A Weekend in the Ozarks
Tom takes us into the hills and rivers of Northwest Arkansas
On the face of it, going to Eureka Springs, Arkansas for Fourth of July weekend was a quixotic choice. For whatever reason, the Natural State is not tops on the list of vacation destinations for my fellow Austinites. But for my girlfriend and I, a trip there made sense. We wanted to be able to drive somewhere we hadn’t been before where we could spend time outside without spontaneously combusting, and in the oppressive heat of July, there just aren’t many places like that out there.
So it was settled rather quickly. We booked a rental through HomeAway, took time off, and spent an evening figuring out what we wanted to do up there. And then we set off.
As anyone who’s traveled it knows, the only thing exceptional about the drive up from Austin into Oklahoma is its utter blandness. It’s not quite the horizon-to-horizon expanse of pancake-flat corn and soybean fields that was the Indiana of my youth—there are hills, after a fashion, in Oklahoma—but the ride doesn’t often offer much more than empty, semiarid vistas. However, that changed when we pulled onto Oklahoma State Highway 43, a hilly, gently winding road that led, rather unexpectedly, to this:
The contemporary section in Crystal Bridges museum. I enjoyed this occurence in particular
Sardis was apparently a town that now lies under the reservoir of Sardis Lake. The only visual clue to its existence is a causeway out to where the cemetery used to be, now a raised island with the tombstones placed on top of it. We learned all this later, but even at the time, the reservoir definitely felt eerie. There were so many dead dragonflies around the walkway that they formed dunes, and mud-daubed swallow nests were clustered along decrepit buildings of unknown provenance and function. At one point, a stretch Hummer pulled up and a wedding party piled out, took pictures amid a whirlwind of chatter, then piled back in and sped off.
After Sardis, the rest of the ride up was more attractive, with progressively denser forests closing ever closer on the roads we traveled until, on the tight switchbacks of Route 62 leading into Eureka Springs, they nearly formed a canopy over us.
After dropping our stuff at our vacation rental, a cute little apartment in the town’s downtown, we briefly explored our surrounds. I’m going to be blunt: Eureka Springs is touristy. There’s no getting around that. A stroll down Main Street yields the same sights the epicenter of any ultra-popular middle income destination will provide: knickknack shops overemphasizing the touristic aspects of a particular place (for Eureka Springs, that was vaguely rustic and “down-home”), silly T-shirt stores, and throngs of meandering visitors.
And yet…I liked it. Eureka Springs draws plenty of your average weekend gawkers, but it isn’t big enough to be truly oppressively touristy, and those folks are just one element in an unusually diverse group of visitors. In addition to having your quotient of schlocky stuff for sale, the town is gay-friendly, a haven for antique hunters, a Christian tourism destination, the most significant stop on the Pig Trail Scenic Byway, the “Wedding Capital of the South,” and perfect as a jumping-off spot to explore the Arkansan Ozarks, which is what we intended to use it for. It was tolerant and cute and—and this is important—we consistently ate well there.
A digression on the food, because its quality was surprising: I’m usually vegetarian but I’ll occasionally eat fish when it’s well-prepared. While travelling in the Midwest, the South, and the Southwest, that usually means I’m confined to cobbling together sides to form odd, starchy meals that are simultaneously heavy and unsatisfying. I’ve also found that places as touristy as Eureka Springs often skimp on quality unless you know where to look—and, being a tourist, it’s hard to know. In Eureka Springs, though, I never had to eat mashed potatoes with a side of cornbread. The salmon my girlfriend ordered at the Local Flavor Café was, no exaggeration, the most expertly prepared, if not necessarily sauced, cooked salmon I’ve ever eaten, and my portabella mushroom with goat cheese and artichoke hearts was hearty and subtle. The veggie hash at the Mud Street Café, while certainly no dainty amuse-bouche, was not the greasy foodsplosion it easily could have been, and the vegan plate at the Garden Bistro was a welcome pile of tasty veggies in a region of the country more known (and justifiably so) for its barbecue.
We decided to spend one day doing human things and one day doing natural things, so our first full day in the region, we stopped by the Thorncrown Chapel just outside town before heading on down to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. Thorncrown Chapel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright disciple E. Fay Jones, is considered one of the finest American buildings of the 20th Century. Set in the woods, glass walls encase a dazzling intricate latticework of painted wooden crossbeams. It’s a peaceful, contemplative place, one that we sat in for some time, gazing.
Crystal Bridges is a museum focusing on American art and funded by Walmart, but it’s no mere vanity project. The collection is serious, well-chosen, and top-shelf, and the space—cavernous yet warm, and a more active participant in the experience than your typical brightly lit, white-walled box—is a pleasure to inhabit.
Buffalo National River
Saturday, we drove southwest through Harrison to the Buffalo National River, the first place designated as such in the US. The portion of the river in the park gently meanders and bends around bluffs and gravel bars for 135 miles and is a great bucolic weekend activity. We rented our canoe from Buffalo River Outfitters and opted for a four-mile trip. The water level was low in parts—locals told us later that the best time of year to canoe it is in the spring—but the temperature was perfect for dipping in to cool off from the hot summer sun.
Now here’s the part of the article where I casually drop something in the recounting that was actually monumental during the trip: I lost my keys on the river. In doing so, I had to get towed to the outskirts of Harrison, across the highway from the Toyota dealership, and needed to stay there until it opened on Monday so I could get in it, drive back to Eureka Springs to pick up my stuff at the rental, and drive home. This had the effect of simultaneously cutting my trip short (since I was stuck without transportation on the side of Route 65, not exactly the most pedestrian friendly situation) and lengthening it (since I had to postpone my return to Austin until I could drive my car again). The most informative thing I can say about my change of venue is that Eureka Springs certainly out-charms a faceless motel on the edge of Harrison. The highlight of my stay was watching and actually laughing at an episode of America's Funniest Home Videos.
And then, new keys, the drive down into Texas, a stop in Plano to visit family, hours of podcasts and music and chatter and quiet, shuttling through a darkened landscape toward home. Home was nice after all that.