I’m already in Hot Springs, after a long ride yesterday from Dallas. After a good night’s rest at the BEST WESTERN Winners Circle Inn, I stroll across to the hotel’s breakfast room for a good hot breakfast. As I shovel in some eggs, sausage and toast, I study my maps and try to plan my day. It’s going to be another hot one, but that’s okay. I don’t have a very long ride today, and I’m getting an early start.
Only when I check out of the hotel do I realize that we are literally across the street from the Oaklawn Racing and Gaming track. The historic racetrack has been in operation since 1905, and has hosted the Arkansas Derby since 1936. Oaklawn is almost always a stop on the path to Horse of the Year. The BEST WESTERN Winners Circle Inn would be a great place to stay during racing season.
I ride down Central Avenue toward Hot Springs’ Historic Downtown. Hot Springs was a very popular attraction during the Victorian Era and into the first half of the 20th century, then fell out of favor in the 1960s. The Victorians (and others before them) believed in the healing powers of the hot mineral springs that flow through Hot Springs. Numerous bathhouses sprouted along Central Avenue, evolving from simple shacks to elaborate brick and marble showplaces.
The hot springs from which the town takes its name are the result of a natural geothermal process. I always assumed that there must be an active volcano in the region somewhere, but the water gains its heat from gravitational compression as it percolates downward through the ground from higher elevation, and gets its minerals and some more heat from the breakdown of radioactive elements in the rock and soil. The springs were in danger of contamination due to the encroachment of people all the way back in the 19th century, so in 1832 the federal government declared the area as a U.S. Reservation to protect natural resources — the first time the U.S. government had ever taken that action.
I guide the Glide to Hot Springs Mountain Tower, a privately operated viewing tower at the peak of the mountain in Hot Springs National Park. The steel tower is 216 feet tall, and makes a great starting point for a visual tour of the area. For $7 admission, I ride up to the top of the observation tower, and I’m treated to panoramic views of Hot Springs. It’s a great view. A display at the top of the tower reminds me that there’s presidential history in Hot Springs, too — Bill Clinton grew up in Hot Springs from the age of seven until he graduated from Hot Springs High School in 1964.
I return to downtown to explore the urban part of the National Park — Bathhouse Row. Many of the gorgeous Victorian bathhouses still stand along Central Avenue. The Fordyce Bathhouse, one of the most opulent, has been restored and preserved as the park visitor center and museum. You can take a self-guided tour of the facility for free. It’s amazing to see the elaborately tiled and decorated rooms. Some are dedicated to massage, some are changing rooms, some are bathing and steam rooms. There was also a social element to the baths, which were seen not only as a healing force, but also as a place where civilized gentlemen and ladies could spend leisure time. My favorite room in the Fordyce was the third floor men’s gymnasium, which is equipped with all types of old fashioned exercise equipment like pommel horses and speed bags, flooded with natural light from tall windows. It reeks of history and handlebar mustaches.
After my tour of the Fordyce, it’s time to get back on the bike and head to Branson. I zigzag through some of Hot Springs’ downtown streets before I leave town. I’m already planning to return here with my wife for a vacation. This town needs some serious exploration.
Central Avenue becomes Arkansas Route 7 as I head north out of Hot Springs. My ride will take me through the Ozark Mountains directly up to the Arkansas/Missouri border, and Branson is just a short ride north from there. It’s hot again today — what else is new? No complaints, I just have to remember to drink a lot of water. At each gas or rest stop, I drink two bottles of water. People must think I’m a maniac, but I’m sweating so much in this humidity that it’s the only way I can stay hydrated.
I fall in love with Arkansas as I ride along Route 7. The Ozark Mountains are lush and green, with a thick blanket of trees and other vegetation. As the road curves around the hills and mountains, each clearing reveals a beautiful vista. The road signs are a motorcyclists’ dream — “Curves and Switchback, Next 43 Miles.” Traffic is light, and my only worry is keeping my mind on my riding and off of the scenery.
Too soon, I’m riding in Missouri, and I reach Branson. I’ve always wanted to come to Branson, to see it for myself. Since I got out of college, I’ve lived in New York and Los Angeles, and I feel like I’ve lost touch with the middle of the country, where I spent my high school years. I resent the “flyover” mentality that many of my acquaintances have, disdainful of anything that originates in the country’s interior. Highly successful acts in Branson are treated as if they dropped out of show business by the smart sets in New York and LA, and I just don’t get it. I want to see what it is that keeps attracting performers and audiences to Branson, and what keeps them coming back.
Right off the bat, one thing is the physical beauty of the surroundings. As much as I love the desert near Las Vegas, it can’t hold a candle to the lush hills and forests of Southern Missouri near Branson. Especially when you consider that the Nevada desert is extremely inhospitable to people! Branson nestles in a lovely area, and its attractions are arrayed along its hilly streets.
