Mountain Music

We’d never been to Arkansas, but a friend from there kept telling us about the grandeur of
the Ozarks and the old-fashioned mountain music that gets your “toes a-tappin’ and your
blood a-hummin’.” Of course, our imaginations took over from there – and even though our
friend is a well-educated city gal, we pictured the stereotypical backwoods culture. We
grew excited about visiting back-country mountain people and photographing weathered cabins
with rickety porches. We imagined beards and corncob pipes, ragged overalls and faded
calico dresses. My, oh my, were we ever wrong! We found the folk music, all right – and it
is wonderful – but as for the rest, the only “hillbilly” stuff we saw during our nearly
month-long trip through Arkansas was in recreated tourist attractions. What we found
instead were friendly, well-educated people with a high standard of living. The landscape
itself is filled with lovely homes on large parcels of land. The area we were most
interested in exploring was around Eureka Springs, a little town at the juncture of U.S.
Highway 62 and State Highway 23 just east of Beaver Lake. Traveling north from Interstate
40 on scenic State Highway 23, the countryside presented a vast array of fall color and
picturesque streams – but the road, which skirts the White Rock Wildlife Management Area,
was steep and winding. Anyone uncomfortable driving big rigs along such routes might
instead opt to drive north along Interstate 540 beyond Fayetteville, then cut east along
U.S. Highway 412. Eureka Springs is right in the heart of the Ozarks; while there, we found
each day filled with intriguing experiences. Built on a steep hillside, this little town
grew up in the 1870s and 1880s around many natural springs reported to possess miraculous
healing powers. People flocked to the area seeking health and even eternal life. When the
railroad arrived in 1883, the town’s image changed from that of rustic buildings huddled
around the magic waters to that of a chic health spa attracting the wealthy from around the
nation. Tourism continues to be the big draw to this day. The main street through Eureka
Springs is narrow and lined with cars, so you will want to leave your big rig in camp and
use your dinghy vehicle for getting around. During our first day in town we explored the
downtown area, where exquisite handmade quilts hang by the dozens in many of the shops.
Fashionable, one-of-a-kind clothing drapes store mannequins, while chocolate shops with
alluring smells tempt even the strictest dieter. Interesting old hotels provide a glimpse
of the luxuries awaiting early 20th-century travelers and even seem very gracious by
today’s standards. A tour of the Victorian section took us by beautifully restored homes
built in the town’s early days. Being a rug hooker, a trip to the Mountain Handcrafts
Company was very much a priority. We found ourselves welcomed by the Gay family, who own
the shop and teach the old craft of rug hooking. Their shop is an absolute treasure trove
for the fiber artist; they not only helped us with our rug-supply purchases, but
recommended good restaurants and places to visit. Their son, David, demonstrated the
playing of a dulcimer and we immediately fell in love with the mountain instrument. With
prices being so very reasonable, a lovely old floor lamp from one of the many antique shops
finally found its way to the cargo bay of our motorhome. We could easily have filled every
available space with stuff to bring home if we hadn’t restrained ourselves. The next day’s
adventures took us to the famous Blue Spring Heritage Center and Gardens, where we en-joyed
strolling through the grounds and photographing the beautiful blue spring with lush flower
beds reflected in its waters. A touching plaque marks the spot where a portion of the
Cherokee “Trail of Tears” passed through the area. Then we were off to Turpentine Creek, a
wildlife refuge housing large exotic cats rescued from around the nation. This was truly
one of the highlights of our trip, as we visited dozens of majestic tigers and lions that
seemed more like big household pets than wild creatures. Wild they are, however, and double
fencing keeps the public from making a mistake by reaching out to pet them. A light rain
was falling by evening, but we had tickets to the world-renowned Great Passion Play and we
weren’t going to miss it. A gospel music program and potter’s demonstration warmed up the
sold-out crowd; then, dressed in rain gear, we all sat spellbound watching the last few
days of Christ’s life unfold in the huge outdoor theater. It doesn’t matter what your
religious preferences are – this is a magnificent play. It was sunny and bright the next
morning when we set out on a cruise of Beaver Lake aboard the Belle of the Ozarks.
Brilliant autumn color shimmered in the sparkling water as we cruised the enormous lake,
listening to a lively narration of the area’s history. Another site well worth the drive is
the War Eagle Mill, a restored working water gristmill from the 1800s. We watched as grain
was milled into cornmeal and then bought a sack to take home for corn bread. A wide
selection of local art was temptingly displayed on store shelves and we struggled to keep a
tight reign on our pocketbook. On the third floor of the building, the Bean Palace
restaurant served a great lunch of beans and corn bread. That evening, we treated ourselves
to a wonderful bluegrass music performance in one of the Eureka Springs nightspots.
Reluctant to leave this beautiful area, we spent several more days driving through the
hills – exploring little mountain towns, photographing the countryside and learning all we
could about the history of this fascinating part of our great country. Allow at least a
week to enjoy this part of the Ozarks and plan time for some leisurely drives through the
spectacular mountains. You won’t find any hillbillies – but you will have a fabulous time.

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