Local legend has it that in 1856, Dr. Alvah Jackson exclaimed “Eureka!”, the Greek word meaning “I have found it,” when he discovered the healing qualities of the waters of Basin Spring, one of ninety-four springs within the town of Eureka Springs. Over the years, thousands have basked in the mineral waters of these springs. During the American Civil War, Dr. Jackson set up a hospital in a local cave and used the waters to treat patients. Later, he marketed the water as “Dr. Jackson’s Eye Water,” and in 1905, The Ozarka Water Company was formed.
Surrounded by three lakes and two rivers, Eureka Springs is a jewel set in an artist’s paradise. Just forty miles from the home of the Daisy Air Rifle, Sam Walton’s original Walmart store, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, this is the perfect setting from which to ride the magnificent roads of Arkansas. Appropriately called the Switzerland of America, Eureka Springs is our springboard for riding the curvy, exciting byways of the Ozarks.
Arkansas is located in the active New Madrid seismic zone, and the 1811–1812 earthquakes rank among the largest east of the Rocky Mountains. The area affected by the quake was three times larger than the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964, and ten times as large as the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. The tremors were felt over 2.5 million square miles. In northeast Arkansas, this quake resulted in the creation of Lake St. Francis, forty miles long and half a mile wide. Earthquakes are common here; during our visit, a 2.2 tremor was felt on May 25, 2012.
As we approach our destination, we wind between the beautiful homes and businesses along highway AR 23 on the steep descent into Eureka Springs. I marvel at the Victorian architecture of this town of only 2073 residents and can see why it is on the National Register of Historic Places. The rumble of motorcycles fills the warm, moist evening air, and it’s obvious that there are more motorcycles than cars here. Situated in a valley with buildings molded into the steep mountainsides, I rubberneck, trying to take everything in.
Hank, Marie, Tina and I arrive at the Grand Central Hotel to find that a communication glitch has us checking in the following day, so in the tradition of grand southern hospitality, we are offered lodgings in the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa, renowned as “America’s Most Haunted Hotel.” To make it up to us, owner Linda Bridwell suggests a surprise birthday party the following evening for Tina, complete with a special homemade birthday cake.
All settled into a cottage on the cliff at the Crescent Hotel, we make our way downtown for dinner at The Pied Piper Pub & Inn, where Fatima, the owner, makes us feel right at home. Wonderful food, delicious drinks, friendly people and the occasional deafening roar of a Harley set the scene. Benefiting from the disposable income of the new generation of affluent bikers, Eureka Springs welcomes motorcyclists. Although the noise is a bit obnoxious at times, we casually chalk it up to boys being boys.
We arrive back at the Crescent and bed down in the complete silence of an Ozark night, and after a very full day, we are soon comatose. And even though this is the most haunted hotel in America, I hear nothing all night long. Sunday morning arrives with no stories of visiting ghosts, and we gingerly make our way down Howell Street’s nearly 45-degree descent to the Mud Street Cafe for breakfast. Voted best breakfast and best coffee in Arkansas, the Mud Street Cafe lives up to its reputation. Situated on a creek, Main Street was nicknamed Mud Street because it used to be filled with mud after every spring runoff or storm. To rectify the problem, the townsfolk simply filled the street with gravel up to the second storey of the homes and businesses; the main levels became the basements and the second levels became the main levels. After breakfast, we wind southbound through the mountains on AR 23.
With more corners, closer together, than anywhere I’ve been, these are some of the greatest motorcycling roads on the continent. Road surfaces here are not subjected to the harsh northern temperatures and are first-rate for tire adhesion. Queen Anne’s Lace, daisies and cardinal flowers adorn the roadside, with the occasional mimosa tree in full bloom with delicate pinkish lacy flowers. Mountains give way to valleys, and just before the hamlet of Witter, we stop for a closer look at some local artistry beside an old uninhabited log cabin. A 1930s Dodge panel truck emblazoned with “Hillbilly Cabin” sits across from an artist’s concept motorcycle along with a wooden rifle and a bottle of moonshine. A hand-painted sign resting beside it makes boastful claims in a facetious history, assuring us of the artist’s keen sense of humour. Nobody appears at the front door of the cabin with a shotgun, but we move on anyhow.
Our destination is the historic Oark General Store in the midst of the Ozark National Forest, so we continue southward. A left turn onto AR 215 soon has us stopping at a scenic overlook high above the Mulberry River. A swimmer far below spots my camera and sets an Olympic record getting out of view as he tries to salvage his dignity and find his textiles on shore. Enough cannot be said about the roads: we bank left and right, climbing upwards, terracing along roads cut into the limestone face of the mountains, and grinding our foot pegs into the pavement as we spiral downward through 10 and 15 mph corners into valleys below. The village of Oark appears, and we park in a gravel lot in front of the Oark General Store, the oldest continually operating store in Arkansas. Also listed on Arkansas’s Register of Historical Places, having opened its doors in 1890, it boasts original floors, walls and ceiling. “Y’all are all the way from Canada!” exclaims the waitress in a heavy southern drawl. She fetches us a large piece of homemade pecan pie and coffee as we check out some of the artifacts decorating the walls. An original Radio Flyer, a wooden rocking horse and a horse-drawn plough, all from forgotten eras. A huge wasp nest, without the wasps of course, hangs from the ceiling, and above the door is a 4’ 2” Velvet Tail rattlesnake skin.
