"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Friday, October 30, 2015

Stepping South One Week at a Time: Hot Springs, Arkansas

Since August we've been "dancing" diagonally across the country from Montana toward our destination this winter at The Great Outdoors in Florida.  We don't really have a repeating annual pattern other than generally north in the summer and south in the winter.  Sometimes we take the short slide straight north or south, and other times we take the long crossing from corner to opposite corner. As we most often try to, we're taking it slow, driving a couple of hours, often stopping for a week at a time at locations along the way. Some are simply the right distance from the last stop, and may not be particularly exciting, while others are "hot spots" like Hot Springs, Arkansas. 

This is our second visit to Hot Springs. The first was on our RV honeymoon in the tiny rented Cruise America in '09-'10. We stopped for one night on our midwinter rush to get to California. The weather was cold, wet and dreary and Hot Springs looked old, grey, funky and forlorn, but our friends Lynn and Glenn love it, so we thought we'd give it a second chance.

Well guess what, Hot Springs was cold, wet, dreary and still looked old, grey, funky and forlorn. (Sorry Hot Springs, I just had to say it.) 

On the first night I went to the Maxwell McBlade Theater of Magic. Don't know what got into me, but I just wanted a change of routine. Like Hot Springs, it was funny, funky and a little forlorn. An appropriate experience for Halloween. In fact, I'd say that second to New Orleans, Hot Springs might be the most perfect location to spend Halloween. It's historical and mysterious, with a lot of old and/or abandoned buildings perfect for haunting fantasies.  In fact my favorite thing about that evening was wandering Central Ave, getting a glass of wine and an ice cream cone (not together) and looking at all the Halloween decorations in the funky downtown store windows. Spooky fun. 

Why am I wandering the streets alone, you ask? Well, this is football season and Rick's Patriots are doing great, so he's really into it. Me, not so much. That leaves me with plenty of time to explore and adventure on my own.  In addition to the magic show, I also indulged at the Quapaw Baths and Spa on historical Bath House Row in Hot Springs National Park. My indulgence included a private 20 minute steamy aromatherapy bath and a 50 minute massage. (Both were lovely, but there was an awkward and poorly timed 40 minute wait between them, sitting in a bathrobe in a lounge/waiting area. No explanation given. If you go, check the timing of your services.) I also did a little personal and Christmas shopping in the chain stores just south of town. And got a haircut. That was kind of fun. 

In all fairness, I know some of our impressions were due to the rainy weather, and we did have a couple of sunny days that perked up our opinion of the place, just a bit.  The sunnier perspective may have also been because on those two days we didn't go downtown to the historic bath house district, but spent them outdoors in the beautiful natural areas that surround Hot Springs. (There, does that make up for dissing it earlier?)

On our first sunny day we went to the University of Arkansas' Garven Woodland Garden, a first class, scrupulously maintained and developed garden on the shores of Lake Hamilton.  

View of Lake Hamilton from Woodland Loop

The garden was created by Verna Cook Garven who almost single-handedly designed and implemented this gorgeous place and then donated it to the University upon her passing.  It's a shaded garden, so it's a cooling break from the humid Arkansas heat that surprised us after the chilly rain we'd been having.  Despite the deep shade, there are colorful plantings and great ideas for gardeners similarly sun challenged.

Seasonal mum planting

Fall annual plantings

The Gardens are preparing for their holiday light display, which looks like it will be glorious. It starts around Thanksgiving. Wish we were going to be here for that.

Blue lights running down the streams and waterfalls 

Koi pond with matching light sculpture
Fairy Garden

Miniature train display

There are themed sections of the Gardens, including a Japanese garden and a children's garden. We crossed a few architecturally stunning bridges as well.

Full Moon Bridge

Floating Cloud Bridge

Here's one Honey wouldn't cross. Just too wide a gap to jump.  Yes! They allow leashed dogs, for a $5.00 admission fee, which was the first we've encountered. We thought it was reasonable.  

We had a great lunch at the Chipmunk Cafe. This is not your typical attraction food concession. This was really good food. I'd absolutely recommend eating there when you visit, and I'm not just saying this to fill space. (Try the Grilled Chicken Raspberry Chipotle Sandwich. You will not be sorry.)

This guy kept us company during lunch. 

The grand finale of the visit was the Anthony Chapel, designed by Arkansas architect Maurice Jennings.  It is reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright's style, but we thought even better.  

It is beautifully integrated with it's wooded surroundings. 

Constructed completely of wood and glass above the stone foundation, not only does it let the light and views of the trees in, it reflects the images of the trees in the glass...

...and reflects the shapes of the trunks and branches in its structures.

We thought it was architectural perfection, down to the last detail.

The Chapel is part of a five building complex that is popular for weddings. We could certainly understand why.

