I was at the wheel on the east side of Oklahoma, and Barry was studying a map of Arkansas, our next state. As usual, I was in hurry-hurry mode, and he was not. “Hot Springs looks interesting,” he said. I wondered whether they were out of the way, and more importantly, if they were bathing-suit-optional hot springs.
As luck would have it, our next stop was lunch at the Pig Out Palace, notable for their 32-oz beverage glasses, frighteningly large portions, and wi-fi. I finally satisfied my craving for chicken fried steak. Afterwards, I sat in the oversized booth feeling bloated while Barry satisfied his craving for email.
To our surprise, there was a message from Barbara, mentioning that if we stopped in Hot Springs, Arkansas, we should let her know. I tried to call her, but got her voicemail. So I called her husband, Jim.
“Barbara says there’s someone we should look up in Hot Springs — is it someone we’ve heard about?” I asked. Jim chuckled. “Her sister,” he replied, “and my brother. They’re married, you know. To each other.”
We had indeed heard good things about Della and Alex over the years we’d known Jim and Barbara, so we got in touch, and they invited us to their house on very short notice. The route Della recommended took us on ribbon-like Route 7, through the lush spring green of the Ouachita National Forest. It was just as beautiful as the California coast, and the only other vehicles were three motorcycles out to enjoy the curves.
One of my favorite travel writers, Peter Jenkins, once mentioned an acronym he had in his diary: T.A.A. It stood for “Totally Amazed by Alabama.” I had a different T.A.A.: Totally Amazed by Arkansas.
Della and Alex made us feel right at home, and we felt like family, maybe because we know so many of their family members! The four of us sat in the living room, talking, for quite a while. Our connection to them is through their siblings, but I was enjoying getting to know how they are different from those siblings.
Still, we’d arrived fairly late, and at about 10:30, Della turned to Alex. “Well, Mr. Cole, I think it’s time for us to go to bed,” she said. Alex nodded and started to get up.
Barry and I burst out laughing. “What’s so funny?” they asked.
The line, the delivery, and the response were something we’d heard dozens of times aboard Complexity. We’d be moored somewhere in Alaska or British Columbia, relaxing after dinner and talking for hours. But Jim and Barbara are super-early birds, and we are the opposite. So Barbara would turn to her husband at about 10:30, and she’d say a line we grew to know well: “Well, Mr. Cole, I think it’s time for us to go to bed.”
The following day, we slept late by Cole standards — past 7. Alex had long since gone to work, but Della had the day free to give us what she called the “nickel tour” of Hot Springs. Just up the road from their house are mines where mucky mud yields sparkling quartz crystals. We visited one of the operations and took photos of ourselves with enormous furniture-sized crystals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Then she took us into the town of Hot Springs, where more surprises awaited us. This was no mere soaking pool, but blocks of elegant brick bathhouses where people had come for centuries to “take the waters,” now turned into a national park. The building we visited was full of original — and creepy — equipment. There were steam boxes where only the person’s head would stick out, rows of cubicles with claw-footed tubs, and elaborately complicated showers. One room had all kinds of iron torture equipment, predecessors to modern physical therapy devices. The massage rooms contained scary-looking electrical widgets, not relaxing at all.
On our way back, Della drove us by the off-road vehicle park their son-in-law manages. I had never seen such a thing — there were roads so steep, it was hard to imagine any vehicle negotiating them, even a special-purpose one. I was also surprised by the fact that the property was beautifully wooded; I’d expected a place exclusively for people to play with cars to be much more barren.
Our stop in Hot Springs was too brief, but we said farewell and traveled to Little Rock that afternoon, pitching our tent in Burns Park.
Della told us to check out the Big Dam Bridge, a soaring half-mile bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas river. It was a beautiful piece of engineering, providing an excellent vantage point for watching barges locking up and down the river. But what intrigued me more was the social engineering aspect — in a state with a reputation for poor nutrition and obesity, here was something you could only enjoy if you got out and burned calories. On this hot weekday evening, the bridge was a busy, popular place. I saw super-fit spandex-clad cyclists, parents with toddlers, people walking after work in their office clothes, novice rollerbladers, and a very sweaty woman jogging in jeans.
Distant thunder and lightning made me wonder if we should have stayed with Alex and Della; instead, we drove back to our tent. A little while later, we struck up a conversation with Robin, camping in her car across from us. She had such an amazing story — not mine to tell, I’m afraid — that we dug into the van for wine glasses and that special bottle of Tom’s Pear-a-dice wine, and the three of us settled around the picnic table and talked into the night.
About a week before we’d left Seattle, Barry and I received a couple of going-away presents with far-reaching effects. They’re simply purple rubber bracelets, inscribed with “A Complaint Free World.org.” The way they work is this: You put one on your wrist. If you complain or criticize or gossip, you have to take it off and move it to the other wrist. The goal is to change behavior, which is supposed to take 21 days. The longest we’d gone without changing ours was about four days. We called them “cheap marriage therapy.”
Fairly early in the evening, we’d mentioned the bracelets to Robin. But she’d just left a bizarre relationship, and she needed to do some serious venting — complaining, criticizing, and gossiping, along with eye-rolling, grousing, and grumping. Still, she had a great attitude. And when she pantomimed taking off a bracelet and moving it to the other wrist, we all cracked up — especially since she did it many times.
It was very late when we finally crawled into our tent for the night, and there were thunderstorms and torrential downpours that woke us several times, but I didn’t mind. After meeting Robin, I figured we’d been there in the park for a reason. Robin, if you’re out there, please write!
Our last day in Arkansas was overcast, and the river, bridges, and downtown buildings made me think I was in Portland, Oregon. We spent the morning at the Clinton Presidential Library, which was interesting but surreal. I’ve been to other presidential libraries, but those were for dead presidents. Imagine having a museum — and a gift shop — devoted to you while you were still alive. What would you say about yourself?
The “spin” on Bill Clinton’s years in the White House left my head “spinning.” The strangest thing was reliving those years right now, when Hillary is fighting so hard for the Democratic nomination. I was looking hard for clues to Hillary, but the exhibits hardly mention her at all. There are ball gowns and a few biographical items, and a video she narrated about redecorating the White House.
I dragged Barry into the gift shop and then browsed the entire store, curious. There were politically-correct handicrafts, ecologically-sensitive kitsch, and left-wing books, along with cult-of-Bill refrigerator magnets and buttons. Next to the door was a life-sized image of Bill Clinton, sans Hillary. As usual, I picked up a couple of postcards, but Barry quickly scanned the merchandise and found a key item lacking. “That’s funny,” he said. “I don’t see any cigars.”
And with that, we left Totally Amazing Arkansas and headed for Tennessee…and Graceland.