Hot Springs Village isn’t Hot Springs itself. But the Village, like the town, is built upon a superlative.

Hot Springs (the town) is, I believe, the only town in America built within the boundaries of a National Park. Hot Springs Village is the largest gated community in the US. The Village is mile after hilly mile of private dwellings tucked discreetly among tall stands of pines and oaks, homes set like little gems at the edges of man-made lakes; a haven for the retired (or retired wannabes.)  As one progresses from the older homes to the more newly developed spaces, the vast, well-planned community is largely invisible from the road, and it’s quite lovely, overall.

The place is like a free-floating Spaceship Earth, with gas stations, medical offices, realtors, restaurants…whatever. One must drive a long way to get to any of them (at least from where we were staying); one does not stroll casually to the grocery store for a quart of milk. One does not bicycle there, either, at risk of a cardiac arrest-inducing hill that would strike fear into the hearts even of a Tour de France Alpine stage cyclist.

The street names are all quasi-Spanish: explorers’ names (Cortez, DeSoto) and gringo-accessible latinate designations that try hard to be charming (“Esplendor” and the like) but which, for me, end up being cloyingly saccharine. Hispanic people are few to be see–face it, people are few to be seen.

Outside this gated, guarded enclave (and remember, it’s seven miles to the community gates from where we’re staying) the illusion of moneyed gentility fades quickly. The poverty hereabouts  is inescapable—and it is present in more than just the off-season doldrums of untouristed winter. The two-lane roads are studded with rundown trailers that seem barely fit for human habitation, with onetime storefronts or roadside food stands that now sport curtains over their road-facing windows–signs of their crossover to another sort of use. There is a sort of post-Apocalyptic feeling everywhere, here…this is the catch-as-catch-can way we will dwell after somebody drops The Big One. Some of the roadside-accessible shops have hardscrabble, multi-purpose themes (Florist/Video store/Tanning/Haircuts), all the better to survive in untouristed times of year. The people one bumps into in the occasional shop or gas station are older, or seem to have that rough, worn-down quality of the truly poor.

Hot Springs itself is like a pasteboard stage set left over from some grander time. There is a shabby, down-at-the heels gentility about it; a benign (and sometimes less than benign) neglect, as if those who live here, who have shops here, have resigned themselves that the place can go nowhere but down. Walk anywhere off the main street, and the two-by-fours that hold up the stage set become visible. One is not comfortable walking off the main drag; one keeps cautiously looking over one’s shoulder…there is an ominous feeling that something could go badly wrong in short order.

The art galleries that make up many of the streets are mostly well-kept–proudly-kept–but without a point-of-view. Friendly owners chat one up and grill one about one’s origins in that peculiarly aggressive-friendly Arkansas way. There is a lot of art here (with a few breathtakingly notable exceptions) of a quality that would rarely have found wallspace in a gallery elsewhere. The restaurants (and this, admittedly, is a huge assumption, not having been to more than one) are passable but without ambition or charm: The carpets were dirty; even the candle lamps on the table cracked and chipped. It is all incredibly fascinating and just a bit sad.

But of course the reason people have always come to Hot Springs–beside to stroll the streets, visit the galleries, and have a bite to eat–is to take the Waters. And that’s where we’ll be going tomorrow.

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