December 30, 2014

Back to School in Little Rock

I don’t really have a bucket list, but I do have an idea in the back of my mind of places I’d like to visit.  Little Rock, Arkansas, has been on this list for quite some time.  I didn’t make it there on my Retirement Road Trip, my seven-week solo trip across the country in 2005.  Tim and I didn’t make it there on our nine-month Road Trip Ramble.  
When we decided to backtrack to Arkansas, Little Rock was one place I was determined to visit.

Tim and I left Hot Springs on Sunday, December 7, and arrived in Little Rock an hour later.  Our first stop was Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.  This site had been on my radar for quite some time, but I especially wanted to stop here after visiting Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in October.  

In September 1957 Little Rock Central High School became the site of the first important test of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.  Nine African American students, known as the “Little Rock Nine,” attempted to enter the all-white school, only to be turned away by the Arkansas National Guard under the orders of Governor Orval Faubus.  This defiance of the Supreme Court ruling led President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send in Army troops to protect and escort the students for the entire school year.  Eisenhower thus became the first president since Reconstruction to use federal troops to enforce civil rights.

Little Rock Central High School is still an operating high school and is not open except by guided tour.  Unfortunately tours are not offered on the weekend, but the park’s visitor center provides excellent exhibits that tell the story of the fight to desegregate public schools, as well as the continuing struggle for equal rights.  I thought I was knowledgeable about the events at Little Rock, but there was so much I didn’t know.

Here I discovered the impact of the news media on the events at Little Rock and how the media focused the world’s attention on Central High School.  Television news was in its infancy then, and the crisis at Little Rock was one of the first news stories filmed as events occurred.  Powerful images were shown around the world, and it was these photographs that helped to spur President Eisenhower to act.  It was fascinating to listen to news commentator Mike Wallace as he explained the role of the media, as well as to read the sometimes conflicting headlines from local, national and international newspapers.

Crisis at Central High

"I Got Up Every Morning, Polished My Saddle Shoes, and Went Off to War."

News Reports Were Broadcast from the Magnolia Mobil Service Station

I had an interesting conversation with a young ranger who told me the National Park Service tries to present all sides of the story, including the misguided convictions of the people of Little Rock who tried to prevent the students from attending the school.  How hard that must be.

After leaving the visitor center, Tim and I walked across the street to get a closer look at the school.  Although the school is known more for the historic events that occurred there, I was also able to appreciate Central High School as a magnificent piece of architecture.  It is a huge school that houses more than 2,000 students, and it reminded me a bit of the high school I attended in Baltimore.

Little Rock Central High School

A Beautiful School

Tim and I ended our visit with a walk through the Commemorative Garden, a quiet place to reflect on the triumph over intolerance.  While sitting there, I asked Tim if he would have had the courage to face what the Little Rock Nine suffered throughout their entire school year.  He answered, “Not with the grace which they displayed as they endured that torment.”  I’m not sure I would have had the courage in the first place. They were just kids and had to withstand what most adults could never imagine.  I so admire their courage and their conviction.

Commemorative Garden - A Place for Reflection

After a thought-provoking visit to Central High School, Tim and I stopped at the Arkansas State Capitol.  Since it was not open, we headed down to the River Market district for a bite to eat.  This area is located along the Arkansas River and is downtown Little Rock’s dining, shopping and entertainment district.  I was a bit surprised that there were so few people on the street on a Sunday afternoon, but the restaurants were open and we did enjoy a great pizza.

Arkansas State Capitol

River Market District

Just across the river was our destination for the next two nights – the Downtown Riverside RV Park in North Little Rock.  The campground is not much more than a gravel parking lot, but its location was priceless for us.  All sites have a view of the Arkansas River, and the park is located on the Arkansas River trail.   Next to the park is a pedestrian bridge that leads to the Clinton Presidential Center.  This meant that we could leave the RV behind and walk everywhere, or take the electric streetcar.  We couldn’t ask for much more than that.  An added bonus was the nighttime illumination of the downtown bridges.

Holiday Lightng Installation on the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge

December 24, 2014

Ho Ho Ho

May Your Christmas Be Filled with Love
And Your New Year with Joy

Tim, Sarah and Kitty

The American Spa

Hot Springs National Park is the country’s smallest national park and is located in the middle of a small city that grew up around it.  The main attraction is water.  This water is in the form of 47 hot springs that have been attracting health-seekers for hundreds of years.  People still come to Hot Springs to drink the water and to immerse themselves in its baths.

