Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hot Springs National Park

Sept 25

What fun! I don’t think either of us really expected this park to be quite so delightful. I only wish I’d had time to “take the waters”, as it used to be called. Hot Springs has been a spa-destination for more than 100 years, and it certainly seems to have been lovely in its heyday.

Hot Springs is unlike any other national park—it is right in the middle of the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas. The central part of the park is, in fact, Central Avenue, a main street of Hot Springs. It is lined on one side with cute-looking shops (I never have time to actually go shopping, boo-hoo!), and on the other side with the elegant bath houses which flourished for decades, mostly during the “golden age” of 1900-1930ish. The road is aptly called “Bathhouse Row”, and the park’s visitor’s center is the completely renovated Fordyce Bath House. The springs themselves come out of a mountain which backs immediately on the bathhouses. Or to be more precise, they were built at the very base of the mountain, in order to collect the hot water as it came out of the ground. The mountain has been landscaped in order to disguise the tufa, rock formations which are the result of the mineral deposits of the spring water. However, there is one “show spring” which is left coming down as it originally was. All the other springs are hidden; their water is piped directly to the bathhouses.

"Demonstration" Spring left to flow freely

Visitor's Center (Fordyce Bath House)

We walked into the visitor’s center just as a docent, in period garb, was just ready to start a tour, so of course we went with her. She was absolutely delightful—a devotee of the hot springs (she said she’d probably had 2,000 baths), and a fount of information herself (pun intended, hah hah!!)

We toured the first floor, which contained the men’s and women’s baths, which of course were separate. The men, however, had the much larger facility (they evidently were more frequent travelers and comprised 80% of the clientele), including a large central area decorated by a charming, if somewhat chauvinistic, statue of an Indian maiden kneeling to present Hernando DeSoto with a pitcher of water. Our guide says this statue commemorates the belief that DeSoto came to the Hot Springs himself in his explorations. The rest of the room was comprised of individual bathrooms with oversized tubs, a “needle-shower” for cooling down, and benches for seating. Small adjacent rooms contained sitz-baths (good for lower back problems, we were told) and steam-bath rooms (the kind with the big box to sit in, with just the head coming out.) The guide suggested the room would resemble a large toga party, given the fact that everyone going through the 5-stage bath process (hot soak, sitz bath, steam bath, hot packs, and massage) would be wearing nothing but a linen sheet wrapped around them. The women’s side was similar, without the huge central gathering place.

Men's Central Bath

Ceiling in Men's Bath

The third floor included a large lounge with a men’s side (pool table) and women’s side (baby grand piano), with large airy windows fronting onto Central Avenue below. In addition, there were a small beauty parlor, the massage rooms (complete with scary looking electrical devices which were the most modern thing for massage back then—a completely opposite environment than we would expect now for massage!), small staterooms where, for an additional fee, a woman could nap after her bath and massage, and dressing rooms. The gentlemen’s side was similar, and between the two, there were rooftop gardens (separated in their time by large dividers) where clients could sunbathe. Only the men had sun on their side, however, since it was unfashionable for women to tan their skin.

The most fascinating thing on the 3rd floor, I thought, was a special bath which was modified after its initial installation to accommodate polio patients after an epidemic of polio in the 30s. The bath is situated underneath a “monorail” with a track extending both to the women’s and men’s sides. The patient would be placed into a sling-chair-type seat, and then could be gently moved along the track to the bathroom, where the waters would await. The tub itself was very deep, and contained a chair which the patient could sit on to do rehabilitative exercises for the upper body. Or, the chair could be folded up, and the patient could be lowered deeper into the water where two adjustable railings would allow him/her to hold on while walking or exercising the legs. The entire concept seemed so unique and forward-looking to me, being such an excellent mechanism for physical therapy.

Ladies Lounge Area

Therpeutic Bath with Exercise Equipment

The bathhouse also contained a gymnasium, which is in its original condition (even the equipment is the original), and on the second floor were a number of displays regarding the history of “taking the waters”, as well as the history of Hot Springs’s own tourist industry. It was all absolutely delightful, and included a short video describing “Taking the waters today”, i.e. going to a bathhouse down the street (the only continuously operating bathhouse on Bathhouse Row), which is open to the public and provides the same kind of services as the original bath houses (without the electrical stimulation during massage, one assumes!!)

As I said, the tour and building were thoroughly delightful, and we followed that up by walking up and down the street looking at all the other old bathhouses which still stand in the “row”. By reading the informational signs, we figured out that the sidewalk we walked on was built over the original Hot Springs Creek, which originally ran in front of the buildings. We also wandered on the “promenade”, a brick walkway which meanders over the hill behind the bathhouses. Walking was part of the health regimen which was prescribed by the clients of the bath houses.

Hale Bath House

Buckstaff Baths--still open to the public as it always was

We finally headed back to Mo, who was parked around the corner from Bathhouse Row, and found that our only egress from the street was a winding road up the mountain to the overlook at the top (part of the national park). So we drove carefully up the side of the mountain until we reached an overlook of the city and environs. We decided not to go up the observation tower, which was a little bit above us, because the visibility wasn’t that great today—in fact, we had the first real rain we’ve had all month. Instead, we came back down the mountain, and found our way to the other side of the park, where there are several public thermal water fountains. Our guide had told us it was common for people to come and fill jugs with the water from the hot springs—it is tasteless, odorless (it never comes in contact with volcanic rock, which is what gives most hot springs that sulfuric odor), and many people swear by it. We happened to have 5 empty water jugs this morning (we save them until we can recycle them) so we filled them up with hot springs water—it comes out of the ground at 143 degrees, and wasn’t much cooler than that coming out of the faucets!! I haven’t tried it yet—I am sure I’ll like it better when it’s cooler.

After that, it was a relatively short, 3-1/2 hour drive from Hot Springs to West Memphis, Arkansas. Alas, the pain of the loss of my MP3 player was truly felt this afternoon. No Paul Simon singing “Graceland”; no Marc Cohn singing “Walking in Memphis.” We had to settle for an oldies station broadcasting from Little Rock. (I still can’t believe we are in Arkansas. And yes, Arkansas too is proud of its famous citizens: we did indeed pass a sign this morning welcoming us to Hot Springs, “Childhood Home of President Bill Clinton.”)

The exciting news is, we are currently camped at Tom Sawyer’s Mississippi River RV Resort. We are on the very shore of Old Man River, which does indeed “keep on flowin’”, and all we can see is tugboats pushing barges past us, and the lights of Memphis upriver in the distance. The last barge and tug were so close to the shore, and hence to us, that Roxy started barking at them! This is simply totally cool. Tomorrow: we meet the King!

Mo looks at the Mississippi as a barge goes by