Thursday, December 8, 2022

Hot Springs, Arkansas -- "America's First Resort"

 I learned about Hot Springs a couple of years ago when I was looking for a half marathon to run in Arkansas. A half marathon in a new state in a town that had a traditional of bathhouses and hot springs? SIGN ME UP. 

We flew into Little Rock (Bill and Hill Airport, I like to think) and then made the short drive to Hot Springs. It was easy to spot our very cool AirBNB thanks to this amazing mural on the back wall:

The next morning we ran the Summit2Summit Half Marathon (read my race report). I loved that these banners and race posters were all over town!

After the race we took a little nap, then went for a walk along Bathhouse Row in the national park. It's hard to tell in the picture below, but the fountain in the background is steaming because it's hot springs water on a cold day!

One of the former bathhouses has been preserved as a museum (and, of course, gift shop!). People used to come to the bathhouses to take the waters and get treated for illnesses. There's a huge, sadly empty former VA hospital on a hill -- lots of WWI veterans were brought here for therapy, for example. I loved seeing the old bathing equipment -- though by old, it's 1920s, not 1820s! This needle shower doesn't look all that different from some fancy showers today. 

During their heyday, the bathhouses were super fancy, full of marble and sculptures and stained glass. They were also male dominated -- the largest sections of the bathhouses were reserved for men, while women had smaller, separate areas. 

Even though we're a long way from Florida, here's Ponce de Leon at the fountain of youth... in the former men's baths. 

The museum also included restored treatment rooms. One of the popular treatments was electro-massage therapy. This, my friends, is an early vibrator. 

On the top floor of the building they had a gymnasium, which has been restored to look as it did in the 1920s. Love that gym equipment!

That night we decided to sample the finest nightlife Hot Springs has to offer: the Maxwell Blade Theater of Magic

Tickets were reasonable, and reviews were good -- after all, Maxwell Blade has been performing his show for 26 years. Let that sink in. 26 years. 

It was a bit weird -- show was supposed to start at 8, and the houselights duly went down, and nothing happened. At about 8:10, Maxwell Blade walked in in an outdoor coat, a satchel over his shoulder, hustling down the aisle. As he headed backstage, he said, "Is everybody ready for some magic?"

His show was advertised as having 14 cast members, but we saw 2 including a tech person. But he gamely did some card tricks, some "cup and ball" tricks, and a few larger scale tricks with an assistant who wasn't quite up to the task. (I will say the first half of the "disappearing magician" went off really smoothly and looked great, but clearly something went weird and he just abandoned the trick.)

He kept up a decent amount of patter, but the pacing seemed off -- it didn't feel like a show he'd done hundreds of times. But maybe he was late, had to get a backup assistant, etc. 

I quite liked when he pulled some kids on stage, though the effect was damaged slightly because two girls and a boy came up, and he really only wanted one of each. He told them to move a certain way when he tapped different parts of their bodies with two foam baseball bats. (I am 100% sure that in the old days, he just touched them, but of course you can't have that now...). The boy was a total star, enthusiastically nodding his head when tapped on the head, waving his arms when tapped on the shoulder, and dancing when tapped on the back. The girls were just okay, so all eyes were on the boy when they started playing "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the boy WENT FOR IT. Hilarious!

He also did some close-up magic with the kids -- having them squeeze balls in their hands, saying a magic word, then opening their hands. The looks on their faces when they saw all the balls, or the bigger balls. Really good. 

Later he called up a couple onto the stage. The highlight of this was a sequence of misdirection sight gags -- he bet the man $150 each time he could guess which hand the ball of paper was in. He let the guy win 2, then asked for "double or nothing" and of course the guy couldn't resist, thinking he was a genius. Then Maxwell started simply throwing the paper over the guy's head and pretending it was in his hands. Of course the guy missed over and over and over. Meanwhile the audience would see exactly what was happening, and howling. So good. 

Then, weirdly, Maxwell Blade went to the piano while showing pictures of Elton John on the big screen... and then he started singing and playing Elton John songs. So. Weird. 

By this point, growing increasingly disturbed by our fellow attendees (a surprising number of drunk people jeering and getting too involved, if you know what I mean), and realizing that it was already 9:45 and the show was scheduled to end at 10, when Maxwell announced an intermission, we glanced at each other, gathered up our coats, and left. 

Maybe the final tricks would have been SPECTACULAR and redeemed the entire show. But it didn't seem like that would happen, and we were happy dash out. Do we regret going? Of course not -- it was a weird little adventure. Would we recommend it? Nope. 

Monday morning we got up early and made our way to Buckstaff Baths, one of two remaining operational bathhouses on Bathhouse Row. I chose Buckstaff over Quapaw because Quapaw now had large shared baths, rather than the traditional experience with attendants and private baths. 

The baths were segregated by sex, and Wil and I had distinctly different experiences. The women's part was really crowded, and I and my fellow bathers waited almost 90 minutes to be taken back into the baths. There were two mirror-image dressing rooms, and I think the other side moved more quickly as they had 2 attendants and we had one. I had just gotten into my bath when Wil sent me a text saying he was done and would head back to the AirBNB. Later Wil would tell me that his attendant told him stories about Babe Ruth and Al Capone and explained why the treatments happen in a particular order. I just had a kind if overworked attendant who was just trying to keep all the plates spinning at once. 

That said, I enjoyed the bath -- even if I would have liked it hotter. I really loved the old-fashioned steam cabinet -- where you sit in a box with only your head poking out. That was the only time I felt warm -- there was too long between treatments otherwise. Eventually it was time for my massage, a strange open-hand affair with a chatty masseuse. And then I was done. 

Again, am I glad I did it? Yes. Am I glad I chose Buckstaff over Quapaw? Yes. Would I recommend it? Sorta. I mean, where else will you get that old-school bathhouse vibe? I was sad that the needle showers and the loofa treatments had been dropped from the experience, however. 

The rest of your time in Hot Springs we really just hung out. We stopped at the Superior Bathhouse Brewery -- the only brewery in a national park! -- and tried a beer flight. Good names, pretty good beer. 

We also went to Maxine's, site of a former brothel. When I read "former brothel" I always think "19th century". But Maxine's only closed in 1970. Now it's a bar / nightclub that had great, inventive cocktails, and amazingly good Chicago-style pizzas. We got a pizza to go and enjoyed it for a couple of days. 

On our final morning we had breakfast at The Pancake Shop, a great little restaurant that's been open since 1940. We had buckwheat pancakes and banana pancakes, and I also had a side of cheesy grits. And it was AMAZING. 

Then a quick stop at the Mountain Valley Spring Co. visitor center (water from springs -- so good!), and then carried bottles back to the car. We also hustled cross the street and got a bottle of hot water out of one of the public springs. Because we felt like we should. 

Next stop, Natchez, MS. 

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