Bill Clinton Slept Here

Krista Marson
12 min readJun 8, 2023

A trip to Arkansas

Bill Clinton Library, wikimedia commons

It’s almost impossible to reminisce about a trip to Arkansas without mentioning Bill Clinton somewhere along the way. Hot Springs, Arkansas, takes pride in the fact that Bill Clinton grew up there and no trip feels complete unless you feel like you were sufficiently reminded of that fact at least a couple of times a day. I didn’t mind the constant Bill Clinton reminders lurking in the backdrop, though, because it made me nostalgic for the 1990s. Ryan and I visited Arkansas in 2013, which was post 9/11, post the Patriot Act, post the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, post the recession, post the housing crash, post all kinds of crap. The 1990s seemed like a good place to mentally time travel to, so we rejoiced as we rode every “Bill Clinton slept here” sign a decent 20 years into the past.

Time-traveling would have been the thing to do in Hot Springs, Arkansas, even if Bill Clinton was from there or not. I never knew that I wondered what it would have been like to believe that soaking in water would cure a medical disorder, but I went to Hot Springs National Park to find out.

Hot Springs National Park aerial view, wikimedia

For a nominal fee, Ryan and I soaked our bones in mineral water the old-fashioned way at Buckstaff Bathhouse. By the time we left, we felt like newly minted Victorians. While there, we did nothing that was familiar to our modern sensibilities, including getting stuffed in a steam cabinet that left our heads sticking out and getting doused by a needle shower that looked like a mastermind of steampunk subculture concocted it. The Victorians were under the impression that immersing the body in various liquid contraptions was the cure-all for any and all bodily breakdowns, and this bathhouse was one of the last testaments in America that still operated under that belief. If I ever wanted to escape the modern world permanently, I now know where to pretend that modern medicine has never been invented. This alternate universe is forever linked with aseptic white tiles, emit sulfuric scents, and decorated with a prolific amount of potted palm trees.

All in all, it wouldn’t be such a horrific world to reside in despite the fact the entire interior of Buckstaff Bathhouse was a wee bit too reminiscent of what I’d imagine a medieval torture chamber would look like if medieval torture chambers were painted white and decorated nicely with indoor plants to disguise the fact that the place was meant to murder you. It’s surprising to me that Victorians were all googa-gaga for the Neo-Gothic look, considering that so much of that style had a relatively grim undertone. Even the art deco folks took a page from the Victorian Gothic handbook and ran with it, as evidenced by the fact that the Victorians didn’t even create the Buckstaff Bathhouse. That bathhouse was built in the 1910s, yet the Edwardians (the era that followed the Victorian’s) managed to infuse the place with a nostalgic Victorian-Gothic-Torture-Chamber-Revival feeling. My hunch was that the place was supposed to feel like a hospital, as even hospitals today have a hint of that torture chamber feeling about them. I would never say that I’d want to move into a hospital, but I would say that I’d consider moving into the Buckstaff Bathhouse, even though that’s essentially saying that I’d move into a hospital.

Buckstaff Bathhouse, wikimedia

Arkansas, in general, struck me as being a very beautiful place, albeit I really didn’t understand how Little Rock did not grow to become the New York of the Midwest. Probably because Arkansas is not part of the Midwest, for one. Arkansas is considered part of the South. Sort of. Arkansas more identifies with whatever Texas and Oklahoma is. Those states aren’t really South either; they are more in the middle of “just there” -ness. Maybe that’s why no one ever mentions Little Rock in a sentence very often; it’s because people completely forget that it exists. If it weren’t for Bill Clinton’s Presidential Library being located there, I doubt that anyone would find a reason to venture beyond the perimeter of Little Rock’s airport to see what that city was all about. It turned out that Little Rock wasn’t about a whole lot else besides Bill Clinton’s Presidential Library, we discovered, and a convenient location to pick up a rental car and drive someplace else.

