The locals know that roads leading to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, aren’t straight. Neither are the streets once you arrive.
“It takes a little longer to get here,” says Kim Dutile, who owns and operates The Lodge in this Ozark Mountain community. “That’s a good thing because it’s a beautiful drive.”
Tour guide Christie Braswell tells of Robert Ripley’s study of the town’s streets in the 1920s and ’30s. “He counted 230, and no two streets cross at right angles. At that point, it was too late to change those skinny streets.”
We didn’t choose Eureka Springs for a recent weekend getaway because the founder of “Ripley's Believe It or Not!” took a shining to the northwest Arkansas community or even because its spring waters, which for the longest time, were thought to have healing powers of miraculous proportions. Nor did its crooked roads and streets come into play.
Eureka Springs served as a midpoint for our two choice destinations – Little Rock, home to the Clinton Presidential Center, and Bentonville, site of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. In the end, we discovered we had shortchanged Eureka Springs and didn’t even have time to attend “The Great Passion Play.”
First things first: The Clinton Presidential Center is the sixth presidential library we’ve visited (and none compares to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas).
The 4,536 blue boxes containing Bill Clinton's presidential records serve as a backdrop for an engaging display of memorabilia. We especially enjoyed reading letters he received during his presidency (those from comedian Dom DeLuise and TV personality Fred Rogers are particularly memorable) and viewing gifts Clinton received (including a two-handled vase from the King of Morocco and a saxophone from Polish President Lech Walesa).
While in Little Rock, we also did a drive-by of the state capitol and a too-brief visit to Central High School, where the Little Rock Nine, a group of black students who enrolled at the all-white high school in 1957, ultimately forced an end to segregation of schools.
In Bentonville, we spent our entire time at Crystal Bridges, home to works by powerhouses of American art, such as Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell and Iowa’s Grant Wood. A Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home is on the museum grounds. My favorite was George Segal’s sculpture, “Depression Bread Line,” portraying life during the Great Depression. The artist includes his likeness as one of the five figures waiting in line to receive a free meal.
Back to Eureka Springs. Braswell, our tram tour guide, pointed out that the town's mountainside homes are more vertical than horizontal. Some are five stories tall. The one at Pine and Prospect Streets even has two mailing addresses because the streets line up with different stories of the home. It’s another Ripley’s oddity.
Then there's the legend of the water quality, deemed second to that of Switzerland at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The healing qualities of the springs date to 1777 when an Osage chief brought his daughter, who was going blind, to the area. “That was the first documented healing,” according to our guide. The legend grew until “there was a bathhouse on every corner.”
I’ve always compared the draw of a Ripley’s attraction to the warning to never look at the sun during an eclipse. You can’t help yourself. You have to sneak a peek.
We visited, according to Ripley’s, the only church (St. Elizabeth) where you enter through a bell tower, and Pivot Rock, which resembles “a top balanced on its pointed end.” Mahalie Campbell, while taking a break from her gift shop duties at the 100-acre site, said visitors often are aware of the Ripley’s connection. They also are aware that outlaw Jesse James is said to have used Pivot Rock as a hideout from the law.
The best part of our trip may have been our three hikes. The first was in Petit Jean State Park. We walked along the turtle rocks to Bear Cave, where we met Randy and Marylin Kipley of Brownsville, Tennessee. “We just love the rock outcroppings,” Randy told us. They had seen similar outcroppings in Texas and southern Illinois. “These are just exquisite.”
We also walked the trails at Lake Leatherwood Park. The highlight was finding the concrete bridge that spans the spring-fed lake. Fog had yet to clear when we crossed it in the early morning hours. The setting was so fantastic, we made a repeat visit – something we also plan to do with Eureka Springs.
Nothing about our trip to Eureka Springs had a thing to do with healthy eating.
On our way to Arkansas, we stopped in Joplin, Missouri, for dinner at Instant Karma. A doughnut cheeseburger was on the menu. “Smash it and eat it,” advised Megan Henry, restaurant manager. I did.
In Little Rock, we wanted barbecue and ended up at Whole Hog Cafe. I counted more than 60 trophies from barbecue contests. The beef brisket may be the reason.
In Eureka Springs, we ate breakfast at the Mud Street Cafe Annex. I couldn’t pass up its version of the Croque Madame Sandwich, made famous in France. It features ham, provolone cheese and raspberry jam sandwiched between two grilled pancakes and topped with an egg, sunny-side-up.
Our best stop was at Rogue’s Manor in Eureka Springs. Dining spaces are scattered throughout the restaurant. Its menu touts the seafood casserole as a favorite since 1993 and, for me, since 2018.
Looking for a place to stay with a familiar name takes some work.
We counted just a handful with ties to national chains. The remainder came with local names such as the Woods Cabins, Enchanted Forest Resort, Pine Lodge, Sycamore Cottage, Scandia Inn Motel and the Bavarian Inn Lodge & Restaurant. We ended up at the latter – with its understated name but overwhelming customer service.
Bed-and-breakfasts seemingly can be found on every street; with historic hotels mostly in downtown Eureka Springs.
Most colorful is the Crescent Hotel, made with hand-cut stones and carrying a reputation for being haunted. The Crescent Hotel has a tie to a magician who masqueraded as a cancer doctor in the 1930s and promised cures to those who came to his “sanitarium.” The charlatan ended up in jail, and the Crescent Hotel eventually found new owners.
Kevin Warneke lives in Omaha and is a frequent contributor to Inspired Living Omaha and other publications of the Omaha World-Herald.