little rock and hot springs, arkansas

Fortified by a sumptuous breakfast, care of Natalie and sous-chef Dan, we were back on the road, heading down the highway a piece to North Little Rock, to spend the night at Dan’s place. Hey, it’s Saturday night! Let’s see what’s doing in Little Rock.

A Google search indicated that Little Rock nightlife is centered on President Clinton Avenue, smack in the middle of downtown by the river, so that’s where we pointed Dexy. And, indeed, it is all happening on President Clinton. Not a parking spot in sight, we had to circle a couple of times before we found an empty space six blocks away, which at another time might be all hustle and bustle, but tonight is unlit and desolated.

In a repeat of Nashville and Memphis, downtown Little Rock has just the one busy street, with nightclubs and restaurants crammed into a few blocks, and then it drops off into darkness. We wander in and out of a few of the bars, including the Flying Saucer, which boasts a huge selection of beer on draft. They might have cornered the market on draft beer on President Clinton, because everywhere else we went, beer was in bottles. We took our custom to Stickyz, the only place on the street we could see with an outdoor patio, and began scouring the pages of the local entertainment paper to find out what was happening in town tonight. There was honky tonk piano across the street and the Flying Saucer had a band coming on at 9, but nothing captured our attention and we opted instead to turn around and head back to Dan’s for a night off, where we promptly plunked ourselves down in front of the TV and watched the concert DVD of Van at the Beacon in 1989. I’m not sure how I’ve managed not to see this DVD before now, but there’s no time like the present, and before long, I’m swept away in the force of “Summertime in England” and a monster version of “Caravan.” Thanks, Dan!

We took our time on Sunday, preferring a lazy day over the alternative. But eventually we made our move, getting on the road by late afternoon and heading an hour down the highway to Hot Springs to spend two nights with John Dunn, whom we met at Van’s shows in Ireland last month. We arrived just in time for dinner, and John had a mouth-watering pot roast simmering in the crockpot, ready to serve. Yum! Bellies full, we retired to the couch and whiled away the hours trading stories and watching TV.

As John soon discovered, Bridget and I are not the first ones up in the morning. We keep night hours. But if we are going to see any of Hot Springs, we’ve got to get a move on. Lo and behold, by noon we’re ready to head out to see the sights. We’ve missed breakfast but lunch is just as good at The English Muffin, sitting by the water’s edge watching the boats go by on Lake Hamilton.

The historic town of Hot Springs is nestled in the valley, bordering Hot Springs National Park. A drive to the top of the mountain provides a panoramic view of the rooftops in the town below and the mountains all around.

Back in town, John parks the car, and we’re off for a stroll. The outskirts of town offer hiking trails, fishing, and Oaklawn racetrack and casino, but historic downtown is where you want to be to get the full flavor of where you are – on top of natural hot springs. There are 47 springs that flow from Hot Springs Mountain on the west end of town, producing more than a million gallons of water a day. The water percolates down through the earth’s surface until it reaches deep into the earth’s extremely hot crust and then comes rushing back up to the surface through the 47 springs. The curative power of the water has attracted visitors to the spot for centuries, and the story goes that warring Native American tribes would lay down their arms when they came to the hot springs and peace was preserved while they took of the springs’ healing powers.

You wouldn’t know by looking at the town now, with its antique shops and restaurants that line one side of the town’s tree-shaded Central Avenue that Hot Springs was anything but a peaceful little town. But during its early years it was anything but. Illegal gambling came to town in the late 1800s and along with it came one of those stories out of the old west – saloons and gunslingers and a gunfight between two factions. In a shootout in 1899, five men lay dead in the street. The tourists who’d come to town for the waters fled in droves.

But they kept coming back to enjoy the waters in the bathhouses. By the end of the 1920s, there were eight bathhouses in town, all created in the Spanish Renaissance style, and those eight became the famed “Bathhouse Row,” which lines the other side of Central Avenue.

Gambling was still alive and thriving in town and three major league baseball teams held spring training in Hot Springs. Babe Ruth was among the town’s many visitors, as was Al Capone and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, all in town to get healed in one way or another I’m sure.

The only casino in town nowadays is at the Oaklawn racetrack at the other end of town, but Bathhouse Row remains in all its glory, at least architecturally. Of the eight, only two remain in operation as bathhouses, and one other, the Fordyce, has been converted into a museum, allowing visitors to take a peek into what a bathhouse looked like at the turn of the last century.

Neptune at the Fordyce

Apparently the springs pour hot and cold, and for anyone who wants the water but not the bath, there are fountains about town where the water comes for free. I took a sip at one of the fountains – it tasted fresh and clean, but it was hot, so I wasn’t gulping the stuff down. A constant stream of people were coming up to the fountain with crates of plastic jugs, filling them up to take home to get a little healing done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *