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The Ozarks' Cutting-Edge Take on the Past

Arkansas, the birthplace of Johnny Cash, Rosetta Tharpe and Levon Helm, has leapt into 'you-gotta-see-this' status while still honoring its noble hillbilly roots. Exploring this Northwest corner of Arkansas, every curving, hilly road leads to Eureka Springs, an eclectic, liberal-art colony in a sea of traditional conservativism.

With a population hovering around 2000—minus a steady stream of visitors—one-quarter of its locals make a living via the arts. It’s a random-hug kind of place where conformity is an oddity. Arkansas’ version of Key West has no traffic lights or stops signs and remains to be a living architectural museum sporting Victorian and “carpenter Gothic” gems built between 1880 and 1910.

The healing springs that made the town famous still gurgle, but are outshined by the 1960s hippie-counterculture tradition that forever changed this one-off hamlet.

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Overlooking but escaping the buzz of Eureka Springs is the majestic-mountaintop 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa, which is a world unto its own. The evolution of this palatial Historic Hotel of America included it being a women’s college and a charlatan-run cancer hospital from 1937-39.

This world-class landmark on the edge of a tiny-but-influential town has five-floors of hallways cavernous enough to accommodate an 18-wheeler. This full-service woody castle on the hill is a beacon for the State of Arkansas and Ozark Mountain region. It features 72 rooms with upscale suites and four luxury cottages. Guests enjoy the New Moon Spa & Salon, hot tub, swimming pool, immense Crystal Dining Room and a throwback-style top-floor bar serving gourmet pizza.

The steadfast concierge and bellman will surely also encourage you to experience the property’s 15 acres of manicured gardens and hiking, biking, and walking trails that loop through the Victorian village’s Dog Park, Skate Park and City Playground. There’s never a shortage of things to do here. The nightly ghost tour illuminates the “Most Haunted Hotel in America,” inspired by tales of the evil doctor who bilked cancer patients here in the late 1930s.

Nearby, 48-foot-high Thorncrown Chapel is a mostly-glass atrium worship masterpiece that celebrates its woodsy setting by inviting nature inside as well as the spirits. Wood-framed, it’s mostly composed of windows—425 of them providing 6,000 square feet of clear glass. The majestic setting is enhanced as it sits atop 100 tons of colored flagstone that allow it to blend in with Mother Nature.

A bit further to the west is Bentonville, Arkansas, where Sam Walton’s time at the local Five&Dime inspired the birth of multinational Wal-Mart. The once-sleepy village has since grown from 2,000 to more than 50,000 residents thriving in a what is now a progressive, mountain-biking-friendly epicenter with all the intrigue and comforts of a trendy hotspot. Walton’s children continue inspiring the local humanitarianism via the Brightwater Institute and The Hive restaurant in their 21C Museum Hotel.

Seemingly impossible, two miles away from “downtown” Bentonville lies a jaw-dropping tribute to archetypal and modern Americana in an ultra-green setting that adds even more splendor. Northwest Arkansas’ implausible Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art features “Studio—End of Day” by John Koch (1909-1978).

Pardon me, but I must go on about this painting. Koch’s 1961 self-portrait is at left, and, at right, the likeness of a woman recently identified as Rosetta Brooks, an actress and model who posed for Koch and several of his contemporaries. Koch’s work documents an era of ‘intellectual life’ on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Brooks (the model) is the subject of the large painting and related small drawing on Koch’s easel. By depicting her in the intimate, workaday activity of getting dressed after a modeling session, Koch draws attention to Brooks as an individual as well as a professional. He also implies that making a painting is an open-ended process that involves collaboration between artist and subject.

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Yet another implied relationship is that between the artist and his audience. While Koch does not greet the viewer directly, he turns his body outward in a subtle invitation to enter his private world—which is fitting since this NW Arkansas museum itself is an amazing otherworld thriving over water in an Ozark forest.

On this fanciful campus, there’s also a (transported from NJ) rebuilt Frank Lloyd Wright House constructed in his signature USONIAN (United States of North America) style. Get this, the museum has no admission charge. Thanks, Wal-Mart.

Branson, Missouri

A half hour drive north of Eureka Springs, Branson, Missouri, isn’t just the entertainment capital of the fabled Ozarks, it’s a world-class entertainment hub no matter how it's measured.

This overflowing cavalcade of 2000-plus-seat theaters includes state-of-the-art beauties regularly features everything from a world-touring illusionist to dogs shows. Branson is also home-base for the Liverpool Legends, a world-touring Beatles-experience band with an interesting backstory.

George Harrison was the first Beatle to land in America in 1963 when he visited his sister Louise (then living in Branson) six months before the rest of band made their U.S. debut in 1964 to play the Ed Sullivan Show. Louise Harrison handpicked this rendering/tribute of the Fab Four, who just played for 24,000 fans in Mexico City. The band also headlined at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, in front of 68,000 people (an audience larger than The Beatles performed for at Shea Stadium).

When not touring the world, this resurrection of the Beatles home is Branson’s Caravelle Theatre.

A few miles outside Branson, Silver Dollar City is a dynamic theme park nestled into a gorgeous setting of hills and forestation that doubles as a tribute to this no-plains/no-farming landscape where people survived via the wood-crafting trades (including furniture making) along with blacksmiths, glass blowers and coppersmiths. There’s also an onsite culinary school and 100 other things to do.

The park, born as a 1960 sideshow to an underground cave large enough to house the Statue of Liberty, has a multi-generational employee track record and a busy calendar of theatrical and musical events including the annual Bluegrass & BBQ Festival, which recently featured the amazing Baker Family.

I found the globally competitive thrill-seeking rides an easy entrée into America’s faddish need to get in the moment. One of four roller-coasting monsters that majestically rise above the tree line, the 2-minute adrenaline rush on the Time Traveler puts you in the moment, to say the least. Rest assured, their on-staff meteorologist keeps an eye out for lightning.

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