As we drive up I-49 through Fayetteville, Arkansas, I am most surprised by just how busy everything looks. Things have changed dramatically since the last time I made this five-and-a-half-hour drive, some 20 years ago.
Instead of a winding two-lane, my wife Laura and I are cruising smoothly along a modern divided highway in our little Honda Civic — at least until we hit the traffic. The area between Fayetteville and Bentonville has undergone tremendous growth, and it’s stop-and-go through construction zones until we find the exit for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
O ur first glimpse of Crystal Bridges, the first major art museum to be opened (in 2011) in America since 1974, is a raw concrete structure that turns out to be the parking garage. “Brutalism,” I mumble into my recorder. “Great.”
But I discover how wrong I was as the building reveals itself. Designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, the museum bears no resemblance to the much-hated institutional style of the 1960s. Instead, the galleries are built around and over two ponds fed by natural springs. Three and a half miles of walking trails snake through the museum’s hilly grounds, which are dotted with artworks. “When you’re inside, you have these grand views of the landscape,” says Beth Bobbitt, the museum’s public relations manager. “When you’re out on the trails, you’re going to run into Robert Indiana’s LOVE and other sculptures on the path.”
Crystal Bridges was the brainchild of Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam. “It was her vision,” Bobbit says. “She really wanted it to be here in Bentonville. This is where she grew up. There wasn’t anything [like it] here. The closest museum was Tulsa or Memphis. She felt like this region was missing something. She wanted to make it accessible, so it’s free of charge, sponsored by Walmart.”
Bobbitt grew up in the region, left to get an education, and returned to work at the museum. “It’s been amazing to see Crystal Bridges’ effect on the community, with all the galleries and restaurants opening up around us,” she says. “If you had gone to downtown Bentonville five years ago, you wouldn’t have seen anything.”
Curator Chad Alligood was also drawn by the opportunity to help develop a new, world-class museum. “There was a dearth of arts opportunities in the region. In terms of collecting and interpreting American art for a large audience, that just didn’t exist. And there was a real thirst for it,” he says.
When Crystal Bridges opened in 2011, Alligood organized the first exhibition, called “State of the Art.” He traveled the country, visiting 1,000 artists in their studios to choose 227 contemporary works for the blockbuster show.
During our visit, the big attraction was “Warhol’s Nature,” which presented a side of the artist rarely seen. Andy Warhol wasn’t all soup cans and celebrity portraits. Among the many rarely seen works featured in the exhibit are images from his “Flowers” series and a late-period, largely monochrome landscape of an erupting Vesuvius. “Our mission is to celebrate the American spirit in a setting that combines the power of art with the beauty of nature,” Alligood says. “That intersection of art and nature is very important to us.”
The museum’s newest acquisition is one of its most spectacular. “We’re a young institution,” Bobbitt says. “Who would have thought a few years ago we would get a Frank Lloyd Wright house?”
Originally built beside the Millstone River in New Jersey, the house was owned for many years by a pair of married architects. “They had kept it up as best they could, but it was continuing to flood. It was in danger,” says Bobbitt.
The 1,800-square-foot home was moved to the Crystal Bridges grounds and restored. “It’s all original, all mahogany,” says Bobbitt. “The frame, the structure, everything is from the original house.” It’s a Usonian, one of some 60 moderately priced homes first built by Wright in the 1930s. “Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy,” she explains, “was that he wanted to make [such homes] affordable for all Americans.”
Crystal Bridges is the largest museum in America dedicated entirely to American art, and we stroll all afternoon among masterpieces from the Colonial period to Jackson Pollack and beyond.
I learned to drive in the mountains of Tennessee, so I have a lot of fun as Highway 62 shimmies through the Ozarks. And I’m not alone. We share the road with convoys of motorcyclists and the occasional high-end sports car. Laura, however, is not as enthusiastic about my driving and is relieved when we roll into the Inn Of The Ozarks on the northern outskirts of Eureka Springs.
We collect ourselves in our room before heading off to dinner at The Grotto, a new restaurant in historic downtown Eureka Springs that bills itself as a wine cave. The city is carved into the sides of hills, and tunnels run beneath the town that date back to the nineteenth century. Executive Chef Rodney Slane’s eatery is down a flight of stairs from street level, a cool oasis from the summer heat.
The Grotto had been open only a few weeks when we visited, but the food and atmosphere did not disappoint. We started off with a fantastic cheese plate, and then moved onto the highlight of the meal: bacon-wrapped quail poppers, unbelievably tender and succulent. For a main course, we split a salmon dish with asian glaze, saving room for an outstanding layered caramel vanilla cake.
We linger a while with some wine, and then decide to head back to the hotel. It had been a long day.
Chapel In The Woods
The Grotto’s fine dining was inspiring, but I love a good country breakfast, and Myrtie Mae’s at the Inn Of The Ozarks serves a fine example, with fluffy biscuits and hash browns done just right. We’ll need our fuel for the day ahead.
We wind back up Highway 62 to visit Eureka Springs’ most famous building: Thorncrown Chapel. Architect E. Fay Jones was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, and he built this holy house on a hill as a commission for a schoolteacher named Jim Reed. Pictures just don’t do it justice. It’s steel and glass, but it feels like trees and air.
“That’s the whole concept,” says Harry Hoffman, who has been greeting visitors at the chapel for the past 12 years. “It’s known as organic architecture. It blends with its surroundings, in this case, a forest. The American Institute of Architects chose this as the fourth-best design of the twentieth century. Barely a month goes by that it’s not in a magazine or on television.”
Although there’s a steady stream of people while we’re there, photographing and taking in the scene, it remains reverently quiet. Even the clicking of a photo shutter seems somehow disrespectful in this natural cathedral.
Northwest Arkansas’ most exotic residents live in an exclusive, 459-acre mountaintop community called Turpentine Creek. There, more than 60 tigers, 17 cougars, and a few other big cats are tended by a dedicated staff of professionals who greet more than 40,000 visitors a year. “All of the animals are rescues, mostly from the private-pet industry,” says keeper Emily McCormick. “People just don’t know what they’re getting into. They’re wild animals. They don’t make good pets.”
McCormick got her start here 17 years ago, as one of the first class of interns at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. Her enthusiasm is infectious. “Obviously, I’m addicted to the big cats. But Eureka Springs is a big reason I stayed here. It’s a neat little town. And I love the Ozarks area, with all of the hiking and the mountains.”
She has seen the refuge grow and expand from a few cages to the current maze of habitats, complete with walk-in pools for the older cats and comfy couches woven from recycled fire hoses. The staff is currently hard at work on an on-site veterinary hospital that, once completed, will save the 40-minute trip to the nearest facility that can handle “patients” of this size. “It took over a year of design and fundraising,” says McCormick. “We had a pair of architects from near Eureka Springs who donated all of the design work for us, which was worth thousands of dollars.”
Although it started out as a big cat refuge, the current star of Turpentine Creek is Bam Bam, a grizzly bear who was rescued from captivity in Oklahoma. “These guys have all been raised by humans. They don’t know how to survive in the wild. We give them good nutrition and the proper medical care they need,” she says.
From Zeus the White Tiger to Brodie the Lion, they all have their stories of hardship and rescue. The big cats can eat 7 to 15 pounds of food a day, depending on the season. “We’re lucky to live in the land of Tyson Foods, which is based in northwest Arkansas. They donate about 300,000 pounds of food per year,” says McCormick.
But do big cats like cardboard boxes as much as house cats? “They do. They like to tear them up.”
It’s hot on the hill at Turpentine Creek, so we return to the hotel for an afternoon dip in the pool. The winding mountain roads make Eureka Springs popular with driving enthusiasts, and we discover that our hotel this particular week is the site of the annual gathering of the Scikotics, a car club dedicated to the Toyota Scion, first produced in 2002. The drivers are lining up with a police escort in the parking lot.
“This is our fourth year here,” says Fred Morrison, who drives a 2005 XB decorated with Minions, the animated stars of one of the summer’s biggest movies. “We have a parade through downtown, so we can show off our cars.”
W e’re heading back down town for a different celebration: A champagne tasting at the Grand Tavern. It’s part of the annual Fleur Delicious Weekend, a culinary event that has grown from one to two weekends over its five-year history. “We invite all of the businesses in the city to participate,” says Illene Powell, who founded the festival soon after moving to Eureka Springs. “They can do anything with a French flair. You can have a cocktail with Siroc vodka, which is our sponsor. Or you can have a menu item that is a French-inspired dish.
“Coming from New Orleans, I’m used to a pretty vibrant town with things to do every night of the week. Here, you have that, but it’s on a smaller, more intimate scale. We like to say we know no strangers.”
Built in 1883, the Grand Central Hotel was the city’s first fireproof building. It was known as the Grand Dame of the Ozarks. After escaping the wrecking ball in the 1980s, it underwent a $2 million renovation, and is now a boutique hotel with suites boasting 13-foot ceilings and all period furnishings — except for the flatscreen TVs and two-person jacuzzi tubs in each room.
Downtown Eureka Springs is a warren of shops, its streets filled with places like Crystal Waters, a New Age outlet for healing crystals and exotic scents; 2 Dumb Dames, who make amazing fudge; and the Eureka Hemp Company, which sells sustainably produced, durable bags and clothes. My favorite find of the weekend was Kaleidokites, a small store perched in a third-floor loft filled to the brim with colorful kites of all designs and descriptions.
Dinner and Brunch
There were so many great-looking local restaurants that we couldn’t choose, so we surveyed the Eurekans. One name that kept popping up was Ermilio’s, a homespun Italian place that has been a city staple for as long as anyone could remember. But a quick inquiry over beers at the Chelsea’s Corner Cafe revealed that we would have had to plan ahead to get a table at Ermilio’s, so we opted for another restaurant that had been the subject of raves: KJ’s Caribe. It’s a colorful restaurant with a relaxed atmosphere serving Cuban and Mexican inspired dishes. We began with an array of salsas and kicking jalapeno pie, with an inventive vegetarian mole for the entree.
We woke up on Sunday and made a beeline for what was without a doubt the most recommended restaurant of the trip. Local Flavor is situated on Main Street at the edge of downtown. We sat on the shaded patio and had an outstanding sandwich with tapenade, goat cheese, and roasted red peppers. With the courteous service and near perfect atmosphere, it was easy to understand what Eurekans see in the place.
T here was one final stop on our way back to Memphis. War Eagle Cavern is one of the biggest of the more than 2,800 different caves that millennia of rains have carved into the Ozark’s Karst topography. Situated on the shores of Beaver Lake, which was formed when the White River was dammed in the 1960s, the cave was once home to a hill family who weathered the Depression in the woods. Today, War Eagle Cavern is home to thousands of bats, a scattered few of which we saw asleep on the ceiling during our hour-long afternoon tour. Our guide was enthusiastic about the biology of the bats and the deep, geological history of the cave. Like nearly everyone we met in our whirlwind tour of Northwest Arkansas, he seemed very much at home among the hills.