Like putting on a well-fitting shirt, we headed east from oversized Texas, slipping into the easy comfort of the eastern forests of north central Arkansas. Here, the recognizable hardwoods, the moist air, the meandering and now-spring-muddy rivers reminded us of New England, even though we have yet to cross the Mississippi River.
On our eastbound trip last year we zipped through Little Rock, carving out just enough time for a visit to the Clinton Presidential Library. This time, we wanted to spend more time, and rest a bit, finding time for the remarkable Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville and the soothing waters of Hot Springs National Park, with time for the unexpected treasures that always present themselves.
We selected a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campground on Nimrod Lake which sits about 40 miles north of Hot Springs and in the middle of what we heard was the wild beauty of the Ozark National Forest. We landed a site that is perhaps the most extraordinary of ANY we have had in our travels. For eight nights, we have been perched on a hill looking straight west up Nimrod Lake and it is spectacular. For us hermits, it helps significantly that we have no neighbors and have the entire bluff to ourselves. My spiritual reservoir is full.
Our day trips have taken us to Hope, Arkansas, where our 42nd President was born. We visited the modest home where he lived for the first four years of his life. This site is now part of the National Park Service and we had a wonderful private tour of the house, which allowed us lots of time for answers to our persistent questions.
We took a day trip up to Bentonville, site of Crystal Bridges, which was long but amazing and well-worth it. We allowed a full three hours for the drive up through the lush and rolling landscape of northwestern Arkansas and on a spectacular spring day, the rewards were endless. The Museum, founded in 2005 by the Walton Family Foundation, is housed in a stunning building designed by Moshe Safdie. It opened to the public on November 11, 2011, a date that one of the docents told us is one that even he can remember.
The collection of art is organized chronologically and tells the story of American history through the art of the period, starting with the portraiture that was common in the 1700s, to the landscape art of the 1800s, to the rise of expressions of industrialization of the 1900s, to the rise of modernism and technology of the 20th century. From the indoor spaces of light and expansiveness to the outdoor installations in the natural beauty of gardens and walking paths and ponds, the place is a magnificent as our friends’ reports had stated.
A Frank Lloyd Wright house has recently been added to the campus (all the tours were booked by the time we arrived) and a new Dale Chihuly garden is opening later this summer. All incentives for a future visit.
One of the Airstream blogs we follow is written by a couple who posted they were camping at a place called Petit Jean State Park not too far from where we were camping. We decided to look them up and explore Petit Jean, Arkansas’ first state park.
Petit Jean State Park lies between the Ozark and Ouachita Mountain ranges in west-central Arkansas. It includes 2,658 acres on Petit Jean Mountain with forests, ravines, streams, springs, waterfalls, spectacular views and surprising geological formations. Beyond the jaw-dropping natural beauty, the other remarkable part of the park is seeing the extant buildings of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) from the 1930s. The only CCC lodge in the state of Arkansas, Mather Lodge, is a wonder. It has been completely updated to serve the needs of today’s guests but the original lobby, complete with some furnishings, has been preserved.
We met Airstreamers Amanda and Tim at their secluded campsite in the park. They are full timing and Tim is working a 40-hour week from their Airstream. This puts the remote office in the most expansive of terms. Their schedule is to camp in one place Monday through Friday when Tim connects to the office and works. They move to the next destinations on Saturday and Sunday. Originally from Vermont, they have been living this on-the-road life for about five years. We guessed they are roughly the age of our adult children, so it looks like they have settled on a model that works for them. It is very inspiring.
We made three day trips into Hot Springs National Park, in the town of Hot Springs, so I could tend to phone appointments while Peter did laundry and checked out the local library. This unusual park is all about the water, which has attracted people to the area for thousands of years. The springs that emerge here from Hot Springs Mountain have traces of minerals and an average temperature of 143 degrees, and the waters’ therapeutic properties have drawn eager visitors for thousands of years. Scientists have determined that the waters emerging from the prolific hot springs at the rate 700,000 gallons a day fell as rain 4,000 years ago.
