Hot Springs Weekend

Well, spring has officially turned to summer with scorching heat in Austin and Tulsa, so it felt right to escape for a long weekend somewhere to cool off. But thanks to some crossed wires somewhere in the planning, we decided that means going to Hot Springs, Arkansas?

But we’ve always had a great time in Arkansas, whether in the springtime water crossings or new year’s snowfall. So it seems as good a place as any to disappear into the woods for a spell.

I’ve been working from Waco all day, and I am just not sure if I can make it another fifty minutes of workday…

We meet tonight in Paris, which would sound more glamorous were it not the one in Northeast Texas. And tomorrow we’ll stitch together some map-squiggles to take us the rest of the way.

Parisian Pregaming

We’ve safely arrived in Paris. Five regulars. And a newcomer! George has made an equipment swap! Introducing his new 2022 Ford Ranger XLT Tremor.

If I’m honest, this worries me eversoslightly. There are four ways that George and the 2016 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk — god rest its impact-mangled lug bolts (because what half-wit of an engineer thought that was a good idea) — kept me at ease these past four years. The Toaster’s ground clearance, water ford depth, gas tank, and driver’s bladder are all smaller than my equivalents. Excusing a modest margin for operator error, if the Toaster survived a challenge (offroad or long-distance), my odds were good. Now, George’s situation is decidedly more formidable. I assume a spreadsheet to compare specifications is forthcoming, but I am suddenly concerned I’m now bringing up the rear, mathematically speaking.

To celebrate his new wheels, I’m introducing the boys to the canned Pinthouse brews that I brought with me, thanks to a recent introduction back home. Also George’s phone just went off that he forgot to finish his employer’s “Unconscious Bias” training that’s due today, so he’s doing that — which seems more tolerable with booze. Meanwhile, Evan is flying his new drone around the hotel room to test out a firmware upgrade… while wearing a back brace, the story of which I have yet to solicit.

So things are going well. I suppose we should also spitball a route for tomorrow’s journey to Hot Springs.

More Forest Roads

Why drive from Paris to Hot Springs in four hours when you can make it take the better part of eight? We marked the official start of this roadtrip with a detour to The Eiffel Tower — and even in the city of Paris, Texas, when I asked Google to “Navigate to the Eiffel Tower,” it still tried to find a transatlantic route before deeming my request unnavigable.

On the way out of town, we refueled. Thanks to “these [continued] unprecedented times,” that was especially painful for Evan; princess takes premium. The Ranger suggests Premium, and George is still trying to get on its good graces. Thankfully, the Xterra and I both run on sludge-grade.

He’s gonna hate me for this.

We tooled around on tiny rural highways and winding roads to make our way to Athens, Arkansas for our first stop of the day — Shady Lake.

Shady Lake is a beautiful little reservoir on the Saline River, off a tiny mountain road on the southwest edge of the Ouachita National Forest. The lake itself is only 25 acres and largely surrounded by the Shady Lake Recreation Area, originally established in 1937.

A short while later, we realized we hadn’t had our usual sticker party. The Brave Little Toaster previously held the record, so George’s sticker-o-meter has been reset.

From there, we dirt-roaded our way between passes through the heart of the forest, taking a few opportunities to break out Evan’s new drone. Not gonna lie, this thing is fun, both for a new way to see the landscape, and for the new opportunities for documenting car drama.

Unfortunately, we found a dead end and had to back out to that junction — but that would look weak in retrospect, so I reversed the video! But when George had to back himself out, he made me ride in the bed with a pair of tinsnips to cut away branches with pinstriping potential. Thankfully, I was able to push most of them away instead.

Toward the end of our journey, we linked up with the New Year’s 2020-2021 route through Mount Ida near Lake Oachita. Another half hour down the highway, we pulled into what turns out to be the “gated” community of Hot Springs Village. The entire town is encircled by entrance stations that check residents and guests. The security guy was confused when Evan radio’d George for the check-in information, and even more confused when it dawned on him that George was two cars back.

Once they sorted out an understanding and we were approved for entry, we found our mansion on the edge of the mountain. I think I might take up residence on this porch forever.

Hot Springs National Park

We spent the whole day in the park today, which it turns out, is even more of a town than I’d realized. Bathhouse Row is a tourist district that has grown out of the original strip of bathhouses and spas. Only two remain in operation as publicly accessible spas; the rest are hotels, historic museums, the Park Visitor Center, or abandoned.

