As the miles trail away behind her car, each click on the odometer taking her farther from where she lives, Kristine Puckett is at home.
Puckett, deputy tourism director for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, is approaching the end of her quest to visit all 50 states and has just three left: Nebraska, Alaska and Hawaii.
She is still working on when she will go and what she will see — Puckett is kicking around the idea of an Alaskan cruise — but the pending end of her journey doesn’t mean she will have satisfied her thirst for travel. For her, the road always beckons.
“I’ve always liked to travel,” Puckett says. “I enjoy seeing new places, exploring them and immersing myself in the local culture. When I was trying to decide on a major in college, my mother asked what I liked to do. My response was ‘travel.’ She said, ‘Well, let’s find a job that will give you occasion to travel.’”
When time permits, Puckett, armed with an audio book or some tunes — and one strategically packed bag — heads out to explore the byways of America or, a little closer, the attributes of the state she promotes through her role in the tourism industry.
Puckett has been with Arkansas Tourism, a newly branded division of Parks and Tourism, for 17 years since graduating from the University of New Haven in Connecticut. She was named deputy tourism director last year after previously serving as tourism development manager.
“We promote Arkansas as a destination — for tourists, residents and people looking to relocate,” Puckett says.
Like a bend in the road on one of her beloved driving trips, Puckett usually has no idea what to expect on a given day in her job, which is mostly consumed with juggling different tasks.
“If I get 15 minutes uninterrupted it’s a surprise to me, but it’s fun.”
She enjoys her co-workers and the tourism industry members she collaborates with, but the real perk is when her job takes her out of town. In one recent week, for example, she visited Jacksonport and Helena-West Helena.
They may not be considered destination communities by some, but Puckett has learned that every community, including her hometown of Wilson, has something interesting that sets it apart.
“Growing up I did not realize every town does not look like a tudor, English-style village,” she says of Wilson’s architecture.
Oddly enough for a future tourism professional, Puckett didn’t know there was much to see in Arkansas beyond Wilson.
“I think I’m not unusual in that growing up here I didn’t appreciate what Arkansas was and what we had,” Puckett says.
Her college destination New Haven, as the last stop on the commuter rail system to New York, was cosmopolitan by comparison. While there, Puckett earned a double major in tourism administration and hotel restaurant management, which led her for a brief time to work for Omni Hotels.
She was looking for a job “anywhere they spoke English” when she responded to a blind ad and applied online with Arkansas Parks and Tourism. The same day she filed her application, she found a newspaper clipping of the opening, sent by her mother, in her mailbox.
Returning home activated Puckett’s latent love for her home state. It all seemed like a brand new place to her.
“I didn’t realize we had mountains, anything like that,” says Puckett, whose travel as a child had mostly included trips to Memphis and to visit relatives in Mississippi.
But the tourism industry has changed in certain ways since Puckett started with the department in 2002. Print, meaning the tourism guides and the other literature Arkansas Tourism puts out, has had to develop a symbiotic relationship with digital, and social media has become a major platform for promotion.
While no day is the same, Puckett breaks her job down into “front-of-house” and “back-of-house” responsibilities.
In the back of the house, Puckett oversees administration, purchasing and team building, makes budgets, manages marketing and coordinates with staff. In the front of the house, Puckett gets out in the state to meet with the department’s industry partners to help them promote their communities, businesses and attractions.
Although she admits she sometimes needs to use a weekend for disconnecting from her work responsibilities and travel, someone who describes herself as a road warrior can’t stay home for long.
On a recent road trip to Wisconsin, her 47th state, Puckett swung off the main route to check out the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, then took in a Wisconsin staple — a cheese factory. She also saw the “Bronze Fonz” statue of the iconic “Happy Days” character in Milwaukee and stayed in an independently operated hotel with a cow-themed decor.
“I love a road trip,” she says.
Pride of Place
Puckett’s most influential trip was when, as a young adult, she traveled Europe with a friend. It was the first trip she’d taken without supervision or financial support.
Seeing some of the world’s great treasures was inspiring, but what affected Puckett the most was taking a peek into local cultures and savoring the sights and sounds and smells, the local food, music and culture.
To this day it is the out-of-the-way destinations’ local color, flavor and offbeat things that really grab Puckett, the way Wilson’s Tudor-style buildings, common to her, might grab a visitor.
“I keep that feeling of cultural immersion in mind while I promote Arkansas,” she says, “remembering that things we consider part of everyday life can be new and wondrous to visitors.”
She has enjoyed seeing Arkansas communities find their own, unique points of interest and embracing them through promotion and tourism. But, while exuberant about travel in the state, the only thing that slows Puckett is her concern over leaving out mention of a city or item of interest.
“I’m proud of where I’m from,” Puckett says. “I think the smaller communities are, intentionally or maybe without realizing it, investing in place-making.”
Puckett points to Walnut Ridge, population 5,062, in northeast Arkansas.
On Sept. 18, 1964, the Beatles were on their way to a stopover in Missouri and changed planes in Walnut Ridge. The WWII-era training facilities there could accommodate their plane while the town’s obscurity allowed them to mostly avoid screaming fans, though word got out and a crowd of around 200 was on hand to see the Beatles depart the next day.
