Hello again from yet another state, as we hurtle full-speed back toward the east coast. We’re here in Memphis, Tennessee, on the right side of the Mississippi River for the first time since January. For lack of a better term, we’re back in the real world here. Because to be quite honest, two weeks in Northwest Arkansas feels a bit like a parallel universe, or one of those secret societies living in the mountains, isolated from the rest of the world, or maybe time travel.
What a mercifully short trip it was there from Oklahoma City, just over three and a half hours. That may sound like a lot, but these days, we can do that standing on our heads. We’ve said more than once that once the GPS is under two hours, we’re basically already there. It was hard to perceive exactly when it happened, perhaps somewhere east of Tulsa, but there was a point we became aware of a palpable scenery and vibe change – we had definitively returned to the South.
About 20 miles from Rogers, we exited the highway and changed to a more local road, with stoplights, businesses, and more. My first thought was, “this must be the beginning of the northwest Arkansas sprawl.” My second thought was, “they don’t have 20 miles of sprawl in northwest Arkansas, dummy. This isn’t New Jersey!”
In fact, they do. The entire region is a relatively large metro of small and mid-size towns that run right into one another – much like New Jersey! Bentonville may be the most well-known for having the headquarters of Walmart, but Fayetteville is also famous for the University of Arkansas. Our destination was Rogers, once one of the region’s larger towns which has since been swallowed up by its much faster-growing neighbors. Still, we love small towns, and this was another great one, with a cute little downtown within walking distance from our Airbnb.
If you know even one thing about Northwest Arkansas (and I can’t really fault you if you don’t), it’s probably the fact that America’s largest retailer, with nearly half a trillion in sales last year, is headquartered there. Yes, by mostly random chance, Bentonville has been the home of Walmart for the entirety of its sixty-year existence. It is hard to overstate the impact of this one gigantic company on this small town and region.
As part of my regional reading for this trip, I read Sam Walton’s autobiography, “Made in America.” It’s actually a pretty inspiring story of a guy who just really loved discounting things and opening as many stores as possible. I can even see how someone might come away impressed by the company’s stated philosophy toward its store employees, or “associates.” I, however, am not one of those people, as a former member of the Walmart family who worked in the Sam’s Club cafe in Mount Olive, NJ, during college. Still, it’s interesting to see an area where the company has truly been able to put their full strategy into effect. In Walmart’s ideal world, you’ll have two or three Walmart Neighborhood markets in your immediate area, and then a Supercenter a few miles further away. That is absolutely the case in Northwest Arkansas – I don’t think we were ever more than a mile and a half from a Walmart the entire time we were there.
The first true Walmart store that was branded as such was actually in Rogers, right around the corner from our Airbnb. Today, it’s an antique store with essentially no acknowledgment of its place in retail history other than a marker on Google Maps.
But the chain’s history really traces back to a small store on Bentonville’s Town Square known as Walton’s 5 & 10. This is the first space where already-successful variety store franchise owner Sam Walton branched out to his own company. Today, it operates as a free Walmart Museum.
It was actually pretty interesting as far as solely promotional museums go. I think we may take for granted how cutting edge this company of Ozark hillbillies was when it came to promotions, the use of corporate planes, computers, and other technology. The place was big on Sam Walton memorabilia too, from a reconstruction of his office to his famous pickup truck.
Perhaps the highlight was an exhibit on Walmart’s return policies, with real examples of things they’ve accepted for returns. The thermos, for example, was not only not bought at Walmart, but was also purchased years before Walmart even existed. And well…I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about the hand mixer.
It also struck me as a little rich to see the museum display this quote, as if the company isn’t notorious for paying employees so poorly they need to get food stamps and other government assistance to survive.
Northwest Arkansas has some strange history, even by the standards of some of the places we’ve visited on this trip. As opposed to the sprawl to our west, the area immediately east of Rogers is made up of some pretty wild and unusual country, dominated by Beaver Lake. Like pretty much every damn lake in this part of the country, it’s manmade. In the process of flooding these valleys, it swallowed up an unusual amount of history in the small communities and historical sites that now sit at the bottom or along the edges. I figured I’d take a little drive and check these out.
The first stop is the sole remaining evidence of the existence of the Monte Ne resort, which was once a thriving small town-style vacation destination set at the bottom of a valley from the early 1900s through the 1960s. It was already long past its prime when Beaver Lake began to cover it in the 60s. Now, all that’s left are some concrete foundations and one tower that remains above water.
