Moonshine Mary and Men in Heels: Just Another Day in Eureka Springs

Mardi Gras in a town with no right angles and moonshine for breakfast. Welcome to the Ozarks.

I have no idea what the rest of Arkansas is like, but I get the feeling it’s not like Eureka Springs.

That has less to do with the state itself and everything to do with my experience in this unique and quirky town in its northwest corner. When your first visit to a place includes a Mardi Gras parade a week and a half before actual Mardi Gras, and it’s the first of two parades for the celebration because one is obviously not enough, your whole perspective is colored with beads and floats and men in heels.

We were nearing the end of Day 2 and had arrived just in time to check in at the 1886 Crescent Hotel and take the last shuttle before the festivities began. On the way down the hill I wondered how any vehicles in this town could keep their brakes functioning to warranty and how many chains they’d have to wrap around their wheels to keep from sliding willy-nilly when it snowed. There’s not a level bone in Eureka Spring’s body. It’s the personification of “I want to live THERE” and making it happen, no matter what the terrain says.

(I know there are many, many towns who have similarly conquered gravity and also eschew right angles, but all of those curves, acute corners, and steep grades are an anomaly to this grid-city flatlander.)

The shuttle dropped us off in front of the Basin Park Hotel and we walked up the incline to see what we could see and try to find a good location to watch the parade. We passed under wrought iron balustrades laced with cocktailers, strolled by a tattoo artist creating his next masterpiece, skirted bored kids aching for the parade to be over so they could just get back to their whatever-it-is-kids-do-these-days, and avoided a few selfie-takers before finding a spot in front of a bar. It was packed with revelers spilling out onto the sidewalk and the balcony overhead, and when the parade began we all gave a collective “woohoo!”

Bored Kids at Eureka Springs Mardi Gras Parade
Bored Kids at Eureka Springs Mardi Gras Parade
Waiting for the Eureka Springs Parade to begin
Waiting for the Eureka Springs Parade to begin
Selfie takers at Eureka Springs Mardi Gras parade
Waiting for the Eureka Springs Parade to begin

According to regulars to the Eureka Springs Parade Scene, this particular perambulation was a bit short. While I did feel a twinge of “is that it?” it was more along the lines of wanting more, not being disappointed because there wasn’t.

This parade may have been short, but it was the stuff of which happy memories are made. I had a camera in front of my face the entire time, so Jim snatched beads from mid-air and draped them over my head. (I’ve deleted a few photos featuring the blur of his hand and some shiny glassy object in front of the lens.

Note to self: don’t delete these photos because they totally enhance the narrative.)

Everybody around us was grinning and laughing and picking up cellophane-wrapped treats like they were discovered treasure. There were puppies, a Queen, and a fairy riding a giant cheetah (I think it was a cheetah) with a bear throwing candy (I think it was a bear). There were flappers on a float with a full bar, and a rainbow coalition of a pink-haired lady with a cape strung with LED ornaments and a 6-foot (minimum) gentleman who, despite looking distinctly uncomfortable in his tutu, wig, wings, and furry fuzzy heeled boots, gamely smiled and waved.

Eureka Springs Mardi Gras Parade
King of the Royal Court at Eureka Springs Mardi Gras Parade
King of the Royal Court
Eureka Springs Mardi Gras Parade
Eureka Springs Mardi Gras Parade
Eureka Springs Mardi Gras Parade

We followed the waning parade back down the hill and heard a band playing America’s “A Horse With No Name.” This is one of my “I LOVE THIS SONG” songs, which Jim learned the day before as we entered St. Louis and it came on XM Radio (70’s on 7 FTW!). Like a siren call or Snoopy with his cookies, I dragged Jim through one street level entrance down the stairs to the next street level where the two-man-band was playing. I had just enough time to sing “it felt good to be out of the rain” and before I could remember my name we were told you had to get a table and have dinner and there was a wait and yada yada yada.

So we went back upstairs and, incredibly, two people were leaving just as we arrived. We sat at the New Delhi Cafe bar, drank ourselves a (local) beer, met some locals, and soaked in the atmosphere just long enough to realize we were in the home of the King of the Royal Court. He arrived, greeted some very wobbly subjects, and when one fell over we took that as our cue to head back to the hotel.

Exhausted, we collapsed into bed. If there were any spirits haunting our room we were blissfully unaware.

I awakened around five the next morning, made my coffee, and picked up my journal. “Jotting my jumbled thoughts down each morning is going to be vital,” I wrote. “It’s only the third day – we’ve only experienced two – and I feel like I can barely remember what we did yesterday.”

This was to be my routine for the next month. Go to bed exhausted, wake up a couple of hours before dawn, and write. I had a specific purpose. The whole reason we were on this adventure was so that I could share the wonders we experienced.

And oh, those wonders were many, and varied, with each day bringing something completely different from the one before. We had mapped out a seemingly random sampling of America, some places known, some relatively obscure, with the intention of showcasing just how mind-bogglingly vast this country is, even though we only visited a quarter of its states. Taking notes and recording my thoughts each day was vital and, because I did, I can write about February 18 three months later with clarity.

The added benefit to documenting daily is that not only do I have my notes to jog my memory, I have solid recollections. I simply remember everything better. I can taste the Three Blind Mice stout. I can hear Pete and Dave’s harmonies. I can see the morning fog shrouding the Ozarks from the hotel’s fourth story balcony.

If you’re traveling, write, and you’ll remember it forever.

This is part of our EPIC Southwest USA road trip from the Chicago-area to San Diego and back!

View of the Ozarks from 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa
View of the Ozarks from 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa

Already into a routine of unpacking only what we needed, we quickly packed up and checked out of the hotel, making sure to return that hefty door key to the front desk. By the time we parked downtown the sun was shining, illuminating the Centennial Mural. Twelve feet high and fifty-five feet wide, it depicts scenes of the town’s early years, from the first Native Americans who took advantage of the curative springs to the tourism boom of the early nineteenth century. Painted in 1979, it’s touched up every now and then and illustrates Eureka Springs’ civic pride.

Eureka Springs Centennial Mural
Eureka Springs Centennial Mural

We entered the building behind the mural and took the stairs down to Mud Street Cafe. When it was built in 1888, the floor the cafe is on was street level, but the spring underneath the building, one of sixty-three springs within the city limits, kept flooding the street. This earned it the nickname “Mud Street,” and in 1890 the town built the thoroughfare up a level, creating a string of disconnected tunnels known to locals as “Underground Eureka.”

We followed the stairs down to the lively, limestone-walled cafe. The restaurant was bustling, as one would expect when a place is considered to have the best breakfast around. Fresh pastries lined the antique bar, followed by self-serve carafes of coffee and a table of stacked cups. We were seated in a corner perpendicular to a couple of brothers from Oklahoma, born five years and 364 days apart. Doug told me they drive the three hours to Eureka Springs nearly every weekend. “My dog’s a latchkey kid,” he joked.

“This is where I come for coffee,” he said. “It’s two bucks and all you can drink. The other places are all two bucks a POP. My money talks, and all it says {to those places} is goodbye.

“Shoulda brought my thermos, hee hee hee.”

As our breakfast came Doug kept up a running prattle, turned slightly in his seat under the street-level stained glass windows so he could face us. Jim and I smiled to each other over his Blue Willow Loose Leaf Tea (delightful, he confirmed) and my Mud Blend coffee (SO GOOD, I wrote in my notes).

This sort of thing – random strangers sharing their life stories  – happens to us all the time. It happens to my parents, too, so much so that they’ve given it a name. The Carter Curse. It’s tongue in cheek, of course; they love it that people find them so approachable that conversations ensue no matter where they are. In line at the grocery store, waiting to cross the street, sitting in a coffee shop, and if they’re sitting at a bar they might as well hang out a shingle that says, “have a seat and tell me about your life.” There’s no such thing as a stranger.

When you’re on a trip like we were, for the reason we were, this “curse” is a blessing.

While Doug filled us in on his train ride from Barstow we dug into our breakfasts. I chose the Mexican omelet filled with spicy pinto beans and cheese, topped with sour cream, tomatoes, and black olives and served with holy-mother-of-delicious garlic cheese grits.

Jim got the Mud Muffin, a scrambled egg sandwich made with cheese, mayo & tomato. It was supposed to come with sprouts, but bacon makes everything better, so they criss-crossed some meat candy on top and gave him a side salad of spinach drizzled with olive oil and topped with sliced tomatoes and a pile of black olives. (They like their olives.)

Mexican Omelet at Mud Street Cafe
Mexican Omelet at Mud Street Cafe
Mud Muffin with Bacon at Mud Street Cafe
Mud Muffin with Bacon

Because it was Sunday, and it was brunch, we had to try their cocktails. Jim ordered the Angelic, which was made with coffee, Frangelico, and the biggest swirl of whipped cream you ever saw. I had the Moonshine Bloody Mary, because as our server said, “when you’re in the Ozarks…” Topped with a pickled okra and banana pepper and rimmed with pepper and salt, it was smoother than vodka and so tasty I wished we could kick back and visit with Doug all day, but we had places to go.

Moonshine Mary at Mud Street Cafe
Moonshine Mary

We emerged into blue skies and crossed the street to take a picture with a gnome named Tim before saying goodbye to Eureka Springs. Our itinerary included a wildlife refuge, an eclectic art museum, and a drive on the Cherokee Hills Byway before arriving at our next destination that evening. It was time to hit the road.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from my book,
Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1.

Just a couple of local tourists hanging out with a gnome named Tim in Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Just a couple of local tourists hanging out with a gnome named Tim in Eureka Springs, Arkansas
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