Road Trip! Northwest Arkansas Roadside Barbecue, Ghosts, and Gardens

June 18, 2015 by

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pig-trail-drive-crescent-hotelNorthwest Arkansas Pig Trail scenic byway. Photo via The Crescent Hotel and Spa.

Before my recent two-day road trip through Northwest Arkansas, I had visions of Ma and Pa Kettle-type folks sitting on front porches strumming banjos while drinking moonshine and smoking corncob pipes. No, the Arkansas I experienced was nothing like that.

northwest-arkansas-rt23-scenery-614Off route 23. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

I didn’t meet a single person whose father was also her uncle. And instead of backwoods country bumpkins out of touch with modern culture, there’s a whole lot of cultural refinement going on over yonder in the Ozarks. With its grassy rolling hills sprinkled with farms, traditional southern hospitality, contemporary “high southern” cuisine that could put fancy Manhattan restaurants to shame, and art–lots of great art–well, Northwest Arkansas totally defied my expectations.

crescent-hotel-view-614View from the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa rooftop. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton. 

Rolling Hills and Roadside BBQ
Garden Delights publisher, Julie Thompson-Adolf, and I pulled out of Little Rock in our rental car with an itinerary in one hand and a cell phone (yay GPS!) in the other. It was a good thing I had an open-minded travel partner who was willing to stray off the plan. As I have a generally poor sense of direction, even with modern technology, I often get lost. But that does on occasion turn out to be a good thing.

backwoods-bbq-exteriorBackwoods Barbecue. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

We didn’t get lost during our three and a half hour drive to our first stop, Eureka Springs, but we did pass some only-in-Arkansas things that warranted spontaneous u-turns and off-itinerary detours–the first at a roadside barbecue place for a home cooked meal served up by husband and wife team, Anita and Cory. Backwoods Barbecue on Route 23N in St Paul is worth a detour if only because the owner’s last name just happens to be Bacon. For real.

backwoods-bbq-chicken-the-bacons-614A side of Cory and Anita Bacon. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

Some pungent (in a good way) smokey aromas greeted us as we walked in the front door. A big blackboard displays the menu of southern comfort mainstays, which you can order by the plate or by the pound.  We decided on one chicken plate and one pulled pork. The pork was moist, but the chicken required a generous dousing of barbecue sauce, which Anita was ready to offer.

backwoods-bbq-interior-614Off the wall ordering. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

On the table, the two plastic squeeze bottles of barbecue sauce come with a story, as many things do in Arkansas. “This one here, the Savory Sweet, is mild,” Anita told us, adding, “But if you can take the heat, go for the Ring of Fire.” As much as I wanted to go for the hot stuff just so I could say I tried it, I wimped out and went for the other one. True to its name, the sauce was sweet but also had a little kick to it.

backwoods-bbq-chicken-plate-614Chicken Plate, $8.95. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

Anita carries on the family culinary tradition, making the sauces just as her kinfolk has for decades. “They sure are homemade,” she says when I ask her. “Made from my grandpappy’s recipe, been making these for years just like he taught me.”  I really wish I hadn’t overindulged as I did, because I had no room for dessert–homemade coconut cream and banana pies, my faves. 

backwoods-bbq-pies-sign-614Judy’s pies, oh my. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

The Pig Trail
We became fast friends with some diners, locals who started spinning yarns and telling folk tales before we could decide between the pulled pork, BBQ chicken, or ribs. That’s when I learned that we’d just passed the scenic “Pig Trail” and how the University of Arkansas Razorbacks got their name. The story goes that many years ago, after the school won a big game, the coach described the players as “swarming like a pack of wild Razorback” pigs. There are however no Razorback pigs in the area, but the name stuck for the school mascot and as the moniker for the original route to the school, the very twisty and windy Pig Trail.

backwoods-bbq-outdoor-sign-614Music at Backwoods Barbecue. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

Historic Eureka Springs
“Welcome to our quirky little vertical town,” Innkeeper Doug Breitling greeted us as we arrived at our first night’s lodgings in Eureka Springs. Tucked into the Ozarks Mountains, and sometimes referred to as the “Stairstep Town” for its winding and mostly uphill roads, the town’s curvy streets form a five-mile loop without a single stop light. 