Part of the area that was spared from the inundation was near the historic War Eagle Mill site, along the gorgeous War Eagle Creek. It may look old-timey, but it’s actually a replica of an 18th-century mill that stood at that site, after that one and several subsequent ones all burned down. It is still a working grist mill and restaurant, though unfortunately without many options at either for the gluten-challenged like myself.
The bridge over the nearby War Eagle Creek was authentic, however, and I didn’t love the idea of driving our car over it. So I walked over instead, which I think allowed for a better view, anyway.
Rogers itself has some strange connections to the pop culture world as well. Remember “A Christmas Story?” Of course you do, because it’s on literally nonstop every December 25th. A moderately tougher question – do you remember what Ralphie wanted for Christmas?
Yes, the Red Ryder carbine-action air rifle, complete with the sundial and compass in the stock. By some unusual twist of fate, the company that makes this infamous children’s weapon, Daisy, is located right here in Rogers – as is the museum, which I spent a few hours perusing.
The history was more interesting than I expected; Daisy actually started as a windmill company, nearly closing its doors before making the somewhat inexplicable switch to manufacturing air rifles. This was something they’ve done a lot better, and have been making the guns for more than 100 years now. You have to hand it to them for latching onto pretty much every early 20th-century pop culture hero, from Buck Rogers to, of course, Red Ryder. Naturally, one of the biggest exhibits was Christmas Story-related.
If you know me, you know I’m not really a gun guy. But to be honest, I found it extremely hard to pass up a chance to own a piece of pop culture history – AND for only $20, at the museum’s “outlet” prices. Perhaps we’ve got a display piece for a man cave someday.
I don’t know whether it’s a function of our location or the time of year, but we’ve had more outdoor festivals and block parties to choose from lately than we could ever attend. Still, I’m particularly glad we made it out to Tontitown, toward the southwest edge of the region, for the town’s 123rd annual Grape Festival. It’s a legacy of the Italian immigrants who settled in the area in the late 1800s and grew some locally-famous wine. All things considered, I’m glad my Italian ancestors stopped in New York.
This was actually a much bigger event than either of us expected. It caught my eye initially because of the grape-stomping event, something I’ve always been curious about but never done. It turned out to be mostly little kids, but if the line hadn’t been so long I might have tried anyway. To be clear, I don’t think these grapes were actually used for any wine; it was, however, enjoyable to watch Morgan’s disgusted reaction as she considered the possibility.
In any case, we enjoyed some food on sticks and some frosty desserts (a wine slushie for me and grape ice cream for Morgan, who was being the responsible one and driving home) while watching some live music as the sun set. Mark another instance down of small-town life actually working in Northwest Arkansas.
We hit the block party circuit once again a few days later, this time in Bentonville. From April to November, the town puts on pretty extravagant First Friday events, which are essentially big public parties that last from the late morning into the evening on Bentonville’s City Square. A free daylong festival once a month for half the year? I could get used to that. This month’s had the somewhat depressing theme of “Back to School,” as the first day for kids around here is next week.
Luckily, Morgan and I are adults, so we’ve swapped the intense dread that came at the end of summer for a lower-grade, yearlong version. I kid, of course – mostly. Aside from the music and food trucks, one of the highlights of this extravaganza was a good old-fashioned Twinkie eating contest, naturally an excellent choice of activity with a feels-like temperature of 99 degrees. I didn’t compete (blame it on the gluten intolerance)
The first few contestants clocked in with numbers in the high single digits over three minutes. Respectable, I thought. Suddenly – one guy had 25. There was an audible gasp in the crowd. Despite a few in the teens, no one came close until one of the last contestants who also ate…25! The hosts seemed like they had legitimately not considered this as a possibility, so after a brief conference, they decided on a one-minute eat-off. This was also the point where they prominently brought out buckets, and I began to worry about this wholesome family event turning into that scene from “Stand By Me.”
Luckily, this did not happen, but it was certainly a sight to see. The guy on the right in the video below ended up winning with an additional ten twinkies, which may not surprise you. I mean, look how casual this dude is. He could have probably put down another dozen and then hit the food trucks afterward. Meantime, I can’t imagine the lady berating the guy on the left was helping much.
He won a $250 gift card to Walmart, which breaks out to about $7 per Twinkie for the roughly 4,550 calories he consumed in four minutes.
