In early November, I spent two serendipitous days in the tiny resort town of Eureka Springs, located in the Ozarks, at the edge of Arkansas. I had accepted an invitation from a friend in the American Midwest to join her on her ranch in Kansas, and she was taking me on a road trip. Since we would be riding through Missouri, I asked if I might see something connected with Mark Twain. “Hannibal is on the other side of the state.” I was mildly disappointed. However, as a Canadian and an easterner I found everything exotic, so I decided to sit back and surrender to whatever wanted to present itself to me.
Hitting the trail, we headed south into a prolonged autumn. To my wonder and delight, our road led to a winding path which cut a swath up hills and down valleys, deep into a forest fiery with colour. The trees seemed ablaze, but it was a safe, cool fire. Even more astonishing to me was the sign that loomed on the horizon proclaiming, “Mark Twain National Forest.” My wish had been granted, after all.
We reached our destination in mid-afternoon. A week before, the clocks had been turned back an hour. (In Kansas, the clock seems stuck in the 1950s.) By the time we checked into the Basin Park Hotel, dusk was descending over this hamlet nestled in the mountains. In the shadows of a short November day I strolled along the main street, called Spring. A warm orange sun was sinking into a cool lavender sky. Turning a corner, with the deep purple of the mountains as backdrop, a machine pumping soap bubbles had been set at the entrance of a retro dress shop. Transparent balloons lifted into the dimming sky as the sound of Glenn Miller’s sweet swing poured like buckwheat honey, out of its doorway.
Perusing the storefronts of Spring Street, I was attracted to the window of a hotel called The New Orleans. I walked into a lobby resplendent with dark oak panelling, fake palm trees, and silent ceiling fans. I entered into conversation with the woman at the reception desk, who spoke like a Kennedy. She was originally from Boston. Her husband’s work had brought her to Arkansas. The move, for her, was a reluctant one. She was a cultured woman, and had anticipated being stranded in a hillbilly wilderness. Instead she found herself cocooned in Shangri-La. When I told her I was a writer from Canada she informed me that the town housed a writer’s colony, called Dairy Hollow. I understood what had drawn me into this hotel. I would visit the colony the next day.
Back at our hotel, my hostess and companion had arranged a private suite for me. The Basin Park Hotel was founded in 1905. It is built into the side of a mountain. The hotel has played host to gangsters, high-rolling gamblers, and movie stars. Now it was sheltering me. It is rumoured that the rooms are haunted by the ghosts of guests who have passed on to The Other Side.
The suite assigned to me was massive. So was the bed. The mattress was soft and lumpy. Perhaps Al Capone’s sister had left impressions on it. During the Depression of the 1930s, she was stashed away in this hotel. The fin-de-siecle bathroom wasn’t user-friendly. A large round table, surrounded by high-backed gilded chairs, was set against the window overlooking the illuminated lamps along Spring Street. Here a jazz-age gangster might’ve enjoyed intimate tete-a-tetes with his wasp-waisted, helmet-haired moll, and there seemed no better place to sup, but my hostess Bo insisted on eating out, so we went down to the bar, empty on this off-season Tuesday evening, installed ourselves in a booth in an alcove, and ate our meal accompanied by the soundtrack of an ancient Andy Griffith episode, which droned on the TV hanging beside beer glasses on a wall.
During dinner I picked up a brochure lying next to the ketchup bottle. I discovered that a room with a Jacuzzi cost the same as the suite I had been assigned. After dinner I went down to the reception desk, requested, and was granted a change of rooms. In exchange for space, I received luxury. My new room was cozy and intimate. The amenities of the early 21rst century were creatively tucked away in the ambiance of the turn of the 20th. The mattress of the queen-sized bed was solid and firm. There were not one, but two bathrooms. The bathroom to the left was the original, installed in 1905. Crossing the room, with its ersatz chintz lampshades and upholstery, its early 20th century wash- basin sustained by early 21rst century plumbing, I opened the door to the second bathroom and stepped into a hedonistic heaven. The gleaming white room was dominated by the most ergonometically perfect Jacuzzi I have ever experienced. Gleefully I retrieved a bath pillow from my carry-on case, stripped, eased my aching back into the water, switched on the jets and invisible fingers, strategically placed, massaged me while I soaked for over an hour. Outside the opaque, oval-shaped window, a sliver of moon was slung low over silent Spring.
In the morning I was back in the tub. Despite the opacity of the window the sun was shining through, its beams dancing on the bath water and warming my face. In November.
Bo spent the morning souvenir-hunting, and I set off to explore Dairy Hollow, the colony housed at the edge of a forest, at the end of Spring. We met again at noon. Bo had been busy that morning. Besides trolling the shops, she had been scouting the restaurants, and discovered a hole in the wall that had won the New York Times’ food critics’ award. It is called The Oasis, and it is located at the top of the second stairway after the curve in the road. The owner doubles as chef, and her son serves as the establishment’s sole waiter. Maria cooks up creative Mexican cuisine, with vegetarian options. She cooks from scratch, and she does it every day.