The Anthony Family Trust Carillon

While here in Hot Springs we are parked at Catherine's Landing, one of the RVC Outdoor Destinations.  RVC is not an ownership park, it's just a corporate chain of RV parks that are very nice. They have a modern feel to all the facilities, rather than the more traditional rustic feel we encounter at so many RV parks. We got a nice long, level, concrete, full hook-up pull-through down by the river.

Site 84 at Catherine's Landing

What I'm calling the river is actually part of Lake Catherine, created by damming the Ouachita River. The park is nicely situated on the river, with a marina and boats for rent, and is surrounded by many many acres of woods and fields with a very long trail winding through them for comfortable hiking and dog walking close to home. They've got a beautiful saline pool and a nice fenced dog park. (Oh, there's a good dog park in Hot Springs as well, just a couple of miles up the road from here.)

Lake Catherine
There's lots of wildlife in the area, including many deer who frequent the dog park. Yes, inside the fenced dog park. They just jump in and out at their pleasure.

Some of the local wildlife

On our other nice day here we kayaked Lake Catherine in a leisurely manner up toward the dam and back. 

View of our rig from the river

More local wildlife along the river

We're wrapping up our stay here tomorrow and moving on to Little Rock. We'll be at the Downtown Riverside RV Park for our next week.  If you're there, let us know!

Monday, October 26, 2015

In the Wilds of Oklahoma Where Bigfoot Roams

Fall in Oklahoma. It's not New England, but the oaks and a few other trees are showing off some color, and we're happy with that.

We were parked for a week in Big Cedar, at a small mom and pop kinda place, Big Cedar RV Park.  The sites are all grass, level, with full hook-ups, and mighty close together when the place is full. Fortunately, that rarely happens, so we were comfortable with open space around us. Their dog, Rusty, has the run of fields, trails and the many open spaces in the park and Honey got to play with him many times a day. 

Big Cedar RV Park (and cabins) 

Mena, the closest town with a grocery store, is about 30 miles away. We chose this location to be near the Talimena National Scenic Byway that runs from Mena, AR to Talihena, OK.  During our first RV trip, in the 19' rented Cruise America, we drove the Talimena in midwinter, in the fog. We saw absolutely nothing but the silohettes of black, bare, crooked, stunted trees on either side of the road as we traversed the high ridge. At the time it felt like a scene from a  Harry Potter story. Since then we've wanted to return to see what it looks like with leaves, and see what we missed from the overlooks.

The Talimena National Scenic Byway

One of those bare, gnarly, spooky trees in full leaf.

The  views from the many pullouts reminded us a lot of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.  Forest as far as you can see. It's a fun drive, especially in a car, and with no fog. Lots of elevation changes requiring low gear for trucks and RVs.   The whole drive probably takes a little over an hour, or more if you stop a lot for views and pictures. 

On football Sunday, Honey and I ventured south to Broken Bow Lake and Beaver Bend State Park.  We approached from the north on 259, but all the signage seems to be oriented toward folks coming up from nearby Texas. We had a really hard time getting oriented, or finding a visitor's center of any sort.  The main road through the park, Alternate 259 was washed out at the Mountain Fork River, (no forewarning) so we stopped and poked around there.  

Many large trees washed to the side of the river

Obviously the river can be much higher and more powerful than it was that day.  The banks are lined with colorful rocky ledges that were fun to climb around on.

On several other days Honey and I took hikes on the nearby Oachita Trail, a 223 mile single track, maintained trail through the wilds of eastern Oklahoma.  She's getting to be a real good hiker. If I let her off the leash, she'll stay close to me on the trail, and if she does wander off just a bit, she comes back to a whistle or an easy single call. I think she's a little nervous about being in a big new place, and so she stays close for security.

The trailheads for the sections we hiked were on the east and west sides of 259 less than a mile north of Big Cedar. The trail has no major elevation changes in that area, it just meanders and rolls through the woods, much of the time running along or across various streams. Sometimes the path is very rocky. It is marked pretty clearly with blue hatches on the trees and there are back-packer campsites every five miles or so. 

Our wildlife sightings for the hikes included a smallish black bear crossing the highway and this large walking stick in her fall wardrobe. 

Now it's time to confess one of my guilty secret pleasures.  On quiet, rainy days or late at night when I can't sleep I secretly search the internet for Bigfoot reports from wherever we happen to be and peruse videos on YouTube. Weird, I know. And the funny thing is, I've never been one of those people who reads the Enquirer in the grocery store line, but this feels a lot like that.  The only person I talk to about it is my son, who would also love Bigfoot to be real.  

Anyway, now the secret's out, and here we are in the midst of an area with one of the highest Bigfoot incident reports, in Oklahoma at least. We are parked in the middle of that dark orange county in the map below. That's La Flore County where there have been at least 23 Bigfoot reports. 

Retrieved from the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization

Now to put that in perspective, here's a map of the frequency of Bigfoot reports in the US.  You can see there are areas where there are more reports than in rural eastern Oklahoma, such as Washington, Oregon, California, Florida, western Pennsylvania and Ohio. But this swath of territory running north to south through eastern Texas and Oklahoma has a pretty high count. 

