When your brother’s band is playing a show in Jonesboro, Arkansas on his 30th birthday, and you’ve collectively developed a weird Arkansas fascination with some fellow New Orleanians (one of whom happens to be your brother’s old roommate from Virginia), the only logical option is to pile into a car with said friends (+the most steadfast canine copilot) and take an Arkansas mini-adventure!
I can credit the Arkansas fascination at least partially from having learned that an old neighbor’s beau hailed from Hot Springs and only drank water from Hot Springs. As in, he’d visit a few times a year and fill up tanks to hold him over until the next visit. Upon discovering this Sam and I knew we just had to drink these magical waters someday– or, as we learned they prefer to say in Hot Springs, “quaff the elixir“– and so we chose Hot Springs as our first destination in the adventure.
We broke up the ~8 hour drive from New Orleans with a quick overnight stop in Chidester, and arrived in Hot Springs early enough to get a satisfying breakfast at the conveniently located Pancake Shop right on Central Avenue. From there we explored the quaint downtown, with the impressive (if somewhat neglected) architecture of its early 20th century hotels and bathhouses. It had the distinct feel of a place of bygone splendor, that now seems to be undergoing a sort of renaissance.
Just blocks from the Pancake Shop lies Bathhouse Row: eight bathhouses constructed between 1892 and 1923 that serve as the hub of the spa scene in Hot Springs (and in all of the United States during Hot Springs’ heyday!). We’d learn that Hot Springs had been quite a swanky destination until the ’50s, when advances in Western medicine and an explosion in personal automobile ownership shrunk Americans’ interest both in ‘healing waters’ and vacation getaways dictated by railway accessibility.
The bathhouses have all been left to different fates, and we’d end up getting acquainted with a few of them. Only the Buckstaff Bathhouse has been in continuous operation since its construction in 1912. The Quapaw house offers bath and spa services again as of 2008. The Fordyce house serves as Visitor Center and a museum; one of the most opulent houses in the glory days, it has been preserved and refurnished for modern guests to get a glimpse at Edwardian extravagance. The Superior Bathhouse is now a brewery– the only one in the country to operate in a national park, and the only one in the world to use thermal spring waters in the brewing process.
We’d also learn that the springs were capped at the bathhouses and the various fountains around town– there wasn’t a spot along the hiking trail where we could swim in the natural spring as we’d imagined (and dressed for haha). We camped at the Gulpha Gorge Campground and spent a few hours exploring the hiking trails in the area, had a fireside dinner of ‘hobo bags’ (as prepared by Patrick our Camping Guru), then shot back into town for beers at the Superior Bathhouse before bed.
The next day Patrick and I left Sam working at Kollective Coffee after breakfast and treated ourselves to a soak and massage at the Quapaw house after exploring the Fordyce house. And then we were off to Jonesboro for a fun birthday surprise before the Disco Risqué show at Cregeen’s Irish Pub!