Arkansas: Hot springs eternal

In the summer of 1992, Simon Calder visited the state of Arkansas, where the Governor was preparing to stand for president. He found a sleepy backwater with charm to spare

The Governor's Mansion was a handsome villa in the wealthy part of Little Rock. From a distance, or through a fog of cigar smoke, you could have mistaken the residence of Arkansas's top politician for Georgian; in fact, it dates only from 1950. As I strode up the drive for a closer look, three men in bulky jackets appeared and asked me to leave; tours of the mansion, they said, had been "cut back" for security reasons.

This was 16 summers ago, when a populist Democrat politician named Clinton was striving to replace an unloved Republican president named George Bush as the most powerful politician in the world. And when Bill trounced the incumbent in the election of November 1992, he put his home state on the map.

A few months before Clinton won the keys to the White House, I visited Arkansas and found a state content to keep its distance from the rest of the world. At Little Rock airport, the Hertz representative stared blankly at my driving licence. The expiry date, well into the 21st century, was confusing enough; the jumble of letters and numbers in the postcode threw her completely. "Is this in France?" she wondered aloud. Later, the proprietor of the Town Lodge was so pleased that anyone from Britain should want to visit his city and stay in his motel that, in a spontaneous and commercially reckless gesture, he upgraded the room and gave me a discount.

For many people in a nation that had spent 12 years under Republican presidents, hope was the word that summer. Hope was also the name of the small Arkansas town where William Jefferson Clinton was born in 1946. In 1953 Bill Clinton's widowed mother took her young son to the nearby spa town, Hot Springs, which is where the Arkansas tourist trail begins. The toll-free phone line 1 800 543 BATH will get you to the Hot Springs Convention and Visitor Bureau from any phone in the US.

In 1992, the plain old Chamber of Commerce was already exploiting the Clinton connection by publishing a guide to his childhood haunts. On my first visit to Arkansas that summer, the Park Place Baptist Church was "celebrating 90 years of serving Jesus on Park Avenue"; some of those years were shared by Bill Clinton. He also enjoyed the outdoor life around the town, which visitors are encouraged to do. The Mountain Trail is a five-mile scenic drive that takes you to a tower at the top of Hot Springs Mountain.

From here you can (just) see the former president's high school on Oak Street, which is where he learnt to play the saxophone. You can also appreciate why the terrain comprising steep hillsides and narrow valleys, wreathed in evergreens and studded with cottages, is vouched to be "Little Switzerland". One particular crease is occupied by Bathhouse Row, a string of grandiose sanatoria devoted to the reputed healing powers of steamy water.

The Native American people who originally inhabited this part of the continent regarded the dozens of geysers that bubble from the flank of Hot Springs Mountain as sacred; the white men who, in the first couple of decades of the early 20th century, sought to exploit the source regarded it as an income stream, and invested in properties to lure the punters. Hot Springs may not be as beautiful as Bath, Baden Baden or Bali, but around 80 years ago it was a favoured spa destination.

The thrill and the custom wore off during the Depression of the 1930s, when disposable income evaporated and the bathhouses emptied of water and people. As a result, many of the original features were preserved. The Fordyce Bathhouse, built in 1915, boasted an exotic plumbing system that connected a seething spring, via a spaghetti of pipes, to the vital organs of a complex central super-heating system, which in turn fed features such as the Hubbard Tub (a rheumatism treatment) and the "electro-mechano" room, full of lethal-looking devices to cure ills and ease pains.

The craggy Arkansas hills melt into standard-issue Southern plains as you near Little Rock, a state capital of modest achievement and ambitions, but with plenty of open, friendly people.

The first European arrived in 1722 when Bernard de la Harpe, a French officer, was dispatched to explore the Arkansas river. Little Rock was just that; a small boulder that the explorer distinguished from a larger outcrop three miles upriver.

The only time Little Rock made news before a bright, young governor announced his presidential candidature was in 1957. Central High School, which faces on to South Park Street between 14th and 15th Streets, is a daunting yellow-brick castle that looks intended for defensive rather than educative purposes. The school was, indeed, a civil-rights battleground. Little Rock's largest school appears in the National Register of Historic Places because of its part in the development of racial equality. In 1957 the Supreme Court ruled that schools had to admit black students, and nine black children in Little Rock became the focus of a national test-case. Despite provocation from local racist politicians and violence from white families, the children and the civil-rights movement held their nerve. Little Rock drifted back to anonymity.

