Eureka Springs welcomes LGBT travelers with open arms.
Sometimes life takes hikers on trails that are remote, yet unexpectedly enchanting. This is certainly true when it comes to discovering the countryside in Carroll County, situated in the Northwest Arkansas Ozark Mountains. The real gem in this Central American state is the township of Eureka Springs, the only city in America whose entire historic downtown is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. What’s more, The New York Times deemed it one of the country’s premier gay tourist spots.
Eureka Springs is located about 45 minutes southwest of tourist mecca Branson, Mo., and about an hour east of the headquarters of Wal-Mart in Bentonville, Ark. Life in this 5.5 square-mile hamlet reflects the diversity of its myriad 2,300 residents, the lion’s share of whom moved here from large cities around the globe. Most had successful careers, but wanted to slow their pace down a bit, to enjoy the nectar that this rural setting has to offer.
I recently had the opportunity to experience firsthand how spectacular this area is and even more the warm, accepting nature and caring these folks possess. I took a few days to enjoy one of the seasonal Diversity Weekends, coordinated by Deborah Rose, Mark Wetzel and others, that are widely popular in the area. What impressed me most was learning that about 35 percent of the residents are LGBT and there are 60 gay-owned businesses here.
Quaint shops abound in the downtown district.
It is not odd to see same-sex couples walking down the street hand-in-hand or even kiss. Locals don’t blink an eye. The LGBT and straight communities commingle and socialize together.
The community is so accepting that when anti-gay Flip Benham and his cohorts pounced on Eureka Springs (see April 17 issue, “Flip loves Matt and other odd Ozark tales”), two-dozen or so ministers turned down the opportunity to demonstrate with them. According to a web post by local Rev. Mark Kaiser, they “do not get involved with such issues.”
Things don’t stop there. Neighbors are of the old school, always dropping off food or assisting those in need. If someone has an issue, like a house fire, then a benefit is held to raise funds and/or secure household items.
The town has no stoplights. It has no gay bars. It does have winding streets that crisscross the landscape, resembling a labyrinth of sorts. Everywhere in the Historical Loop I saw stairs cascading seemingly infinitely upward along the hillsides, reminiscent of an Impressionist’s stroke on canvas.
Mayor Dani Joy is welcoming to everyone in her elected-official role.
Speaking of art, Eureka Springs is home to a tremendous community of artists — fine, visual, performance, musicians, writers, potters and more. There are writing workshop havens, as well as places like the Art Colony, nine buildings that house a multitude of artists and musicians, who are happy to showcase their creations as they work on them. There is even a “hayloft” stage for performances.
All this appears to be so odd, especially in light of the fact that about 50 miles away to the east is a headquarters of the The Knights of the Klu Klux Klan in Zinc. The residents in Eureka Springs don’t seem to care. They go about their lives with gusto, rarely dabbling into others’ business unless asked to do so.
The town was first settled in the mid-19th century by visitors who came to bathe in the healing waters of the Basin Springs that are prevalent in the area. Originally, this was considered sacred land by Native American tribes, who often had peaceful gatherings here. New Age aficionados also say that the town sits smack dab on a vortex, bringing with it a sense of mind/body/spirit alignment.
I asked a number of transplanted residents how they came to live in the town. They all said they were drawn to the area and its mysterious powers. I guess that’s why the annual Ozark UFO Conference chooses to return to this extraordinary place.
Sonia and Suzie celebrated their ninth anniversary by ‘getting DPR’d!’
Things aren’t all paranormal or enigmatic here, however. Almost every weekend Eureka Springs plays host to a festival or conference of some fashion. Notably, B.B. King and Willie Nelson come regularly for blues and country festivals. Art lovers will be in sensory overload during the Festival of the Arts held during the entire month of May each year.
For those who want a little spirituality, visit the local Metropolitan Community Church of the Living Springs, or any of the other welcoming churches or synagogues in the vicinity.
