Paths sometimes act as anchors for memories. As a child, I spent many hours walking trails and roads in Hot Springs, Arkansas, while visiting my grandmother who lived on Highway 7 north of downtown.
I thought nothing of hiking through the woods to Gulpha Gorge where water cooled my bare feet. I can still feel the ever-present pea-sized snails that covered submerged rocks polished smooth from years of tumbling.
I sometimes carried a small plastic Instamatic Kodak camera, enchanted by rock formations and towering trees. I felt no fear, only freedom; freedom to go wherever my feet would take me.
As I drove into town early Saturday morning I felt jealous of my wife’s scheduled time for reading and reflection on the front porch of Mountain Thyme B&B. But, I also felt the excitement of knowing I would experience a day of learning while with Arkansas Master Naturalists.
I stopped to view my grandmother’s old house and marveled at how small her front yard was where we played sandlot football and Frisbee. The uphill side had a definite advantage.
The chain link fence was a more recent addition. I remember near panic when momentum would take me close to that downhill edge as a child. I have a small scar on the inside of my lip from one of those games. I’d forgotten there were so many steps next to the driveway. My grandmother used those steps to pose us for dreaded family pictures.
On the other side of Hwy 7 stood an old hotel and long-retired swimming pool next to the boyhood home of President Bill Clinton. As a child, I remember seeing the pool in use as my grandfather visited with the hotel owner.
Continuing south on Hwy 7, I came to The Vapors, an old nightclub now way past its prime. While in college, I played percussion in pit bands at The Vapors. It was quite elegant back then but playing there influenced me to continue my education and finish college. After being offered an extended gig playing drums for a chain-smoking, hard-drinking musician, I realized that this wasn’t the direction I wanted to follow.
For several years, The Vapors was used for conference meetings, then as a church. Now it is only a dilapidated old shell of a place with ghosts and stories inside its silent walls. I was surprised that the marquee still stands in good condition.
My favorite part of the Master Naturalists training involved walking through familiar areas while seeing through new lenses of learning.
A group walked north of the Arlington Hotel with geologist Doug Hanson as he shared from his knowledge using road cuts next to parking lots. He had extensive information about novaculite and its many applications as an abrasive. I knew the rock as a wetstone I’ve used to sharpen knives.
Shane Scott, a member of the Diamond Lakes Master Naturalists, led a group on the Hot Springs National Park Greenway. We began by walking alongside the springs above historic bathhouse row. I remembered walking this path many times as a child and marveled at how the springs and brick paths have remained so unchanged over the years.
I was pleased to walk next to Hot Springs Creek where it emerged from its manmade covering that extends along Central Avenue.
Before the first section of arched covering was built in 1884, rickety wooden bridges allowed early patrons to get to the bathhouses. The photo below shows the creek tunnel under construction.
A highlight of our walk was seeing the butterfly garden maintained by the Diamond River Master Naturalists. I also enjoyed visiting briefly with a local who appeared to have all his possessions on a small dolly. He sat beside a section of railroad that ran through a small cutaway behind the butterfly garden.
I broke away from the group for a few minutes and visited with the man, offering him some of the snacks from my pack. He was gracious and appreciative. I would like to have heard his story but decided to rejoin the group on the Greenway.
After backtracking to the hot spring display pool where we began, I dipped my fingers into the water. This heat that traveled from volcanic depths before racing up to the surrounding hillside made me feel a sudden rush of childlike amazement.
As I walked away from the springs, I felt thankful for the memories attached to these paths and the childlike fascination that we can feel at any age. These lines by Mary Oliver came to mind.
More about Arkansas Master Naturalists: A Pause for Learning
My family mostly lived along Malvern Road, and my Dad worked at the Vapors when it was thriving as a casino and night club in the sixties. I spent time walking the trails around town as well, and still enjoy doing so every time I visit. It’s good to know programs like Arkansas Master Naturalists are helping to educate us about our natural world. Keep up the good work.