arsenic-old-lace-inn-eureka-springsPorch time, Arsenic and Old Lace Bed & Breakfast Inn. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

The Arsenic and Old Lace Bed and Breakfast Inn is just on the edge of the downtown main drag, a street lined with mostly Victorian-era buildings which feels like a cross between Berkeley, California in the early 70s and Asheville, North Carolina. I’m certain I spotted peace signs and tie dye.

arsenic-and-old-lace-exterior-select-registryArsenic and Old Lace Bed & Breakfast Inn. Photo via Select Registry.

Cuppa Joe for the Road
Desperate for a cup of strong coffee to fuel ourselves for a day of serendipitous wandering, we stopped in at Roscoe’s Music and Expresso Café. You can surf the web while sipping coffee at Roscoe’s, or you can just chat with Roscoe and his pals who hang out there shooting the local breeze.

roscoes-internet-cafe-eureka-springs-urbangardensweb Roscoe’s. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

Calling it “expresso” instead of “espresso” seems just right for the place, a down home coffee spot where you can enjoy your java on a back porch looking out at the woods.

rocoes-cafe-ownerRoscoe Van Jones, owner of Roscoe’s Music and Expresso Café. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

The music part of the café’s name is an homage to Roscoe’s former self when he was, in his words, an old-time country musician who used to do jam sessions with the local fiddlers. Roscoe no longer plays the strings, but he serves up a decent cup of brew and supports his local artist friends by displaying their works on the café’s walls.

artwork_roscoes-local-artist-614Artist Jack Clancey’s ceramic plate. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

In the heart of the Arkansas Art Trail, Eureka Springs is home to several hundred artists attracted to the town for its mix of art, architecture, music, and nature. The place has a tradition of artistic thought and open ideas. In 1931 two locals built the Artists’ Bridge Studio, a refuge under a bridge which spanned a ravine and connected more than just two sides of land–it became a meeting and working space for artists and writers.

eureka-springs-roadside-shrineShrine Artist, Ralph Wilson’s, Our Lady of the Springs. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

Shrines to ArtRageous Practices
I made another u-turn after spotting this colorful shrine, above, in a small park by the inn. The park has no name, but locals often refer to it as the “Music Park” referencing the many chimes and gongs hanging from the park’s trees. There’s also a small stage there where individuals and groups perform at various times of the year. Contemporary shrine artist Ralph Wilson, aka “Mr. Shrine,” built Our Lady of the Springs as part of The Artist Impression of the Mother, a 2014 art show which featured the works of regional artists interpreting the image of The Mother. 

Wilson, who calls himself the “go-to guy for shrines,” began his shrine-building career while traveling the country in and selling art from his motor home, Wally World. “God has a sense of humor too,” says Wilson, who now teaches art classes and makes shrines on demand.

arsenic-and-old-lace-inn-eureka-springs-stained-glassStained glass window at Arsenic and Old Lace Inn. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

Every May the ArtRageous Parade marks the opening Eureka Springs’s month-long arts festival. Freedoms of expression and choice have taken some disparate forms in this eclectic town. Carrie Nation, the leader of the Temperance Movement, lived in Eureka Springs at the end of her life where she made her last speech on the evils of alcohol and spread her wrath by smashing up bars with a hatchet. In 2014, Eureka Springs became the first city in Arkansas to legalize same-sex marriage and in May 2015 the city passed an anti-discrimination ordinance to protect LGBT residents, adding them as a class not already protected by the state’s constitution.

eureka-springs-railway-water-towerPhoto: Dustin Holmes, Flickr.

Healing Waters
Before it was known as Eureka Springs, or even as Arkansas, Native Americans spoke of the “Great Healing Spring in the mountains.” Legend has it that the Sioux Indians brought the great Chieftan’s daughter there in search of the healing waters to cure her failing eyesight. Shortly after, the young Sioux reported she could see and the news of it brought white explorers in droves to Eureka Springs in search of its miraculous healing waters.

eureka-springs-aerialEureka Springs. Photo via Arkansas.org

Underground Eureka Springs
There’s a whole underground town beneath the one you see as you pass through the main drag, a street lined with little galleries, funky restaurants and cafés, and cute-as-a-button shops but refreshingly, no chain stores, not a single one.

