Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Chapter 3 – Eureka! Springs, That Is

Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Turkeys are Jerks and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!

Previous: Chapter 2 – History & Hospitality

We piled back into Mae, and as we picked up I-44 we marveled at everything we’d done in the last 24 hours. 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.

Ha! 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 impressive 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 KNEW 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 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 was white-knuckled.  I ooohed and aaahed. When we finally emerged from the unmarked wilderness to a world of pavement and street signs, I said “well, that was fun!” and Jim glared at me with a “yeah, right, YOU drive this” look on his face.

GPS, Payback is thy name.

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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 invites you to take a selfie.

It’s CHARMING, okay?

Tim the Gnome in Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Tim the Gnome

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 was 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 specters 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 haven’t been in or seen a parade in Eureka Springs, you’re probably haunting the hotel.

With all of the excitement, we were lucky just to get a bed. I had learned of the Crescent Hotel at a Historic Hotels of America luncheon I attended 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 specific destinations and its inclusion helped decide our eventual route. When I told them what we were doing, 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.

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.

Pipe organ at 1886 Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, AK
Pipe organ at 1886 Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, AK

With no time to spare, we made the last shuttle down the side of the mountain to where the parade would begin. 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!”

According to regulars of 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 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.

Waiting for the Eureka Springs Parade to begin
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 to the bar and, incredibly, two people were leaving just as we arrived.

We sat at the 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 any spirits were 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 aimless 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.

The added benefit to documenting daily was that not only did I have my notes to jog my memory, I also had solid recollections. I simply remembered everything better. I could taste the Three Blind Mice stout. I could hear Pete and Dave’s harmonies. I could 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.

Already into our daily 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 depicted scenes of early years of the town, from the first Native Americans who took advantage of the curative springs, to the tourism boom of the early nineteenth century. Painted in 1979, the mural is 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 of the cafe 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 next 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 at each other over his Blue Willow Loose Leaf Tea (delightful, he confirmed) and my Mud Blend coffee (SO GOOD, I wrote in my notes).

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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” was quite handy.

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.)

Because it was Sunday, and it was brunch, we had to try their cocktails. Jim ordered the Angelic, a heavenly cup of 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 pickled okra and banana pepper and rimmed with pepper and salt, it was smoother than I expected and tasty enough to make me wish we could kick back and visit with Doug all day, but we had places to go.

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. It was time to hit the road.

This excerpt was previously published with modifications at Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Gnome