Hot Springs - A Mecca
Hot Springs, Arkansas
For a time, Hot Springs seemed doomed to suffer the fate of other fatally neglected resort towns (Asbury Park, NJ comes to mind). Shining for a brief moment, they soon fall behind leisuretime newcomers, then fall off the map entirely.
But celebrity may just save Hot Springs. This town counts among its celebrities a telepathic raccoon, a Cadillac driving pig, a half-man/half-fish creature . . . and a former President of the United States. Okay, so maybe that sounds more like our list than what the Visitors Center hands out , but . . .
This is Clinton Country
Old attractions mingle with new. In the town center, tourists jump out of vans -- with armloads of empty plastic gallon jugs -- jostling for an open spigot of free, steamy mineral water. Near the fracas, there's a painted relief of Bill Clinton as dorky high school band saxophonist -- Class of '64. Signs in local business windows proclaim "This is Clinton Country."
Slick brochures point visitors to the Historic Clinton Trail: every grueling detail of Bill's teen years, in every corner of town: a couple of boyhood homes, high school Prom locations, Senior Party, his church, where he danced, where his league bowled, where he saw movies, his favorite Ice Cream place, his most inspiring overlook of town. At the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum, both Bill and Hillary hang with the likes of Jesus and Neil Armstrong.
Since it's lunchtime, we choose Clinton's Favorite Barb-B-Que. McClard's, according to tour lit, was "the" place when Slick Willie and his friends craved barbeque. We sit in the Inaugural Ball booth, with its framed invitation to the McClards and autographed photo of President Bill. Tasty, but character-building? Hmmm...
More Mercury for My Genitals, Please
Hot Springs used to be known for its line of opulent health spas on Bath House Row. Coincident with Bill's tenure in national office, the National Parks System has restored many of them, and offers a free tour of one. Many aspects of bath house life are detailed by the friendly park guide, who is dressed in a period gown.
At the Fordyce Bathhouse, there are three floors and a basement of large treatment rooms, showers, areas with overcomplicated plumbing, adorned with ornate stained glass and sculpture. Sort of a rich persons' locker room.
Of interest are the treatments prescribed for spa visitors -- needle showers, steam and chill chambers, etc. Syphilis sufferers had Mercury rubbed on their genitals. Exotic devices were also used, like the Zander machine (Victorian forerunner of the Nautilus machine), exhibited in a display of vintage photos and memorabilia. Visitors are advised not to urinate in the vapor.
Roadside Hot Springs
Even before they had famous Bill Clinton, Hot Springs had some very fine attractions, still in operation today: Arkansas Alligator Farm (home of the Merman), Educated Animals, and Tiny Town. All three are clustered near the entrance of the National Park, and deliver decidedly different thrills than Clinton's boyhood bowling alley.
Educated Animals was "America's largest live trained animal stage show," and featured a dancing hen, a raccoon that could read your mind, and other wonders. It was sold and transformed into Animal Actors Zoo, then Clowers' Zoo with IQ by the former owners of the old IQ Zoo. Down the block, Tiny Town is still worth a visit. It's a miniature world constructed of junk and recycled parts, built over sixty years.
An image makeover is tough for Hot Springs. It's not a Mecca on the order of Gatlinburg or the Dells (though they do have those same clumsy amphibious "Ducks"). A local confides that the strip joints and topless revues are the main attraction in this oasis surrounded by dry counties. Some storefronts are boarded up -- either from the economy, or from a recent fire and rock slide that pummeled main street.
A suggestion: combine Hot Springs roadside tourism with the roots of our Chief Executive. Bill grew up among the attractions here. In high school, did he lure dates up to the Merman's hothouse for a midnight peek? Were his plans for America formulated while pondering the creaky machinations of Tiny Town? Could all of his political insight have come from the telepathic raccoon . . . or the dancing hen?