“Water in the lamplight danced along this shared night
Singing with the star shine, until the morning sun blind”
Fifteen minutes into the Natural State and my heart was positively aching. No, not a residual consequence of the pork tenderloin topped with bacon and lathered in bleu cheese sauce that I’d wolfed down for dinner back in Baxter Springs, but rather because we’d spontaneously pulled off U.S. Highway 62 into the parking patch for an antique shop that called itself “Inspiration Point.” The rationale behind this sobriquet was immediately and abundantly clear in the vista of one of the scarce non-impounded portions of the White River in a several-hundred mile stretch that is comprised mainly of human-engineered corpulence. Between Goshen and Bull Shoals, the vast majority of the river has been inflated into sequences of fat appendages whose principal uses today cater to people with disposable income and idle time, a far cry from the original hydroelectric power and flood control rationales for god-playing.
At this spot, however, those lakified waters were out of sight, leaving a panorama that cut to the very core of my being. The day’s color had been nearly swallowed by the horizon and what obstinate pastels were winning their struggle to seep into the twilight sky painted the unbroken verdure of the undulant terrain in sharp relief. This, at the risk of swooning into embellished sentimentality, looked like home, a dead ringer for my native northern Appalachia. Had I slept through the previous thirty-six hours of driving, I could have easily been fooled into believing we were somewhere in, say, West Virginia.
It is theorized that the Ozarks and Appalachians were once neighbors in the great chain of mountains that constituted the spine of the supercontinent Pangaea, eventually driven apart by the post-volcanic rift that created the Cenozoic Mississppi Valley. Though that is a gross oversimplification related by someone with far less than an expert’s grasp on geologic history, I would not have been convinced of any more logical an explanation as I gazed upon the uplifted plateau’s dissected landscape.
Bea patiently indulged my wistful trance, broken only by twilight’s inevitable superiority. Then we resumed our progress down Route 62 and soon bore witness to a pageant of increasingly gimmicky services: a Tudor-style, pitched-roof Bavarian restaurant, a roadside shack renting out exuberantly-neoned kayaks, a cluster of cottages raised up to resemble treehouses. We pulled into our shelter for the night, a spartan, no-frills motor lodge that now flew the flag of some banal brand with “Inn” in its title in a feeble attempt, tricking absolutely no one, to invoke some caliber of bygone charm. This corporatization did not appear to have tangibly manifested in much in the way of upgrades from what likely would have been the motel’s original state, which suited me just fine in my unjaded desire to experience a road trip even fractionally befitting of Twain, the Beats, Least Heat-Moon, et al.
We were welcomed by the patter of little feet slapping against baked concrete, followed by the robust splash of a cannonball into an unguarded pool. Ah, the unbridled potential of summer vacation! Condensed into such a simple act, it bolstered my mood amply to prod Bea into an evening stroll to survey our new habitat. Main Street snaked off of 62 right around the corner from the motel and we descended its substantial grade, passing a sprawling roadhouse with a legion of motorcycles deposited haphazardly out front, music and laughter wafting from open windows and patios. Before long, the road became populated with colorful wooden Victorians intermingling with rectangular structures hewn from rough cut blocks of locally quarried gray limestone or brown sandstone.
Eureka Springs, we quickly discovered, was akin to a real-life Chutes and Ladders game board, the whole town constructed in symbiosis with its uneven footing rather than in rebellion against it. Streets branched away seemingly under the command of pure whimsy, rising or falling as the topography dictated, like a family of streams. Crooked staircases whistled seductively from the shadows, soliciting passersby with the promise of unseen shortcuts. In a number of instances the unwitting could enter a building on one story and exit via another should they suffer so much as a momentary lapse in bearing. To me, conqueror of many a severely sloped neighborhood back home, it was positively delightful to the extent that I temporarily cast aside my misguided ascetics at the sight of a grand old hotel, rising up above a Y-junction that posed a choice between both horizontal and vertical planes, its rooftop almost level with the steep forested ridge behind it. It boasted a balcony encircling its second floor, upon which happy-looking patrons were contentedly passing time over pub grub and beverages.
“Let’s stop in there,” I was suddenly compelled to demand.
”I . . . didn’t bring my wallet,” Bea confessed, more sheepishly than she ought to have considering my bipolar notions of what constituted acceptable behavior.
