We’re greeted at Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas by the sound of leaf blowers and this feels correct. Coming around the campground loop, we see row on row of RVs, manicured lawns, and an enormous taupe camper pulling into the last open spot right in front of us.
The beer is bad, but the sound of the water is good, and even though the sky has been dark for hours with clouds, it isn’t raining yet.
Everyone is being motherly to us and is from Michigan, or Florida, or somewhere else. We later decide they were our fairy godmothers for the night:
The Campsite Attendant with kind sparkly eyes who gently smiles after every anxious question and tells us to use one of the staff camping spots. She gives us the senior discount, which everyone else has.
The woman in the RV at the campsite across from us who comes over to let us know we can knock on their door and sleep in their spare bunk bed if we get rained out in the middle of the night, regardless of what time it is, “even if it’s 2am.” They have extra room in their RV, which also has a fire alarm and a poodle who barks at everyone who walks by.
The lone traveler who walks by in the morning and tells me after her husband died, she’d wanted to go to the Rockies but her kids were worried about bears. “You can’t bring a gun to the National Parks,” she adds. This fact had never occurred to me, but then again, I’m still surprised by small signs on doors telling people they can’t bring one into a bank, a grocery store, a gas station – we’ve been in the South for weeks now.
But the South takes different shapes everywhere we’ve been. In Lafayette, they told us anything north of I-10 doesn’t count. In Mississippi, the South is the Delta, full of flood water, blues, Reconstruction, and Great Migration. In the big cities of these states, the South is all around, but you can excuse yourself.
We met a woman in Louisiana who moved to Arkansas and misses the South. “I like that it’s still kinda sleazy up there,” she said about Hot Springs. Hot Springs feels like a place out of place. Not quite National Park. Not quite Disneyland. Not quite resort. Not quite the South. Not quite relaxing. Not quite Arkansas.
The town is cute but it’s not charming. More corny than sleazy. There’s a wax museum and a crystal mine where you can pick your own, like fruit. People still believe in the healing powers of the waters. We forget to drink any before we’re already leaving. There’s a gift shop in a tower that has nothing to do with the National Park. We hike and we wonder why this place is special, and it turns out it used to be a spa for rich people and that is why.
Perhaps my strongest memory is of the spectral figures who seem to guard our campground: a large white man with a long white beard, hair in a topknot, covered in tattoos, wearing denim overalls shirtless and brown sandals, walking a huge blue Great Dane while using a tall wood walking stick. They look like they stepped out of some liminal space between Vogue Magazine, a Lord of the Rings Movie, and a metalworking shop in a small town. I imagine they have been relegated to this loop to remind us of something. I can’t quite figure out what it is I am supposed to remember.
Arkansas is strongest in its contrasts. Like the way that first s spits at the second. The way the cousin of our host in Lafayette, Louisiana tells us Arkansas, where she lives, isn’t really the South. The way Hot Springs National Park seems a silly choice for a National Park in comparison to so much else that we’ve seen. The way driving to Little Rock, we see houses with ornate porches and signs telling us not to pick people up near correctional facilities.The way we felt comfort in this place in contrast to the Mississippi that had come before it, only to encounter a billboard encouraging the beating of children in the name of God as our final goodbye.
It pours as we creep out of there to Tennessee, excusing ourselves like children at the dinner table, anxious to leave before we’re even finished.