Normally Curious, Eureka Springs

People looking for a quality of life often find it in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. A windy road through mountains and farmland winds down into this hillside town of about 2,000 residents. It’s come to be known as the Switzerland of America, but that reads like a 1950s tourist gimmick that doesn’t explain the contemporary attraction. Indeed the town looks less European than the cliche cottage motels on the outskirts like the Bavarian Inn and the Matterhorn suggest.

Opening at Eureka Fine Art GalleryIf you go to a place often enough you begin to know the people. A few years back, the artist co-op known as Eureka Fine Art Gallery was a starting place for us. People who like art have come to know the town after visiting Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, 40 miles to the west. That’s true for us, and according to locals, has been luring more interesting and international people to town.

The reaction from visitors is often the same. A question, “this is Arkansas?” often naturally flows from the unexpected scenery and vibe. Yes, this is a small part of Arkansas, and it can be quirky and attracts characters who might be called eccentric. Two of whom were elderly women lingering in a coffee and sweets shop and wearing elaborate crocheted sweaters and hats. Eager to engage, we soon learn both are named June. While they may appear eccentric, to them the world may appear to have gone mad, at least as far as mobile devices are concerned. “Nobody talks to anybody. You don’t meet people or make connections.” Of course, this was cause to resist the urge to Tweet the moment and not let a preoccupation stymie friendly chatter.

It appears the Junes are local celebrities of a sort. According to ArkansasLife.com June Hegedus came with her husband from the UK four decades ago after falling in love with the town. June Owen is from Southern Illinois, and as June H points out made much of what they were wearing.

This time we traveled with California transplants eager to finally see the Crystal Bridges Museum. Both professional artists, I am sure they were impressed by the array of work at the Art Gallery opening Saturday evening. The work shows the caliber of people who have been drawn to the town. Still here the home-grown talent is no less respected.

Inside Eureka Fine Art GalleryArtist John Rankine explains that you can’t make money here. It’s not about that. It is indeed the quality of life people come looking for. John’s partner Bill renovated the gathering spot next door, The Brew. We went for a drink, and a band began to set the stage for a performance.

On this trip, we noticed several vacant storefronts but were assured this happens each fall. They will be filled by Spring with new businesses. Indeed an Asian import store had closed and was already replaced by a new shop.

Large hotels downtown help keep the streets lively. The New Orleans Hotel and the Basin Park Hotel are among them. The grand dame of them all sits on a hillside above the town. On our first visit, we asked at the art gallery if The Crescent was within walking distance. “There’s a short way, and an easier way.” We took a short way, which involved several steep staircases through wooded areas lined with Victorian-era cottages.

At the top, there are some well-maintained 19th Century buildings and a few that have fallen into disrepair. Around a corner, and the stone facade of the monumental Crescent becomes visible. America used to have a lot more getaway hotels like this. The Mountain House in Cresson, Pennsylvania comes to mind, as does The Lodge in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. Like The Lodge, the Crescent is haunted.

If I were a ghost, this would be a good place to be. There’s a magnificent fireplace in the lobby, as well as a pipe organ. There is a lot of human activity, and signs of things past. There’s a real sense of continuum you don’t find that often. The past has not been wiped clean with a remodel; the crooked stairways have not been straightened, and the worn upholstery is somehow preferred. If you’re interested, there are some gruesome stories of happenings at the hotel and the ghosts that linger. If ghosts exist, however, I don’t tend to see them.

Eureka SpringsOn the top floor is a bar with a rooftop patio that overlooks the mountain scenery. On the other side of the valley is a statue of Jesus with arms spread wide. It’s a great place to have a glass of wine, meet guests and enjoy the sunset.

When visiting a place, it is nice and natural to wonder what life would be like as a permanent resident. Here you can’t help finding that notion attractive, especially since much of what can be tiring in the world is absent here. Chain stores, a corporate mentality, eight-lane highways and bright signs. Much of what’s missing from contemporary life can be found here. A lot of people engaged in the act of living without the constant rush and striving for mere existence.

img_0550After some time in the art exhibit, I went outside and sat on a bench under the streetlight. A neighborhood cat approached and jumped on my lap as if there was no possible threat anywhere in town. It’s a very normal thing to do here, but such a normal occurrence here doesn’t happen so much in other places, or perhaps other places don’t allow for the time to let it happen.

It’s not that Eureka Springs is odd exactly, but certainly out of the ordinary. It’s engaged in the act of being itself and being content with itself. That’s a very normal desire that in an odd world makes Eureka Springs genuinely curious.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me