We piled into Mae, our Kia Sorento, full of pizza and wings and carrying a Styrofoam-encased gigantic pork tenderloin "for the road," courtesy of Roadhouse Bar & Grill.
As we picked up I-44 we marveled at everything we'd done in the last 24 hours. From exploring a UNESCO World Heritage Site to our whirlwind tour of Pulaski County, we'd seen more than any two people had a right to in such a short amount of time. It was overwhelming, the sheer volume of information (and food!) we'd ingested in our first day. If this was any indication of the road ahead, we wondered how in the world we'd survive the next thirty.
Jim had driven the day before so I drove to Eureka Springs, thinking that we could alternate stints behind the wheel during our trip.
We quickly learned that was a bad idea.
We were in the Ozarks, climbing up and down rolling countryside and surrounded by distracting vistas. I kept pointing and exclaiming "take a picture of that! Oooh, get that! Did you get that one?" I'd ask him to take video, and then ask him to lift the phone higher and get closer to the window so the dashboard wasn’t in the frame.
I nearly went apoplectic when we drove through Kimberling City, just west of Branson, and crossed Table Rock Lake with its fingers of inlets and bluffs and expansive homes. I had a VISION, see, and we were MISSING stuff.
Yep. Bad idea.
Being the ultimate sport he is, Jim didn't complain, but we knew that from that point on he would be driving so I could get the shots I wanted and he wouldn't be at my beck and call. (Except for the whole driving thing, and taking a month off, and dealing gracefully with my insane itinerary and my general, overall insanity. The man is a saint.)
We could have pulled over and switched the driver/photographer scenario, but the afternoon was waning and we had to be in Eureka Springs in time for the Mardi Gras parade, so I added Table Rock Lake to my mental travel to-do list and we doggedly continued our journey.
Because we were on a deadline we broke one of the cardinal rules of a road trip: we allowed the lady in the phone to tell us where to go instead of checking the route in advance. Even though we knew better. We KNOW better. Despite Google’s whole mantra of “do no evil,” sometimes the online overlord thinks you absolutely must take the one-lane dirt road because it's the shortest route from point A to point OMG THERE'S A CAR COMING.
We knew this. We knew that the Almighty G was fallible, if not downright capricious. In 2014 our friends got married in the UP (Michigan's Upper Peninsula for any non-Midwesterners). We blithely plugged in the address for our campsite (getting dressed for a wedding in a campground is another story entirely) and blindly followed GPS. That willful beast took us down a very scenic, very rutted, very wooded, and very, Very long logging road. Jim's grip on the steering wheel was a white-knuckled plea for pavement. Me? I ooohed and aaahed. When we finally emerged from the unmarked wilderness to a world of asphalt and street signs I said "well, that was fun!"
GPS, Payback is thy name.
As we neared Eureka Springs I was the one gripping the steering wheel and praying a big truck didn’t show its ugly grill around that corner because there was only one way to go and it was really, really far down. I kept thinking "there has got to be a better way to Eureka Springs," but, of course, we couldn’t find it because we had no signal.
Turns out there was a better way and we had taken a “shortcut” on County Road 222.
Lesson learned: check the route before leaving so you either know what to expect, or you can correct any impractical directions.
(Or not. Don’t tell Jim, but that drive was kind of fun.)
We exited our technology-induced detour and before long entered the delightfully charming Eureka Springs, a town of a little over 2,000 that clings to the side of the mountain like an heirloom brooch on a dowager’s left lapel. When I say charming, I mean the entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places. Not just a block or a district - the entire. town. There are no right angles or traffic lights. Buildings have street-level entrances on the first floor and the second floor. Humpty Dumpty sits on a wall and a gnome named Tim invites you to take a selfie.
It’s CHARMING, okay?
We climbed to the summit and arrived at our accommodations for the night, the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa. Built six years after Eureka Springs was incorporated, the hotel began as a year-round resort that specialized in afternoon tea dances and evening dance parties and horse-drawn carriage rides and general upper-class merriment.
By 1901 the party was over, and in 1908 it resuscitated as the Crescent College & Conservatory for Young Women. For a short stint in the late 1930s it was the Baker Hospital, a shady affair run by a charlatan who cured cancer patients with water from the town’s eponymous spring. The hospital’s tenancy was short-lived, providing some of the spectres that roam “America’s Most Haunted Hotel.”
Fearful that we’d arrived too late, we hurried to the double-doored entrance as a horse-drawn carriage pulled up for a waiting couple. We said hello to the resident cat and entered the lobby, skirting around revelers laden with beads making their way down (literally) to the Mardi Gras Parade.
It was a week and a half before Fat Tuesday. You might think it was a little early for festivities, but this is a town that loves a parade like a writer loves unabridged dictionaries. One Mardi Gras parade isn’t enough - they need TWO. We were there for the nighttime parade. The following Saturday was the daytime parade. After that there’s the ArtRageous to the Max parade, the Celebrate Jesus parade, the 4th of July parade, the Antique Auto Festival parade, the Veterans Day parade, and the Christmas Parade of Lights. There are probably four or twelve more that I don’t even know about.
Basically, if you're in Eureka Springs and you haven’t been in or seen a parade, you’re probably haunting the hotel.
With all of the excitement we were lucky just to get a bed. A couple years ago I learned of the Crescent Hotel at an Historic Hotels of America luncheon at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago and immediately added it to my bucket list.
As we planned this trip, that hotel was one of my few specific destinations and its inclusion helped decide our eventual route. When I reached out before our visit and told them about our cross-country adventure, they graciously found a room for us, even though the town was a little (a lot) insane that night.
Our door key was a heavy brass number that let us into a massive room around the corner from the lobby. It was grand. It was imposing. It had twenty-foot ceilings and red painted walls. It looked like there should be spirits floating overhead, but there was so much room up there they could haunt as much as they wanted; there was space for everybody.
We didn’t actually see any spirits, but it’s easy to understand why they feel right at home. From the centerpiece fireplace and pipe organ in the lobby to the Victorian furniture, 1886 Crescent Hotel is a living time capsule.
We dropped our bags in the room and, with no time to spare, made the last shuttle down the side of the mountain to where the parade would begin.