What we found most interesting about the park is that the water is not heated by volcanic activity. Rather, outcroppings absorb rainfall and fractures in the rock conduct the water deep into the earth. As the water percolates downward it gets increasingly warmer as it nears the core of the earth. It dissolves minerals out of the rock and eventually meets fault lines in the earth crust that push it upwards to the west slope of Hot Springs Mountain where it surfaces.
The proliferation of hot springs produced a myriad of bathhouses and spas in the early 1900s. Elaborate buildings lined the streets, catering to patrons who came in pursuit of the healing waters. Innovative National Park Director Stephen Mather convinced Congress to set aside this resource as a national park in 1921. As the interest in healing waters fell off, many of the bathhouses were repurposed.
The lovely Fordyce Bathhouse, with extraordinary stained glass ceiling lights, details and marble tiles, is now the National Park Visitor’s Center. The Buckstaff Bathhouse, which has been in continuous operation since 1912, offers the traditional bathing experience of private soaking tub, sitz tub, hot compresses on aching joints, shower, and massage table. Peter decided to indulge in a treatment and loved his 90-minute full immersion into the healing waters following the original treatment plan from the turn of the century. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
Another day we toured the Visitor’s Center at Hot Springs National Park, perhaps the most gorgeous of all such Centers that we have seen. The tour and the restoration include a glass window that reveals the spring that actually fed the bathhouse back in the day. Behind the Visitor’s Center we walked up the hill (all the springs come from the base of Hot Springs Mountain) to one spring that is actually still open (most of the other 43 springs have been capped to preserve the purity of the water.) The water is very warm and clear.
When settling into a new town for a number of days, one of our routines (known to many of you) is to check for outstanding bakeries or donut shops. It’s just a thing we have going on. In Hot Springs, we found a bakery with superb ratings, called Ambrosia Bakery, and we tried to find it. We drove to the Google maps address with no luck so Peter asked at the market near by and found they had just moved to a downtown location.
We tracked down the address and in a deluge of rain, thunder, lightning and wind, headed toward the new address. We found it, but the two women who greeted us said they were supposed to open that day but the city had not yet issued them an occupancy permit, so no go. We pledged to return and the next day we did. We bought a beautiful challah bread, shiny and soft and sweet smelling, and sampled some of their sweets. The lemon squares are over-the-top fabulous.
On our third visit on Saturday, we tried a phyllo treat of spinach and feta – think spanokopita triangles. This bakery is known for its cakes and the top of the list is the Italian Cream Cake. Once slice, shared by the two of us, is pure heaven. Only my very gifted sister way back in New Hampshire makes a cake that rivals this one.
We wanted to fill up our water bottles and jugs with some of the delicious waters from the Springs and Peter asked another patron in the bakery about possibilities. This led to a wonderful serendipitous conversation about full timing and Airstreams and how we found Ambrosia. This latter conversation included an introduction to the owner of the bakery herself, Millie Baron, and a pledge from our new acquaintances to follow our blog. Life on the road.
Our last day here was sunny and warm and lovely and we drove up to the state park on the top of Mt. Magazine, the highest point in Arkansas at 2,753 feet. The banner at the top of this blog is the panorama of the lush Arkansas River valley. The elevation of the valley where we are is about 300 feet, which makes the prominence of Mt. Magazine impressive. The state park has a wonderfully informative Visitor’s Center that not only details the geologic and historic fine points of the region, but also highlights the indigenous flora and fauna. The area is known for its birds and butterflies and lots of information was available on both. The scenic overlooks offered sweeping views of the entire area, and the Arkansas River Valley was easy to identify from these heights, lush and green and jewel-like in the spring light.
We wanted to add that this campground is the site of Nimrod Dam which helps manage water levels and flood control. There has been significant rain this season and as we left we heard a siren blaring, the warning that the Corps of Engineers was going to be releasing water downstream because the lake is 19 feet higher than normal and more rain is expected this weekend.
We returned to T2 and our beautiful campsite with a sense of well-being and peace after a restful and restorative and information-packed time here. We head east now to the other side of the Arkansas for one night before our long drive (west to east) through Tennessee on our way to our first trip ever to Great Smoky Mountains National Park beginning one week from today.
Peter and Liz continue chasing the sunrise hoping for clear skies while heading for Tennessee and Great Smoky Mountain National Park, in their Airstream.