Day 40: Little Rock, AR + Jackson, MS by Wookie Kim

Today was a rest day--but only for my legs.

I had an excellent night's rest at the Barnhardt's Airbnb out in Hot Springs Village. Their backyard let me take in the sun and the cool morning air. Their cat also said hello.

I made my way back into the town of Hot Springs to get the traditional bathhouse experience, which I'd just missed yesterday. Bathhouse Row was very quiet when I arrived. A couple was taking a morning stroll.

I headed right for the Buckstaff Bathhouse, the only bathhouse that still offered the traditional experience. For $75, I could relive that experience by getting a bath and massage. Obviously, I had to do it.

Unfortunately, cameras and cell phones are strictly prohibited inside, for obvious reasons. But the experience is best described with one word: weird. Throughout your bathing experience, you're guided by an attendant, who follows you around and tells you what to do. All of this happens, of course, while you're completely naked.

The treatment began with a soak in one of the traditional hot tubs. It looked very grand--for something from the 1920s (let's just say I was a little worried about hygiene...). My attendant turned on the faucet, which immediately released a powerful stream of hot springs water. He ladled a little cup and pushed it to my mouth. "Try it." It tasted like hot water. The water continued to fill the tub. "Now lay back." I laid back and relaxed (read: tried to). 15 minutes later, the attendant returned. "Sit up." I sat up. He pulled out a loofah and started vigorously scrubbed my back. "Okay, let's go."

The attendant led me from one tub to the next. This time I was in what was called a Sitz tub. Imagine a small utility sink. Imagine that sink being the perfect size--for just your behind. Imagine being completely naked and having someone tell you to stick your behind into that sink. And then imagine that person, towering over you, reach behind your behind for a knob, release very hot water, and then ask, "let me know when it's uncomfortable." ("Right now, sir.") I (or, my behind) sat in the Sitz bath for another 10 minutes. Those were 10 incredibly awkward minutes. (Here's what a big Sitz bath looks like.)

My attendant led me to the next contraption--the "steam room." I put that in quotes because that phrase is generous for what I was put into. This was a tiny hot box with a rickety metal door on the front. It was really hot inside. I sat there, counting the seconds, wondering how long I'd be inside. As I roasted, I glanced at the door handle and wondered if it were possible to open it from the inside. It got hotter and hotter, but I had no idea how much longer I had left. At some point, the attendant returned and pulled me out. I was a little delirious.

My attendant next tossed me onto a table. He wrapped my body with very hot towels and then covered those towels with a sheet. Now, I was a living hot towel mummy. The first 30 seconds were really hot, but by the time the towels had cooled off slightly, the mummification process was tolerable, even pleasant. I may have even nodded off for a bit here.

Now it was time for the needle shower. This sounds a lot scarier than what it was. Basically, the needle shower is a 5.1 Dolby surround sound experience with water. I entered a shower stall surrounded by little nozzles all pointed inward and shooting hot spring water at high speeds. My attendant instructed me to stand in there and rinse off the soapy water.

After this, it was time to cool off and head to the massage room. A masseuse gave me a 20-minute Swedish massage. After beating up my body for the past weeks, the massage was perfect. 20 minutes later, I was done. I changed back into my street clothes and headed out of the bathhouse. There were large chairs outside, so I decided I need to visually memorialize the experience by sitting in one.

It was noon now, and I was back on Bathhouse Row. I decided I'd eat here before heading to my first destination for the day: Little Rock.

I found the Ohio Club, which happened to be the oldest bar in Arkansas. It was also a former true speakeasy (for a time, it was renamed the "Ohio Cigar Store") and a spot frequented by America's top mobsters. I kind of got that vibe on the inside. The hamburger was delicious.

And then I was off for Little Rock! My plan was to visit Little Rock Central High School, the locus of the first effort to desegregate our public schools after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board. I'd learned that the high school, which still operates today (in fact, my freshman year suitemate at Yale attended the school!), was managed as a National Historic Site by the NPS. It even had a sparkling new visitor center.

The exhibits were a powerful reminder of the civil rights struggles of the past. As a lawyer, I had a heightened interest in the exhibits. So I spent more time than I normally would inside.

I then headed outside to check out the school. Given that it was only 2 p.m., I expected to see no students. But I found that there were actually a bunch of students milling about outside. I asked one of them whether they were in school, and they said some students had early dismissal of some kind. It was strange to think about how this school had been the site of such an intense and symbolic stand-off--one that ultimately required federal government intervention (11,500 soldiers) to resolve. I wanted to see what the students thought of the school's history, so I approached a small group and asked them what they thought. They said it was cool to be at a school with such history, but that school was school. I asked them what they thought of the constant stream of tourists. They all agreed that they'd learned to tune out the visitors.

I walked around to the front entrance of the school. It was quieter on this side, and I caught a glimpse of the famous school from its grandest perspective.

And then I was off for Jackson, Mississippi! I had plans to stay with my friend, Nathan B., who had worked with me in the Baltimore courthouse this past year and was now working for a different judge in Jackson. After a couple hours, I crossed the Mississippi, that great dividing line for our country. I was now "east of the Mississippi." It all felt a bit symbolic.

Soon, I learned that I was driving through the small town of Greenville, MS in the Mississippi Delta. It was a fortuitous discovery, because I'd recently read John Barry's Rising Tide--which explored the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, one of the (if not the) greatest natural disaster America has ever seen--with Nathan through a book club. I then made a beeline for Jackson, arriving just around 7 p.m.