We were both more entertained by the Bill Clinton Presidential Library than we ever expected was possible. Neither of us had been to a presidential library before, but I suspect we enjoyed it because it belonged to a president we could easily identify with. It was like a personal tour of our collective past, and Ryan and I spent over three hours saying, “I remember when that happened,” or “I didn’t know that happened,” over and over again until we sounded like two broken records. Part of me thought that the library needed to be located in Hot Springs where genuine time travel really occurred, as the theme of the trip so far had been “Blast Into The Past,” but I supposed that Little Rock needed something beyond the confines of the airport, so it got that. I made a mental note not to bother visiting Presidential Libraries of presidents that I didn’t live through, as I am fairly certain now that Truman’s library would probably be something that both of us would burn through in a solid 20 minutes.

Clinton Library setting, wikimedia

Presidential Libraries are interesting, but not that interesting. I had a hunch that the dioramas were only presenting the portion of stories that they wanted the visitors to be privy to. The real stories were more likely to be found existing somewhere outside of those walls, and I wasn’t feeling ambitious enough to care about a single conspiracy theory that day. That was my overall take on Presidential Libraries: they exist for people who believe in alternate histories to run around the place and get pissed off. I overheard several conversations of people talking about how they recalled an event that unfolded that differed from what a presentation described it as having occurred. My suspicion was that those people who rehashed history out loud were the ones that got dragged in there kicking and screaming, and they wanted to be sure that their traveling companion and everyone else in there was dealt the appropriate price for having to endure their being in there. If anyone happens to think that America is not a divided country, have that person spend an hour at a Presidential Library; that will for sure get them to change their mind.

Toltec Mounds, wikimeida

We did a complete 180 from all things presidential when we drove about 30 minutes outside of Little Rock to an archaeological park known as Toltec Mounds. Actually, to call that a 180 would be a misnomer, as the Toltec Mounds historic site could be interpreted as the political-slash-ceremonial heart of a previous sophisticated culture. For longer than our current nation has been in existence, a native mound building culture lived beside a major tributary of the Mississippi River and created a grand world for themselves. That world was built on a foundation of stars as many of the mounds were built to act as calendars for celestial cycles. Standing on one of the mounds during a solstice or equinox today, one can still observe the sunrise or set over specific mounds that were constructed to mark the particular events. If ever one wanted to try to understand ancient philosophy, this place struck me as a good place to start one’s philosophical search into the mind of the past.

So much of early America remains unknown. In comparison, there is a lot less mystery as to what people were doing with their lives in Europe even during the darkest of ages from the years 400–1000 AD, which happen to be the years that most closely coincide with the Toltec Mound site habitation (600–1050 AD according to Wikipedia.) As Europe was reeling from the effects caused by the collapse of the Roman Empire, Native Americans were functioning perfectly fine up and down the banks of the Mississippi River. Here was to be found a thriving people living life as if they were the only people in the world doing so.

Toltec Mounds Archeological Site Overview, wikimedia

I like thinking about America before the arrival of the Europeans. I don’t think about it often enough because I rarely have a reason to, but I tap into those thoughts when I find myself standing on top of a grassy mound constructed by some unknown hands over a thousand years ago. I experience a cultural schism when I place myself in such surroundings, and I rather enjoy how that feels. I don’t mind thinking that my culture doesn’t absolutely have it right. I like it when I stand someplace whose people had a different approach to life than how I am cultured to approach it. I especially like it when such experiences occur in my own country. We here today were not the only Americans to experience this landscape, and I sometimes want to see how other people once saw it. I appreciate that this country was once sacred to other people, and I lament how their reverence is totally disregarded today. The mound builders left us the relics of their fervent belief system, and the choice is our own if we want to commune with who they once were. Commune we may, but we will never understand them, for no one knows who they were. Calling them the “Plum Bayou Culture” as the archaeologists do only gives them a label; it doesn’t reveal their true identities. I want to know what they, as a people, we’re thinking of for four hundred years while they existed in their rather primordial surroundings.

I know that I idealize the past too much. I say ‘primordial surroundings’ because I imagine early America as being some sort of pristine landscape when in reality, certain portions of the country were heavily lived on for centuries and most likely not only looked like shit but probably smelled like it too. Get enough people living in one area for multiple generations, and it’s going to look pretty crappy, especially when there was no sewer or waste service to speak of. Yet, appearances aside, I am fascinated with philosophy and survival. The fact that enough people got together and united in a collective mindset and created a culture is what appeals to my sensibilities. I am interested in their approach, the how’s and why’s of their lifestyles. Who was the one that said, “Let there be mounds,” and how was that done?

