“Can we go to the beach, Dad?” my 7-year-old, Kaela, asked the other day.
I knew what that meant. She wasn’t asking for a trip to Florida or to Alabama’s coast, she wanted to head to downtown Little Rock.
Kaela came to us late in our lives, and there’s a greater age difference between father and daughter than usual. Nonetheless, we both like to ride bikes and love the sound of water, wherever that may be, so we’ve developed the habit of spending Sundays near the river by the Clinton Library.
It’s hard to miss that brown bracelet stretching along the city’s north border. Swirling with catfish, its shores mark some of the most fertile spots in the state. Acres of barges pummel its low waves as they move grain and gravel against the current. Little Rock, at its core, is a river town.
This fact separates the city from its land-locked brothers and sisters in fascinating ways.
The river has been a highway of personalities starting with Hernando de Soto’s crossings, rolling through Jean Baptiste de la Harpe, and carrying through the days of river pirates, Civil War steamboats, and more modern barges. Vestiges of the Caddo, Quapaw, Osage, and Choctaw tribes remain. It doesn’t take an extensive imagination to picture Little Rock’s long-gone ancestors when we visit downtown’s river access.
Kaela and I unloaded the bikes in the Heifer International parking lot and pedaled toward the Clinton Library, coasting easily between magnolias illuminated by the sun glinting off the library’s facade. We sped behind the restaurant 42 and found the beautiful bridge named for Cindy Coates Miller and crossed it.
Kaela put her kickstand down and took off her shoes immediately. She ran for the shoreline in the shadow of the Clinton Bridge, a small rooster-tail of sand kicked up in her wake. Being 52, I gently walked across the beach and stretched my back, already stiff from the short bike ride.
The beach has a small trail system, a slack-water accessible shore, and outstanding views. I found Kaela digging in the shade, adding another layer to a sandcastle left by recent picnickers. The breeze there is perfect. I began to decode the best fishing spots while Kaela left the castle and started a search for tadpoles.
There’s an age difference, for sure, and it’s much like the experience of living in a river town. The past is always linked to the present and, even better, guides the future. The river’s movement continues through the ages, at once greeting the curiosity of explorers and the footfalls of a little girl hopping off a bike.
The moments Kaela and I spend on that beach are priceless lessons passed on. Never is life perfect, but the balance of learning that takes place when experience meets optimism is something to behold. Such is the arc of Little Rock.
Throw in a little sand and a little water, and it’s the perfect spot.
Steve Straessle is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at [email protected] Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle. “Oh, Little Rock” appears every other Monday.