Years ago, after developers cut down way too many trees, the town was deluged by heavy rains which created mud sheets so high they rose to the tops of many of Main Street’s first floor entrances. At a loss for how to remedy the problem, property owners just paved right over the mud, raising the street level up above the buildings’ first floors. Today you enter many of Eureka Spring’s buildings through what was once the second floor. When you step downstairs at the Mud Street Café, like many other spots in town, the former first floor is now underground.

humpty-dumpty-eureka-springs-dustin-holmes-flickr Humpty! Photo: Dustin Holmes, Flickr.

Bandits and Bad Boys
It’s possible to do some historical time travel by going underground in Eureka Springs. Under the formerly muddy streets are a string of now disconnected subterranean tunnels which were once hideouts for Wild West bandits and other bad boys.

 

bill-doolin-wanted-poster

Notorious outlaw Bill Doolin of the Dalton Gang (aka Wild Bunch, labeled the “most cold-blooded robbers in the West”) purportedly came to Eureka Springs for the waters to nurse the rheumatism he suffered from a gunshot wound in his foot. While there, he hid out from the law below ground in Eureka Springs before he was captured there in 1896–some say it was underground, some say in a bathhouse–but escaped with Dynamite Dick Clifton only to meet his demise a few months later by a posse of lawmen in Oklahoma.

creascent-hotel-spa-overhead-6141886 Crescent Hotel & Spa. Photo via the hotel.

The 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa
In the Crystal Ballroom at the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa, I didn’t indulge in the restaurant’s ten or sixteen ounce signature steaks as I’m not a diehard carnivore. Instead, I overstuffed myself on an eight ounce Pan Fried Panko Grouper filet and avocado risotto while Bill Ott, the hotel’s Director of Marketing and Communications, regaled us with stories of the hotel’s rather unusual history.

crescent_hotel_crystal_ballroom-614 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa Crystal Ballroom restaurant. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

Let’s just say that Ott is much more than a good communicator. He is a quintessential southern storyteller who is as adept at telling tales as he is at officiating at weddings dressed as Elvis. Ever since he got ordained for ten bucks online as a Universal Life Church minister, he’s been moonlighting weekends, mostly at themed weddings where he dresses for and acts the part.

Buford-Presley-as-Minister-BillBill Ott moonlighting as Elvis. Photo, courtesy of Bill Ott and Elvis.

He once showed up as Boris Karloff to marry a goth couple at 10 pm under a faint crescent moon on Halloween. “I wore my black monk’s robe with the hood up–and actually I looked more like a medieval executioner,” Ott shared with a big grin. The couple requested a Christian ceremony–which Ott thought was off-theme–but they added some rituals. First he tied their wrists with a rope making a celtic knot, then conducted a bread eating ritual after which the couple “jumped the broom” (not the groom.) 

ch_circa1890s_colorPhoto via 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa.

Spirited Former Guests and Residents
As a raconteur, Ott is the perfect representative for the Crescent because the hotel enjoys a multilayered and storied history. Built in 1886 for $294,000 by railroad tycoons of the Eureka Springs Improvement Company, it was originally the most exclusive and opulent year-round resort hotel west of the Mississippi.

crystal-springs-hotel-eureka-springs-arkansas-gardenGarden at 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

With the railroad providing easy accessibility to the town’s renown healing waters, the resort became an invitation-only destination for the “carriage set,” monied gentry who could afford to travel there by train rather than by horseback or wagon.

crescent-college-for-women-signPhoto, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

The property has since been through a number of iterations, once as The Crescent College for Women, then later as the Baker Hospital, a phony “cancer hospital” which con artist Dr. Norman Baker operated for three years until he was arrested.

cancer-hospital-sign-614 Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

Favorite Haunts
Today the Crescent enjoys a reputation for being America’s most haunted hotel. Legend has it that many of its guests “checked out but never left.” We joined the hotel’s famed ghost tour, where a highly educated and animated guide walked our group through the hotel while creeping me out with stories of famous spirits like Michael, the Irish stonemason who fell to his death in 1885 during the hotel’s construction.