Retrieved from Oklahoma Skeptic website

Although Honey and I did our best out in the backwoods of the Winding Stair Mountain National Recreation Area, we are sorry to report that we failed to hear, smell, see or capture a blurry video of Bigfoot. We'll try again in Florida.  

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Oklahoma City is Booming!

We are not city friendly folks, but after an overnight in Oklahoma City (OKC) we were impressed. Before we even knew the stats, we could tell it was thriving. So we looked it up while we were driving back to Grove. Here's what some of the numbers say:

OKC has grown 5% since the 2010 census according to a CNN Money article about the 10 fastest growing cities in the USA. According to Forbes, the unemployment rate was 3.1% in 2015.  The OKC Chamber of Commerce lists many accolades, including Entrepreneur's #1 for starting a new business. Its growth has traditionally been based in livestock and petroleum products, but new tech development has been recognized in the current and forecasted boom.

We loaded up Honey in the car and treated ourselves to a break from the RV so we could check out OKC.  We stayed at the La Quinta Inn, which always allows dogs without an additional charge and is usually a nice place. It was Honey's first visit to a hotel, and she was excited (of course she's always pretty excited), but she handled it well. We were able to leave her in the motel while we went out for dinner and to see the Capitol building the next day. But first we all went downtown to the Myriad Botanical Gardens, which has a dog park! It also allows pets throughout the gardens. Happy Honey!

She wasn't the only happy one. The temperature was delightful, the air was clean and crisp, and the garden was full of fun things to photograph. The landscaping was in Fall mode - end of season grasses, year round shrubs, evergreens and trees with a bit of Fall color. The park is very strong architecturally, with an emphasis on geometric forms rather than flowers, at least at this time of year.   

The primary focal point from almost every location is the Devon Energy Building. Everything else seems to play off that building. 

Down the center of the park is a ravine with a pond/river running through it. Pictured below is a foot bridge, many-leveled paths along the river and an amphitheater.

The river is fed and complemented by various other water features. Here Rick is taking a video  capturing the changing beauty of this wave pool.

The wave pool/waterfall is right next to a band shell...

...that was a lot of fun to photograph. Here it is in relation to the Devon Energy Building...

...and the sun.

A major feature of the park is the Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory...

...which houses, yes, tropical plants. We missed going in, as it closes at 5pm.

There is a restaurant, also closed when we were there.

We finished with another visit to the dog park. It's a small park with astro turf and gravel, but it has fresh drinking water for the dogs, bags, shade, and seating for the people. Honey got a little play time with another visiting dog, so she was all set for a quiet evening. 

Next day we left Honey in the hotel room again and went to the Oklahoma State Capitol.  It has an immediately noticeable unique feature: an oil well right in front. 

Also in front was this statue by Allan Houser, well known Native American sculptor, entitled "As Long as Water Flows." I guess the oil rig says "As Long as Oil Flows."  The economy in Oklahoma is certainly dependent on that flowing too.

The Capitol has what we now recognize as the traditional Capitol architectural plan modeled after the US Capitol: two major wings, and front and back entrance foyers with staircases, all extending away from a multi-storied central rotunda. 

Each state varies the design with unique murals, artwork, architectural detail, and color schemes that reflect the character of their state.  

There seemed to be less intrinsic symbolism in this building than the last four we've seen. There were however many references to Native American culture and history. 

There is a striking collection of portraits throughout the building, including this one of Sequoyah, an illiterate (couldn't read or write any language) Cherokee man who single handedly invented and then taught the Cherokee alphabet and written language. He was also committed to the unification of the Cherokee Nation. 

One of the newest works of art in the Capitol is "Beyond the Centinnial" by Carlos Tello (2010).  The Iron Man-like figure in the center represents every Oklahoman, holding the future of the state in his hands. We thought it was a little bizarre.

Through the circle of lights below you can see one of the most beloved works of art in the building,  "Flight of Spirit" by Mike Larsen (1991). In the foreground it depicts five Native American ballerinas, with other Native dancers and artists behind them. One of the ballerinas is Maria Tallchief, whom I idolized as a little girl. 

This replica of the 22' statue called The Guardian, that tops the Capitol Dome, stands at the top of the front grand staircase.

On the first floor there are several additional galleries that hold temporary displays; at this time they are wonderful contemporary collections. We thought the quality and selection of the art throughout the Capitol was remarkable and would recommend a visit to the building for any art lover. 

I'll close with this portrait of Woody Guthrie, one of my heroes. He was a singer/songwriter of the American people, from my parents' generation. I grew up singing his songs and didn't even know it.  I can't help but think how I learned of his worldview through music, a powerful medium, and how it influenced who I am and what I'm doing today.

This Land Is Your Land
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me...