Our road trip journey had already taken us through two central plains states, Kansas and Missouri, with a chance to see some western expansion history, two presidential libraries, the preservation of a Native American culture, an iconic national memorial, and a wonderful taste of Kansas City barbecue. Now, our trip was heading into the southern part of our Central Plains Road Trip. Even though the focus was on Arkansas and Oklahoma, the two states remaining on my pre-age two visited states’ bucket list, I had added a quick shot into Mississippi to view a couple of sites in Tupelo. I had only visited Mississippi consciously once before when my family drove me from Florida to Los Angeles just before I started college at UCLA. There was no stopping along the way for most of this trip, so even though I was at a conscious age, I still listed Mississippi as a state I needed to revisit and experience. Tupelo was just an hour away from Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee.
When I first explored taking a quick zip into Mississippi, I went on to the National Park Service website and looked for historic sites near the Mississippi-Arkansas border and found the Tupelo National Battlefield. This appeared to be a worthy historic look at some Civil War history, so I marked it on my mapping program. I noticed on the program that Elvis Presley’s boyhood home was nearby and marked this as a stop as well. I expected that Elvis’ home would be a quick tour through a small home, so I planned it as the first stop before going over to view the major battlefield. I was in for a major surprise.
My friend and I left our Missouri motel stop and headed south into Arkansas. An hour later, we turned east towards the Mississippi River and Memphis. We circled around the south side of Memphis and went southeast towards Tupelo. When we reached Tupelo, we headed for the park where Elvis Presley’s boyhood home was located. What we found was more than just the two room house where Elvis grew up in. Next to the visitor parking lot, there was a decent size museum and gift shop where we bought our tour tickets. The tour included not only a walkthrough in the two room home and the museum displays, but also a tour and presentation inside the small church where Elvis and his family were members. The film presentation was a church service where the preacher encourages a young Elvis to perform with the choir. The museum tour was not only full of photos and memorabilia from Elvis’ childhood, but also items and photos that the older and more famous Elvis provided to his longtime childhood friends. In the adjoining park, a walkway took us to a memorial circle with a statue of an older performing Elvis standing spread eagle over a younger guitar-holding Elvis. It was quite a display of the life of Elvis Presley. Fully impressed, we headed over to the Tupelo National Battlefield, only to find it was just a white marble memorial surrounded by two cannons in a small corner lot park. There were no National Park center, just a small pamphlet holder next to the memorial. Within the small park, there were a couple of labeled cemetery markers that identified the final resting places of a couple of soldiers and a scattering of unmarked stones where unidentified soldiers died and were buried after the battle. This small park was just a representation of the full-scaled battlefield that extended around and beyond Tupelo during the Civil War.
It was now time to head back to Memphis. My original thought in the planning was that after seeing Elvis Presley’s boyhood home, we would compare this to Elvis’ celebrity home at Graceland. However, we had taken up a lot of time at the boyhood home and had discovered a far greater perspective of Elvis’ full life within the adjoining museum, so we decided that we needed to drop Graceland from the schedule. Yet, according to friends, we did have to experience the Memphis music scene and take in the Memphis style barbecue by stopping at Beale Street in the downtown area. The famous section of Beale Street is within a single block, just two blocks from the Mississippi riverfront. When we got there, we found this section blocked off for a motorcycle rally, so we found street parking close by and walked into a street brimming with music. On the corner, we found BB King’s Blues Club and decided to try the Memphis barbecue there. It was a stroke of luck for us that Memphis Jones and his band performed live various blues and pop classics that were actually written and performed in the recording studios in Memphis, while we were eating. It was a wonderful dinner.
After Memphis, our next scheduled adventure was the only designated national park on the trip, Hot Springs National Park. Since Hot Springs was about a half hour off the interstate, I had suggested to my friend that it would be best to set up our motel reservation just before the exit heading off to Hot Springs, but he felt that we would have no problem driving on into Hot Springs, and I reserved our motel in Hot Springs. After our wonderful blues dinner, we headed off into Arkansas and drove towards our destination. By the time we got to Little Rock, the sun was setting. I recognized the hotel I had suggested as we passed before exiting the interstate and driving a northern arc up towards Hot Springs. There was no lighting on the US route into the city and we took the wrong turn off. We temporarily got lost, but thanks to my iPad map program, we finally tracked down the motel and settled in for the night.