After drinks with Nathan and some of his coworkers, we headed over to the Mayflower Cafe, which has a long history in Jackson, for dinner. Here, a law school classmate, Shad W., joined. I ate southern fried fish of some kind. It was delicious--exactly what I needed after a long day of driving.

From here, we proceeded to the roof of the King Edward Hotel, where Nathan lived. Nathan and Shad tried to point out the various neighborhoods and features of the city of Jackson. It all felt very small, and very southern. I let them talk, while I marveled at the giant letters from behind.

After catching up with Nathan, it was time for bed. Tomorrow would be another long day.

Day 39: Hot Springs National Park, AR by Wookie Kim

After an incredibly fast-paced and epic 10-day block, I was ready for a rest day. Thankfully, I was heading to the most rest-inducing parks in the country: Arkansas' Hot Springs National Park.

As the name suggests, the park protects a series of hot springs. Those hot springs had been a huge attraction since the late 19th century. Over time, as people learned about the rejuvenating powers of the pure water, the area became a haven for those with the most leisure time on hand--high society. The bathhouses that cropped up along historic Bathhouse Row weren't content with creating their own style; instead, they tried to emulate the grandeur of the European bathhouses that had been flourishing for quite some time. This led to a local arms race, where neighboring bathhouses competed over who could have the grandest of bathhouses.

But the bathhouses eventually grew out of fashion. Today, the bathhouses are basically historical relics. After Hot Springs became a national park, the NPS sought to preserve the bathhouses for future generations to see, but not to use. The area still had bathhouses--and many people still come here to use them--but they were almost exclusively of the modern-day variety (read: spas). There was, however, one holdover from that bygone era: the Buckstaff Bathhouse. This was the only bathhouse to still provide the "traditional" bathhouse experience that people had experienced over a hundred years ago.

I was determined to try out the traditional bathhouse experience at Buckstaff. But, to my dismay, I learned that it closed at 3 p.m. I'd arrived at 3:30 p.m., so had just missed my chance for the day. I then decided I'd change my plans. Instead of taking today as a rest day, I'd run part of the above-ground trails, and then wake up early the next day and stop by the bathhouse before hitting the road for Little Rock, AR, and Jackson, MS, my next two destinations.

Before setting out for the Sunset Trail, a 17-mile loop around the park, I toured the visitor center, which was in, and had preserved, the old Fordyce Bathhouse. It was funny thinking that this place was state-of-the-art back then. Yet all of the devices and contraptions in each of the rooms seemed utterly outmoded. In fact, some rooms looked more like torture chambers or interrogation rooms than bathing rooms.

The men's bathing area had some remnants of the "grand" era. In the center of the main room was a sculpture, and above it was a beautiful stained glass ceiling. The men's dressing room was nice, too.

Believe it or not, the "electrohydric bath" used to be a thing. It's exactly what it sounds like. As one commentator in 1874 described this treatment, "[t]he current set up between the body of the invalid and the hot water of the bath, must awaken new energies and arouse vitalities." I learned that no one had died from the electrohydric bath, but that bathhouses had at some point stopped giving them.

The tour of the bathhouse was also the first in which I saw the social history, and not merely natural history, that the NPS preserved. The hot springs are a unique and impressive geological feature, but the NPS has done a good job of promoting the way in which we humans have interacted with the springs over time.

I learned that, in their heyday, the bathhouses functioned very much like country clubs. Members of high society would gather here during the fall. And the bathhouses had more than just bath rooms. There were make-up rooms for women, game rooms for men, and sitting rooms where both could socialize.

The gymnasium was fun to see, too. Again, it looked a little bit like a room filled with torture devices and techniques. But really it was just an old-school gym. I envisioned members of the elite sweating away while punching away at the punching bags.

The most compelling exhibit was the one on segregation. The bathhouses of the early 20th century exemplified the cruel reality of Jim Crow America. Practically all of the bathhouse attendants then were African American. Despite the grueling effort they put into bathhouse work, they were not allowed to actually bathe in them. At some point, early African American entrepreneurs created their own black-only bathhouses, including, most notably, the Crystal Bathhouse.

This visit was also important because it helped remind me more generally of the relationship between the natural and human worlds. That is, the national parks are just as much about what we humans have done with land--and to people living on that land--than it is about protecting unique geological features. The visit also reminded me that the NPS has one of the hardest missions possible: to provide enjoyment to the present generation without impairing future generations' ability to enjoy the same.

Having had my fill of learning for the day, I headed out, just before sunset, for the Sunset Trail. I wanted to do an easy run and just get a sense of what the terrain looked like in Arkansas. I ended up doing a 7.5-mile run that wound through a dense forest to an area called Balanced Rock and then to the highest point in the park, Music Mountain. The terrain here was nothing close to epic. Epic America, I'd learned, was far to the west. But it was still soothing to run through forests and on easy dirt trails--both things I'm familiar with as an east coaster.

It was almost dark by the time I finished my run. I'd seen an ad for the Superior Bathhouse Brewery, the world's first--and only--brewery to brew beer using hot springs water. I wasn't about to pass up an opportunity to try beer made with hot springs water, so I headed there for a post-run dinner and drinking session.

It was getting late, and I'd booked an Airbnb with the Barnhardts out in Hot Springs Village, so, after determining that I couldn't notice any difference between beer brewed using hot springs water and beer brewed without using that water, I headed to meet my hosts and call it a night. I'd be up early to get my traditional bathhouse experience.