Monday, June 6, 2011

Hot Springs National Park and west

DAY TWELVE: Sunday morning we awoke in Hot Springs, AR, had breakfast in the room, got in the car, and after a brief period of disorientation, found the Hot Springs National Park Visitors Center, which is the old Fordyce Bathhouse, shown below.

Hot Springs is a unique National Park which celebrates both a rare geological feature and a fascinating cultural era: the era of the American Spa where the wealthy went to “take the waters,” or “quaff the elixir” as they used to say. The water comes out of the ground at Hot Springs at about 143 degrees F., not because of volcanic activity (like Yellowstone), but because the water has percolated deep into the earth, warming 4 degrees for each 300 feet it descends, (and dissolving minerals as it goes); then it has worked its way to the surface again and has come out in 47 separate springs, from which the park collects 700,000 gallons a day. For decades, these waters were believed to have curative powers for a variety of illnesses: e.g., liver ailments, stomach disorders, rheumatism, arthritis, even syphilis. Others came for general improvement of health and fitness, or just for relaxation. At its peak, a million visitors came annually, and they were served by a dozen or more opulent bathhouses along Bathhouse Row.

I first came to Hot Springs in the spring of 1954 when I was returning to Drury College in Springfield, MO from a trip to Mexico. I have a vivid memory of going into a auction house in Hot Springs and being both fascinated and appalled by the sight of very sick-looking but very wealthy elderly people bidding $10,000 on a diamond. What I didn’t know then was that I was seeing the beginning of the end of the glory days in Hot Springs. In the 1950s, changes in medicine, as well as transportation, brought a rapid decline in water therapies and spas. By 1980, only one bathhouse was still open, and only two are in operation today. The Fordyce Bathhouse was one of the grandest that closed, and it has been fully restored by the park as a museum and provides a real glimpse of this rare slice of life.

Pictured below is (1)one of the beautiful tile therapy tubs, (2)a Tiffany window in the Ladies Cooling Room, and (3)a group of Zander Mechanical Physical Therapy machines, the creation of Dr. Gustav Zander, a Swedish Physical Therapist, who was about 100 years before his time.

From Hot Springs we drove west through the Ouachita (pronounced wash’-ee-taw) National Forest, a very scenic drive. In Royal, AR, we came upon a cafĂ©, Patty’s Down the Road, which isn’t in Roadfood but should be. We had very generous servings of catfish, slaw, mashed potato and hush puppies, tasty and all for $5.99 each. Following Route U.S. 270, we entered Oklahoma and went all the way to Oklahoma City (taking a little detour through Norman, OK). Because it was Sunday, we listened to a tape of a Guilford Community Church service made on June 1, 1997. It was a treasure: a special Sunday on which three trees that had been planted outside the church were dedicated, a service I had forgotten; and, I am ashamed to say, I had also forgotten about the trees. An ash was dedicated to Anton Erickson, who lived to the age of 100. A lilac was dedicated to Shirley and me by a couple in the church in honor of our ministry; and a blue spruce was given by Shirley and me in memory of her brother, Ladd, who had died in 1960. These trees were never labeled, and when we get back, I’ll want to see if they are living, and if so, make sure they each get a plaque.

We ended up in the evening in a Budget Inn in El Reno, OK. It was pretty budget, e.g., no bed lamps to read by. But we slept ok.

DAY THIRTEEN: We got up in fairly good season, and by 9a.m. we were showered, packed up and ready for breakfast. Our primary reason for staying in El Reno was to go to Johnnie’s Grill, a Roadfood restaurant. It lived up to its reputation. It isn’t much to look at from the outside, but inside it is a fairly spacious restaurant with table tops covered with brightly colored business ads, the walls covered with photos of old cars and other nostalgic memorabilia, and a menu full of every combination of eggs, hash-browns, toast, pancakes, biscuits, sausage and gravy imaginable, all for reasonable prices. I had two over easy, with sausage and wheat toast; Ellen had a scrambled egg, hash-browns, biscuit, and gravy. The hash-browns were particularly good, well-done, light and not greasy.

From El Reno we drove north on Route 81, following the Old Chisholm Trail, a cattle drive route from Texas to Kansas, named after an entrepreneur who opened supply stores along the trail but didn’t live to enjoy the benefits. Our immediate destination was Enid, OK. I had known of Enid, OK and Phillips University located there, for 60 years or more, mostly since 1951 when I met folks that I really liked from Phillips U. at Association YMCA Camp in Estes Park, CO, where I worked for the summer. It was a highly regarded Disciples of Christ-related college and seminary. I say “was” because the University went bankrupt in 1998, and closed. The seminary survived, but relocated to Tulsa, OK. I had always wondered what it looked like, and I got to see it, because the campus was purchased by Northern Oklahoma College and most of the old buildings are still there, along with some new ones. Thus a long-standing curiosity was finally satisfied.

Here's how it looked in former years:

The town of Enid itself seems to be doing ok, but not great, judging by the appearance of buildings and houses.

From Enid we drove due west on Route 412, and suddenly, we were truly in the “West” - flat, empty, sage-covered land, few buildings, few people, vast sky, and hot temps – as high as 106 degrees. A woman I spoke with in Enid said that the heat was unusual for this time of year. 100 degrees in August, maybe, but not June. She was concerned. We went all across the Oklahoma Panhandle into eastern New Mexico, which was about as empty of human presence as any place we have ever been. The sky was beautiful, fields were yellow with wheat stubble, antelope crossed the road, the mountains were blue in the distance - it was magical. Tonight we are in Springer, NM, a small town trying to survive. We had a lovely walk all around the town in the dusk.

P.S. My son John sent us some photos of the rhododendron next to our house in Vermont. What a display! Here's one:

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