Hot Springs, cool town

We’re back from our Ozark Adventure, having spent a nice relaxing week away from the hustle and bustle before the “holiday season” begins in earnest. Hot Springs is one of our favorite vacation spots; we’ve been making treks there for the past twenty years. For one thing, it’s fairly close at only about 250 miles away, which is a relatively painless four-hour drive. The main reason we like it, though, is for its incredible scenic beauty. Hot Springs sits right smack-dab in the middle of the part of Arkansas known as the “Diamond Lakes” region, which consists of Lakes DeGray, Hamilton, and Ouachita, plus a few other smaller bodies of water. Each lake has its own particular character. DeGray is a 13,800 acre Corps of Engineers project, thus commercial development is limited and the lake has a very natural feel. The primary recreational center is Lake DeGray State Park Resort, where we’ve stayed often. Wildlife abounds in the park, including winter nesting grounds for the American bald eagle. You can camp in the wild, stay in the park’s well-appointed lodge (with free Wi-Fi!) where you can dine in the restaurant and enjoy the massive stone fireplace, or even rent a Yurt for a different sort of outdoor experience.

Further north, spring-fed Lake Ouachita is another Corps lake; with 40,000 acres and 975 miles of shoreline, it’s the biggest lake in Arkansas. Also due to limited commercial development, the water is exceptionally pure, and the lake is rated by the EPA as the second-cleanest in the entire United States.

In contrast to the other two however, Lake Hamilton is a well-developed residential “city” lake with many homes, hotels, restaurants and other businesses along its shoreline, and this is where we went most often during the time we owned our boat. Some of our most enjoyable experiences involved dressing up in our fine duds, getting into the boat, putting over to a restaurant on the water where an attendant would greet us at the dock and valet-park the boat for us while we enjoyed a gourmet meal. Then afterwards, we would leisurely putt over to a nightclub on the other side of the lake where we would drop anchor just outside the marina and listen to the band for an hour or two before returning to our luxury lakeside accommodations. Good times.

Unfortunately, we no longer have the boat due to the increasing difficulty of maintaining it with my lung condition, not to mention the fact it was costing us an arm and a leg to operate it, especially when we only got to take it out a few times a year. (The photo shows me at the helm during happier times on Lake Ouachita.) As anyone who has ever owned a “boat” will surely tell you, the classic definition of the word is: (1) A small vessel for travel on water; (2) A bottomless pit, surrounded by water, into which you throw money; (3) Acronym used by boat owners for “Break Out Another Thousand”.

Still, even without the boat we love Hot Springs and try to get back there every now and then. Aside from the lakes, the downtown area is very quaint, with a turn-of-the-century art-deco sort of feel to it. The best example of this sort of architecture is the centrally-situated Arlington Hotel (where, again, we have often stayed) which has a colorful history. Back in the 30′s, it was a favorite hangout of Chicago mobsters like Al Capone, who was rumored to have his own private escape hatch installed in his suite at the Arlington in order to make a quick getaway from the law if needed.

After several fires and considerable neglect during the 50′s and 60′s, the hotel has been restored to its former splendor and looks today much as it did in the period postcard below:

Not seen in the photo, suspended into the mountain at the rear of the hotel, is a gigantic redwood hot tub in which we have spent many a drunken new year’s eve with a crowd of other revelers, the last time in 2000. The tub is fed by the thermal springs from which the town gets its name, alleged to have curative powers by the native Indians who frequented the spot long before the white man arrived. The custom of “taking the waters” to heal gout, ulcers, rheumatism and a variety of other disorders endured long thereafter, and beginning in the early 1900′s dozens of elaborate bathhouses sprang up along what is now Central Avenue, catering to throngs of health-seekers. These establishments, patterned after the ostentatious public baths of Roman times, were full of the latest equipment, pampering the bather in artful surroundings including marble and tile decorated floors, walls and partitions. Some rooms sported polished brass, murals, fountains, statues and stained glass.

Today, only two of these magnificent structures have survived. The Fordyce has been preserved by the National Park Service as a sort of museum of the historic grandeur of the times, featuring the furniture, steam cabinets, tubs, massage tables, chiropody tools, billiard table, grand piano, beauty parlor and hydrotherapy equipment prevalent in those days. And one other is in actual operation; at the Buckstaff Baths you can still get a ritual therapeutic bath and massage in the traditional manner. We’ve done it once, and it was an interesting experience to say the least — although I don’t think I’d care to do it again.

Finally, there’s the “Clinton Connection” which I hinted at in an earlier post. Without getting too political, I will just say that despite his personal shortcomings, I thought highly of Bill Clinton’s accomplishments during his term of office. As you may know, Hot Springs was his boyhood home, and during his presidency the town was simply beside itself in celebration. At one point during his tenure, Mrs. Toast’s sister and her husband (rabid Christian conservative Republicans who thought he was no less than the devil incarnate) accompanied us on a family lake vacation and we gave them a tour of the town, during which I took fiendish delight in pointing out All Things Clintonian: his former house, his former school, the parking lot where he got his first blow job, etc. I could see my sister-in-law getting progressively more agitated by this, until we finally pulled up in front of a souvenir shop and I offered to go in and buy her a Bill Clinton T-Shirt. At this point she could take no more, and blurted out that she wished I would because she needed something to clean her toilet with.

Another famous Clinton legacy in Hot Springs is McClard’s Bar-B-Q, home of some of the finest ribs and sauce in the entire nation. These culinary delights were a favorite of Bill’s for many years, and when he was governor, he would occasionally sneak down to Hot Springs from Little Rock in the middle of the night at which time the owners would open the place and cook up a batch of beef and pork especially for him. He also stopped by on several occasions during his presidency, and favored one particular booth near the middle of the restaurant. During one of our visits there a few years ago, “The Clinton Table” was available and I am excited to report that my ass was parked in the exact same spot that formerly had been occupied by the ass of the 42nd President of the United States of America. (There’s a Monica Lewinsky joke there somewhere, but I’m not going to touch it.) This time, however, we sat next to the window and chatted up our waitress who regaled us with several Clinton stories. It seems that whenever he came in as president, there were at least a dozen secret service personnel who surrounded him at all times to not only shield him from any potential drive-by shooting through the large plate-glass windows, but to give him some privacy while he ate. Apparently, many people wanted to come up to him to say hello and shake his hand. On one occasion there was a woman (not a fan, much like my sister-in-law) who was determined not to just meet Mr. Clinton, but to also confront him about some issue or another. When a secret service agent tried to keep her away, she jabbed him with her elbow in an attempt to push past him. This was Not A Good Move on her part to say the least — you do not want to fuck with the secret service — and resulted in some momentary chaos during which Clinton was whisked out of the restaurant and the woman was arrested. Our waitress also recounted that every time the president came in, ten to twelve large bags of food would disappear out the door to a group of people whom she never, ever saw. Presumably, these were secret service agents staked out on the rooftops of nearby buildings.

As you can see by the photo to your right, I thoroughly enjoyed our meal there last week, and we bought several bottles of sauce to bring back for Christmas presents. One of them will no doubt go to my sister-in-law.

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