After I interviewed “redneck” Bill Jones, I hopped back on Highway 71 and continued southeast to Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Had you heard of this city before reading about it here? (Had you even much of an impression of Arkansas at all?) I hadn’t until searching for lodging near the attraction that brought me down here: Crater of Diamonds State Park.
Yes, there is a crater. Yes, there are diamonds. And believe it or not, yes, you can dig for them. (I show you below.) First, let’s get to Hot Springs, where I have much more than diamond mines to write about.
We’re talking crystals, bath houses, and spring water: pretty much everything for a holistic good time.
Hot Springs, Arkansas
The crystals came first.
Like ol’ Bill’s place from last time, the crystals shone alongside the road–where the road started to get real gorgeous. Ever more winding, forested, rocky hills through which to cruise and awe, I was entering the Ouachita National Forest (“Oua” sounds like “wa”).
Then they sparkled out of the corner of my eye–for sale on tables like produce in farm country.
I hopped back in my car and continued on for another hour or so until billboards and traffic decorated the corridor into Hot Springs.
My host had directed me to meet her in a grocery store parking lot. She said the route to her house was complicated. She was right.
After meeting up in the parking lot, I followed Emilia’s Honda off the main road in town, onto residential streets, then descended through a new housing development toward the water visible below. Emilia owned a home along this serpentine body of water that was so, because it’s actually the Ouachita River. Yet it is so wide in places, I have to believe it only a couple of hard rains away from being a lake.
Here’s this water up close:
These photos were taken the following morning from Emilia’s dock, after having the chance to get to know my host.
Emilia is in real estate. No surprise she owns a lovely property.
I met the 50-something brown-haired hostess on Couchsurfing.com, the travelers website where hosts open their doors to those on the road, offering some regional hospitality (and a couch or bed) and an insider’s view of one’s destination. No cash exchanged; simply travel lovers connecting, learning about their respective travels, and about where each are from. This isn’t hotel or resort travel–despite appearances to the contrary from Emilia’s riverside lodging pictured above. This is travel about getting to know the locals and immersing yourself in a locality. There couldn’t be a better service for my excursion getting to know the South.
So I had set off on this tour with prearranged hosts here in Arkansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia, plus a couple of afternoon visits sessions as well. As you’ll see, each host lived up to the promise, and couchsurfing proved indispensable as a service for my quest.
This first morning, though, I was intent on following my own lead to the one thing that brought me to Hot Springs in the first place: diamond mining.
Once upon a time, I was reading a back issue of National Geographic in Tanzania, East Africa. I had come upon the old editions which featured the back page stories about each zip code in the US. This particular edition featured zip code 71958, that of Murfreesboro, Arkansas, an hour away from Hot Springs.
The article’s highlight of this five digit destination was the diamond mine within its borders. Crater of Diamonds State Park is the only mine of its kind in the world: open to the public.
Yep. Anyone can grab a shovel and try to find a literal diamond in the rough.
On the 26th of July, I arrived mid-morning to the woodsy park:
In the parking lot I saw license plates from at least seven different states–and not just area Southern ones. I saw Iowa and a fellow Minnesotan. You betcha.
Inside the facility was a souvenir shop and an equipment rental–where I picked up a bucket, shovel, and sieve set and took a class on how to use the tools.
After quick rundown on how to be a miner…
…and took a look at some of the minerals I might find…
…as then the ones I really wanted to find…
…and saw those who’ve recently gotten lucky…
…it was time for me to get out there and strike it rich.
I found a spot that looked good to me for some reason–but I also acknowledged I knew nothing about this. I collected a bucketful of dirt from this claim, walked to the watering troughs under shelters which you can see at 2 o’ clock in the image above, and started to sieve. Just like these folks:
After washing away all the dirt, you have a bed of small rocks left behind on your sieve. Slam it upside down onto the nearby benches, and get looking:
I did this again and again and again and again–as many times as a engagement diamond has faces. I found some pretty little rocks–pocketed them as souvenirs–but I couldn’t find a diamond. I got another bucket load of dirt. Same result.
I looked around to see if others were having any luck.
But I guess luck is determined by what you consider a success. Families were out here having a good time. Yet no one found a worthy rock while I was here for three hours or so.
Despite the result, Crater of Diamonds State Park was a bucket list item I got to check off my list. And now that the fun was over, it was time to get back to Hot Springs, where Emilia showed me what the town is named after…
First a video of what it’s like trying to strike it rich at Crater of Diamonds State Park:
All dirty and wet, I raced back to Hot Springs minus any time to clean up. Oh well, I may not have gotten in a shower, but I was going to touch some hot water anyway.
Right in the middle of downtown Hot Springs is the historic Arlington Hotel and Spa along Central Avenue. The hotel sits on the edge of North Mountain atop which offers a stunning view. But we walked its base–the Grand Promenade, where Emelia played tour guide, and I got up close and personal with this hot, hot water straight out of the mountain.
Enjoy this footage:
Also along Central Avenue is what I’ll call Bathhouse Row, the most notable man-made sights in this notable city, the places where everyone from Prohibition Era gangsters to politicians to today’s tourists go to learn about this city’s past–and enjoy a hot bath:
From crystals to a diamond mine to hot spring water, I’d seen the aspects that make up this area’s natural wonder–aspects that bring many tourists and surprising number of retirees. Later this night, Emelia would host her friends, all transplants drawn to the energy of Hot Springs who shared with me their energy and their thoughts on the South, religion, and the world.