While Y and I were planning our trip, it became a ready topic of discussion while carousing with our friends. Early on, my best friend LG made it clear we should consider Hot Springs, AR as a destination and look her Moma, Margo up. LG has of course never steered me wrong and has saved my foolish ass from any number of scrapes. We’ve worked together, broken bread together, watched each others’ pets and generally been the mean girls in the room. No, you can’t sit with us. We’re also incredibly good at getting into scrapes together when we’re unsupervised, but that’s an entirely different bottle of rye.
LG is a sweet and kind lady, and she comes by it naturally. Margo and her husband Robert’s hospitality put the rest of the South to shame. They warmly greeted us at their lake house with hugs and handshakes, two tiny dogs, some takeout barbeque and friends on the back deck, eager to hear about our big adventure. We had a lively conversation, traded stories and told jokes, forgetting how tired we were when we had pulled up to the house. Eventually, however, their friends were heading out, and we headed to bed.
The lake house was tucked away off the main thoroughfare, nestled against Lake Catherine. We arrived, strangers, and Margo ran out to greet us with hugs. She led us through the lovely house and out onto the deck, where her husband, Rob, was waiting, entertaining Jan and Bob, another couple who lived nearby. We were given beers and introductions and set to work making friends as we watched the sun retire spectacularly from the vantage of the high bank.
We talked easily over dinner, sharing stories well into the night. With fatigue gently encroaching on the party, Margo showed us around the pool house, which had been set up to receive us. The accommodations would have been just as impressive had we not spent the previous night in a roach motel, and we reveled at the thought of restful sleep. We agreed to take her up on her offer of breakfast the next morning and said our good-nights.
Sunday brunch was an unhurried affair, and as is often the case with hospitality, our host had gone to great lengths to execute it. We four were joined by a high school friend of Margo’s, and the homemade spread of biscuits, sausage, scrambled eggs, and cantaloupe were further improved by the company. We exhausted the subjects of travel, houses, and pets (Not that one can, as a pet owner, ever exhaust that topic. This could have just as easily been a blog about Moose). After some hours, with the sun high and a post-meal drowsiness setting in, we decided to further delay productivity with a few laps in the pool.
Margo made us breakfast the next morning, and after a leisurely meal and a few hours of chatting, we excused ourselves and took a dip in the pool, taking in the beautiful garden and view, truly enjoying the nicest place we were staying at for the entirety of the trip. We had the Gangster Museum on our list after seeing a sign for it on our way in, and Margo graciously offered to drive and come with us.
The museum is a real treat, full of actual surprises and dozens of original pieces of memorabilia. Hot Springs is truly an amazing slice of history and one I was only tangentially aware of. Our guide was sharp as a whip and twice as energetic, and his enthusiasm for the subject was clear even as he fed off of our own excitement. There are so many stories wrapped up in a seemingly innocuous town with 2017 lenses on- removing them reveals a rich and colorful history. Afterward, Margo took us on a tour of the main drag, and we checked out bathhouse row and the storefronts.
The Gangster Museum is a quirky attraction and did not disappoint. It details the actions of a corrupt mayor who, along with his political machine, promoted illegal gambling to take Hot Springs from a remote site of pilgrimage for the unwell to the fashionable resort town of choice for gamblers, ballplayers, and members of organized crime. Our guide’s narrative was peppered with anecdotes. He told of how Al Capone received the deep scars on the left of his face courtesy of his friend, Frank, whose younger sister he wouldn’t let alone.
We had seen one of three death masks taken of John Dillinger at the Archive of the Afterlife in West Virginia. Oddly, the museum possessed a second. Surrounded by vintage tables and slots from the legendary Southern Club, we heard how a tough old madame named Maxine Temple Jones would drive new girls up and down The Strip in her convertible with the top down, as advertising. These sketches served to weave an intricate fabric of the unruly city just South of Little Rock, vivaciously disobeying the law. Also, we got to hold Tommy Guns.
These stories were supplemented by videos done in the style of late 80’s investigative journalism. They featured a local historian (sometimes awkwardly) delving into urban legend to reveal the truth behind the folklore. As we were exiting, we encountered said reporter, actually the museum’s owner. The man is obviously the authority on Hot Springs history and entertained us with tales of his work lending his expertise on such matters to Hollywood screenwriters (whom he said have a habit of largely ignoring these facts).
