Basking in temperate sunshine atop the Ozark Plateau in northwest Arkansas, Fayetteville—and by extension, its fast growing metro—represents a proper farewell to the proper South as travelers head north and west into the central plains frontier.
Perhaps the Ozarks provides that buffer, shielding the South from the harsh winters and worse yet, the mild and hard-working accents of those prairies. Situated on top of the interior highlands that make up Arkansas’s northwestern third, and removed from the vast Mississippi Delta of east Arkansas by generations of disparate cultures, Fayetteville has lived a somewhat isolated life as a Southern destination.
Technically Southern (it still sits in Arkansas, after all), Fayetteville plays capital to a hybrid region that rolls Southern, Midwestern, even a little traditional Western. Think Austin on a smaller scale, a haven tucked into the nooks and crannies of a green plateau overlooking Tolkien’s great Greenwood.
Culturally speaking, Northwest Arkansas is Bogart’s Casablanca: Varied influences, overt and sundry, making for a tasty jambalaya.
Some would argue the South Proper ends at Little Rock with the Delta…they may be right. Others would say it extends northwest up the Arkansas River Valley to Morrilton, maybe Russellville, before giving way to the hardscrabble existence that defines the hilltops and valleys of the Ouachitas and the Ozarks, and which convinced many of the area’s early Scots-Irish settlers that sticking with the Union was the practical thing to do.
Perhaps that slight removal from the Old South—emphasis on slight—is partly responsible for Fayetteville’s independent streak. “Keep Fayetteville Funky,” the bumper stickers read, and it’s remained so, for the most part. Home to the state’s flagship University of Arkansas, Fayetteville retains a distinct college town feel, serving as a magnet for Texas students wishing to escape the glow of burnt orange or the costly tuition of SMU. And of course, the Hogs. Fayetteville is Mecca-wrapped-in-Shangri La to Razorback fans worldwide.
With the help of Hog hats and biker tats, it retains the requisite funk required of a true college town despite its growth and economic muscle: The two-county metro is home to several Fortune 500 companies including Walmart and Tyson Foods, and officials expect Fayetteville to surpass Fort Smith as the state’s second-largest city at the next census. Hovering around 80,000 now, Fayetteville (“Fehd-vul” to generations of Arkies) anchors a growing metro of almost half a million.
Many of them, Midwestern transplants. Drawn, lured, perhaps even sequestered to this little corner of little ol’ Arkansas, these retail execs of Walmart vendors like Proctor & Gamble and Unilever find themselves pleasantly surprised at what they discover in Northwest Arkansas. Over the past two decades or so, Walmart has required its vendors to open offices in Bentonville, twenty-eight miles to Fayetteville’s north, and these company men, many from the Midwest, have put down roots.
Fayetteville’s funkiness is owed, at least in part, to its geographic isolation from Arkansas prime. (Its climate is a good eight to ten degrees cooler than the rest of the state.) While the Boston Mountains of the Ozark Highlands provide that buffer to the outside world, they have also insulated Fayetteville from most of Arkansas. Through the ’90’s, the area was accessible from points south and east (essentially, the rest of the state) by two-lane, mountainous roads only, and it was hours from the nearest large commercial airport.
Razorback fans scurried over these mountain goat paths including the iconic Pig Trail early on Saturday mornings and then again late on Saturday nights each fall for decades, fog or snow be darned.
The opening of Interstate 49, cut through white oak and limestone and some of the most dramatic local relief you’ll find, connected the region to the rest of the state, both physically and spiritually. And the construction of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport outside Bentonville, opened in ’98, gave the region direct local access to real flights on real jets beyond places like Little Rock and Tulsa.
The Pig Trail is still there, attracting tourists and motorcycle riders, despite a major rock slide that closed it for a chunk of 2015. It’s no longer the primary road into town, but one of many.
Indeed, Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas sat for years in relative isolation, just waiting to be discovered.
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