Cross Country 2005 - Hot Springs, Cold Blues

Reprinted from West Meets East

Since leaving the West behind, I’ve begun slowing down to see some sights. Yesterday, I decided to get off the beaten path and see a little bit of Arkansas, “the Natural State.” When I first looked at the map, I saw a scenic route winding off to the north of I-40, into the Ozarks. This turnoff would force me to either double back the way I came or do a roundabout loop, but I figured I had the time. At dinner in Fort Smith, however, my waitress told me the same route was even more scenic to the south of I-40. Seeing that this direction could take me to Hot Springs, and from there I could head east and get back on the I-40 in Little Rock without doubling back, I decided to take her advice.

Let’s just say I’m glad I did. I’m not sure who designated the road a “scenic byway,” but it wasn’t any more picturesque than I-40. The only difference is that I had to share only one lane with the semi trucks, not two—and a curvy one at that. Don’t get me wrong; the countryside was pretty enough. But I felt like it was taking me twice as long to see the same countryside I’d see from the interstate. At least I was making progress toward Little Rock and points east, so I didn’t feel like I was losing too much time.

Eventually, I pulled into Hot Springs. The main attraction here, Hot Springs National Park, brings visitors from near and far—as far away, in fact, as Muskogee, Oklahoma. But seriously… in its heyday, the bathhouses that are now part of the National Park once attracted the social elite from around the world. The 140-degree water that bubbles up from the ground is still used today for bathing and therapeutic purposes. Without knowing anything about Hot Springs National Park, I confess that I expected an outdoorsy, wilderness kind of park, imagining hot springs like one finds out in the middle of nowhere in California or mineral springs such as those in Yellowstone. In fact, the town was the park. That is, the historic bathhouses, hotels and spas were the centerpiece of the park. Despite my mistaken expectations, I found the bathhouse exhibits interesting, and enjoyed strolling through the quaint old town.

With a few hours of daylight left, I easily made it into Memphis, where I found an affordable hotel room right downtown, within walking distance of Beale Street. My main goal was to watch my beloved Chargers beat the Steelers on Monday Night Football, but I hoped to catch some great blues bands after the game. Unfortunately, the Chargers lost in the final seconds of the game, and by the time I made it back to Beale Street, the only people still performing live music were karaoke singers. Elvis wept.

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