We headed back to the lake house for a drink and some writing, but not before we called our respective parental units. Thankfully we were both equipped with booze. I’ve never been much of a dutiful son, but as the realities of this trip and our move sank in, I realized I would need to be at least a little better to two very nice people that managed to raise 3.25 very nice tiny people into adulthood. I refuse to break down the math, I’ll let my three sisters squabble that out. Hint: I’m at least .75 of that sum. In any case, my folks, especially with housing an additional household, are still getting used to weekly phone calls. A little Wild Turkey 101 made the aftermath of our respective calls go down easier.
For dinner, Margo had made some delicious crawfish etouffee along with some of the most pleasant cornbread I’ve ever had. After, the four of us talked into the growing darkness, and Y and I finalized our exploration plans for the next day. Y spent a good portion of the evening writing inside, while I took in the sky, the swirl of the Milky Way just barely visible. Soon enough, I thought, before heading to sleep.
The Hot Springs for which the town is named are actually part of Hot Springs National Park. I had wanted to hike the Gulpha Gorge Trail, a steep black diamond path a tenderfoot like myself only felt confident in completing because the entire trip, out and back, clocked in at under a mile. By the time we had parked, it was after noon and upwards of 90 degrees. A sign at the Gulpha Gorge Trailhead warned of the intensity of the hike back up from the gorge. J eyed my enthusiasm for physical exertion suspiciously, then vetoed the plan for a longer, but more serene route.
My annoyance at missing out on the good views subsided as we came upon the site of a recent controlled burn. Meant to assist undergrowth in flourishing, the area was now patchy with both char and green, butterflies and silky milkweed fibers eerily floating along the trail in an enchanting dance. And J’s instincts had once again proved right. The easy trail had us sweating by completion and we were glad to catch our breaths with a shaded picnic, winsomely provided by Margo.
The night before, Margo had made us a picnic lunch to take with us on our sortie. Thusly armed with carrot sticks, celery, hummus, grapes, cheeses and crackers, we set out for the pinnacle of Hot Springs Mountain, looking to take in some nature. Our hike, while beautiful, was cut short due to Sol doing an impression of the Angry Sun Level from Super Mario Brothers 3. Our stroll left us more than adequately soaked in sweat, and we cooled off beneath the evergreens of the picnic area, watching the hawks slowly wheel over the valley below us.
After lunch, we drove down the mountain into downtown to see the guided tour at the Fordyce Bathhouse, the National Park’s headquarters. The tour, as with all our experiences with the National Park System, was humorous, illuminating and entertaining as hell. The history at play vis-a-vis the bathhouses and the foundation of Hot Springs itself dovetailed beautifully into the knowledge bombs from the day before at the Gangster Museum.
The Fordyce Bathhouse itself was beautiful, and no expense was spared in its construction. Italian marble, multiple massive stained glass windows overhead and the best technology of the time. The added bonus of the restored therapy and exercise devices from over 100 years ago was a special treat, and one I was excited to share with my youngest sister, who is an Athletic Trainer.
The park’s visitor’s center is located in the Fordyce Bathhouse, an opus of Italian marble and stained glass which was unrivaled in its day, and still damn arresting. Mr. Fordyce, a railroad tycoon, is largely credited with creating the city. His railroad from Little Rock to the town’s center eliminated the previous trip by stagecoach, an exhausting excursion of a day and a half. Having come to the springs to help recover from worsening injuries acquired during the Civil War, he not only built the lavish bathhouse, but the town itself, constructing hotels, restaurants, theatres, and clubs to entertain those traveling to the springs.
Touring the facilities we learned how “taking the baths” had been a prescribed act, meant to cure a number of ailments. The hot water was lowered to a tolerable temperature then administered any number of ways through the most cutting-edge torture devices. After a twenty-minute bath one might be subjected to alternating steam and ice rooms, a needle shower (so called for the thin, focused streams of cold water which pummeled the patient from all sides), an electric massage, or even an enema. After being packed in hot towels then left to cool, your treatment would be complete. It was typical for a patient to be prescribed twenty-one of these treatments, to be administered over the course of two weeks. Hardly your typical spa day.