What I would consider to be more standard National Park fare — trails, outdoor spaces, natural vistas — form an atoll of sorts around Bathhouse Row (Park Avenue) and downtown Hot Springs.

And even on the drive in, there was a theme of large abandoned buildings sprinkled throughout the whole town, even in the busier destinations. As we later learned, there are two reasons for that. First, through the early/mid 1900s, humanity slowly learned that spring water isn’t drugs. Second, prior to the automobile age, vacationers heavily favored destinations on major train “hubs” (which this was) and arrived by the trainful — which also faded as travelers has more destinations to pick from and arrived instead by the carful. Setting aside our draw to abandoned buildings, we fought our way into the crowd.

The Visitor Center is housed in the historic Fordyce Bath House, which originally opened in 1915 and operated until 1962, when it was the first bathhouse on the row to cease operations. Since the renovation in 1989, it has served as a museum. Normally, I don’t spend a lot of time in visitor centers museums, but I am glad we gave this one a thorough explore.

What I hadn’t realized is that “bathing” was not just an assortment of spa services, but also included several offerings that sounded somewhat more “medicinal,” in a suspect kind of way.

A feature of great scientific interest is the hydro-therapeutic room; … its equipment includes sun-ray cabinets, frigid cabinets, devices for sprays, douches, Sitz baths, electric baths, and the like.

Fordyce Booklet, 1915

I feel “and the like” is insufficiently dramatic to truncate that particular list. Evan had pointed to one of the hose attachments and said, “that one goes inside you.” I brushed it off as a joke, but apparently he was not wrong.

There were no known deaths by electrocution in the “electric bath” at the Fordyce, but the procedure has long since been abandoned.

NPS addendum to the above quote on the “Hydrotherapeutic Room” placcard.

Torture devices have never looked so glamorous. But the whole building was inviting and luminous with gorgeous tilework. I would have loved to see it in operation.

The dioramas in the basement explained that water seeps into the ground in the nearby Indian Mountain recharge zone and takes over four thousand years to complete the journey down into the thermal layers and back up to the surface of Hot Springs Mountain.

After our tour, we made a quick lunch stop at the brewery that operates out of the former Superior Baths, making it the only brewery in a national park. They tout spring water as the foundation of their process.

Hot Springs water, in two styles. Safer than the bathhouse.

After lunch, despite the oppressive heat and humidity, I made the boys hike with me. Both the trailhead and the end of our hike were alleys behind historic buildings, but the 4 mile loop from Oak Trail to Canyon Trail around West Mountain Loop felt far outside the city.

Along the way, I managed to pick up two ticks, which I removed with a credit card, thanks to a “survival guide” comic illustrating the process in the men’s room at a local climbing gym.

I’ll have to send a thank you note to Crux.

After the hike, we cleaned up then did a little more wandering around with a stop for dinner at one of the old bathhouses that now operates as a hotel, restaurant, and bakery.

And finally back to the cabin for another dramatic sunset.

The Ritter

After spending yesterday wandering around the crowded park on foot, we decided to run today on wheels with an off-road adventure deep in the forest. Initially, we didn’t see too many interesting dirt roads in this part of the state, but there were two I found that seemed like maybe they could be promising, even if not particularly challenging: Muse Mountain Trail and the ominously mononymed Ritter.

We started on the Muse Mountain Trail and got a few neat photos of the new Ranger in action! And we even got to break out the drone a couple times. We learned a couple things: it’s difficult to do under dense tree cover because of the risk of collision (as well as the conservative on-board collision sensors); smooth sweeping cinematic motions take practice; it’s a whole new world of camera angle possibilities and that takes practice, too. Also it’s hard to divide one’s attention between drone cinematography and driving or spotting. But nonetheless, it is definitely cool. But might be more effective somewhere in the southwest.

Muse was fun, with a couple rutted sections, and a few lovely clearings to explore. Mercifully, it was cooler today than yesterday, and we spent a lot of it in shade thanks to the density of the forest. We took a short picnic in the middle at a backcountry campsite.

We survived Muse no worse for the wear. Evan did get him self properly stuck in a surprise mud pit while trying to avoid a big muddy puddle of unknown depth. That was amusing. But to the Rover’s credit, Evan managed to drive himself out of it without aid. It did leave the Rover smelling of baked mud for the a while though.

After the Muse trail, it was a short drive to the start of Ritter, and immediately I thought back to the last reviewer of the trail who said he did it with a trailer. Pretty, but easy. Oh well.

Until very suddenly, it was not.

(From George.) The shame. The embarrassment. The fear.

