Before the interstate opened in 1999, pig-trailing up the Boston Mountains was how one got to Fayetteville from points south and east. There was Highway 71, of course, but it too entailed a sometimes precarious two lanes skirting across, around and askew the western fringes of that laboratory for local relief known as the Ozark plateau.
Decades ago, 71 was classified as one of the country’s most dangerous highways, a well-earned designation. Heading back down the Hill after a Razorback night game could become a white-knuckle experience in the winter, especially. And only the brave or reckless took the Pig Trail home at night if bad weather threatened.
That national scenic byway incorporating sections of state highways 16 and 23 still meanders through an Ozarkian green inferno, settled in these days as tourism poster boy, an oasis for motorcycle riders and wanderers intent on taking the scenic route. And 71 still reveals glimpses of tourist-fueled economic glory once perched atop Mount Gayler, home of abandoned cliffside cabins and decaying neon signs, Arkansas’ own lost Inca civilization.
The crisp, clean, four-lane federal highway between Alma and Fayetteville opened in 1999 is scenic enough in its own right. And as no small consolation to old Pig Trail crawlers, it offers the Bobby Hopper Tunnel. The “Razorback” tunnel, as dads and their young Hog callers dub it still, is the state’s only highway tunnel (and unique as well for the varying gradients found within its twin bores).
Perhaps no other physical entity represents the divide between Arkansas’ two metropolitan areas and primary centers of commerce, culture and politics — central/northwest, Little Rock/Fayetteville, old money/new, whatever you want to call it — as much as the Bobby Hopper Tunnel. Northwest Arkansas always was separated from its Arkansas cousins, of course, symbolically and geologically, by the Ozark plateau. That buffer now is symbolized by a tunnel bored into a low ridge just north of the Washington-Crawford county line.
North of it, in Washington and Benton counties, the economy is driven by the University of Arkansas and the region’s native Fortune 500s. While incorporating elements of Southern culture and style, it feels more blended. Almost Midwestern. South of the tunnel — well, at Alma anyway — the state’s Southern agrarian roots take hold in the Arkansas River Valley. Some would argue that the South proper ends at Pine Bluff. Others might say it does so at Little Rock and still more might even extend the border further north.
Wherever it lies, one can’t deny the air is little different in Northwest Arkansas than it is in the Delta, in the piney woods of Nevada County or in the Ouachita foothills that begin their slow roll in west Little Rock. Not better, per se, just different.
Forever, Northwest Arkansas wasn’t a thing. There was Fayetteville and its environs tucked away in the state’s extreme northwest corner, the mystical distant relative, home to “exotic” local TV with channels like 40 and 29 and state politicians who stood out like literal giant R’s at the state Capitol. It’s a thing now, of course, having benefited from its isolation while Little Rock did most of the state’s heavy lifting, political and otherwise, and those R’s are in fashion, to say the least.
The region now known as NWA is doing its own heavy lifting these days, and it could be argued that its influence within the state matches that of Little Rock and Central Arkansas. It’s almost there, population-wise. Central Arkansas is growing still, but at a snail’s pace — treading water at roughly 750,000. NWA, on the other hand, is recognized as one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions, its footprint spread out among four primary cities all seemingly primed for even more growth. 2020 estimates place the NWA metro population at roughly 550,00, and some projections forecast 1 million residents by 2045.
The question seems to have shifted from whether Northwest Arkansas WILL exceed Central Arkansas in population, to WHEN it will do so. So far, Fayetteville and its growing neighbors have managed to avoid many of the hiccups that accompany urban growth. Little Rock remains the state’s “urban” core. But drive I-49 from Fayetteville to Bella Vista, and you’ll see very few miles free of development. The demographics work in NWA’s favor, but demographics tend to change with growth. The region’s brand of small-town cosmopolitan chic is strong as long as growth is manageable.
Branding for Little Rock, meanwhile, continues to carry the taint of reputations both earned and exaggerated concerning crime and public schools. Reputations inherent to virtually all large population centers. Grow Little Rock continues to do, however, its canopied streets transitioning fertile plain into hardscrabble hill, even if much of its growth comes on the metro’s periphery. (And say what you will, one will never want for good food in the Rock.)
But for those long-ago kids from Central Arkansas aglow in Razorback romanticism, the less-traveled Pig Trail always represented a pathway to an exotic locale. From it, one emerged from the Ozarks’ green belly to alight just off the Fayetteville square at the big curve that begats College Avenue, the old Mountain Inn keeping watch from its bed of clouds like a giant Sherpa guiding you to the summit.
These days, that first rise on I-49 beyond Greenland unveils a postcard view of Fayetteville ahead, Old Main prominent above the treeline, for many a landmark above all landmarks. The mysticism of the region indeed remains strong, even for some adults. But Little Rock remains the state’s heart, anchored smack dab in the middle, its lopsided skyline and that iconic Capitol dome bidding a good day under cerulean skies to Pinnacle Mountain out west.
And the Bobby Hopper Tunnel has become something like a line of demarcation, dividing old from new, perhaps Midwestern from Southern, maybe even, some might argue, past from future.