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

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Voices
voices
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
newsHad asteroid hit earlier or later in history, the creatures might have survived, say scientists
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried