A few weeks back, Arkansas Times editor Lindsey Millar hit the staff with a proposal: Did anyone want to take a seat on one of the buses chartered by the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission and ride from Little Rock to Washington, D.C., with a group of Arkansans for the second inauguration of President Barack Obama?
I had to think about it.
There's a reason I'd never been further northeast than Knoxville and no further west as an adult than Lawton, Okla. I hate strange bathrooms and strange beds. I hate arranging my toothbrush and travel-size toiletries on hotel vanities. To boot, a little figuring found that it would be over 22 hours to D.C. by bus.
On the other hand, I'm a Democrat, and I know that while America loves to give presidents two terms, they usually don't give the same party three or more. There's every chance in the world that I will be north of 50 years old before another president is elected who I'd actually want to see inaugurated.
Above all that, though, was the idea of standing shoulder to shoulder with people from this state I love — some of them old enough to remember the Central High Crisis in 1957, others young enough that their first vote was cast for Obama — when we gave our first black president an encore.
So I said I'd do it. I would go. It was, as a writer much better than me once said: the best of times, and the worst of times.
Welcome to the Tour Bus California
This is the bus in the middle of the night, droning east: black hallway where the minutes shuffle past, full of the pained little noises of sleepers and the whine of the big diesel engine out back. There was nothing to see other than the occasional spray of city lights, or cars swimming dreamily into and out of the glare from the running lamps. We had loaded the six buses in Little Rock at 5 p.m. on Saturday, and were gone by 6 — around 330 souls, with over 100 of those being students from UCA, Philander Smith, Shorter College, Harding and Little Rock's eStem public charter school.
Standing around waiting to feed our bags to the bus, I'd talked to DeKevious Wilson, a grad student at Arkansas Tech University. He said he was going on the trip with friends, but would have gone regardless. While Obama's first term hadn't been flawless in his eyes, Wilson said he believed the president had done the best he could.
"To be in the same air that he and the first family are breathing, that's good enough for me," Wilson said. "It would make me feel like an American. Of course, I feel like an American every time I vote, but just to be there and see that history will make me even prouder to be an American."
Loaded up, I soon found myself pressed in closer than I ever wanted to be to Times photographer Brian Chilson, both of us crammed into the very last seat of bus No. 6. There were televisions, but somehow we wound up watching the same two-hour Gospel Music Awards broadcast twice, on a loop. Later on, we would watch the worst comedy in the history of the world (synopsis: Martin Lawrence stars as a rough-edged NBA coach who takes on a misfit team of junior high basketball players and makes them champions!) and a miniseries about The Temptations, which was a bit too much Temptation even for a diehard fan of "My Girl" and "Papa was a Rollin' Stone."
If none of this makes sense, that's because it is just a(nother) UAMS money grab.
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