While we’re on the subject, the largest Christ statue in North America, standing over 67 feet high, is located in Eureka Springs on top of Magnetic Mountain. It resides at the same complex as The New Great Passion Play, a section of the Berlin Wall and Dinosaur Museum. The notorious white supremacist and anti-Semite Gerald L.K. Smith started the complex. The statue has been mocked relentlessly over the years with unflattering nicknames such as “Gumby Jesus” and “Our Milk Carton With Arms.”
If this news doesn’t scare you, there’s always the tour of the Crescent Hotel. You might see a ghost at this, the most haunted hotel in the country.
City Clerk Mary Jean Sell signs the Domestic Partner Registry forms.
My first glimpse of the outskirts of Eureka Springs came on my journey from the airport about an hour away. Robert “Rob” Wagner from Eureka Springs Limousine picked me up. While on the way to my accommodations, we took a jaunt on the wild side by driving over the tiny town of Beaver’s one-lane suspension bridge that was partially flooded. Of course, it was exciting and gave me a real taste of the four-day adventure that was ahead. Perhaps, Gilligan and the gang would have enjoyed this one instead! Better than their three-hour tour. Incidentally, Wagner’s business operates 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week and sports seven stretch limos. (Wagner also has a fleet of 14 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and over 20 in Chicago, Ill.) For as little as five dollars you can go from point to point around this quaint village. Longer excursions may also be arranged, to destinations such as outlying areas, Branson and more.
Rob and his partner, Mark Hicks, are also the proprietors of Heart of the Hills Inn and Cottage, one of the more than 100 bed and breakfast establishments in the area. A number of these Victorian-style places are, of course, “family-friendly.” In addition to the B&B offerings, there are over 100 hotels, motels, cabins, cottages, campgrounds, etc., to satisfy even the most discerning guest. Getting around the area is quite easy. If you want to take it slow, enjoy one of the lovely horse-drawn carriage ride services or the trolley. Is adventure more your style? Then hop on board one of the few remaining excursion trains in the U.S.
The countryside provides spectacular vistas to view.
Anglers will be in heaven in Carroll County where fly fishing abounds. Sprinkle in some camping, a canoe trip on the White River or experience some intense mountain biking. Are you more of an animal person? Then take a visit to the “petting zoo” located at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, the largest big cat refuge in the world. Of course, you can’t pet the Siberian tigers or the lions or the big black bears. Oh, my! But you sure can gaze at the splendor of these awesome creatures. How about visiting one of the six day spas for some pampering? Eureka Springs has over 50 massage therapists and alternative healers, too.
Let’s discuss one of the more eclectic restaurants the area has to offer. The Eureka Road Kill Cafe serves up seemingly regular fare, except that you can choose between chicken, beef, pork, elk and buffalo. They even sell Road Kill Jerky — labeled as aged armadillo (it’s really beef folks!). Flavors come in habanero, peppered opossum, Ozark Country coon, etc.
My first evening was spent at the New Delhi Indian Buffet & Deli on the main drag, owned by Bill Sarrad and John Wiley. Of course, this laid-back establishment is a favorite among locals, especially for musicians. Guests were entertained in the form of a Diversity Pals Open Jam by area drummers and strummers. This comfy restaurant specializes in authentic East Indian cuisine. Wiley broke away from his duties to tickle the ivories. It was ah-mazing.
Scores of stores are completely diversity friendly in Eureka Springs.
Other incredible places I visited were biker favorite Road House Restaurant when I went out for a two-hour motorcycle excursion with the Diversity Bikers across the county; Chelsea’s Corner Cafe where I got to see regional musical favorite Iris; Henri’s Just One More bar, which specializes in chocolate martinis, for karaoke; Caribé Restaurant, featuring a Diversity/Family/Rainbow night on Thursday evenings, for fun, dancing, pool and camaraderie; and a host of lovely shops, including Eureka Thyme and Little Bread Company (good dough is my weakness!). Of course, locals and visitors always find time to go to the Inn Convenience Store, a diversity friendly place where you can get dry goods, groceries and bottled libations.
