In the deep valley the sun was early to set and late to rise and the night brittle with sounds radiating from the wagons and tents surrounding them. Dawn came crisp and frosty, the sky above a ribbon of blue while below campfires smoldered, smoke pooling in the low-lying areas like so much fog.
The party’s spirits could not settle on any one emotion but bounced from hope to despair. The evening before they had heard from several men in the wagon yard that work was impossible to find, that Eureka Springs was a dead end, a bust, a mirage. The eureka had withered as surely as the springs. They didn’t want to believe it and wouldn’t until confronted with the stark truth that they had come all this way for nothing.
For the first time in more than three weeks they didn’t break camp, but prepared in spite of rumors to set out seeking work, land, opportunities. Yet without that forward momentum it was easy to feel unbalanced, as if they might topple over from the lack of motion, nor did it help that the entire city seemed to cling to the rocky hillsides as if anchored by nothing more than the glue of implacable will. Within the two-square-mile heart of the city 700 structures rose perpendicularly, for the most propped up by 55 miles of retaining walls. If not for the magical springs no one in their right mind would have platted a town in such a location. It was madness, unadulterated folly, and no amount of boosterism or lavish promises could gloss over its deficiencies. But if there was work available they would take it, and reconnoiter for that will-of-the-wisp they had journeyed so far to find.
In the short interlude between breakfast and the men setting out to explore the city, three strangers approached the camp. They were looking for day laborers to chop and haul wood, an offer that came with a ray of hope but not exactly the kind of work they were looking for. Fred and the Charleses consulted with one another before advising the men that they would consider the offer but in no way were they prepared to accept before first getting the lay of the land. And then they were off, leaving the women to the usual chores of washing, mending, folding, organizing, fretting.
“We washed a little,” Sadie wrote that evening after the day’s events had unfolded. “The boys have been down town and all over it, I don't know how many times. They have almost decided to take one job of cutting wood till something better shows up.”
The results were discouraging, though they heard of an abundance of farms for sale or rent within the immediate area. By late afternoon the men returned to camp for supper, frustrated, weary and still without jobs, but determined to consider it merely a setback. Sadie remained optimistic. “I hope we get settled soon,” she wrote, “but we want the best we can get so are not in any hurry about renting just yet.”
Eureka Springs disappointed on so many levels. The history of the town, its architecture, its geographic setting, the Ozark plateau with its vibrant flora and fauna, the crystal clear rivers and streams, the wonderful cuisine, would seem impervious from the reality of the place, but mankind had corrupted it on a wholesale level. Everything had been commercialized and cheapened, and none more so than the downtown area. The Victorian buildings, constructed from native limestone and fired bricks of a dizzying variety of hues, had been smothered beneath a veneer of glitz, bling and outlandish colors. One stately old building smothered beneath a rainbow of tropical hues was festooned with pink flamingoes, and kaleidoscopic wall hangings and T-shirts flapped from every inch of railing. It looked like a dolled-up prostitute out for a Sunday stroll.
I categorically refused to drive, opting instead for the trolley car. Fortunately for us it stopped directly in front of our B&B and cost a fraction of what parking would have amounted to. It seemed the ideal way to tour the town, and might have been if not for the sign prominently positioned inside the door advising riders that communication with the driver was forbidden. This bit of official rudeness served merely to further ruffle my feathers.
After only a brief time aboard the trolley and afoot through the labyrinthine maze of downtown, the mishmash of over-ripe colors, tawdry junk and maze-like streets became disconcerting. It took us all of 15 minutes to realize how hopelessly out of our depth we were. The trolley dropped us off at the museum where we discussed several aspects of Sadie’s diary with the curator, who offered a modicum of information about the probable location of the wagon yard, now the Land O Nod Inn, but otherwise proved a bust for in-depth historical data about the city in the years preceding the first world war. We then walked to the Flatiron Building which I desperately wanted to photograph, but the light was harsh and the tourists thick, and I made plans to return after the shops had closed for the evening. And never did, for after taking the trolley through the Red Loop and back to the B&B we drove to War Eagle Mill about 25 miles to the southwest where we were again less than impressed. I managed a few photos including one of a blue heron hunting at the base of a waterfall, and Lori bought a small sack of buckwheat flour, but otherwise we were almost bored. The best thing was a short drive northwest where we crossed the White River in honor of Sadie and party who forded the river 20 times in six miles. Because of a pair of impoundments both upstream and down, it’s impossible to determine how the river would have been in their time. Now it’s backed up to a broad ribbon of water too deep for a wagon to cross without a major bridge.
By the end of the afternoon I was weary of the place and ready to leave. Instead of eating supper on the balcony of the Basin Hotel (our original plan), I returned to the biker-bar saloon where we ate the previous night and ordered the same meal, a half-pound burger topped with onion straws, guacamole and creamy chipotle sauce.
Lori shocked me by saying, “Sometimes you’re not into new things, are you?”
Not into new things? I almost choked on my burger.
“What about this entire trip, the backroads, the detours, the research?” I bristled. “I’m all about new things! Anyway, this place has the best burger I’ve ever eaten in my life. I wanted a second helping because I’m sure as hell never coming back.”
Her comment was the icing on the cake of a failed day. On our way back to our haven on the hillside we desultorily glanced at the Land O Nod parking lot where not a whiff nor trace of Sadie could be felt. Nor, indeed, was it possible to even glimmer what it would have been like in her day, so intrusive were the effects of the ugly faux-Victorian hotel. Somehow I’d expected more. I felt cheated, let down by the weight of history and a century’s worth of boom and bust cycles, and not a little angry over the dearth of information we’d sought. There was nothing for us here; the trip had been in vain.
Still stinging over Lori’s remark, I drove north toward the junction where we would branch off on side roads to our B&B, but instead of turning when we got there found myself grimly keeping to the main thoroughfare. After a few minutes Lori realized we were heading straight into the downtown area.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I’m going to find Sadie,” I said.
(To be continued)