The eastern edge of Northwest Arkansas is centered around one of the strangest, coolest, most interesting cities we’ve encountered so far – and that’s saying something. Eureka Springs is simply unlike any town I’ve been to before. The town is built into the sides of the steep, rocky hills that wind through the area, creating an unbelievable maze of narrow, winding, steep streets with connecting stairways and trails throughout. Supposedly, there are no completely perpendicular intersections in the entire town.
Eureka Springs first became famous in the post-Civil War years, when ailing people were told to come to this secluded mountain resort to drink from restorative springs that would heal them. In a lot of cases, this worked – but may not for the reason they thought. After all, most of the treatment involved walking from spring to spring and drinking from them, and it’s no surprise that a bunch of Victorian-era folks were so baffled by the health benefits of exercise, hydration, and time outdoors that they thought it was basically magic.
Unfortunately, it’s not recommended to drink from any of the remaining springs, which have suffered from environmental contamination from human waste. These are filter springs, which just use gravity to process rainwater and other runoff through dirt, clay, and rock, as opposed to artesian springs, which come out of the ground due to subterranean pressure.
These days, Eureka Springs is a decidedly offbeat town for Northwest Arkansas, or really anywhere for that matter. There’s a ton of shopping, outdoor activities, and there’s even a writer’s colony, which I strongly am considering coming back for. Oh, it’s also extremely haunted, including a hotel that claims to be the most haunted in America.
But let’s back up a minute, to my drive from Rogers to Eureka Springs, because the weirdness does not start at the city limits. No, I learned on this trip that the Ozarks are just jam-packed full of strange people, and most of them aren’t murderous hill folk! A few miles south of Eureka Springs is the house known as Quigley’s Castle.
This house is the creation of Elise Fiovanti Quigley, who really, really loved rocks. Like, a lot. So much so that she built an entire home covered in them, along with a sprawling garden of rock benches, rock fountains, rock sculptures, and naturally, a rock mailbox.
The inside of the home is also available for tours, and it’s one of the most interesting houses I’ve visited since Morgan and I went to visit the Earthships in Taos. It’s part log cabin, part greenhouse, with walls of windows and plants growing up from the first floor directly into the bedrooms of the second. It doesn’t make for a lot of privacy if someone’s downstairs watching TV, but certainly a beautiful look, if you don’t fall over the edge at night. Most of the indoor plants I saw were originals, meaning they’re 70+ years old.
From here, Eureka Springs was only a few minutes down the road, but it’s such a winding, hilly area that you don’t even realize you’re close to town until you’re in it.
The houses here are also unlike anything I’ve ever really seen before. Yes, there are definitely the massive, finely painted, ornate Victorian mansions that you’ll find in a lot of towns that saw their peak in the late 19th century. But there are also quite a few places that look like a modest bungalow – until you look around the side. Essentially, half the lots in this town are built on the edge a cliff, meaning you’re seeing the top floor of a house that could extend as far as five stories down from the street. Personally, I thought this would be pretty cool, but I also could hear Morgan’s final breath as she gave up on life after trudging up the stairs for the sixth time in a day. I figure we’ll stick to a more normal home, all things considered.
Keep in mind, the alternative in Eureka Springs is a house that may not only lack a backyard, it may not even have a back door! The places have about a foot of space between their back wall and the rock face; some places actually apparently carve their own wine cellars into the rock and connect their house directly to it. It’s a strange town, folks.
As with any appropriately old and weird town, Eureka Springs has a reputation of being quite haunted, including two of the most haunted hotels in America. These are the Basin Spring Hotel downtown, and the Crescent Hotel on top of the town’s highest hill. Both of these are pretty spooky, and also pretty willing to let a random, somewhat sweaty dude (it was a long walk uphill, remember) wander the halls of a working hotel.
The Crescent Hotel has been the home of a lot of terrible things over time, including a fake cancer hospital that led to many, many people dying from “miracle cures” that, once again, mostly consisted of drinking spring water.
On the other hand, the view from the top may be worth encountering a few ghosts – even if there are some definite Overlook Hotel vibes from the hedge art.
Part of the hotel’s history as a hospital also included this wing, which was added to house mentally ill patients – many of whom died under suspicious circumstances. Supposedly, nothing from this annex can be heard in the main building area, something that I could actually notice when I walked down there and felt the extremely deadened acoustics. These days, it houses (and I’m not kidding) the honeymoon suites.