The next morning, we drove up Central Avenue in Hot Springs to reach the national park. From what I understand, Hot Springs National Park is the smallest national park and the only park where one can take a taxi to visit, so I did not go up to the NPS website and download the official PDF map of the park. Instead I used my iPad map program to direct me to the park entrance. According to what I saw on the map program, the park boundaries covered the small mountain ridge surrounding the northern neighborhood of Hot Springs. The program marker directed us to a spot on the east side of this ring where Central Avenue turns left after entering the boundary ring. As we headed up Central Avenue, we noticed a national park service visitor center sign outside one of the buildings along the street, but there was no available street parking to make a quick stop, so we went on to reach the park entrance. However, as we turned and headed east, we never came upon a gate entrance into the park. After a few miles, we stopped and checked the map program, discovering we had already gone through the park. We drove back, found a sign pointing off to a campsite within the park, and turned down the road toward it. We passed the campground as we looked for trailhead parking, but the road led back to Hot Springs and Central Avenue. We drove back up past the visitor center and turned down a side street next to a corner park a half block away where we fortunately found an open parking space on the street. We got out and walked down to the corner park where a national park ranger had set up a small table display. What we discovered from the ranger was mind-blowing. Even though park boundaries had been mapped out, protecting the mountain ridge around the northern neighborhood of Hot Springs, the very focus of this national park was the hot springs themselves and the preserved bathhouses that tapped into those springs along Central Avenue. Much of the park was within the city limits of Hot Springs, so no park entrance gates or entrance fees. All of the park service employees were stationed in the buildings on this block of Central Avenue.
As we saw on the table display of expedition paraphernalia, the springs were explored by a small expedition sent by President Jefferson. The steamy waters were considered to be very healthy and curative, attracting many people. In 1932, Congress and President Jackson “reserved” the waters for the benefit of all, many years before Yosemite was the first protected land set aside by Congress under President Lincoln, and Yellowstone was officially protected as a national park some years later. However, this “reservation” did not set aside official land boundaries, so in 1921, the National Park Service convinced Congress to turn Hot Springs into the 18th National Park. After my friend and I listened to the history from the park ranger, we walked over to one of the open springs nearby and stuck our hands into the steaming waters. Then, we walked along a ridge path behind the bathhouses, taking in the surrounding natural greenery, before heading down to the visitor center, which was one of the major bathhouses that Hot Springs grew from. Inside the visitor center, we took the small tour to see how the popular spa treated its customers and clients. Of the 41 national parks that I have visited, Hot Springs is unique in its preservation of the business of natural relaxation and health.
After finishing up our visit with Hot Springs, we drove out of the city and headed southwest to another iconic location in Arkansas, the Crater of Diamonds State Park. Arkansas is the only state in the US where diamonds have been found and mined, all because of an ancient volcanic vent that brought many crystallized minerals up near the surface around the current town of Murfreesboro. When a farmer discovered the first diamond on his farm in the early 1900s, a diamond rush occurred in the area. In the 1950s, attempts were made to open sections of the diamond field to the public, but it was in 1972 when the state purchased the land and protected the land for the public. Once visitors pay the park admittance fee, they are allowed access to the plowed ground field to search for diamonds, which are still being discovered. The “finder’s-keeper’s” rules allow visitors to keep whatever potentially valuable gems they uncover. Serious gem hunters can rent digging and screen sifting tools from the visitor center, but for me and my friend, it was just interesting to walk along the dirt ridges and kick up some stones. We didn’t find any diamonds, but I did take an interesting conglomerate stone I found as a souvenir. After an hour of kicking dirt, we got back into the car and headed west for Oklahoma.
To be continued…