Not since Brooks Robinson has any Arkansan been more welcome in Maryland than David Wrightam.
And in the tiny Western Maryland hamlet of Williamsport, he may be getting top billing -- at least since last Friday, when he visited the town's Desert Rose Cafe in answer to a challenge from Howard County Executive and Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Ken Ulman.
It seems Ulman was on a campaign swing through Western Maryland last week when he stopped at the Desert Rose and noticed a U.S. map owner Rose Harris had hanging on the wall. For two years, visitors to the restaurant have been asked to place a pin in their home state. By last week, when Ulman stopped in, 49 states had been pinned.
What's up with Arkansas? Ulman wondered. And so the candidate sprang into action.
Soon, a video was up on Youtube, challenging some hungry Arkansan to stop on by the Desert Rose and break the drought. Ulman even offered to pay for the meal. (You can see the video here.)
Within hours, the Desert Rose had their man. Wrightam, who was on his way to Maine for a vacation with his two sons, heard about the challenge from family members back in Arkansas. Making a slight detour from Washington, D.C., he stopped at the Williamsport restaurant and made local history.
"He was awesome," says Harris, whose U.S. map proudly displays a big white pin in honor of Wrightam's visit. "I couldn’t have asked for a cooler person to do this with. He is actually a retired state police officer and Navy veteran, who was doing a cross-country trip with his sons."
The family chowed down on grilled cheese sandwiches, Harris said, and topped off their meal with ice cream from a store across the street. They also received a goodie bag filled with Williamsport souvenirs.
"He didn’t want to eat, he didn’t want Mr. Ulman to pay for his meal," Harris said. "He said he was just doing this as an adventure, he wasn’t doing this for a free meal." (Neveretheless, Harris refused to let him pay.)
"This has been an amazing trip for us," Wrightam said Wednesday from Portland, Maine, where he and his sons, ages 16 and 7, were continuing to enjoy their vacation -- and the happy notoriety their stopover in Williamsport brought them. "It's just exploded, it's all over. Not necessarily in Maine, but in Maryland, Arkansas and a few other places.
"Things like this just don't happen to us."
Delighted that his appeal worked, and with the money he had set aside to pay for that first meal no doubt burning a hole in his pocket, Mr. Ulman posted a second Youtube video. In it, he invites Wrightam and his family to stop in Ellicott City on their way home, with lunch on Mr. Ulman.
Wrightam says he and the boys are planning to stop in Ellicott City Tuesday, on their way back to Arkansas. "We didn't expect all this," he says, stressing the idea behind their trip north had simply been to spend some time with his sons and explore a bit. "But it's really made the trip more exciting for us."
As for Arkansas, Harris notes, it's not off the hook yet. With only one pin placed within its borders, it's still got only half as many as its nearest competitors. Alabama, North Dakota and South Dakota have two pins each, Harris says.
"I actually had a second guy call this morning," she says. But the next hungry Arkansans may have to pay for their meal.