October 2020. A week and a half before an election that Americans had been on the edge of their seat about. In the middle of a pandemic that continued to steadily worsen, with people now over half a year removed from everyday life. A time when people eyed each other suspiciously not only trying to guess how they would vote, but if they would get too close to your breathing air.

Perfect time for a vacation, right?

Well, Elizabeth and I live just five hours away from a national park, yet had never taken the time to actually visit it in over four years of living in Norman. Given our newfound proclivity toward camping, Elizabeth convinced me that we should spend a weekend at Hot Springs National Park in October 2020. In hindsight, it was not the most covid-friendly park, but it was close and we could manage it without me missing any time at school, so it worked. We booked a campground at the Crystal Springs Campground along the shores of Lake Ouachita, perhaps a 20-minute drive from Hot Springs itself. Elizabeth took it up a notch and booked us a private (read: hopefully covid-safe) bath for us from one of the famous bathhouses in downtown Hot Springs. Beyond that, we planned on hiking a little bit, enjoying the hot springs a little bit, and taking a trip up to the top of Hot Springs Tower.

To say that we started out trip bright and early on Friday, October 23 would be a bit of a lie – as it turned out, a cold front had just swept through Norman, and instead it was more of an early and misty start. There were essentially 3 routes to Hot Springs we could take, and each one was almost dead even in length, so naturally our trip started with an argument over missing literally the first turn of the drive. Things settled in from there, though, taking US-77 to State Highway 3 for a scenic drive through southeast Oklahoma. Peak color was approaching in the forests down there, whatever that is worth. The route continued to get more scenic as we climbed up into the Ouachita Range through Talihina and approached the Arkansas line. There was a slight rush in the back of our minds – I had a 2:00 dynamics class that I would need to log into Zoom to attend before we could get fully on with our weekend. We were hoping to get to Hot Springs before that happened, but it was going to be close. With speed in mind, we stopped at the Wendy’s drive-through in Mena, Arkansas for lunch. In fall 2020, football announcer Gus Johnson was shilling for the Wendy’s pretzel bacon pub burger:

So of course I had to try it:

Except, as you can see, I accidentally ordered the pretzel bacon pub chicken sandwich. A true amateur hour moment from Nolan.

The last stretch of driving was frustrating for the simple reason that it was so mountainous, I couldn’t maintain a constant speed. I was relieved for more reason than one when we approached the outskirts of Hot Springs. Elizabeth entered directions to the nearest Starbucks, with the plan being that I would sit outside and use their wifi while she ordered a drink. The GPS had us getting there at 1:55 – perfect timing. Which, of course, meant that we accidentally pulled into the wrong spot, and had to loop down a side street to get back to the strip mall where the Starbucks was. And that we stopped the car at 1:59 instead.

I flew out of the car with my backpack, got set up at the nearest table, and immediately logged into the wi-fi. And then, as it turned out, the rush to shave minutes Elizabeth and I had been engaged in all morning wasn’t as useful, because my dynamics professor spent the first 15 minutes of class reviewing the next assignment. Still, Elizabeth ordered herself an iced tea and then went to pick up cheap lawn chairs at Wal-Mart (we’d left ours at home accidentally), and I was able to sit back and enjoy a kind of relaxing 50 minutes of class. I really do rate the idea of “destination classes”.

What a view:

Plus, that made 2:50 all the sweeter – I could immediately go from work mode to vacation mode. Elizabeth and I decided to do a reasonably covid-friendly activity – mini-golfing outdoors at one of the Pirate’s Cove courses you can find in every semi-touristy town in America. We chose the harder course, naturally, and after quickly disinfecting our clubs we were outside and vacation with a Low-Risk of Covid Activity.

Elizabeth started out hot in pirate mini-golf, jumping out to an early lead as we matriculated across the pirate ship. This was evidently her first time ever at a Pirate’s Cove, because she didn’t know about the Blackbeard facts that are posted at every hole. I was more than happy to oblige reading them in my best “Pirates of the Caribbean” accent.

To add to the intrigue, the cold front that had already passed Norman when we left that morning reached Hot Springs about halfway through out round. The day quickly went from sunny and 80 degrees to blustery and rapidly cooling. I’m not going to say that it was mini-golf in the elements, but I swear the wind was affecting my shots. After I’d roared back to the lead in the middle of the 18 holes, Elizabeth used the wind to pull back into an even match. Sure, the drama was fully contrived because only I really care, but so what? In the end, I hit a big hole in one late to barely squeak out a victory against the plucky underdog Elizabeth.

After the mini-golf adventure, we wanted to take a quick trip into historic Hot Springs, just to get the lay of the land. We drove down to Bathhouse Row and took a quick stroll around. The area is nestled in between two mountains in a valley, where all of the hot springs collect into the creek that flows through. Aside from just seeing where our bathhouses would be, I was keen to see my first hot spring. Turns out: it’s not hard. They’re literally everywhere on Hot Springs Mountain. Even the very short Tufa Terrace Trail, located right above Bathhouse Row, was enough to see several steaming springs boiling out of the ground. I’ll explain the area more in the Day 2 post, but since we were only at Bathhouse Row for about an hour, it seems silly to go into more detail now.

The reason we had to get back so fast, of course, is that by late October, the sun starts to set early. Nothing can put a damper in a night quite like having to set up a campsite in the dark of night. So, with that in mind, we headed to our campsite just as daylight was beginning to fade. That’s where we discovered several complications – first of all, the tent area of the campsite was rock-solid – I literally could not hammer the stakes into the ground to secure our tent. So, we improvised and brought our tent down to the lakeshore. Even there, the stakes struggled to get through the grass and rocky soil, but with the wind picking up and a mist settling over us behind the front I managed to persevere and get the stakes into a position where I was pretty sure we wouldn’t have our tent flipped overnight.

Next snafu: we didn’t bring our own firewood, as had been our custom for most of 2020. This turned out to be a serious issue – all the wood was wet, and there was nowhere at the campground to buy wood, and we were supposed to cook our dinner, and darkness was settling in! We’d kept an eye out for places advertising firewood, but hadn’t actually stopped at one of the few roadside stands between Hot Springs and the Crystal Springs area – in hindsight, an obvious mistake. So now we had to improvise before it got too dark, and fast.

We hustled to a little convenience store that google maps informs me is called “Lewis Liquor”. The interior was something you’d expect from a liquor store in rural Arkansas. Self-conscious of our masks, we asked the proprietor if he happened to know where we could get firewood. He looked us over, and then, clearly realizing he could gouge the idiot millennials, offered us some of his wood for $10. Fine. Whatever. I pulled Elizabeth’s car into the back of the seedy-ass store and chose the best-looking logs, and then we went back to our campsite and I did my best to forget that little episode ever happened.

By the time we got back to our campsite, full darkness was setting in. I quickly discovered that our firewood was on the soggy side. After a few tense minutes trying to get a blaze going, we finally were reasonably set up with a fire. I got the cast iron skillet heated up and some butter sizzling on it, and we cooked steaks for dinner. Considering the scuffed nature in which our dinner was created, it actually went down pretty nicely.

In typical fashion, Elizabeth was ready for bed by about 8:30. Not that I minded; the evening was rapidly getting colder. Occasional gusts of wind rocked the tent; it was a long night of being awoken whenever one of the stronger gusts came through. Gradually, they tapered off. I dozed fitfully as our full day in Hot Springs approached.

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