We didn’t think much about Arkansas before going on this trip (no surprises there, right? Are you sensing a pattern here with all of the preconceived notions and upended expectations we’ve got going on?) Arkansas sounds a little nebulous- trees? Dust? Rocks? A landlocked state that’s kinda southern? Civil rights? The birthplace of the Clinton dynasty? No offense, Arkansans! We didn’t know any better! Arkansas doesn’t exactly bring forth poetry in the mind’s eye.
We’d wanted to go up to Little Rock, the capital, by way of Crater of Diamonds State Park (this is the only place in the US that the public can go digging for diamonds and keep their findings to boot!) It seems pretty rare for people to find the stones, but it does happen. Since the region had experienced massive flooding the previous week (see: our experience in Shreveport), we thought the park would be one big mud lagoon, so we reluctantly skipped it.
Little Rock was good to us for the afternoon we spent in town. We explored the downtown riverfront area, saw a local St. Patrick’s Day Parade, ate delicious fried chicken at Gus’s, and went to the Clinton Presidential Library. The library is a massive, imposing facility, and well-curated. Much of the top floor features a display of gifts that the Clintons received while in office- handmade quilts, Fabergé eggs, a mini white house made of dollar bills- it lent some humor to a museum that could be solely political or historical. The bottom floor features countless displays of Clinton policy and accomplishments.
It made us feel a tinge of sadness about the state of the world today. Of course, the whole purpose of a presidential library is to paint the president it champions in the best possible light (see: a complete lack of acknowledgement toward the Monica Lewinsky scandal anywhere in the building). But being reminded of the Clinton years depressed us a little, in thinking about the Bush Jr. years and Obama’s presidency. Carl noted, “it must have been pretty easy to be president before 9/11”. It was crazy to see how much Clinton was able to do back then, and see the kinds of diplomacy he was able to engage in. The world has become so much more difficult for American politicians since 9/11 and everything that followed.
Unfortunately, the rain continued to pursue us, so we killed time in the trailer and caught up with a few movies. We even saw “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” on the big screen at a theater nearby.
Our next stop was Hot Springs National Park. We didn’t know anything about Hot Springs prior to this trip, but it turned out to be surprisingly cool! Hot Springs is one strange National Park. Instead of green, leafy earth for miles in every direction, this park is actually more of a small town. Sitting atop a natural hot spring in the Ozark Mountains, the park actually consists of the historic bathhouses that were built on top of these springs, which functioned as medical facilities from the mid-1800’s up until the 1940’s. The town is quaint, with several buildings and details remaining from when the spas were active.
The main park building takes up residence in the most elaborate of all the spa buildings- The Fordyce Bathhouse.To take a tour of the Fordyce is to time-travel in the best way, like stepping into a Wes Anderson movie or reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald book. The precious structural details paired with antiquated cures for ailments were endlessly delightful; “This is where you’d stand to get pummeled with a water hose! This is where you’d sit in a steam-box! This is where patients were encouraged to do calisthenics!” As the most luxurious of the spas, the Fordyce had plenty of delicious details, like marble statues and stained glass ceiling panels.
Most of the bathhouses on ‘bathhouse row’ are out of commission today, but two still function as spas- The Buckstaff and Quapaw. Say it with me, QUAPAW! Carl and I still look at each other at least once a day and chirp this out loud, like a secret scout signal. It’s actually named after a tribe of Native Americans that historically lived in the region.The Buckstaff facility is still old-school, and the baths operate way they did originally. Quapaw is a thoroughly modern, remodeled spa that still utilizes the natural springwater. We opted to get a couples bath at Quapaw, which was pretty awesome (and though I can’t say whether or not the minerals had a transformative effect, it was relaxing!). Other bathhouses have been converted into park buildings- one’s a gift shop, and one has even been turned into a brewery (Superior Bathhouse– the first brewery inside a National Park.) This park was definitely a fun visit, but one that can be done in a day.
Our final stop in Arkansas was Queen Wilhelmina State Park, right on the border of Oklahoma. The park is located along the Talimena Scenic Byway, so the drive up was gorgeous, naturally, with plenty of beautiful views. The park is located at the top of a mountain (“the second highest point in Arkansas,” they are quick to point out). This proved to be such a sweet camping situation, with many picturesque spots and several cool features like hiking trails, a fairy house and a stationary train engine. The park even has a mini railroad (!) that operates in the summertime. We were bummed to be there too soon in the season to see it in action.
Lastly, this is a major bummer to both of us- but in Arkansas, we saw the beginnings of a trend that has continued throughout our travels. Grafitti in nature has been shockingly common (we’ve since encountered it in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico). Call us naive, or spoiled by trips to the boundary waters in Minnesota (which is pretty dang pristine), but seeing things like rockfaces defaced with spray paint or strewn with litter is downright depressing. Is nothing sacred?! This rockwall pictured was near a pull-off on the Scenic Byway.
Despite that, Arkansas wound up being yet another fun surprise. We again found treasures in places we’d never much thought about. I recently learned that my grandparents honeymooned there in the 1940’s; midwesterners to their core, I guess! Even though they are no longer living, I feel more connected to them now knowing that I got to honeymoon a little bit in Arkansas, too.
More next week on our tour through Oklahoma!