”I can pay!” I countered, so resolutely was I digging the vibe of this unusual town.
”But my ID, what if they card us . . . ”
And there went the wind from my sails. It was the path of least resistance to churlishly let out an unwarranted harrumph as opposed to suggesting we make the roughly one-mile round trip trek to and from our abode, only to have trod up the hill yet again when we were finished. Instead we completed a brief foray further up the lower street outside the hotel before doubling back for the march up Main Street.
No sooner had we crossed the exterior-facing threshold of our motel room than the sheer length of our day rose to club us over the head. The thought that it had barely been twelve hours prior that we’d been perched atop the Gateway Arch was a beguiling and exhausting one. I sunk into bed - a real bed, all to myself, a fact I was not going to take for granted no matter how shabby our current lodging was on the surface in comparison with our somewhat more bourgeois accommodations in St. Louis - and with the steady drone of the wall-mounted air conditioning unit providing a somnolent white noise, I was unconscious in an instant.
Morning brought with it the revelation that Eureka Springs was every bit as enchanting by day as it had been alluring under the light of a nearly full moon. After breakfast in a pleasant subterranean cafe, we allowed ourselves some time to explore, taking advantage of the myriad mischievous stairways and narrow, fiercely slanted avenues that slithered up from the strange, sunken downtown. The bright, polychromatic painted ladies clashed boldly with the earthy hues of stone-laid edifices, much to the benefit of both.
Eureka Springs rose to prominence thanks to the alleged healing effects of the mineral waters beneath its bedrock and, more importantly, having the right boosters: a former governor of the state and an esteemed judge, for two, were instrumental in marketing the town sufficiently to wrangle a railway, which spurred such rampant growth that for a brief period near the end of the 19th century, Eureka Springs was one of the largest incorporated places in Arkansas. It rode this wave of popularity into the prohibition era, during which it was reputedly a getaway spot for high-ranking members of certain Chicago organized crime syndicates. While the curative properties of the natural spas may never have exactly been couched in a scientifically sound thesis, plenty of folks still find a restorative quality in the quirky, artsy undercurrent that has taken root over the previous century, aided by the innately winsome ambience of the Ozarkian setting.
The creative class and those who appreciate its output tend to err on the side of open-mindedness, which has fomented a fascinating juxtaposition in Eureka Springs, given its location in the bosom of the Bible Belt. Christianity could not be ignored or dismissed here. On the contrary, religiosity has a very heavy hand in the town’s economy: its far and away most popular attraction is a play, performed all summer long and attended by tens of thousands annually, about Christ’s final days. The upshot is a place whose chintzy tourist-oriented stores proudly display t-shirts in their windows that say things like “What has two thumbs and is loved by Jesus . . . THIS GUY!” but also whose civic leaders would go on to legalize same-sex marriage and enact anti-discrimination ordinances to protect LGBT rights in open insurgency against a deeply conservative state legislature.
We were not immune to the ecclesiastical snare, for something I insisted on seeing before we skipped town happened to be, well, a church. My interest in this house of worship was on account of its architectural significance. The Thorncrown Chapel was designed by a protege of Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1980, an extraordinary construction of cross-hatched wood beams with floor-to-vaulted-ceiling windows that conjured an illusion of open air amidst a grove of trees. Dismayingly, upon arrival we saw that we had to self-impose a denial of our own entry into the chapel, for in my atheistic eagerness to gawk I’d completely forgotten that it was Sunday morning, and even my glitching ethical compass knew better than to barge into an ongoing liturgy. Instead we loitered awkwardly for a few minutes, trying to maintain a polite perimeter while still gleaning what we could of the structure’s remarkable attributes through the leafy halo of canopies engulfing it. I was able to derive some enjoyment, too, out of the diminutive administrative shack burrowed into a hillside adjacent to the parking lot, for with a wink and a nod it evinced elements of Wright’s trademark Prairie School, low-slung and flat-roofed, with a cantilevered oaken awning.
Then we were eastbound on 62 once more, heading in the opposite direction of our ultimate destination, the action that so embodied my narcissistic treachery. We paused to climb a fire tower-esque contraption that existed primarily as a ruse to lure travelers into a gift shop stocked to the gills with all the requisite Arkansas-themed tchotchkes. Upon reaching the observation platform at the top we found ourselves out of breath from both the arduous ascent and the 360 degrees’ worth of endless green, the lush domain simultaneously amorphous and fractally intricate. Again it was profoundly evocative of the region of my genesis, the views standing in bewitchingly for those of Mount Davis, Pipestem Tower, Cooper’s Rock, Thayerville Lookout, to reminisce over just a few.
On again, past the Ozark Mountain Hoe-Down Theater and then a monstrous Walmart which seemed even more smug in its immensity, more defiant of its cancerous character here, in the lands that birthed it. In Berryville we dipped south on Arkansas Highway 21, otherwise known (in part) as the Ozark Highlands Scenic Byway. To be sure, the road confidently lived up to this billing, taking on a mind of its own as it swaggered into the emerald hollows. Even the most inarguable beauty, though, can conceal insidious ugliness, a fact of which I was unpleasantly reminded after being sucker punched by the disconcerting realization that we’d totally ignored the gas tank needle for some length of time, during which it had been persistently sneaking towards the “E” side of the gauge.
The next gas station we happened upon was on the outskirts of a dusty mote of a crossroads. Two older men in sun-faded and dirt-browned denim eyed us warily from their roost on a sagging bench outside the associated travel mart as we sidled up to a pump. Bea went inside to procure a bottle of water. I refueled, then followed her in for a jolt of caffeine. When I entered, Bea was already at the cash register, getting rung up. Two boys in their mid to late teens were flanking her, leaning against the counter, their posture leaving them oddly close to her. I thought nothing of it - presumably they were just hanging out there to ward off mutual listlessness with the employee, a pal of theirs - and moseyed on back to the cooler for my own drink. Nor did I think much of the resident yahoos parting and shuffling off to the magazine rack when I approached the clerk.
Returning to the safe confines of Bubble, even with my limited perceptive abilities I could tell that Bea was visibly rattled.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“Did you not see those guys?” she seethed. “Elevator eyes, as soon as I walked in. Like, aggressively. Just . . . gross. And then when I went to pay, instead of moving out of the way, they got closer. For a second I seriously thought they were going to touch me.”
“They were probably harmless,” my prodigious talent for saying the worst possible thing in a given scenario vomited. “Just kids with nothing better to do.”
“They made me really . . . really uncomfortable.”
I took the shovel in a firm, two-handed grip and continued digging with abandon. “I’d guess they don’t see too many girls, uh, who look . . . like you.” As if the novelty of a young mocha-skinned woman was a valid justification for leering intimidation, let alone when it occurs within the orbit of a racial environment like that of Harrison, Arkansas, where billboards would be erected in the not too distant future that would, verbatim, equate diversity with “white genocide.”
Bea could only sit in incredulous silence at my flagrant absence of sensitivity. All I managed to come up with to help rectify the situation was to lamely offer to take a shift behind the wheel. She would not relinquish control of the car, however, reasoning that focusing on the drive would help settle her frazzled head. It was indeed a ride that required concentration, plunging us into the well-defined valley of the undammed (by Congressional edict) Buffalo National River and then up into the Boston Mountains, home to the highest elevations in the entire Ozark physiography. The curves became tighter and more plentiful, a dizzying combination. Miles passed without any sign of humanity other than the occasional ramshackle barn or solo motorcyclist. Being enveloped in the conviviality of June’s verdant foliage helped Bea wash down the bitterness of her encounter, the season’s indefatigable optimism prevailing when perhaps it ought not have been permitted to.
A return to the fringes of civilization was marked by sporadic commercial enterprises rearing their heads: public campgrounds, a post office, even a burger shack. One last hairpin bend swung us around and deposited us in the basin of the Arkansas River outside Clarksville, a modestly sized, generic town of no great import that felt to us like a teeming metropolis after the country we had just come through. Bea arrowed into one of the angled parking spaces surrounding a prototypical county town square at the hub of the spartan, unadorned business district, anchored by a perfectly dignified, if visually unexceptional courthouse. This humdrum backdrop was an omen of the distance ahead, across less inherently remarkable territory.
“Your turn,” decreed my companion, a penance to which I assented willingly.