Independence in the Natural State

Hey Brett what gives? I thought you were a travel blog with sports, politics and history intermixed or maybe you were a history blog with everything else intermixed? Regardless of whatever this is, you haven’t updated in forever and how else are we your (handful of) faithful readers going to pass the time at work?!

Well faithful reader(s?) there is an old adage that I grew up with, “excuses are buttholes, everyone has one and they both give out the same thing”. That being said I think I have a good excuse for the lack of posts and even if its not you have to be nice to me. Alisha and I got married two weeks ago and this past summer has been dominated by nonstop travel and wedding events and quite frankly I didn’t have the time to come here and post a detailed analysis of the 1950 Princeton Tiger’s national championship run and how it was the last great gasp of the old Ivy League school’s football primacy before being utterly lapped by the big state schools. More than likely I was driving on I-35 fighting traffic in Fort Worth and trying to drive past Baylor as quickly as possible.


I don’t kick people when they are down unless they were in the SWC. 

That being said we now have a backlog of FW&H articles to get to. The list of college football bluebloods will continue, I actually like the idea of going into the 1950 Tiger’s season a bit more, and a travel report of the Dominican Republic is coming soon. But first we need to flash back to July 4th, roughly three weeks before the wedding and my last big trip before being “that old married dude.” For the long weekend Alisha and I joined my family in Arkansas to hang out in Eureka Springs and then Alisha and I hiked the Yellow Rock Trail at Devils Den State Park.

Let’s start with Eureka Springs. Eureka Springs is Austin 30 years ago shrunk down several orders of magnitude and then hidden in the folds of some random mountain chain. It’s a creepy little tourist trap that doesn’t feel like a tourist trap and is inhabited at any point by 40 percent retirees, 40 percent bikers, and 20 percent miscellaneous. The town is built around the natural springs from which it derives its name. From its initial founding it boomed into a place for the sick to find healing and then evolved into a tourist town taking advantage of Arkansas’ natural beauty and playing up a slightly spooky Victorian era legacy. This town abounds with cool shops, narrow switchback streets, funky houses, and century old hotels that all allege to be haunted. The entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places not just because of its history but also because of its look and feel. Eureka Springs is nestled in the mountains of northwest Arkansas and many of the city’s buildings have multiple street-level entrances on multiple floors. The city is a mishmash of stairs, winding roads and bridges and it takes some time to adjust and get your bearings. To add to the confusion the city was apparently raised a floor in the past due to flooding that would occur in the valley which means the true first floor of many buildings is actually “underground.”

The spring, which had been used for healing purposes by natives for centuries, was discovered by whites in 1856 when Dr. Alvah Jackson washed his eyes in a spring and claimed the waters cured his chronic eye issues. In 1879 his friend Judge J.B. Saunders claimed a disease of his own was cured by the healing waters. Obviously these claims seem a little dubious and 19th century snake oil salesmanish but you can’t argue with results. Some people clearly benefited from the waters and when you remember that northwest Arkansas has given us Walmart, Tyson Foods and the Clinton family you can’t argue that something isn’t in the water (you can argue if it’s something malignant but this isn’t a political article).

Alisha contemplating buying some quilts. 

The city was incorporated in 1880 and by 1889 it was the second largest city in Arkansas behind Little Rock. Throughout the height of the Victorian Era the town advertised itself as a wealthy spa destination and many of the houses and hotels found there today have their origins in this period. These include names like the New Orleans Hotel, Basin Park Hotel and the most well-known and distinctive of the bunch, the Crescent Hotel. The Crescent was originally created as a hotel for the rich but the enterprise failed and it spent time as a college for many years. In 1937 Norman Baker, a prominent radio personality bought the hotel and turned it into a hospital and health resort marketed to cancer patients. He dubbed himself a doctor and began running a massive medical scam in which almost all of his patients died but he tricked loved one’s and family friends of those patients into paying exorbitant fees for continued “treatments”, sometimes even after the patient had died. A secret system of tunnels runs under the town where bodies would be transported from the hotel to the city morgue. Have I mentioned this town really hams up the “haunted” theme? Today most of these hotels have been renovated and restored and market themselves to tourists either looking for a place to stay or looking for a ghost tour.