The mounds act as the Presidential Library of a people that existed a thousand years ago, which leads me to wonder if they were as divided of a people as we are today. My hunch was that they were more united as a culture than we are now. The mound builder’s world was so much smaller than ours, and it is likely that we are just too big of a country to all share a similar mindset today. It seemed as though the mound builders were able to compartmentalize better by restricting their world only to include their immediate surroundings. They didn’t try to exert their influence on whoever was living in the desert southwest or across the open plains, for their world was focused on the fertile plains of the Mississippi River valleys. They had all they needed, and they probably didn’t need much. Humans, in general, don’t require a ton of accouterments, but we tend to act like we do. I want to learn how to simplify living, but every time I get rid of something, I find myself picking up something else to replace whatever it was that I successfully managed to purge. Life becomes a vicious cycle of acquisitions, and I don’t know how to stop acquiring crap that I don’t need. I want to emulate a mound builder and live in a hut with zero room for stuff and things, but I doubt that I can. I don’t know what it is like to not want for anything aside from sustenance and ceremony.

The native peoples of this country were perhaps better at being real human beings than we are today, and that is a page from the unwritten history book that everyone can learn from, but that is not a book that anyone ever opens up, so we’ll never learn how to emulate them properly. Generally, I think to be a real human being requires knowing how to live with nature, not against it. I believe that the natives understood that, and if they didn’t necessarily understand that, it was simply their default setting to live naturally. Human beings are an integral part of nature, and so often, we fight that fact and thus shoot ourselves in the foot by doing so.

I have an intrinsic pull to be outside. I think we all do. Nature and man have equal stakes in the success of this planet without which neither of us could exist. We belong here together, and it is a shame that we build our cities over nature rather than around it. I would love to bring the outside in and breathe clean air in my bedroom that was built inside a forest of redwood trees. Alas, such is the fantasy conjured up by a mind used to residing in a concrete jungle. Where I live isn’t natural. I live in a tenuously fake environment that depends on a power grid and reservoirs. I don’t know what it is like to survive in actual nature, and I feel like I am only a half-human being because of that. I honestly don’t know what my true nature is, and that is something that I would be curious to explore. I think that it is something that everyone could benefit from getting in touch with, our natural organic selves, whatever that could possibly mean. I’m not sure that I know where I am going with these thoughts; I am simply writing whatever comes off the top of my head. I’m venturing into unfamiliar territory here as I rarely think of human beings as animals, even though that’s essentially what we are. It is so easy to forget that we are creatures of nature when we live inside air-conditioned buildings and drink chlorinated tap water.

What bothers me is that humans act like the world belongs to them. I hate to break it to some people, but we don’t own the planet. Another thing that I do not like is labels. Fearing for the future of the planet does not make me a ‘liberal’ no more than calling those that lived at Toltec Mounds the ‘Plum Bayou Culture’ make them any different from ourselves because, at the end of the day, we are all simply ‘people.’ We are all in this thing called ‘life’ together and ensuring that the planet remains healthy for the next generation should be of importance to all. I am not opposed to mining, but mining all the resources in one fell swoop is not considerate to all the generations that will inevitably follow our own. It would be really nice if everyone exerted an ounce of moderation in the things that they do. Hell, I’d even go so far as to say that it would be really nice if the powers that be exerted a measure of preservation every once in a while, too. It wears me out how people conveniently forget that the world will continue when they are no longer here to rape it for themselves. I am especially not a fan of urban sprawl. In two hundred years, a city like Phoenix will stretch from Flagstaff to Tucson, and the commute to work will be an absolute nightmare if we don’t put checks of growth in place now as opposed to never. Imagine Phoenix in a thousand years, the same amount of time that separates us today from the Toltec Mound people. Will we look like them, or will we look like something else? Or does the question beg, will we even be here to see it?

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