I live a relatively blessed blissful life. Except for the usual suspects (aches/pains) of getting older and not having the energy I had in my 20s (though occasionally I have more), I have no complaints.
I live in (what I believe to be) the most beautiful part of the U.S. When I was a teen, often to my objection, I was sent to summer camp near Asheville, N.C. Though I didn’t want to be away from my friends, I made new friends and saw something I’d never seen before in my life.
Mountains. And big ones. I remember thinking more than once, “If I could keep my camp friends and bring my hometown childhood friends up here, the Blue Ridge Mountains would be the ideal place to live.”
I still think that. But it didn’t happen.
Before I turned fifty, I knew that I was not going to live in the town in which I was raised. Though the town has some very good qualities, I found the negative far outweighed the positive (as far as my goals were concerned).
My goals were (and are) low crime rate, peaceful, apolitical (at least in civil discourse…most of us vote), cost of living, education, etc.
Though Asheville N.C. was up there at the top (and that was 1998), so was Hot Springs, Ar., and it was closer to people I knew within the state and adjacent states. I chose Hot Springs.
Like any move to a new city, there was a culture shock. I had lived in large metropolitan cities much of my adult life and I walked fast, talked fast, and found myself not enjoying the very slow genteel pace I had been seeking. I learned that was/is a process and it eventually did happen.
But I wanted mountains, tall ones, with lots of mountain lakes and plenty of bass fishing (I was not vegan when I arrived). I fished nearly every weekend for 6 years; and sometimes during the week. Yet another freedom I took for granted all my life.
I met my wife Lee about a decade later. Her move to Hot Springs from Portland, Or. was also a tough culture shock. She’d lived all over the world. As time went by, we learned to love it.
We never want to take for granted the lush 5500 acre second oldest National Park in the U.S. (Hot Springs National Park). One of the main trailheads is about ¼ mile from our front door. We live within ½ mile of the purest water in the world, and its free from a four spigot water fountain maintained by the National Park Service. Elvis had that water shipped montly to Graceland in Memphis. He, of course, could have had any water in the world shipped to him. He chose our 2000 year old thermal water that doesn’t see the light of day until its passed over mineral rich crystals for a long long time. And he drank it. Never did he Return To Sender.
I don’t blame him. Lee and I could never go back to tap water (or even bottled water for that matter). Mountain Valley Water bottles it (in the dark green with red/orange label bottles) but the taste is not even close to how it tastes fresh out of the ground from the city spigots. We fill about 7-10 jugs per week and try to drink at least ¼- ½ gallon per day. With a little fresh organic lemon, it is the best body cleanser out there. Some pay hundreds and even thousands a month for a similar cleansing that we get for the cost of a few lemons.
Lee found a beautiful century old “wedding chapel” atop one of our favorite hiking mountains and we decided to marry there. Some of the park rangers didn’t even know it was still up there. She had found it on a solo hike one day and told me about it when she returned, already calling it “our wedding chapel”.
Though our tiny hamlet allegedly lures 5 million or so tourists from around the world annually, we have about 30,000 residents. It always seems much larger due to iconic landmarks like the five star Arlington Hotel, the National Park that is the only one in the country whose edge is right in our gentrified downtown area.
Some of the most interesting architecture is in our downtown area, and residents have done some amazing work renovating the sometimes 100-200 or more year old structures.
The history of the town is unique in that it was “America’s First Tourist Town” and advertised as such. After it got the word out that it was “a tourist town” (nobody really knew what that was), other towns tried it, some with success, most not.
Hot Springs had/has something pertinent for both travelers and residents. The bathhouses are magnificent. Only one is still open as a bathhouse and the price for a bath and massage is around $80, 1/10th the cost of such larger more lush destinations such as La Costa, etc.
Though we have people for neighbors, and most of them are quite nice, the neighbors we know best are deer, a myriad of tropical birds; raccoons, snakes, lizards, turtles, and many we don’t see but we know are here such as panthers and numerous other large cats, bear, and numerous other interesting creatures. Not that this is a lure, but Arkansas has more venomous snakes than any other part of the country, and we’ve seen our share. People not familiar with snakes should take note that snakes, generally, unless threatened, are not a threat in the least. They simply want to move out of the way (if they get in the way). Moreover, most are very shy when they hear or see hikers coming.
