And we’ll walk down the avenue again
And we’ll sing all the songs from way back when
And we’ll walk down the avenue again and the healing has begun – Van Morrison
I left Florida in predawn darkness, enveloped by milky fog that stubbornly floated two feet off the ground. Following the Gulf of Mexico shoreline, it clung to the highway until I crossed over into Alabama two hours later. As the sun slowly slipped above muted panhandle farmland, I turned north toward Mobile, Yazoo and the Mississippi delta – cradle of the blues. John Lee Hooker, Billy Boyd Arnold and Johnny Winter jumped out of the radio. Their voices grabbing me by the collar, shaking me awake.
Born under a bad sign
I been down since I begin to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck
I wouldn’t have no luck at all – Booker T. Jones
After a steady northwest march across vast bottom lands, where rich brown-ribbed soil sits patiently waiting for water to find its way beneath, US 65 crosses the Mississippi south of Greenville. Captive of the mighty river’s whims, the delta sprawls in endless change, servant to the muddy water. On this day, the sun shone brightly on wet soil, reflecting sharply off tin roofs, rusted cars and tractors sitting idly in the fields. On this day, the Mississippi delta was shining like a silver paten, held out for my salvation. I accepted its visual gift and several hours later on a rainy night in late December, I slipped unnoticed into Hot Springs, exhausted, praying for dreamless sleep.
Hot Springs National Park dovetails into the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas. They are inseparable. To walk down the magnificent magnolia tree-lined bathhouse row, a National Historic Landmark District which is in essence the National Park, is to walk down main street. This creates one of the more unique strolls in America. The grandest collection of bathhouses of its kind in North America, including many outstanding examples of Gilded Age architecture protected by congressional decree on one side, commercialism of all stripes on the other. Of course the now protected hot springs have a long history of being a commercial enterprise. Although on a reservation, the town became a world famous resort, nicknamed The American Spa. Over the years, wealthy Europeans, Hollywood’s finest, Major League Baseball, gangsters and the ailing have flocked to Hot Springs to bathe in the healing waters. Keep in mind they also let me in so the bar has now been completely lowered.
As you turn onto bath house row for the first time, the stunning array of architectural diversity catches you off guard. Flourishes and styles compete for your attention. Quapaw’s Spanish Colonial Revival style, topped by a large central dome covered with brilliantly colored tiles and capped with a small copper cupola. Superior’s Classical Revival, with green tile paterae centered over the pilasters in the friezes below the first and second story cornices. The Ozark, with its twin towers composed of three-tiered setbacks flanking the main entrance and windows featuring decorative cartouches. The Maurice, designed in an eclectic combination of Renaissance Revival and Mediterranean styles, with its five-bay enclosed sun porch set back between the north-and south-end wings. Or the Neoclassical cream-colored brick Buckstaff, with the base, spandrels, friezes, cornices and the parapet finished in white stucco. It’s dazzling and transportive.
Touring a bath house is to step back in time through multiple portals. A feeling of being whisked to a more glamorous age, when men wore white linen suits and boaters, while women wore elaborate gowns with hair pinned up under the plumage of an elegant hat. Then there’s the internal whispering in my ear, insisting Chief from One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest is going to walk in the room any moment now and remove the marble sink. It’s an odd dichotomy, but that’s what I’m thinking as I walk from one grey-white marble room to the next.
Part of TheMountCo Project’s task is to raise awareness of the steep decline in people under the age of 25 visiting our National Parks. Competition for the attention of millennials grows as we speak. Reality is now found via a variety of electronic devices. Blah, blah, you’ve heard me say this before. But here’s a twist. If I’m an 18 year old, visiting the parks for the first time, what do I expect? Better yet, what do I take for granted? Cell service. I expect to be able to communicate, because I don’t know any other type of world. So what do our parks woefully lack? Correct – cell service. Now I know this seems somewhat at odds with a message that says you should separate yourself from the electronic and wireless tether and experience nature. And to some degree it is because we want millennials to do exactly that. However, if we expect future generations to embrace and become the caretakers of our great natural treasures, we have to understand and adapt to their realities. They will not adapt to ours, just like we didn’t adapt to our parents reality. We created our own. And driven by the technology of the day, so have they.
Case in point. Attendance at state parks across the nation in 2017 will be approximately 740 million and is trending upward. Attendance in our national parks for the year 2017 will be approximately 340 million and also trending up. Granted, there are hundreds more state parks than our 59 national parks. But since I have experienced several of each during the past 100 days, I can tell you with confidence that national parks are virtual black holes, while all of the state parks where I’ve stayed have embraced the wireless world. But let’s be clear. I’m not advocating putting up cell towers throughout the national parks. On the contrary. I think the park interiors should remain, for the most part – dark. I am advocating for cell service in all campgrounds. So after a day of hiking and exploring nature I can communicate – if I so chose – with the outside world. I can share my experiences or seek out helpful information, exactly as I normally would. This does nothing to detract from the overall experience. I would argue that it serves to enhance and improves the odds of a young visitor not only finding the overall experience more satisfying, but sharing that experience as well. We can’t ignore their reality. We can only find ways to integrate that reality into the overall park experience.
From the promenade that runs behind the length of bath house row, there are several trails leading up the slopes of Hot Springs Mountain, part of the Ouachita Range. Hot Springs Mountain Trail leads past the observation tower, then circles back into Peak and Honeysuckle Trails. All told about a three mile hike to a view that lays out the less glamorous side of Hot Springs, with Indian Mountain brooding in the distance. I am certain that people do not come to Hot Spring National Park for the trails. Perhaps in the summer months when foliage is abundant, the well kept trails would offer more visual displays of oak and hickory. On this cold, rainy December day, the woods were monotone in color, with short-leaf pine insisting on adding green. Mostly silent save for the patter of rain falling on the rocks and the fluttering of omnipresent birds, I encountered no one. I had the pathways to myself. Yet even on the most drab day, there is solace and unexpected beauty in the woods.
Those of you who know me, understand that baseball is considered a religion in the Smith family. It runs deep. An unfailing love affair, it permeates who we are and the terms with which we view the world. (Only 45 days until pitchers and catchers report!) So to my delight I discovered that Hot Springs is rich in baseball history and lore. This from http://www.hotspringsbaseballtrail.com – “The health benefits of “taking the baths” were a primary reason for baseball coming to Hot Springs. The players tended to drink heavily, and believed they could “boil out” the impurities in their system. The Buckstaff, still in use as a bathhouse today, was built in 1912, and hosted many prominent players. The Fordyce Bathhouse, built in 1915, houses the gym where many players trained.” Babe Ruth trained there nine times and was a local fixture. In 1952, a 19 year old hank Aaron played in Hot Springs. Jackie Robinson and Sam ‘Wahoo’ Crawford played there as well. It’s an amazing history and was a wonderful surprise. A Christmas gift to me from Hot Springs.
NOTE: For more information on Hot Springs National Park and all the National Parks and to help with trip planning, download the free Chimani app to your smart phone to easily navigate your way around the park, with or without cell phone service.