I had previously imagined these prescriptions had been misguided medicine at best, scams at worst. However, the tour shone a light on how many of the procedures were similar to currently used treatments, just done without the benefit of modern mechanics. Bathhouses were among the first institutions to employ machines that used weights to create standardized resistance, the precursor to physical therapy. Much of the knowledge that contributed to an understanding of germs, advancing sterilization practices in medicine, came about from bathhouse staff doctors bringing their methodology of working clean to hospitals.
The Fordyce, built to serve as the crown jewel of these institutions, was also in possession of a myriad of fashionable comforts. The gymnasium and music room where wealthy patrons had congregated have been restored, displaying the elegant artifacts that would have been present for their diversions. A bronze fountain of explorer Hernando de Soto receiving the gift of the springs from a Native American girl sits in the men’s bath hall. A hole was dug in the basement and encircled by local quartz, enabling the bathhouse’s affluent patrons to view the springs’ waters running the creek below, and I mused at how Fordyce had even gilded a hole in the ground.
We walked for a bit exploring Central Avenue and the Promenade which ran parallel to it, providing elevated views of the town below. We settled at the Superior Bathhouse, a converted brewery, where we sampled a considerable number of their offerings, agreeing they accurately earned their superlative name. Wanting to peek into the lobby of the famed Arlington Hotel, we made our way down the street, bypassing a shop boasting Florida’s finest tropically flavored wine which was, thankfully, closed for the day.
The Arlington’s lobby was as grand as rumored, with round settees, globe lighting, and art deco ironwork decorating the windows. A stage and bar sat at opposite ends, each decorated with murals depicting vibrant jungle scenes. Though lovely, we both noted that even an establishment of the Arlington’s stature wasn’t immune to having to pervert its embellished decor by outfitting its bar with the ever more obligatory flat screen television.
We explored the Promenade afterward, working up a powerful thirst, which we had already planned on slaking at the Superior Bathhouse Brewery. Even as the world’s only brewery to utilize a thermal spring, I’m not sure they needed the extra help. We sampled close to half of the extensive lineup along with some solid snacking and left exceedingly happy. Hot Springs begged a bit more exploring, and we were happy to oblige, but our appetites slowly got the better of us. As we headed back to our car, we found a pair of fellow travelers in need of a jump. After we completed the mission, Y put it best: “We’ve been so fortunate, obviously you help that person.”
We have indeed been lucky, nearly two weeks into this adventure. We filled our water bottles with spring water at one of the many public fountains, then headed to Taco Mama for a late dinner, excited to try one of the many Mexican restaurants in what’s clearly a strong Latino community in Hot Springs. We weren’t let down, and their lengua was the best I’ve ever had. We returned to our hosts’ lake house to retell the day and make the first farewells, taking a starlit swim in the pool afterward.
Having worked up a proper appetite, we decided to try one of the Mexican restaurants we had noticed on our drive with Margo the previous day. We rolled up to Taco Mama to find a black Cadillac parked at its entrance. The color-changing lights with which it was rigged accentuated the dapperly-dressed skeleton couple occupying the front seat. Somehow, the chorizo chimichanga and lengua tacos managed to surpass that incredible marketing. With Margo scheduled to be at work when we departed the next day, we headed back to enjoy our hosts’ conversation one last time.
After some laundry and packing, we bid farewell to Robert and the dogs, heading back to Hot Springs for some centennial-style bathing. We had already chosen the Buckstaff Baths (one of only two original houses in operation) after some research, and after our tour at the Fordyce the day before, where they let us know the Buckstaff had never fixed what was never broke, we were eagerly anticipating to do it up like Victorians. We both opted for a simple bath, which was anything but.
Back in winter, a friend of Y’s had graciously given her a weekend for two they had won at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, one of the best resorts in PA, complete with a spa day. I kept thinking they were going to kick our restaurant working asses out in the middle of the night, and it was definitely the nicest hotel either of us has or will likely ever stay in. For us, the experience at Buckstaff, while a little rough and ready, was every bit as relaxing and wonderful. We lazed on the front porch for a spell afterward, before agreeing that we were positively ravenous.
We said our goodbyes and headed back to the Strip, fervent for our own turns to “take the baths.” Our tour of the Fordyce Bathhouse had largely readied us for what to expect at the Buckstaff Bathhouse, an institution that has been continuously providing their services in the same way since their inception, and I was glad for the preparation. We both opted for the basic bath services (no enemas for us) and made our way to our gendered undressing rooms. My attendant wrapped me in a sheet, then brought me to my bath. She was efficient and practiced, if a bit brusque, wrapping me in hot towels and moving me from sauna, to sitz bath, to shower with a perfunctory manner that relayed her experience.