The park is often referred to as the oldest area in the National Park system because in 1832, 40 years before Yellowstone became the first national park, the federal government set aside the hot springs as a special reservation.  This was the first U.S. reservation created to protect a natural resource.  Hot Springs became a national park in 1921 and gradually came to be called “The American Spa.”

It is certainly an unusual, but thoroughly charming, park, and its central attraction, other than the water itself, is Bathhouse Row.  The monumental bathhouses that line Bathhouse Row date from the early twentieth century and were designed to pamper those who came to “take the waters.”  
Bathhouse Row

Fordyce Bathhouse was built in 1915 and was touted as the best in Hot Springs.  Today, the bathhouse has been restored to its original glory as the park’s visitor center and museum.  We took a self-guided tour through the Fordyce and saw the latest furniture and equipment of the era.  The deep soaking tubs looked inviting, but the steam cabinets and needle showers resembled torture devices.  Beautiful tile work and stained glass, however, were much kinder on the eyes in the music room and lounges.  The tour was fascinating, and I marveled at what people used to go through in their efforts to feel and look better.

Fordyce Bathhouse / Visitor Center and Museum

A Few Examples of Modern Spa Equipment

Music Room
Music Room

Women's Lounge

Ceiling in Central Men's Bath Hall

If they could do it, so could we.  Tim and I decided to sample what earlier bathers had enjoyed at a bathhouse that has been in continuous use since 1912.  The Buckstaff is the only bathhouse in Hot Springs National Park that provides the traditional therapeutic bathing package.  With a bit of trepidation after remembering the type of equipment we had just seen on the tour, we turned ourselves over for a unique experience.

Buckstaff Baths

Men’s and women’s facilities are separate at Buckstaff Baths.  Maybe because bathers are naked, except for a bed sheet, the entire time!  Did I mention that I would be naked?  That fact alone was enough to scare me away!  But I shed my clothes, and my dignity, and tried not to be too self-conscious.  Since cameras and phones are not permitted in the bath halls (thank goodness), I’ll try to illustrate the experience with examples from the Fordyce.

First up was a bath in a private tub filled with the hot thermal mineral water.  A scary-looking contraption immersed in the water provided a whirlpool-like effect, and I soaked for 20 minutes.  My personal bath attendant then returned and scrubbed my legs, arms and backs with a loofa mitt.  Don’t forget, I was naked.  That part of the process was a bit uncomfortable, but I’m sure they’ve seen it all.  

Soaking In My Own Tub
Sitz Bath (l) and Vapor Chamber (r)

Next was the steam or vapor cabinet, the oddest part of the experience. Here I sat in a metal cabinet with my head sticking out.  I’ve never been too fond of steam rooms, and I was happy when I was released after five minutes.  The sitz bath was next.  I had to lower myself backwards into a sitting tub filled with very hot water and pray that I would be able to get out afterwards.  I learned that a sitz bath is supposed to be good for hemorrhoids and lower back pain.  Whatever!

My favorite part followed.  I was led to a table where my attendant wrapped me in hot packs.  I asked if she could move one of the hot packs down around my hips, and she offered to add another one instead.  How divine!  There’s a lot to be said for heat therapy.  A two-minute cool-down in a needle shower ended the bathing part of the treatment.  Oddly enough, that really did feel good.  Throughout the process, my attendant handed me cups of the thermal water to drink.  It was a bit odd to drink the hot water, which was odorless, tasteless and colorless, but it was surprisingly refreshing.

Ending the Experience with a Massage

The package ended with a full-body Swedish-style massage and a moisturizing paraffin dip for my hands.  The entire process was so much more relaxing that I had expected.  As my friends know, I’m not one to frequent spas or indulge in massages.  For some reason, it’s just not my thing.  But, I’m so glad that I tried this, even if it was a bit outside my comfort zone.  Hot Springs also offers more modern-type spas, but I think this is the way to go if you can only do one.  

Several of the bathhouses are awaiting restoration and new uses, but others have been restored.  The Superior Bathhouse now houses a brewery and distillery, and that’s where Tim and I stopped for a bite to eat.  Lunch was quite tasty.  Before returning to the campground, we strolled along Bathhouse Row and visited the park store located within the Lamar Bathhouse.

On a whim we decided to stop at the Ozark Bathhouse, which now houses a cultural center.  The building is a venue for all sorts of activities and currently features several art exhibits.  As we wandered from gallery to gallery, Tim noted that works of art produced as a part of the park’s Artist-in-Residence program were on display.  He was very impressed with the venue and the fact that this artwork was actually available for the public to view.  At Rocky Mountain National Park, Tim worked with the Artist-in-Residence program, and he housed all of the pieces in the museum storage facility that he managed.  Unfortunately, like at most parks, not many people were able to enjoy the artwork.

Ozark Bathhouse / Cultural Center

175th Anniversary Poster
Art in the Parks

When I stopped by the front desk to request permission to photograph the art, a woman in the lobby said that I was welcome to do so.  We struck up a conversation with her and complemented her on the facility.  It was then that we learned who she was – the superintendent of Hot Springs National Park.  What a coincidence.  We learned so much about the facility and program from her, and she was so appreciative of our comments.

On our way back to the RV we walked along the Grand Promenade, which is a beautiful walkway above Bathhouse Row.  We had a wonderful day at Hot Springs National Park and left with special memories of our unique experiences there.  There is much more to the park than Bathhouse Row, including the adjacent mountains, hiking trails and wildlife, but those will have to wait for another visit.

Grand Promenade

December 23, 2014

A Detour on the Way to Arkansas

A look at the ten-day weather forecast convinced us that we could leave Buckhorn Lake Resort on Tuesday, December 2 and head toward Arkansas.  Since we would be gone for only two weeks and would be moving at a much faster pace than usual, we decided to travel with just the RV.  We could store the Subaru at Buckhorn since we would be returning there on December 15 for a month-long stay. 

It was just like old times with the two of us driving in one vehicle. Although Kitty seemed a bit confused that I had appropriated her seat, she ultimately decided that my lap might be a good place to take a nap. 

Texas is a big state, and it would take us almost 500 miles and two days to reach Arkansas.  The skies were overcast when we left Kerrville, and the traffic was surprisingly light, even as we made our way through Austin.  It was an uneventful day, which was a good thing.  The highlight was a stop in Bastrop for lunch.  Bastrop is a very cool historic town, and I would have enjoyed spending more time there.  Alas, we were on a mission with Arkansas as our priority, and we pushed on to Franklin, Texas, before stopping for the evening.

Just when it seemed like Wednesday would be as uneventful as our first day, things started to get interesting.  The dreaded check engine light came on again.  I remained calm and checked to see where the closest Sprinter service center was located.  Luckily there was one in Tyler, just about 50 miles away.  We had no choice but to make a detour and drive directly to Tyler.

The folks at Mercedes-Benz of Tyler could not have been nicer.  “No appointment, no problem.”  “Of course we can fit you in.”  After our last visit to a Freightliner dealer, we were happy to be escorted to a nice waiting area again.  Everyone was so friendly, including the other customers, and Kitty received much appreciated attention.  The problem turned out to be the same as last time – the EGR coolant temperature sensor.  Since we had driven only 1,400 miles since the sensor had been cleaned, we agreed that it should be replaced.  We don’t want this to keep happening. 

The sensor had to be ordered, and it wouldn’t arrive until the following morning.  Luckily we could adjust our plans and stay in Tyler overnight.  Our plan was to spend the night in the dealer’s service lot since there was an electrical hookup, but the lot was not level, and we decided to move to a nearby campground.

We were up bright and early to get back to the dealer before 8:00 am.  The part arrived, and the work was completed by 10:00 am.  Our extended warranty even covered a portion of the cost, which was great. Although not in our plans, our experience in Tyler could not have been better, and we are optimistic that we won’t have to deal with this issue again.

We left Tyler to continue our trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where we planned to spend a few days.  We weren’t sure we’d make it the entire way because of the detour to Tyler, but we pushed on.  We finally left Texas behind and after crossing into Arkansas stopped in Hope for lunch and a visit to the President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site.  This relatively new unit of the National Park Service preserves the simple house where Clinton lived with his mother and grandparents during the first four years of his life.

President Clinton's Boyhood Home

We had a nice tour of the house and learned a bit about the future president’s early life in Hope.  I never knew, or had forgotten, that Clinton was not his original surname.  Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe, III, after his father, who had been killed in an automobile accident three months before his birth.  Clinton’s mother later remarried, and he assumed his stepfather’s name, although he was never adopted.  Clinton legally changed his name when he was fourteen years old. 

Learning About Bill

Our visit to Hope was a quick one since we wanted to reach Hot Springs before dark.  We made it.  Although our original plan was to stay at the campground run by the National Park Service, we instead checked into Catherine’s Landing, a destination resort.  Are we getting spoiled by these fancy private resorts?  I know that Kitty is loving it.