Walnut Ridge city leaders identified the unique moment in the community’s history and have made it a selling point. Permanent structures now include the Beatles Park at 110 Abbey Road (formerly Second Street) and the Guitar Walk next to Highway 67. The Beatles on the Ridge festival held each fall features a lineup of authors, attractions and tribute performances.
“That’s a small town saying ‘What are we? Let’s define ourselves,’” she says.
From Little Rock’s place as a Civil Rights Trail destination to the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home and Visitor Center in Historic Dyess Colony, communities continue to look for ways to forge and promote a unique identity.
Arkansas Tourism is there to help, Puckett says, and often does, but she gives credit to each community’s vision and leadership that realized: “Hey, we’ve got a great place to live, now how do we make it better?”
As Tourism Turns
Since Hot Springs National Park became the first state land set aside for protection by the federal government, even before Yellowstone, and the Buffalo National River was established as the country’s first national river, Arkansas has been recognized for its natural beauty.
Tourism has only grown since those early milestones, Puckett says. Tourism tax collections were up 2.5% last year over 2017, while the industry contributed about $7 billion to the state’s economy.
“Our industry enhances the quality of life for all Arkansans, even if they never step foot in a location that may be considered a ‘tourist destination,’” Puckett says. “Great restaurants, improved roadways and well-maintained public facilities are just some of the benefits that tourism directly brings to the state.”
Tourism has been such an economic mainstay that it was hardly touched by the economic downturn of 2008. Apparently, even when times are tough, people like to see and do things, and the state’s size and location make it ideal for both short and long adventures.
“We’re cost efficient, we’re affordable, we’re nearby,” Puckett says, noting the surrounding states are within reasonable driving distance from most of the state’s attractions.
Recent new attractions include the proliferation of bicycle trails all over Arkansas, the Murphy Arts District in downtown El Dorado and the developing U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith. Mainstays are numerous but include Eureka Springs, Hot Springs National Park, the Buffalo River, Crater of Diamonds State Park at Murfreesboro, the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, the Ozark Mountains and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.
Arkansas Tourism, with help from various communities, state archives and the Arkansas Department of Heritage, is beginning to delve into “genealogy tourism” that explores cemeteries and family histories. And this year, just in time for summer vacation, the department is promoting a favorite subject for Puckett: road trips.
Arkansas Tourism is embracing the trend toward local experiences, encouraging people to get off the beaten path and enjoy local dining, architecture, sights, sounds and people. The department has asked several musicians to create songs that illustrate their passion for the state, and the playlist “Arkansongs” is available on Spotify.
That seems tailor-made for a wanderer like Puckett, but admittedly she sometimes seeks out quieter, more remote places, something rural and wooded that can only be reached by backcountry roads. Higher profile trips can begin to resemble work because of the many industry acquaintances she runs into.
Yet as hectic as her days are, Puckett loves her job.
She hardly knew Arkansas when she left for college, and didn’t know it was where she’d return. But after really learning her home from the inside out, Puckett is happiest when sharing it with others on a daily basis.
“We take for granted what may be of interest to other people,” she said.
Puckett’s Bucket List
Ten must-see places and attractions in Arkansas, according to Arkansas Tourism Deputy Tourism Director (and road trip aficionado) Kristine Puckett.
1. Historic Washington State Park
“It’s like stepping back in time to see how businesses and homes were more than a century ago. You can also have hands-on experiences such as blacksmithing, typesetting and making candles.”
2. Clinton Presidential Center
“A must-see regardless of your political affiliation. I like to visit presidential libraries when I travel and we are immensely fortunate to have one in our capital city.”
3. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
“The exhibits are world-class, but my favorite part of the experience is walking the trails around the grounds and into downtown Bentonville.”
4. Johnny Cash Boyhood Home / Dyess Colony
“ASU’s Heritage Sites has done an outstanding job of sharing Johnny Cash’s childhood and telling the story of the community where he was raised, Arkansas’ first Works Progress Administration community under President Roosevelt’s New Deal.”
5. Town of Wilson
“Only 13 miles from Dyess is my hometown of Wilson. Stop by to see the Tudor-style architecture downtown, eat in the Wilson Café, shop at White’s Mercantile and local shops and check out Hampson Archeological Museum State Park in its new facilities.”
6. Crater of Diamonds State Park
“Dig for diamonds and keep what you find! I’ve never had any luck there, but plenty of people do. They say the best time to visit is after rain.”
7. Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
“Historians name this as one of the top three most important sites on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. After checking out the school and visitor center, go to the state capitol and walk through the Little Rock Nine memorial statues.”
8. Arkansas Welcome Center
“We staff 14 welcome centers, one in our Little Rock office and others at major points of entry to the state. Those who work at these centers are certified by the U.S. Travel Association as professional travel counselors. They take great pride in recommending places to visit, eat, explore and overnight in our state. Our welcome centers aren’t just for tourists, and our team will be happy to help you choose your next vacation, road trip or weekend getaway.”
9. The Open Road
“As a lover of road trips, I have to recommend just getting in your car and driving through the rural back roads of our state. Many people don’t realize the geographical diversity Arkansas is blessed to have. If you live in the delta, drive west and take in the winding hills and mountains. If you’ve never driven through our delta, head over to enjoy the rows and rows of farmland. And listen to the ‘Arkansongs’ on Spotify while you do it.”
10. One Park a Week
“We have 52 state parks and there are 52 weeks in a year. That’s a pre-built bucket list to move you around the state in a year!”