Have you hugged your mayor today? Has she sent you on your way with love? Well, perhaps not, unless you live in Eureka Springs. Mayor Dani (pronounced Dana) Joy is not your typical elected official. She is totally open-minded and considers everyone on the same level playing field. In fact, she was a big supporter of the Domestic Partner Registry (DPR), authored by gay activist Michael Walsh that was approved and adopted by the city council last year. Eureka Springs does not have a Pride parade, but the mayor has been invited to participate in the Northwest Arkansas Pride Parade later on this season in Fayetteville.
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Just as Joy came to get me for our interview, Sonia and Suzie from Hot Springs, Ark., walked by and went into City Clerk Mary Jean Sell’s office to participate in the DPR formality. The fee is $35, but it was waived for the first three participants during the Diversity Weekend festivities. There was no official ceremony. However, they got to select between a top hat and a mini veil. They were also given a gift bag of goodies to enjoy during their visit. So far there have been 170-plus couples who have come from across the nation to have their relationships formally recognized. This is not only for those in the LGBT community. Others, like seniors who for one reason or another are not able to marry, have found this to be of value as well. According to Chamber President Jeff Feldman and City Advertising & Promotion Commission Public Relations and Publicity Director Ken Rundel, about 4,000 weddings are held here on an annual basis. Well-appointed facilities for the ceremonies and receptions abound. That’s another reason why Eureka Springs attracts so many DPR applicants.
Joy said she visited the town for over 20 years before moving from Weatherford, Texas. She owned a restaurant until 1999 when she opened up a title office. When she decided to run for public office it was because she wanted to give something back to the community. She is now in her second year of a four-year term. She previously ran for state representative. When asked her impressions about the DPR, she replied, “God does not make mistakes,” adding that she was always in support of its passage.
Life in Eureka Springs is sure relaxing. A piece of the Berlin Wall says it all: “I have no anxiety.”
She explained that when she moved to Eureka Springs and opened her restaurant, she was shorthanded one evening. A scruffy guy was eating at the restaurant and needed a job. He and his partner wound up working for her for a long time and even became “uncles” to her daughter. “The gay community is part of the family we call Eureka Springs,” she said. Joy also commented on the anti-gay American Family Association film “They Are Coming To Your Town,” which negatively talks about the “infiltration” of gays in Eureka Springs. Joy said it had not adversely impacted the community or tourism. (Personally, I think that everyone should be elated if the LGBT community comes to your town. Think how wonderful it would be!)
While I was meeting with the mayor, Police Chief Earl Hyatt stopped by. We had a chat about operations in a small town. He joked about Benham, “You couldn’t keep him in your area?” Since there are no streetlights, you can’t get a ticket for running a red light. However, if you stop too long to chat with a neighbor, the police certainly might cite you, or at least warn you to “mosey on.”
Lesbian Rae Hahn also serves on the city council. A retired adult educator and resident for decades, she is one of the more senior members of the community. So is Barbara Scott, who first arrived in 1972 and purchased the New Orleans Hotel, billed as a feminist hang-out. Despite early opposition, she gained recognition in the regional press and achieved success. She said that Eureka Springs was a melting pot of hippies, queers and back-to-landers in those days. She left in 1978 to go back to the New Orleans French Quarter. She came back in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Hahn and Scott were a wealth of information and shared their extensive stories with me, far too numerous to report here.
Nonetheless, they both agreed that having the gay and straight communities united is more appealing and beneficial. It just seems to work in Eureka Springs.
I thoroughly enjoyed strolling through many of the shops that offer local creations in the way of clothing, jewelry, artwork, body care products, gifts and more. I really hated to leave when it was time to go. I had only scratched the surface of what the area had to offer. Rest assured, I will return!
Photo Credit: Lainey Millen