crystal-springs-hotel-ghost-tour-guideOur ghost tour guide. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

I can’t say I believe this stuff, though I did on occasion look over my shoulder. Still, I hoped for a sighting–for one thing because I would have loved to experience and help Theodora, one of Norman Baker’s cancer patients who has never ben able alive or dead to find her room key. Even the fake doctor himself allegedly appears now and then in a white suit and lavender shirt, and there’s purportedly a mystery patient in a white nightgown who shows up at the foot of guests beds, but only in the luxury suites for some reason.

eureka-springs-ghost-tour-evidence“Evidence” of spirits at Crescent Hotel. Photo via 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa.

As “evidence” our guide produced photographs showing translucent bodies hovering in areas of the hotel and if you videotape, we were told, you will likely see an illuminated orb (cast from the ghost’s energy) when you play back your video.

ghost-tour-orb-image“Spirit orbs” captured on video. Photo via ghosts of 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa.

People on my tour were gasping, claiming they’d captured an orb on tape, and in the background of one video, you can hear a faint voice–mine–saying “I don’t see anything but a bunch of people videotaping…and, oh that’s just a shadow…” I wanted to, really wanted to see a ghost, or the orb of one, and though not a single apparition appeared for me, the tour took us to the former hospital’s morgue and I was grateful to be there while still alive.

at-elizabeth-church-eureka-springs-arkansas-roses-614Gardens of Saint Elizabeth’s Church. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

Other Strange Entrances
As I said, on occasion my getting lost can be a virtue. So, if instead of parking at the hotel’s front entrance, you park as we did in the wrong parking lot in the back of the hotel, you will be facing Saint Elizabeth’s Church. It’s worth a visit if only because it’s listed in Ripley’s Believe It or Not as the only church you enter through the bell tower and it has some fine gardens to boot. 

eurekasprings-arkansas-chapel_614Saint Elizabeth’s Church. Photo, Robin Plaskoff Horton.

Big Saviors and a Piece of the Berlin Wall
One of Eureka Springs’s primary tourist attractions, The Great Passion Play, an outdoor multimedia sound and light performance, is home to the enormous Christ of the Ozarks statue. We didn’t make it there, but we enjoyed a great view of it from the Crescent’s outdoor Sky Bar, which offers a panoramic vista of the Arkansas Ozarks from the highest point in the county.

christ-of-the-ozarks-arkansas-tourism-614 Christ of the Ozarks. Photo via eurekasprings.org

Overlooking the town from the top of a 1500 foot hill, the white mortar statue stands 67 feet tall–that’s seven storys–with a fingertip to fingertip arm spread of 65 feet. Every night the light from Christ of the Ozarks punctuates the landscape in the distance casting a glow over Eureka Springs.

If a giant Christ statue isn’t enough of a draw, it shares the property with an original ten-foot by ten-foot section of the Berlin Wall. Painted in German on the wall fragment are words from the 23rd Psalm, “Though I walk through the dark valley, I will not fear.”

berlin-wall-section-dustin-holmes-flickr_614 Berlin Wall Fragment. Photo: Dustin Holmes, Flickr.

The valley part of the psalm reminds me of a bit of geo-trivia Ott revealed to us during dinner: although they are referred to as the Ozark Mountains, and even though the area is regarded as the most extensive mountainous region between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains, the Ozarks in the geologic and technical sense are actually a series of plateaus. Nonetheless, the “Ozark Plateaus” just doesn’t sound anywhere as formidable as the “Ozark Mountains.”

24 hours in Eureka Springs is only long enough to test the waters a bit, albeit not the healing ones, but even in less than a full day I could see why Bill Ott said, “Been to six country fairs and two goat ropings and I ‘aint seen anything like this.”

Stay tuned for Day Two of my road trip in Arkansas: Eureka Springs to Crystal Bridges.

Disclosure: My trip to Arkansas was sponsored by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. I was not paid to write this post; all opinions expressed herein are uniquely mine and not indicative of any sponsor opinions or positions.

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