The biggest attraction of Eureka Springs, both figuratively and literally, is what’s known as the Christ of the Ozarks. If you’re familiar with the Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio de Janeiro, it’s basically that – with a slightly less, let’s say, majestic look to it. He’s perched on a hill overlooking town, and you’ll catch little glimpses of the statue from various streets – he’s always watching.
In the early evening, I made my way up there to take a look and, honestly, it was pretty impressive and imposing! I did my best to be respectful and not do anything sacrilegious, but judging from the photos tagged there on Instagram, I may have been one of the few.
Then again, I didn’t want to cause any trouble as I had some additional business nearby at another odd but beloved local attraction, The Great Passion Play, telling the story of the last week of Jesus’ life.
I am not a religious person, but I was raised Catholic and I’m familiar enough with the story that there weren’t any surprises (spoiler alert: He comes back at the end!) Still, I’ve never been to a theater experience quite like this. For one, the stage is about the length of a football field, with all of the various settings spread out across it. While action is going on in one area, extras (of which there must have been, conservatively, 200) stay in character in others, continuing to go about their business. You can enjoy all of this from the stadium-style seating, naturally with stadium-style food from the snack bar.
It took me a while to realize why the acting had a strange affect to it, before I realized they weren’t actually delivering the lines. As they have for the decades of the show’s existence, these actors are essentially pantomiming to a pre-recorded dialogue track, which can sometimes give it the feeling of watching a dubbed foreign movie. There were herds of sheep. There were fireworks. There was a zip-line involved. There were some regrettable depictions of Jews. It was definitely an experience that I would recommend to anyone who may find themselves in Eureka Springs with an evening to spare, regardless of your beliefs – even if I’m pretty sure I was the only one there for the entertainment value as opposed to scoring some points toward salvation.
After a few hours of extremely wholesome religious programming, I needed a drink. So after driving back to my hotel, I set out on foot, looking for anything open. Friends, remember when I told you about how haunted this town was? That was certainly on my minds as I wandered the completely empty streets, looking for something open. All I can say is, this is one spooky town at night.
I did eventually find one open bar – though I was the only person in it, and the entire vibe of the was so eerie that I made a hasty retreat to my probably-haunted room.
Before leaving town the next morning, I made a stop at the Razorback Tower, which bills itself as a sightseeing spot but is really just an old fire tower behind a gift shop. I’m not particularly afraid of heights, but this was a harrowing experience. If you’ve never climbed a fire tower, it’s hard to explain the steepness of the steps, combined with how narrow they are. And they only get steeper and narrower as you go up!
There were multiple moments where I almost chickened out and went back down, but I’m glad I made it all the way to the top because the view was incredible.
While we’re on the topic of weird things in the woods of Arkansas, another literally jaw-dropping must-see in the area are the multiple chapels designed by architect E. Fay Jones, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. The two best known are the Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel in Bella Vista and Thorncrown Chapel near Eureka Springs. I visited the Cooper Chapel first, following a hike nearby. It was hot, I was tired, and I wasn’t entirely convinced I was on the right path from the parking lot to the chapel, because I couldn’t see anything through the trees. Suddenly, there it was.
I’m not even going to try to describe the peacefulness inside. It was cool, and quiet, with soft music playing and the light gently filtering through the glass walls. It was one of the most beautiful and serene place I’ve ever been. The brochure for Thorncrown Chapel said it had been called a “thin place”, a Celtic term for places where the distance between heaven and earth is relatively close; I think that is fitting here.
I was lucky enough to also get to visit Thorncrown Chapel on my way back from Eureka Springs, which is just as stunning, if a little more heavily trafficked.
Possibly the most notable recent attraction of all of Northwest Arkansas is an incredible, world-class art and history museum that also happens to be completely free. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is another beneficiary of that Walmart money, about a half-billion from heir Alice Walton, to be specific. Don’t worry – she can afford it, with a net worth of roughly $60 billion. The money was well spent, I’d say, since it’s one of the few museums I’ve been to where the museum itself is as much of an attraction as the exhibits.
The entire complex straddles a stream that is dammed at several points throughout the property, creating these incredible pools and the look of a floating building. I will also mention that there were some positively enormous fish in here. We figured that the Waltons could probably afford to move Nessie here if they wanted, so we didn’t ask any questions about it.
