Branson, MO to Hot Springs, AR – I expected the highway to worsen with every mile I drove into Arkansas. Everything people told me about the state was dismal. Why would you want to go there? Signs, though, announced that Arkansas was “The Natural State” and welcomed me. Wild flowers bloomed along the shoulder of the road and I pulled into the visitor center in Harrison to get my bearings.
The man behind the counter in a collared shirt said good morning with a southern drawl. I told him I had never been to Arkansas. He smiled and slid me a map of the state.
“So, what do you want to see?”
“Hot Springs National Park?” I paused. “I’m not sure I’d get there if I don’t go now.” I figured a natural area would be just the thing after Branson.
“How are you going to get there?” he asked me, pointing to my map. “You could take Highway 7. It was rated by National Geographic as a 6 out of 10 in being a beautiful scenic drive.”
“Are there things to take pictures of?”
“Oh yes, you go through Buffalo River National Park. We call it the Little Grand Canyon. It was the first national river designated in the country. There’re pullouts and you can walk down to the river at the ranger station.”
I was sold on highway 7.
“And Hot Springs?”
“Hot Springs National Park is right in the town of Hot Springs. The park includes the historic bath-house row which piped in the healing thermal water from a series of springs. It is technically the oldest national park because it was the first land preserved by the government – in 1832 – even though when they created that national park system, they called Yellowstone a national park first. It’s worth a visit.” He handed me some brochures. “Enjoy Arkansas!”
Back on the road, I knew I’d made the right decision. The road was newly paved as it carried me through dips and turns toward the Buffalo River. The forest looked like it was about to overtake the road. The recommended speed signs were slower I could take in the Matrix, much slower than if I’d had a Porsche, which I wished for more than once. I passed vans pulling trailers of canoes and locals in old farm trucks. Tucked into the dips sat little farms and vibrant gardens. At the lookout points, gift stores sold hand-turned walnut bowls. I stopped at the river. It was blue in the middle and clear at the edges. Vines with flowers strung their way out of holes in the cliffs. A man nearby told me it was safe to swim as he waded in. A birdwatcher set up his camera further upstream in a high spot that jutted into the river. I made a note to come back in a canoe.
I arrived in Hot Springs around 2 o’clock and paid for one hour of street parking. At the north end of the park, steamy water cascaded into a pool. I could only keep my hand in for a second, it was so hot.
At the temporary Hot Springs Visitor Center (the main center is being renovated) a volunteer was appalled that I didn’t know how healing it was to drink the water. I promised her I would go put more money in my parking meter and return for the free tour. I was to meet the ranger on the Grand Promenade behind the bathhouses.
Moving us from one spot of shade to another, the ranger talked about the history of the bathhouses, how they were first created for men, not women. Gangsters like Al Capone hung out there. Rainwater takes approximately 4,000 years to drain to the lowest point of the thermals and then only a year for heat to push it back up to the surface. Banff is the only other place in North America where this occurs. The 41 springs are all capped now and, after 9-11, the lids were welded shut. In spite of this, the water is free to everyone. Even the hospital uses the water and boasts one of the best arthritis and physical therapy programs in the country. The water’s average temperature is 143 degrees.
Hot Springs also boasts Arkansas’ oldest bar – the Ohio Club. Gangsters hung out here along with Mae West and Babe Ruth. I decided to at least have dinner here before hitting the road to Memphis for the night.
Inside the Ohio Club, I sat myself down at the mahogany bar and began to chat with the couple next to me drinking Bud Light.
“You from here?” the gentleman asked.
“I am until I open my mouth and then you know I’m not,” I laughed. He laughed too and I put my cowboy hat on the bar. The waitress took my order and promised she could get my food to me in 15 minutes.
Eddie and Dell were from the eastern part of the state, retired from farming. I asked if Dell was a farm-girl when Eddie married her.
“Oh no! But I told her that once she heard the sound of rain on a tin roof at night, she’d never want to go back.”
“And what happened?”
Dell shook her head. “He was right. I never went back.”
Eddie smiled. “We thought we’d be civilized and replace the tin roof with shingles like everyone else a few years ago but we missed the sound of the rain on the tin so much, I had to hang a piece of tin outside the window so we could still hear it.”
We chatted about farming and their travels. They’d bought a condo close to Hot Springs and spent the summers there, leasing out the farm and returning in the fall. They told me about construction on I-40 and drew out an alternate route through the farmland. As I gathered my bag to pay and leave, Eddie grabbed my bill.
“There are still some gentlemen in Arkansas. You let us know if you come back through here and we’ll have a beer. Be safe on the road, you hear?”
“And let us know you made it there okay,” Dell added.
I took their contact info and promised that I would let them know when I made it to Memphis. At a little café outside of Hot Springs, I pulled over to get my bearings. I told two bikers that I was lost.
“Yer not lost! We know exactly where you are!” they laughed and told me how to get to Little Rock. A woman at a café made a cup of Folgers coffee special for me and only charged me a dollar.
“Bless your heart,” she said. “You be safe.” And with that I was on my way, in love with the state of Arkansas.