My expectations having been set by our ranger’s comprehensive explanation, I was able to relax and enjoy the experience but could see how someone entering the situation blindly might find the treatment a little wham bam thank you, ma’am. Indeed, one of the three women I entered with opted to end her session within minutes of it beginning (The other, sporting a black eye, seemed unfazed by our attendant’s gruff temperament). Muscles loosened and mind a bit fuzzy, I leisurely dressed and made my way to the porch to sit in the sun while I waited for J.
We headed across the street to the Ohio Club, a former haunt of Major Leaguers with swollen livers and alias-toting gangsters alike, and had a very solid meal in one of the most gorgeous bars I’ve been in. They don’t make them or carve them like that anymore. On our way out, I reminded Y that the storefront hawking mango wine was indeed on our list, and I had not forgotten. The man running the counter seemed as surprised as we were that we had entered, and we settled into selecting a flight of ‘wine that finally tastes good’.
We elected White Peach, Guava, Carrot (which was labeled 40k) and sparkling Grapefruit as our flavor delegates. Guava is crushable, especially if you’re me or a 16-year old pregaming junior prom. White Peach, not as refined, totally acceptable for the band camp sibling. Grapefruit belongs in all mimosas, all the time. Truth be told, a little Fee’s Grapefruit Bitters and a squich of simple syrup will get you the same pony, but the Veruca Salts of this world will not be denied. The only one that didn’t make it out of the FlavorDome was Carrot, which our purveyor described as ‘different’ and ‘buttery’.
Voracious appetites in tow, we crossed Central Avenue and entered the Ohio Club, a bar and grill occupying the space the gambling parlor of the same name had once operated in. The bartender was pushing the feature, a Southwestern patty melt, with the robust intensity of a frat boy doling out trashcan punch, and I was only too happy to oblige. After a phenomenal (as promised) sandwich and a few beers, I felt sated enough to accept my obligation and conceded in accompanying J to taste tropical wine.
There were a ridiculous number of wines on display, and with flights of four available for the bargain price of $12, we each picked two and steeled ourselves. I have no one to blame but myself for subjecting me to carrot wine, an oddly herbal concoction and hands down the worst shot I’ve thrown back in years. The salesman, woefully misreading his audience, asked my opinion on it, to which I spurted, “Unusual.” He countered with a pitch about how it was really buttery.
Being too polite to not spare this guy, who seemed even less thrilled than I was to be there, I reaffirmed his findings, saying that though true, my preference tended to veer away from buttery varietals. Safely outside, J asked how I could indulge him with a straight face, but that poor guy hardly needed me shitting on his product to feel bad about being there.
We left Hot Springs, talking of future trips and friends who would love visiting, and rumbled into Hope, AR, specifically to do nothing except write and relax in air conditioning and watch Rick and Morty. A constant topic of conversation of the past week or so reared its head again in the evening. One of the truly striking things about Hot Springs and the South, in general, was a very specific reverence for history. From the refurbished distilleries of Kentucky to the neon-swatched streets of Nashville, it’s palpable. Where so many places in my part of the country sadly exist only in photographs, for some reason the past in the South seems much more vibrant and alive, more in tune with people’s daily lives.
That’s not to say the past is always something beautiful, and those statues honoring those who fought to subjugate belong well off public land and tucked in a museum at best, but even with the ugliest parts of the South’s history, even that seems front and center as a constant dialogue. The very real and very bloody history, one that keeps repeating, has, in its overarching presence, made the cities at the very least, much more open, honest and realistic. To put it in the crass terms of a restaurant worker, I’ve never seen so many brown faces in the front of the house. That’s not how things worked in Pittsburgh, in any case.
I really love the South. I certainly haven’t seen all of it, nor have I seen the ugliest part of it, I’m sure, but the natural impulse towards kindness and the reverence and respect for history are traits that don’t flourish so easily in the North. While I am excited for the journey Westward, into a different milieu, I know I will have dreams of the easy way in which I felt at home here, being so far from home, being truly homeless, despite that, I was made to feel as if I belonged wherever I went.
Interested in taking your own trip to Hot Springs National Park? Check out our guide here.