You’ll notice I say we, when most of the museum visits on this trip are very much “I” affairs. I was lucky enough to have Morgan join me as we explored the grounds to celebrate my 32nd birthday. I would not have expected to be celebrating my birthday in Northwest Arkansas even a few months ago, but it was a great one – especially considering a third of my last six birthdays have been spent either at the hospital or quarantined during a pandemic. Morgan treated me to a surprisingly delicious lunch at the museum restaurant (a gluten-free reuben with some amazing fries), and then we headed off to explore the grounds.
We promptly wandered in the exact wrong direction from most of the actual exhibits, but this brought us to one of the more unusual aspects of the Crystal Bridges campus – a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home that was relocated here from New Jersey.
As for art…well, I just don’t know. It is enjoyable to look at, but after seeing a half-dozen or more art museums this trip…I still don’t really get it. The Crystal Bridges selection was interesting, ranging from early American portraits to modern art, with a healthy mix of weird shit mixed in in between. Like, I don’t really know what to say about those painters’ palettes with children’s faces.
There was even an Infinity Room from Yayoi Kusama, which Morgan and I, along with a group of visiting friends, waited hours in the early morning cold to see in DC, a few years back. This five-minute wait indoors was a lot more enjoyable. For those unfamiliar, these pieces of art are self-contained rooms that use mirrors to reflect the unusual surroundings, creating an effect that seems to go on forever. Watch the video and tell me you expected Morgan to actually be where she was.
The exhibit I was most interested in seeing was a collection of original copies of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Call me a nerd if you wish, but there are only a handful of copies of these still in existence, and somehow, they’re available to see for free in Northwest Arkansas.
Morgan’s knee was a bit sore, but I came back to Crystal Bridges several days later to check out some of the trails. The art is pretty wild, although I will admit I was quite frustrated with the lack of trail signage and the seemingly spontaneous closures at points that forced me to repeatedly double back.
I will say this is not the most comforting piece of art to encounter in the woods (turn your sound on.)
I want to wrap up with something potentially less exciting than usual, but something I feel like is such a good example of how Northwest Arkansas is just a different world – free community concerts in Rogers. Rogers, among other great features, has a wonderful downtown park with a pretty incredible stage, a splash park for kids, and plenty of shaded benches and tables. Every weekend during the summer, it hosts free concerts as part of the Railyard Live event series, and we caught three of them while we were there – Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead tribute nights, as well as a bluegrass show. It’s really a great scene – families and groups of friends bringing chairs and blankets, neighbors greeting each other, everyone enjoying coolers of food or dinner from food trucks. You can even buy drinks from local bars and restaurants and take them to the concert. Local businesses and galleries stay open late, and downtown generally feels like a big, fun party.
I have to say, it feels positively weird to be in a small town with such a thriving sense of community. We’ve seen a lot of small towns throughout this trip, and most are struggling in one way or another. Rogers, Bentonville, and the rest of Northwest Arkansas are decidedly not. Look at the First Friday event I mentioned above, too. Almost all of this, naturally, is funded by private grants from the Walton family, Walmart, and associated groups. Combine this stuff with unique and fun attractions, a thriving economy, and a reasonable cost of living, and I can see why the area attracts so many young families. You could do a LOT worse, and frankly this would be exactly the kind of town I think we both would want to live in, if it fit our location criteria.
I say this only somewhat sarcastically, but it seems like all it takes to make small town America work again is a hefty chunk of change from ultra-billionaires. It might be cool if we had some sort of way to compel them to pay money that is then spent on social services and community improvement, but what do I know? Perhaps we can wait for billionaires who care about their hometowns as much as the Waltons seem to. I won’t hold my breath in Florida.
During the course of this trip, Morgan and I have at various points talked about which stops have exceeded or underwhelmed our expectations. While we differed on a few (Austin and Santa Fe, in particular), we both couldn’t agree more about how much Northwest Arkansas surprised and impressed us. If you’ve written off Arkansas as a place to visit, you’re seriously missing out.
We are now settled into our second-to-last stop (wow) in the beautiful Home of the Blues, Memphis, Tennessee. I have a hard time believing we’re already halfway through our time here, which is flying by faster than the Mississippi’s bottom current (19 miles per hour, in case you were wondering.) I look forward to telling you all about it in a few weeks.
Nick and Morgan