Amenities at Catherine's Landing

"I'm Not Going Down There"
"This Is a Good Spot"

Camouflage Kitty

"I Told You I Was A Rock Climber"

December 22, 2014

Being Thankful

From Fredericksburg, Texas, we drove a whopping 33 miles south to Kerrville and the Buckhorn Lake Resort.  That’s what I call a great travel day!  We arrived at Buckhorn on Tuesday, November 25 for a week-long stay over Thanksgiving.  

Buckhorn Lake Resort is one of the highest-rated campgrounds in Texas, and it certainly lived up to the reviews.  Tim and I have rarely stayed in resort-type campgrounds – perhaps once or twice for a day or two on our long road trip.  True resorts are not the type of campground we usually choose, partly because they are very expensive, but also because we don’t take advantage of the pools, tennis courts, etc. that are offered.  However, we were up for trying something different for Thanksgiving, and the weekly rate was not outrageous.

Welcome to Buckhorn Lake Resort

Buckhorn Lake Resort is a destination resort in every sense of the word.  The campground is beautifully maintained, the streets and sites are paved, the yards are manicured and the amenities are plentiful.  We were handed a calendar when we checked in and were amazed with the number of activities listed.  Social hours, concerts, potlucks, breakfasts and dinners were just a few of the offerings.

What really attracted us to Buckhorn was the annual Thanksgiving dinner that the resort sponsors.  Buckhorn’s 8,000 square foot barn was the setting for the Thanksgiving potluck.  The resort supplied the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, and each RVer brought a dish.  I had read about similar holiday events but had never been to one.  We thought it would be the perfect way to spend Thanksgiving away from family, and it was.  The food was amazing.  I couldn’t believe the quantity and quality of the food prepared by our fellow RVers.  Tim and I brought Waldorf salad, which my mother had always prepared at Thanksgiving. For me, it’s not Thanksgiving without it.

A Thanksgiving Feast

What A Great Thanksgiving!

Tim and I learned that one of the benefits of staying put for more than a few nights is having the time to meet new people.  Buckhorn is a very social place, and its dinners, social hours and other events help facilitate interaction among RVers.  We attended a dinner and concert on Wednesday night and joined six people at a large table.  It was especially fun to compare notes with two of the couples who had also started full-timing this year.  At Thanksgiving we sat with two couples who lived near Dallas and were returning here for their second Thanksgiving.  It turned out that one couple was parked next to us.  We enjoyed many conversations with them over the next few days.

On the day after Thanksgiving another Sprinter pulled in to Buckhorn. Almost every RV at Buckhorn was a huge motorhome or fifth wheel, and we are so tiny by comparison.  It was therefore especially nice to meet a fellow van dweller.  We spent a wonderful afternoon with Angelique and her stepmother and compared notes about traveling in a Class B RV.

Many of the folks who come to Buckhorn for Thanksgiving love to decorate their RVs and sites for Christmas, and we looked at all of them.  I actually found one inflatable that even I thought was cute – usually I just want to shoot them with a BB gun.  Another site was decorated with everything under the sun, including a G-scale train.  Although the display was a bit much for me, it was heartwarming to meet the elderly gentleman who created it and to watch the pleasure that he gets from sharing his display with his neighbors.

Even I Liked This Inflatable

Can You Have Too Many Decorations for Christmas?

Tim and I got into the Christmas spirit and decorated our RV the day after Thanksgiving.  I’ve never started decorating so early.  We outfitted with RV with reindeer antlers and a big red nose.  The RV looks very festive.  We also added our gnome nativity scene on the dashboard.  All of it is silly, but fun.  We even decorated Kitty with her own Santa suit.  Now that was one unhappy kitty.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed RV

Away In a Manger

Santa's Calico Protege
(Buckhorn Lake Resort photo)

"My Humans Think This Is Cute"

With Christmas on the horizon, Tim and I started to think about where we might want to spend the holidays.  On the spur of the moment we decided to spend a month at Buckhorn.  We have never stayed in any campground for that length of time, and certainly never at a resort, but we want to have different experiences in this new lifestyle and see what might suit us.  In just the short week over Thanksgiving, we found that it’s easy to get spoiled at Buckhorn.  Kerrville is also a nice town and a good base from which to explore the Hill Country, which seems to be our favorite part of Texas.

But, before beginning our month at Buckhorn, we decided to backtrack and spend a quick two weeks hitting the highlights in Arkansas and Oklahoma.  Unfortunately, we had missed those two states in our rush to escape the polar vortex.  Our hope was for the weather to hold out for a short visit.  More on that next time.