email from the Ozarks
Bradley David Williams
August 29, 2007
Hi from Eureka Springs, Arkansas -- the funkiest little town in America and perhaps the entire world!
This place has so much character -- and so many characters -- I can't believe it took me 40 years to discover it. A mere village of just 2,000 people, Eureka Springs is New Orleans meets Aspen meets San Francisco meets Hooterville! I got here two weeks ago today, and I'm here for good! ;p
So how did this Houston-based journalist end up in the alternate universe that is Eureka Springs? After spending the first week of July at the Rainbow Gathering, camped out with 5,000 hippies and freaks of every stripe in the gorgeous Ozark National Forest of Arkansas, my two traveling companions and I descended on Eureka Springs, just an hour's drive to the north, to come down from our Rainbow experience. Somebody had told me that the town had a writers' colony, so we found it, chatted up a young Israeli writer in residence, and when I got home, I went to the colony's website and filled out the online application. I was accepted, and not even two months later, here I am. I'll be at the writers' colony through November and then plan to find a place here to live.
When we first arrived here in Eureka Springs after the Rainbow Gathering, we checked into the Matterhorn, a 33-room, $50-a-night motel with posters everywhere depicting the Matterhorn, the famous Swiss mountain peak, but the architecture more resembles a Bavarian farmhouse than a Swiss Chalet. The town has given itself numerous hokey nicknames over the years, not unusual for a town built around tourism, and the most absurd of all is "Little Switzerland." No ski slopes here in the Ozarks -- at just 1,200 feet, the area rarely sees more than a few snowfalls each winter -- and of course it is no tax haven for the wealthy… Nope, it's not alpine here in the least, and the town's zany political landscape could hardly be called neutral. (There IS good chocolate here, including a famous fudge shop called "Two Dumb Dames.")
It's a town that has brought together quite a diverse populace: hippies, gay men and lesbians, artists, writers, historians, massage therapists, foodies, musicians, mountain folk, antique dealers, innkeepers, outdoorsmen, bikers, retirees, environmentalists and lots and lots of wacky right-wing fundamentalist Christians. Oh yes, this place has an array of tacky Jesus attractions, including a huge complex where the Passion Play is performed, a number of small religious "museums" (including a new one devoted especially to the ridiculous concept of creationism!) beckon the ignorant science-phobes of the world, and a garish 62-foot statue of Jesus -- "Christ of the Ozarks" -- can be seen for miles around. We also have the famous Thorn Crown Chapel, recognized nationally, even by atheists like me, for it's architectural greatness.
Needless to say, the religious zealots around here were none too happy when the city council unanimously passed a "Domestic Partnership Registry" on May 14th of this year, recognizing the town's many same-sex couples and inviting gay tourists to come "get married" here. One local Reverend inadvertently boosted gay tourism by publicly scorning Eureka Springs in the national media as "the most homosexual city in the South."
On my first night in town, I attended a packed meeting of the fledgling Gay Business Owners' Guild, where I got to introduce myself and even met the mayor, a stylish woman who is a classically trained pianist and gives ghost tours of the historic Basin Park Hotel, opened in 1905, on the side. Most of the gay community adores Mayor Dani (inexplicably pronounced Dana) Wilson, given her support of the Domestic Partnership Registry and efforts to boost gay tourism. The fact that this tiny town has become something of a mecca for the gay tourist is nothing short of amazing. Some twenty percent of the town's accommodations are gay-owned inns and Bed-and-Breakfasts.
Still, with all these gays in the Ozarks, I have yet to have a date! :( It's mostly boring gay couples here, I'm afraid.
But this gorgeous, funky little village is a dream of a place to call home. It's the best-kept secret in America, I am convinced. While many have heard of Eureka Springs, it is criminal the number of Americans who have never experienced its quirky charm. I hope to help put this place back on the map, bringing back the prosperity of 100 years ago, when the unofficial population was said to be at least five times what it is today and tourists flocked from far and wide to drink and soak in the "magical, healing" waters emerging from over sixty picturesque springs throughout the town. Among some thirty hotels back then, the city boasted a huge limestone castle in the wilderness called the Crescent Hotel, built in 1886 and still thriving today.
I have resisted the blog phenomenon until now, and because I detest the computer-geekiness of the term "blog," I am thinking of this instead as a mass email to the world. I don't want to be a slave to this thing, and I may get a webcam at some point and just do a video blog, so for now I just plan to do my "Email from the Ozarks" as an occasional thing. I'll report on the crazy goings-on in this heathens' hamlet, and will rant on any number of subjects. I aspire to be "the Hunter S. Thompson of the Ozarks" -- I tell people I want to be the gay Hunter S. Thompson, "but without the suicide hopefully." I have coined the term "gonzo-gay journalism" for my brand of reportage and am working on my first book here, a memoir in the form of a collection of confessional, humorous personal essays.
I am enjoying the last days of my thirties. I turn the big 4-Oh! on September 13th. Last year, on my 39 th birthday, my beloved friend, mentor and former boss Ann Richards died (right out of the University of Texas, I worked on her historic 1990 campaign and then became one of her press aides in the Governor's Office), so it will be the one-year anniversary of her death on my big day. The Rainbow Gathering helped me solve my decades-long mid-life crisis, and I am thrilled to be starting my 40s in this extraordinary place that I am calling home for the foreseeable future.
This sudden and unexpected relocation to Arkansas, "The Natural State" as the license plates say, coincides with the presidential campaign of former Arkansas First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. I'm a big supporter of Hillary's, and I just got to talk to her last month at Lady Bird Johnson's funeral in Austin. "You're going to win," I told her, and I believe that. Love her or hate her, she is the most competent and qualified candidate in the race, and I believe she deserves to be our first woman president. I'm not predicting she will undo all the damage George W. Bush has done, but I believe she will do a good job and may be able to lead us into a more civilized, enlightened and inclusive era as a country.
"I talk to a lot of people," I told Hillary in Austin, "and people say, 'Hillary thinks she's better than everybody else.' And I say, 'She IS!!!'"
This had her doubled over with laughter. She does have a sense of humor, and I think it will gradually come out over the course of the election.
In the short time I've been in Arkansas, I have visited all of the Clinton sites -- Bill's childhood home in Hope (I was there with Ann at the 1992 Democratic National Convention at New York's Madison Square Garden, where he accepted the nomination and ended his speech with, "I still believe in a place called Hope."), the impressive Clinton Library and Museum in Little Rock, and the house he lived in while attending high school in Hot Springs.
And just last week, I visited the house in Fayetteville where Bill and Hillary lived for several years while teaching law at the University of Arkansas. I couldn't stay long, but I got a quick peek at the room where they were married, and there in a glass case was Hillary's hippy, granny-style ivory wedding dress. Imagine my disappointment when I got home and read in the brochure that it is a REPLICA of the dress she wore! Why? Better a photo of the actual dress than a fake reproduction, I say. Upon further investigation, I learned that the original is in storage at the Clinton Library, and I assume Hillary is saving the sacred garment for her own presidential library.
And as for Owen Wilson, who I have always adored (the Wilson brothers are from Dallas, where their dad ran the local PBS affiliate and their mom, a protégé of Richard Avedon, is a respected photographer), let his shocking suicide attempt remind us not to take ourselves so seriously. Life is too short to spend it making ourselves miserable over the ridiculous pressures and stresses of this often absurd world we live in.
For a fabulous (and cheap!) vacation, and possibly a life-changing one, come see me in Eureka Springs. I shouldn't be hard to find -- just ask for the "Atheist in the Ozarks." ;p