Only once did I have a close call with a 5 ft Western Copperhead (we’re still not sure how it got here; its much larger than our southern copperheads). I came very close to stepping on her, and not looking. Lee screamed at me and I looked down to see her looking up at me. I slowly walked around her and kept a distance of about 10-15 feet. Lee had her old camera and was determined to get close-ups so she went back to our friend and snapped away from just a few feet away. This happened at the end of our hike. We’d left the trail and were on the side of the street.
The snake was simply waiting for dinner to cross the road. Copperheads, like most venomous snakes, don’t really feel like wasting its toxin on something that they don’t consider dinner (and they don’t consider people dinner). They will more often do a “head slap”, which is a warning (they generally do not bite on a first strike); and only then when feel threatened, or, one steps too close to their nest. We’ve done hundreds of hikes and had no issues with any of the animals except a few mean insects that show no mercy.
The worst insect bite was not deep in the forest but hiding under the basket rail in the parking lot at Walmart. I didn’t feel it bite my hand but by the time I walked inside, the clerk asked me what happened to my hand. The lump was literally the size of a baseball (it took less than 5 minutes to swell that large). It had to be a scorpion (we have plenty) or recluse or black widow. It took a month for the swelling to subside.
Given this information, aren’t you just rarin’ to pack up and visit Hot Springs?
Days like the bug bite are very rare. We get stung by something about once or twice a year; it goes with the territory and is usually healed with some tea tree oil within a week or less.
One of the things that we never take for granted is our nearby Kroger (for groceries) and WalMart (for dry goods), Lowes, Bestbuy, are all within a few minutes drive and even one of the top vegan restaurants in the state is a few blocks away. In every major city where I’ve resided, it was a real chore to get to just about anywhere. These type of things turn out to be important in the golden years. I don’t want to spend half my life in a car. I never did like doing that. And Lord knows why I ever chose large cities “as home” for so many years, given the hassle and dangers of living in them.
Large cities do offer a great deal of culture, museums, sporting events etc. that small towns don’t. But most of downtown has been turned into galleries and museums, and major exhibits always seem to hit our little town. We can walk to most of them. We have the oldest documentary film festival in the country, which just qualified this past year for the Academy Awards. We’ve seen some top-notch films at HSDFF, reviewed some, and even made friends with the producers, directors, etc.
Our place has a beautiful home office view of Hot Springs Mountain and it is not unusual to see hawks and a variety of other beautiful birds fly by our window.
Which brings me to why we celebrate Memorial Day and hawks. People have asked me if I’m a hawk or “pro-war” etc. because I’m supportive of our military, and have a strong feeling for those who have perished due to war. The answer is “No, I’m not”. And to be honest, I’ve never met a sane person who is (pro-war). I am an adult now and I realize there are times when war is necessary, and is always a last resort. We’ve been in wars in which we needed to be, and others maybe we’d done better not to participate.
Either way, if we send our soldiers to foreign lands, we owe them every bit of support we possibly can offer. They deserve at least that. And that has nothing to do with how we may personally feel about that particular war. Those are human beings, they are away from home, war is a frightening and traumatic experience, and they better know we’re here for them (while they’re there and when they come home). Most of them can think of other places they would prefer to be.
Many in my family have been in the military. I was willing to go and signed up for the lottery in the early 1970s but my number was too high, I was not drafted, and I went to college. The Viet Nam War ended shortly thereafter.
The soldiers were only there doing their jobs. They did not start or stop the wars. They simply did the job they were trained to do. They were willing to give everything for us when they enlisted, so that we could have the freedom to move wherever we wanted, to hike and enjoy the beauty of our country, to visit the grocery and not wait in long lines for a crust of bread and processed meat. We have the freedom to buy organic and even be vegan if we wish.
Please think of something for which you’re grateful. Doesn’t matter what it is. A picnic with friends or family, a cross country trip or even a trip to visit the grandparents, finishing finals in school, or you name it.
Please remember our soldiers who gave their lives in war. Remember the wounded warriors, and remember them all. These human beings do not go to dangerous foreign lands “just for fun”. They bravely participated so that our freedoms, most of which we take for granted, would never be removed from us. It is real easy to forget, since a lot of those heroes fought so many years ago. But let’s not ever forget. By not forgetting, it makes it much easier to be grateful for the smallest of things that make us happy, and never take them for granted.
Thank a soldier today, and tomorrow, and any day. You have that freedom too.
Rick London is a writer, cartoonist and designer. He is best known for his Google #1 ranked offbeat cartoons Londons Times and his Brand e-Mall Rick London Shopping. He is married to popular nature photographer Lee Hiller-London who has HikeOurPlanet.com