We chat with the waitress, who tells us some of the store’s history – who first owned it and how it transitioned over the years. Two miles farther along, the road changes to gravel and dust for eleven miles and is not a recommended route unless you are on a dual-sport bike or in a car. Finally we arrive at AR 21, The Ozark Highlands Scenic Byway. Turning left, we follow another riding treasure to AR 16, through the sweeping turns, past ranches and farms, and up into the Boston Mountains of the Ozark National Forest again. The bends in the roads just don’t stop as we pass through Limestone, Deer and Nail, and I wonder what is behind the names of these hamlets. Evening arrives, and so do we, at the Grand Taverne in Eureka Springs, where we are greeted by Linda Bridwell. This is all much to the embarrassment of my wife, who spots the Dutch birthday cake and realizes that this evening is her surprise birthday party. Unfortunately, Jerry Yester of the Lovin’ Spoonful, who normally performs here, is away on tour. A delicious meal of melt-in-your-mouth roast beef and other culinary delights gives plentiful reasons for this hotel’s five-star rating. The next morning, Morris Pait, the biker mayor of Eureka Springs, rumbles into the parking lot of the Crescent Hotel on his big blue Harley. He shakes hands with me, and his hand completely surrounds mine. Morris is a big man and larger than life.
After 22 years of service, he’s a retired police officer with eight years of military duty. He’s president of Arkansas Chapter II of the Blue Knights, and does his best as mayor to attract motorcyclists to his town. Morris leads us out of town on AR 62. The hairpins of the newly paved road cling to the limestone mountainside. At a sharp left, we go straight into a driveway and up to a paved lot. Dismounting, we take a short walk through the tall green oaks and cottonwoods to a most spectacular church, nestled in the forest against a mountain backdrop. Standing 48 feet tall, with 425 windows and over 6000 square feet of glass, the Thorncrown Chapel won the Design of the Year award in 1981 from the American Institute of Architecture, but the big surprise is yet to come. At the request of the pastor, Morris walks up to the front of the church, opens a hymn book and begins singing “Amazing Grace” a cappella, in his deep, marvellous baritone voice. We later learn that he sings weekly at a number of different venues. We are truly privileged that he has taken time from his busy schedule to be our guide.
Highway AR 187 takes us through the hills, and after crossing Beaver Dam, we stop beside Beaver Lake, a tranquil setting where Morris says he comes occasionally to just relax, unwind and gain some perspective. Created by the dam, which was built as an electrical installation, Beaver Lake flooded in 2010 after days of torrential rains. The valley was filled with water up to the treetops, and even with all seven floodgates open, the water ran across the roadway and spilled over the top of the dam. Today everything has been repaired, and one would never know that a catastrophic event took place here such a short time ago. As I stroll along the edge of the water, a crane awaits an unsuspecting morsel at the base of the dam as fishermen test their luck along the shore. Leaving Beaver Dam, we continue along AR 187 through the hills to the little hamlet of Beaver. The Beaver Suspension Bridge over the White River is the last suspension bridge of its type in Arkansas. At 11 feet wide and 554 feet long with a 10-ton limit, it was built in 1949 and is fondly referred to as the Little Golden Gate. I watch as the bridge’s wooden plank decking sinks in a wave-like motion under the weight of a truck and boat trailer. If this bridge looks a bit familiar, there is good reason. It was featured in the movie Elizabethtown, and the nearby railway bridge was also used in the TV miniseries The Blue and the Gray.
As opposed to what one would think, the village is named after Wilson A. Beaver, who settled here in 1850. Today, the population stands at 95 inhabitants. After lunch at The Rowdy Beaver back in Eureka Springs, Morris returns to mayoral duties and we take AR 62 over to Bentonville, home of Sam Walton’s first store and Daisy Air Rifles. However, we are here to see the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Spanning a creek and built of wood and glass, Crystal Bridges cost millions to build. It is Sam Walton’s daughter’s gift to the world, and is touted to be the greatest venue of its type short of the Louvre. Opened in January 2012, everything is brand new, and one could spend countless hours here based on the magnitude of the place. A huge fan of Norman Rockwell, I am captivated by the full-size painting entitled “Rosie the Riveter” with her foot resting on Mein Kampf. All exhibits are displayed without barriers; however, everyone is asked to maintain a respectful 18-inch distance from the exhibits. The museum is huge and meets a wide range of artistic interests; as a side note, the ride to Bentonville is very worthwhile. All great things have an ending, and this has been a fitting end to a fabulous and eventful Ozark Mountain day.