Bill Clinton's bid for the most powerful job in the world was run from the old Arkansas Gazette building on the corner of Louisiana and West Third Street. Opposite stood Bennett's Military Supplies, where the survivalist fearing a Democrat victory could buy smoke rockets and army-surplus helmets.

Little Rock did not let its favourite son change its small-town ways; Lin's Diner on East Capitol Avenue was a faithful example of the American vernacular culinary art, down to the chrome counter and the syrupy drawl of the proprietor. The breakfast platter comprised biscuit, a scone-like lump of dough; gravy, a thick and pallid soup tasting vaguely of dripping; and grits, a dish like small-bore tapioca devoid of flavour.

Tourists were welcomed at the Old State House, the neo-classical landmark where Bill Clinton formally announced his candidature – and venue for the Museum of Arkansas History, with a strong suit in social commentary. The 1870s was a lively decade in the US: the telephone was invented, the lightbulb was perfected and one Susan Anthony was arrested for voting.

Bill Clinton's success as the most popular surviving post-war president has projected Little Rock onto the world map – and given Hillary's husband some airs, graces and local cachet; in 2004, the William J Clinton Presidential Center and Park opened, resurrecting land abandoned when the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad rolled out of town. Arkansas has also benefited from the decision of Wal-Mart to locate its global headquarters in Bentonville in the north-west of the state; as a result, there are links from major US airports, such as Chicago O'Hare, to a part of America that would otherwise be a blank on the average citizen's mind-map. Arkansas seems to have enjoyed the past 16 years in the sun.

In that summer of 1992 there was one more potential presidential city to visit: Texarkana, home town to a billionaire named Ross Perot. He did not enjoy great respect (Ronald Reagan's speechwriter described him as as "a hand grenade with a bad haircut"), but might have found greater success if he had chosen a campaign manager with a better name than Orson G Swindle. Texarkana itself, whose name suggests its location – straddling the Texas-Arkansas border – might have found greater success if it had a better accommodation offering than a boarded-up guesthouse still sporting the sign "Hotel Grim".

To capitalise on the 15 minutes of fame that Ross Perot's failed candidature provided, the local Hospitality Association announced a campaign "to enhance Texarkana's image as a 'must-see' city". At the time, I noted it was "more of a 'must-flee' city" – but on the morning I intended to fly out, I found it difficult to leave. Not a taxi was to be found anywhere. So I walked out to the highway and started hitching.

With time rapidly running out, I was rescued by a carpet salesman, who dropped me off at the airport seven minutes before the flight for Dallas left. (In those innocent days, that was enough time to get on board.) During the drive, he told me he was a George Bush supporter – whose initials he happened to share.

This summer, when I looked back through my notes about that Arkansas summer, I was amused to see that the name of that benefactor was Gordon Brown.

STATE LINES: Arkansas

Population 2.6 million
Area Seven times Wales
Capital Little Rock
Date in Union 15 June 1836
Flower Apple blossom
Motto "The people rule"
Nickname The Natural State

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

Simon Calder flew on Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) from Heathrow to New York and onwards with Delta (0845 600 0950; www.delta.com). Plenty of options are available to Little Rock and Texarkana, as well as to Fayetteville in north-west Arkansas. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

Staying there

Arlington Hotel and Spa, Central Avenue and Fountain St, Hot Springs (001 501 623 7771; www.arlingtonhotel.com); in 1992 it cost $50 (£26) per double, now $112 (£59), room only.

King's Row Inn, 4200 State Line Avenue Texarkana (001 870 774 3851; www.kingsrowinn.com); was $32 (£17) per double, now $57 (£30), room only.

Visiting there

Clinton Presidential Center, 1200 President Clinton Avenue, Little Rock (www.clintonpresidentialcenter.org; 001 501 374 4242).

More information

Hot Springs: 001 501 321 2835; www.hotsprings.org

Little Rock: 001 501 376 4781; www.littlerock.com

Texarkana: www.txkusa.org

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