As the town established its haunted turn of the century motif it also became a place that blended considerable elements of Christianity and morality. Carrie Nation briefly lived here and in 1966 the Christ of the Ozarks statue was erected nearby. In 1968 the Great Passion Play began performing in the summer where it was been seen by nearly eight million people. In 1980 Thorncrown Chapel opened which is an architecturally significant structure and on the National register of Historic Places in its own right. A visitor the town today will tell you it’s much more liberal than its history presents. The town crawls with tourists, bikers, and hippies and everything has a very funky vibe to it. For a small southern town in the middle of nowhere its bars are generally crowded late into the evening and ghost tour groups trek around every which way. Festivals, pride parades and a Mardi Gras celebrations are booming while locals will tell you that attendance for the Great Passion Play isn’t what it once was.

Merica

I’m about to show my age but I have to recognize the place we stayed. Eureka Springs is more than just a weird downtown area, it’s in a gorgeous part of Arkansas and is dotted with excellent bed and breakfasts. We stayed at a place called Arsenic and Old Lace, named after the old Cary Grant film from 1944.

 

Eureka Springs is a cool out of the way place that I would highly recommend. If you live in SEC or Big 12 country it’s an easy and relatively nearby trip that shouldn’t set you back to much if you plan it right and you’ll have a good time if your looking for something different and off the beaten path.


Not pictured: the beaten path. 

While Eureka Springs is very cool in its own right let’s switch gears to talking about Arkansas. God bless Arkansas. As a Texan from the Gulf Coast the Rockies and the Appalachians are about as far away from Houston as you can get. Excluding the Ozarks the nearest mountain range is the Davis Mountains of far west Texas. Arkansas offers a much needed nearby respite from the overpowering flatness of the coastal south. Arkansas is not going to provide the overpowering grandeur of the west that looks stunning in pictures. Instead, Arkansas presents an area that is worth exploring and protecting not because of its photogenic qualities but because of its overpowering uniqueness. There is no one “scene” in the low lying Ozarks that will become the silhouette for a Patagonia or the icon of a stamp but driving through the Boston Mountains is something one doesn’t forget. Mile after mile of hazy mountains and green valleys blend together to overwhelm one with the scope and uniqueness of an area that is quintessentially “Arkansas”. It’s similar to passing through Shenandoah National Park or flying over the Everglades. There isn’t one thing because the vastness of the nature itself is the thing worth exploring and protecting.


Alisha hanging out

If there was an iconic Arkansas scene though, Alisha and I found it in Devils Den State Park. First of all, credit where it is due, the Natural State does its park system right. There was no entry fee and park infrastructure was minimal instead of overbearing. Once we started our hike the only civilization we saw was the trail itself, a few signs and a bench. This contrasts with Oklahoma which feels the need to throw down a dilapidated theme park near the entrance of every park. Alisha and I were headed back to Oklahoma City after the weekend in Eureka so we didn’t have a lot of time to explore everything but we decided we wanted to hit the popular Yellow Rock Trail. Yellow Rock is a heavily forested three mile loop (we only did the out and back portion but you can loop around) that leads from a valley up to a yellow colored crag that overlooks a valley. For low lying mountains the view is spectacular and it perfectly sets up amazing pictures. Along the way you pass by cliffs and small creeks. It’s not a strenuous trail by any means but be careful in the summer because it was boiling. We got our start right around noon and got the full force of the sun and humidity. The good news is if you have towels and a change of clothes there is a shallow river running next to the trail head to cool off in. It is a crowded trail but we weren’t running into people by any stretch and had plenty of opportunities to enjoy the overlook by ourselves.


Hanging out as far as my fear of heights will allow me

There are a bunch of other locations in the park worth exploring including caves and other trails but like I said we were stressed for time and had to hit the road to Oklahoma. Even with the little time we had we both really enjoyed this side hike. It could easily be combined with some more hikes and exploration in Arkansas to create a really cool outdoor weekend. We’ve already talked about Eureka Springs but Arkansas also features scenic drives, dozens of cool state parks, a national forest, a National Scenic River, and Hot Springs National Park. Best of all, it can be done for cheap and its relatively close to a lot of places that might not have access to great hikes. While we might not go back to Devils Den State Park we will definitely go back to Arkansas many times in the future, if for no other reason than to scratch off Hot Springs from the list.

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