I pull in to the BEST WESTERN PLUS Landing View Inn & Suites on West Main Street in Branson, and discover that not only is the hotel on a hilly street, it’s also built into the side of hill. The office and lobby are at the top of the hill, and the hotel splays down the side of the hill in a gentle cascade. I park the Road Glide near the lobby and check in. The gentleman at the front desk gives me a quick orientation to the property. I ask if I can leave the motorcycle up here at the top of the hill. I’m parked on level ground, and I have no desire to buy trouble while trying to figure out how to get the bike to stand securely on the off-camber ground. No problem! I love the way that Best Western Hotels welcome motorcyclists. I always feel welcome on my bike, and even better than that — I always feel that my bike is welcome, too.
I have some local friends in Branson, and they’ve offered to come pick me up and take me to a special dinner spot. They take me to the Keeter Center at the College of the Ozarks. In a town with plenty of good restaurants, the Keeter Center stands out. Its 275-seat Dobyn Dining Room is the fine dining restaurant for the College, open to students and the general public alike. Students from the Culinary Arts program train in the kitchen under professional chefs, preparing the gourmet menu. The wait staff and other restaurant personnel are all students as well — some from the College’s Hotel and Restaurant Management program, and some on a work/study program. All of the students at the College of the Ozarks work campus jobs to defray tuition costs — a unique approach to address the high cost of a college education. Our meal is delicious, truly living up to the “fine dining” label.
My friends drop me off at my next stop. I’m meeting with one of my lifelong idols, Jim Stafford, before watching his show this evening. I step through the doors of the Jim Stafford Theater, introduce myself at the box office, and I’m whisked backstage to Jim Stafford’s dressing room just as Mr. Stafford himself arrives at the theater, relaxed in a t-shirt and gym shorts.
I know that we don’t have much time to talk — it’s 7:00 pm, and the curtain goes up at 8:00, so we launch right into our conversation. I’m a big fan, so I already know the basics: Jim Stafford is from Clearwater, Florida. He started out in The Rumors, a band with Kent LaVoie and Gram Parsons. LaVoie , who recorded under the name of “Lobo”(Me and You and a Dog Named Boo) produced Stafford’s first single, Swamp Witch, which sold about a half-million copies. Then came Spiders and Snakes and a summer television series, The Jim Stafford Show, in 1975, followed by Those Amazing Animals with Burgess Meredith and Priscilla Presley. Other shows followed, including Nashville on the Road and the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. That’s where I lost track of Stafford’s career. Turns out, that’s when he moved to Branson. “Roy Clark had a theater that is now the Hughes Brothers Theater. Right there, I’m looking right at it,” he says, pointing out of his dressing room window. “Roy brought acts in and a lot of people that came and performed at Roy’s theater discovered Branson by doing that. They didn’t know it existed. I didn’t know it existed and most of these other people didn’t either, I don’t think. Anyhow, people would play there, they’d look around, and they’d say if I did this I could get off the road. Everybody wants to get off the road. I was in my mid-forties when I got here and I already felt like I had a career.” In 1990, Stafford bought the theater that now bears his name, and after some renovations, he’s been performing here ever since. His show has become somewhat of a family affair, as his teenage son and daughter are each featured as musical acts. “Right now I’m teaching my children to play in the show so that they can be working musicians. So that they understand chord charts, the number system, sight reading, and all that stuff so that they can be in a band if they need to be.”
Stafford has made a living as a musician since the 1960s, and he has a theory about why. “A lot of people are dependent hit-by-hit on whether they entertain people,” he said. “You may depend on that as far as the number of people at your show goes, but if you have a reputation of being a decent performer you have a little bit of a better chance of having a longer shelf life — because nobody just keeps getting hits. Sooner or later they go away.” He feels like he has found a great home in Branson. “This is the place to be if you like live performance. I like the performance aspect and I like to spend time on it.”
Too soon, it’s time for me to leave Mr. Stafford to get ready for his show. I say my farewells, then repair to my seat in the auditorium. It’s a Tuesday night, and the house is about half-full. Jim Stafford, his band and his teenagers deliver a show that’s fun, funny, entertaining and inviting. Mr. Stafford sits on the lip of the stage during intermission, chatting with fans, signing autographs and taking pictures. The show ends with a flourish of musicianship, and a brilliant deconstruction of the “encore” that many musical acts pretend to use. I have a great time, and so does the rest of the audience.
Back at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Landing View Inn & Suites now, I’m preparing for another day of riding. I’ll take some time to explore more of Branson first, but for now, I’m very happy with my first visit to this unique city.
Miles Ridden: 199.2
NEXT: Five State Motorcycle Marathon: Day Three, Branson, MO to Kansas City, KS