Patty and I began going to Hot Springs about the time we married. We used to go almost every year — occasionally in January when the racing season begins anew at the city’s thoroughbred racetrack, Oaklawn Jockey Club.
One year, I distinctly remember, we started out with decent weather in Kansas City but hit snow and ice in Arkansas. We had to turn back when we reached the Boston Mountains, south of Ft. Smith. We stopped at a convenience store at the base of the mountain, where a convenience store clerk told me: “The mountain is closed. A couple of semis went off the road overnight.”
As it turned out, we wouldn’t have seen any racing even if we’d made it over the mountain because the ice had caused electrical problems at the track, and the starting gate — from which the horses break — was rendered inoperative.
For one reason or another, we haven’t made it to Hot Springs in recent years, but, as some of you will recall, last month we went to Bentonville, in northwest Arkansas, to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
That trip whetted my appetite to get back to Hot Springs, and over the weekend I made a wonderful solo trip.
On the way south, I stopped at Crystal Bridges for lunch. On the way back I stopped for lunch in Fayetteville and played golf in Springdale, before completing the final leg of the journey last night.
…I know, I just know, you’re dying to see the photos. Here they are:
The nexus of Hot Springs is gently curving Central Avenue, which offers a wide variety of shops and restaurants.
The Arlington Hotel, with several hundred rooms, dominates the intersection of Central Avenue and Fountain Street. To the right of the hotel, across Fountain, is the base of Hot Springs Mountain.
The Pancake Shop is the main dining destination along Central. It and a couple of companion stores run the length of the green awning.
Past Fountain Street, at the base of the mountain, is a string of buildings that once were bath houses, with their supposed “therapeutic” waters. Water pushes up from deep underground and emerges from several “springs” at an average temperature of 143 degrees. The bath houses tapped the springs and cooled the water to about 100 degrees for bathing. Only two of the buildings now operate as bath houses, but the others have been preserved.
It’s always steamy around Hot Springs Mountain.
Lest you think Hot Springs is a veritable dreamland, some parts of town have seen better, livelier days. This is the former Majestic Hotel, just a block away from the Arlington, gone to wrack and ruin.
At the end of Fountain Street, across from Hot Springs Mountain, sits the motel where we have long stayed. A Polish man named Emil Wencil and his brother built it decades ago. Mr. and Mrs. Wencil owned and operated it for many years, but both are now dead. A new owner is renovating it.
A crowd of about 30,000 attended the races on Saturday. Early on, when it was misting, people gathered trackside to socialize, enjoy the air and see the horses close up.
Part of the glass-enclosed grandstand.
The horses neared the starting gate for one of the early races…In the background you can see the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, which you can go up in for $7. (Oaklawn is 2 1/2 miles south of downtown.)
There were several big races Saturday, including a Kentucky Derby prep race, the Rebel Stakes, for 3-year-olds…These ladies must have thought they were at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY, where the Derby is run the first Saturday of May.
…but this is most assuredly cowboy country.
Then came the rain. The track condition went from “good” to “sloppy.” The ladies with the hats, along with just about everybody else, went inside. And the mood ebbed.
Looking a little soiled, three jockeys returned to their quarters after a race.
Back on the road yesterday, I bypassed Interstate 540 for a while and meandered up U.S., which used to be the only way you could traverse the Boston Mountains…The old way takes longer, but you get the benefit of “local color.”
This is why it’s called “The Natural State.”
Out of the mountains and into the city — Fayetteville, that is, home to the University of Arkansas and Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. (Donald Reynolds, who died in 1993, was a newspaper baron; his foundation also financed the Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri.)
Dickson is the most dynamic street in Fayetteville. The university campus is at the top of the hill, at the very back of the picture.