In the afternoon Bo and I separated for a siesta. In the evening we met in the corridor; we were heading for The Pine Mountain Jamboree.
Bo drove us to the outskirts of town—the outskirts of town being ten minutes away. Against the blackness of a November night there stood a snow-white cottage. It looked like a layer of a wedding cake. In front of a long French window, a fake white Christmas tree was perched on its porch. White-haired people were gathering inside. We climbed the porch steps, and joined them. Silver chandeliers tinkled. Their tiny bulbs blazed. Behind long tables laid out in rows, sellers were hawking souvenirs; pink-coloured soap bars carved into the shape of hearts, colognes, and CDs of the music we were about to hear. At the entrance of the auditorium, behind a large counter, white corn kernels were being heated and popped in bulk. A warm, buttery smell wafted through the air. The popcorn was being handed out in red-and-white striped boxes, and it was on the house.
We took our boxes of popcorn and exited the lobby, into the auditorium. The audience seemed a sea of bobbing white-haired heads. Groups of seniors had been bussed in for the jamboree. The show began sedately, with slow, reverential, white gospel music. Then an outlandishly-clad character, a hillbilly version of the village idiot, began clowning with the audience and with the leader of the band, a musician named Mike. Mike’s pretty blond wife Dale was the singer in the band. She looked like Rosemary Clooney.
The pace quickened. White gospel turned black, and rousing. The village idiot picked up a pair of drumsticks, and displayed hidden talents as he joined the band. The musicians moved from gospel, to rock, to bluegrass, to blues, and on to Christmas standards. I held my breath as one of the band members, a musician named Steve Bush, launched into a solo. His playing and his picking were sublime. In startling staccato his fingers flew over a bluegrass banjo, and coaxed melancholy melody out of a mandolin. This was one tight band. Its members were as comfortable and as playful with each other as a family clan. They took obvious pleasure in each other’s company. They teased and joshed the audience. Mike roared out the names of neighbouring states. “Anyone from Alabama?” “Yes!” “From Tennessee?” “Here!” “Are there folks from Missouri!” “Right here!” “From Kansas?” Bo announced her presence. When Mike thought he had all accounted for I piped up. “You forgot Canada!” The master of ceremonies swivelled his head. “Did someone say they were from Canada?!” I was getting into the spirit of jamboree. “I did!” Mike did a double take. The back-up group grinned. “Well!” The lady from Canada was seated next to the lady from Kansas. “You gals travellin’ together?” The gal from Canada and the gal from Kansas nodded in assent. It seemed as if every head in the audience had turned to inspect me. The MC consulted with the village idiot. “A visitor all the way from Canada! This is a special occasion. We ought to do something about this!”
“Yuk! Yuk!” The village idiot agreed. Mike and The Idiot Character leered at each other in conspiracy. After a pregnant pause, Mike turned to the audience and announced, “Because this young (sic) lady has come all the way from Canada, we have a special gift for her and for her companion. For the two ladies we will be giving away—dinner for two!” The audience gasped. Bo perked up. The hillbilly idiot came dashing up the aisle. Stepping on the toes of people seated next to us, he leaned over and tossed into my arms—a boxed Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner.
The audience roared. Bo hid her disappointment. The hillbilly idiot flapped back onstage, beaming at the MC. Mike patted the top of The Idiot Character’s red cap and, satisfied that he had done good, The Idiot Character returned to the bandstand and once more metamorphosed from silly clown into serious musician.
In honour of the upcoming Veterans’ Day, Dale did a turn as all three Andrew Sisters, and Mike launched into an original ballad about a soldier in Iraq. The song was defensive and defiant. The American states don’t seem united so much as strung together. They sustain so many different and diametrically- opposed cultures, it’s a wonder they’ve engaged in only one civil war.
There were two intermissions. The musicians mingled with the audience. Audience members came over to examine the exotic bird that had flown from so far up north. Steve Bush told me about the two years he spent working as a ranch hand in Alberta, and explained the history of the hoedown, bluegrass music, and the jamboree. I bought one of his CDs, and I let him know it. When the show recommenced I would wave the disc over my head, so he could see. Back home, in the harsh winter to come, I would listen to Steve Bush’s bluegrass banjo while outside my window, another blizzard whited out my world.
Having started my professional life on the stage, I understood the current connecting performer and audience. The musicians were hungry for feedback and eager to please. This show was billed as a holiday show. It ran almost three hours. These hardworking performers would give of themselves in this fashion almost every evening into early December. In the New Year, they would go on tour.
Out in the cold November night, I half-danced to the car. Back in my romantic room I lay on the bed fit-for-a-queen, nibbling my way through a second box of too-salty popcorn. Perhaps the spirits of visitors past were hovering in the rock walls.
The next day, at high noon, me and Bo rode out of the mountain-world.