. The center is built on the ruins of the Cherokee Female Seminary, a very ahead-of-its-time educational institution. The seminary building was opened in 1851 and burnt down in 1887.

The center pulls no punches, but, among the stories of atrocity are stories of great human courage from the Cherokees and stories of Americans (clergy, military, etc.) who tried to mitigate things as best as they could. The Cherokee are careful to educate visitors about the other native nations that were displaced, creating a tightly woven tapestry that is humbling, saddening and, when you reach the modern age and see where these peoples are now, uplifting. There are still miles to go for these nations in many ways, but when you consider the road they’ve traveled, they are truly one of the great human success stories on our continent.

Finally, I want to sneak you down to the small, blink-and-miss-it town of Tallulah, Louisiana. Again I have a personal connection here—my mother is a Louisiana native and remembers Tallulah as a child. Founded in 1857, Tallulah is not someplace normally listed on the tourist, map, but I found two very interesting stories there. The first is the town’s name. Long ago local widow owned a vast plantation in the area, and apparently got real friendly with a railroad man. She convinced him to run his rail line through her plantation and put a water stop there (thus guaranteeing her serious money). However, once he built the line and water stop, she…well, had nothing more to do with him. In the spirit of rejection, he then named the stop for a former girlfriend, Tallulah, instead of the plantation owner!

Only in America.

Tallulah, Louisiana
The restored central arcade of Bloom’s Apartments in Tallulah, Louisiana, preserves the building’s history as the first indoor shopping mall in the U.S.  (Nathanael Miller, 7 April 2018)

The second cool thing I found in Tallulah was Bloom’s Apartments. Yes, apartments. You see, when Bloom’s Arcade was built in 1930 it became the first modern indoor shopping mall in the United States! Boasting a whopping 12 stores, it was a wonder for shoppers to be able to browse such a selection regardless of the weather. The town has preserved the building’s exterior and interior central arcade while rezoning its former shops to become apartments. My kind of historical preservation—functional and cultural! You can’t just walk through the place (it is an apartment building now, after all), but you can see the restored central arcade and get a feel for this 1930s innovation.

Three states in one column: Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. With the exception of New Orleans, no part of these states ever seems to really make it on most travelers’ list of Top Ten Places to See. I grant they are not spectacular spectacles like Miami, New York City, Chicago, or Niceville. However, just because a place is not an economic mecca doesn’t mean it isn’t wealthy in that true currency of human civilizations: stories. Get off the beaten path and find yourself a Tallulah or a Tahlequa. You will be a far richer person for the effort.

Cherokee National Heritage Center
The Cherokee National Heritage Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, is built on the site of the Cherokee Female Seminary (three columns of which are still standing at the center’s entrance). (Nathanael Miller, 6 April 2018)

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Attraction information:

Cherokee National Heritage Center:

A small, well-formed combination of static exhibits and a recreated village with demonstrations of traditional Native American society. Admission for adults is $8.50, though youths and seniors get a discount. Active duty or retired military personnel get in free.

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

Instagram: @sparks1524



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