Looks like washout and flooding have hit Arkansas too. I was in the lead and everything was going okay until I got to some deep ruts. I ended up chocking a wheel on a rock and stalling as I tried to cross a ditch, which, turns out, was probably Xterra the Younger’s way of saving himself from some some serious passenger door damage.

It was a rutted downhill section without much in the way of a place to stop and re-assess along the way. And it was a good fifteen minute walking distance end-to-end. It just. Kept. Going.

(Forgive me; that was entirely too long. But I’m holed up with what is likely mild covid and I’m bored. So I’m calling it an exercise in archival for posterity.)

After we got the Xterra through it, we walked back up get the Ranger and the Rover, one at a time. It was quite the ordeal, but even in the moment, it was pretty fun. And the Ranger handled it admirably, leaving us all to wonder what the Renegade would have done. Even with generous wheel articulation on these three, we were seesawing on 2 and 3 wheels multiple times. The Renegade might have had to sprout wings and fly, which, admittedly, we’ve seen it do. Did I mention the Ranger is still on temp tags? Helluva shakedown.

That was the worst of it. From there, just a narrow track through increasingly dense forest until a beautiful creek crossing to rejoin the main forest road back to the highway.

This ended up being exactly the drive day we wanted. Victorious, the drive back to our mansion in the hills was short. We picked up burger fixins’ and had one last sunset on the porch. The (relatively) cooler weather held, and with a breeze and lower humidity, it was just about perfect.

Someone Explain Hot Springs Village to Me

Yesterday’s drive to Muse Mountain took us out the “East Gate” of Hot Springs Villiage, which was at least a thousand miles (well, fifteen miles that takes twenty-five minutes anyway) from the west gate we’d been closer to so far.

Hot Springs Village is a census-designated place (CDP) in Garland and Saline counties in the U.S. state of Arkansas. […] In land area [of 26,000 acres], it is the largest gated community in the United States.


Every gated or exclusive community was built, overtly or quietly, to keep out one demographic or another. Initially, we weren’t sure which, until we realized: us. For now, anyway.

The Hot Springs Village master plan began as a retirement community, founded in the early 70s. Though of its 15,800 residents as of the 2020 census, it is 91% white as well…

Hot Springs Village was founded in 1970 when John A. Cooper Sr. decided to develop the 20,000 acres of land into a retirement community modeled after two of his other successful planned communities, Cherokee Village (Sharp County) and Bella Vista (Benton County). […] His plan was to create a peaceful retirement community in a natural setting that would offer all modern-day conveniences without the hassle of living in an urbanized city. Unlike his other two communities, Hot Springs Village was created as a gated community in order to provide security for its residents and as an experiment to see if the gated community would result in more residents than the non-gated communities.

Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

The Wikipedia page has a suspiciously brief “Crime” section, touting not crimes, but how rare crime is. There has to be more to that story. And keeping that clean must be the covert responsibility of someone in the “Hot Springs Village Property Owners’ Association,” the private organization led by a board of 7 and employing nearly 500 people.

The land on which Hot Springs Village was developed was known as the “dark corner” of Garland County on account of its lawless reputation. Before 1873, the Hot Springs Village area was known as Marble Township and was located in Saline County. When Garland County was formed in 1873, the township was split in half. Although this area contained a small population, several communities developed, driven mostly by farmers in Marble Township. Heavily populated with moonshiners and active members of the Ku Klux Klan, this small township became a place many settlers avoided.


And even our mansion in all its luxury, we still referred to as the “cocaine palace” given some odd features: the day-bed-only bedroom that locked from the living room… the screen porch with hammock that locked from the outside… the overturned wheelbarrow in the trees by the exit stairs, the bedroom on the lowest level that had an open walkway into a gargantuan but sparsely appointed toilet room… and the door in that walkway which didn’t lock and led to an unfinished basement.

Hot Springs Village also boasts twenty-one separate churches within its borders; leads one of the largest bridge clubs in the United States; runs the only 5-star tennis association in the state; maintains thirty miles of walking trails, eleven lakes, nine golf courses, two beaches, two full-service marinas, and two community/convention centers; and hosts the Ms. Arkansas Senior America Pageant.

We read all of this last night and partly this morning over breakfast at Debra’s, the greasy-spoon diner in the center of town where we slowly reconnected with the outside world over too much coffee. From there, we headed off in opposite directions on the lengthy drive to an exit gate and then back home. It’s a weird place, but I am glad we stopped here, and I will never get over this porch.