The Lady of the Lake, Hot Springs-Style

Today, a writer writes not about writing, but about driving.

I betray my Midwestern roots (and my working class childhood) when I confess to loving long, solitary drives out into the country (the affordable Sunday escape valve for parents with severe wanderlust, three kids and very little money.) The five-hour trip down to visit dear friends Mary and Mike in their sojourn in Hot Springs Village certainly qualiifies as one such. In spades. Mountains and winding roads. Absolutely breathtaking scenery—not Rockies-spectacular, but spectacular as only those old worn-toothed Arkansas mountains seem to be.

These winding roads terrify strangers. Rightfully so, I guess. Slowness of speed and frequency of brake application are two indications of how familiar a visitor is to this country. If “It is what it is” is the motto of New Yorkers, the mantra here is a phrase offered in reaction to voiced concerns about the steepness and twistiness of the roads: “You get used to it.” For me, these twisty-turny roads are entities for which I have a healthy respect but no fear (at least, not in good weather.) I’ve been trained by years of twice-weekly exposure to narrow mountain terrain. Even so, this is a respect that is tested in virutally every mile, here.

An indication of how steep and winding these roads actually are can be found at various points along Hwy 65. Road sign warnings of impending steepness (“Trucks Use First Gear”) are only the overture. The fun spots are the specially-marked brake testing shoulders and—this most fascinating of all—runaway truck lanes.

A runaway truck lane is a steeply inclined lane that continues straight ahead on a sharp downhill curve; a lane loaded with deep-soft sand made to catch the tires of the brake-failed truck. These lanes have a barrier at the end…but one hopes that the truck never gets that far. Better, I have no trouble imagining, than the craziness that would ensue if a brakeless truck were to go barreling off down a mountain. The carnage would be hideous and spectacular.

Taking these turns, once you know how, is like dancing in the car; a waltz between speeding steel, gravity and good judgment. Lynn becomes Dances with Pavement. In and out, a slightly off-kilter rhythm section for the music loud on the CD player.

One passes tiny, shabby roadside towns along the way, abandoned to a tough economic climate, off-season hibernation and local apathy. In one section, rock shop shacks for miles. In another, home-based canoe rental operations in this Buffalo National River country. (One hopes that their services are, more reliable and professional than the haphazard hand-painted signage and dented canoes would suggest.)

Here and there are vestiges of people who came to settle probably umpty-years ago, and never moved. Decrepit (and defunct?) car repaid places. Cafes not much more than a few boards and windows or cinderblock facades. Hippy shops selling “antiques”; roadside farm-run bakery cafes with loads of New Age sincerity in their names, but none of that Napa Valley charm. In one front yard, a whimsical Loch Ness monster swimming the still eddies of winter-yellowed grass, an unconscious (and probably unintended) mimicking of the winding roads.

In just the five hours from door to door, enough imagery for a year of memories and a dozen posts. But enough for today.

Tomorrow: tales from the country’s largest gated community, from Hot Springs, and a 70-degree day in January.