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Saturday, April 30, 2022

A Visit to Hot Springs National Park, Or, "Please Do Not Urinate In Vapor"

Today was due to be something of a washout, weather-wise, so we decided to accelerate our visit to Hot Springs National Park, here in Arkansas, thinking that we could be tourists in old buildings, even if it were raining.

Well, it didn't rain, but we both got wet, both figuratively -- 

-- and literally:

Technically the first national park -- even before Yellowstone -- it was created by a special Act of Congress in 1832, the first time that land had been set aside by the federal government to preserve its use as an area for recreation. It was formally designated a park by the Federal Government in 1880 and ultimately added to the National Park System in 1921.

For many years, the area was visited by chiefs and tribes of numerous indigenous peoples, who called it the "Valley of the Vapors." Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was the first known European to see the springs in 1541. Members of many Native American tribes had been gathering in the valley for over 8,000 years to enjoy the healing properties of the thermal springs. There was agreement among Native American tribes that they would put aside their weapons and partake of the healing waters in peace while in the valley. In 1818, the Quapaw Indians ceded the land around the hot springs to the United States in a treaty after having been forced to a reservation south of the site. The Arkansas Territorial Legislature requested in 1820 that the springs and adjoining mountains be set aside as a federal reservation, which was accomplished in 1832.

Over the years, bathing customs developed and became more elaborate over time.  Where bathers originally simply waded and soaked in the stream flowing down from the springs, this was replaced by tents, then wooden shacks, and ultimately a host of ever-more elaborate and ornate bathhouses.  Although the area was full of bathhouses serving a range of guests, a major fire in 1905 burned most of the town, and the only bathhouses that survived were along Bathhouse Row:

Bathhouse Row comprises eight separate bathhouses, but the Fordyce is operated as the Visitor Center, and other bathhouses have been repurposed for the Park Store, a Cultural Center and other uses.  Visitors can now only bathe in two:  Quapaw and Buckstaff.

Fordyce has been restored to what its state was in the heyday of its operation, and visitors are allowed to tour its four stories at will.  So we did!

The lobby still conveys the grandeur it would have presented when it offered bathing to visitors:

Fordyce's spring -- or its share of the collective springs -- can be seen in the basement, and is lovingly preserved:

A typical visitor would have at his or her disposal a private bathing room with a tub in which he or she could run the hot springs water:

Men and women bathed on separate floors.  Each sex had its own dressing room and related facilities such as rooftop sunning decks, and in general the facilities were comparable.

In addition to the basic bathing rooms, special facilities were available for hydrotherapy, steam, massage and various therapeutic treatments popular at the time:

And, when you were done with your hot spring treatment, you could luxuriate in a cooling shower that would be the envy of any 21st Century Yuppy homeowner:

The bathhouses were serious about their services, and many treatments were available only on the prescription of a medical doctor.  One room made a Hubbard Tub (a massive ceramic-tiled full-immersion Hubbard Currence therapeutic tub), along with an overhead track that would permit moving a chair sling over the tub to permit the lowering of paraplegic or quadraplegic patients into the healing water:

The bathhouses had some quirky, but perhaps understandable, rules, posted on signs throughout the buildings.  This display showed a few of them.  One wonders why a person would want to kick a wall, but we suppose we can understand why someone might sneak a violation of the "no urination" rule.

The top floor of the bathhouse boasted a full gymnasium, with all the equipment that one might want, even today:

There was a sumptious drawing room where musical concerts were held regularly, and even private staterooms for those customers that wished the maximum in privacy and luxury while they lingered over their "taking of the waters."

After touring the Fordyce Bathhouse, we climbed up the promenade behind Bathhouse Row to explore various natural hot springs and hot spring fountains sprinkled along the West slope of Hot Springs Mountain:

Contrary to many people's assumptions, the hot spring waters are not volcanically heated.  Instead, waters flowing down nearby Indian Mountain seep thousands of feet into the ground through cracks and fissures in the bedrock, and are heated geothermically from the deep pressures to a near-constant 143F as they well back up on Hot Springs Mountain's western slope.  At this point, the water is too hot for bathing, so the bathhouses add cool water to reach appropriate bathing temperatures.  By law, only cooled mineral water from the hot springs may be mixed with the hot water, so, through the years, the bathhouses shared huge cooling towers and systems to have enough cool water available.

As we hiked up Hot Springs Mountain along Tufa Terrace Trail, we walked along a drainage channel built to carry the hot mineral spring water down to the city.  Over the years, evaporating water has left large amounts of calcium carbonate -- or tufa -- in the conduits:

We continued up steep Peek Trail to the Hot Springs Tower, where we climbed -- we counted! -- 312 steps to the top of the tower to get a view over the surrounding area.  There is an elevator, but it was out of service, so we had to climb the stairs if we wanted the view.  We assured the host that we would have wanted to climb the stairs anyway.

The view from the top of the Tower was breathtaking, and we could see the historic center of town below, with Bathhouse Row and other related historic buildings:

One bathhouse -- Superior Baths -- has been repurposed as a brewpub and we naturally thought that would be a good spot for lunch.  The food was very tasty, and the beers were well brewed.

An arts festival was scheduled for today in Hot Springs, so, with full bellies, we walked over to browse the artists' offerings and perhaps pick up a present or two for family:

At one end of the arts festival was a small Renaissance Fair which appeared to be directed mainly at kids.  It had lots of interactive stations --

-- including opportunities to do sidewalk chalk art, and this chance to help make an impromptu mural!

Unfortunately, due to Covid, the National Park Service still has not received permission to open its theater for visitors to view its Park Video.  We find the videos one of the most interesting parts of our visit to any national park, so we picked up a copy in the Park Store and plan to watch it before we return later in the week to take a soak in one of the bathhouses.  When we report on that adventure, we'll let you know if there's anything else to tell you about Hot Springs National Park, so that you will be fully educated!

Until then, stay well-bathed, my friend.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Bicycling Around Degray Lake Resort State Park

Today was another beautiful day on Degray Lake.  It might be one of the last, because a big rain system is blowing in this evening.  It was too windy to paddle, so we decided to ride our bikes around the park and explore all that it has to offer.

Our campground is located at the eastern end of the north shore of the lake, near the dam that impounds the lake.  We pedaled out to Small Dike Road, which took us across the dam, and turned on State Park Road, which took us to the Visitor Center, where we picked up some maps and other information.  On we pedaled to the Golf Course Pro Shop, where we got all the lowdown on the driving range and golf course.  Our next stop was the marina --


 -- where we were greeted by a goose family, who decided we didn't look like the sort of company they wanted to keep:

The park has three main campground areas.  Aside from ours, the other two are west along the north shore, one being up on the hill north of the lake, and the other perched on a peninsula down on the lake.  As we rode out the peninsula toward the lower campground, we got pretty views of the lake from a shady pine forest, both west --

--and east (complete with fishing boat):

The lower campground boasts several yurts that visitors can rent.  The family that rented this one brought a huge utility trailer full of camping gear, making this probably the most elaborate Rug Rat Camping setup we've seen in a long time!

It was a short ride further out the peninsula from the lower campground to Caddo Bend, which boasts a beach and swimming area, with a sweeping sandy beach:

We peddled all the way out to the point, parked our bikes --

-- and took a walk along the beach, rockhounding as we went.  We didn't find any remarkable rocks, but we did find small scallop shells that had been buried in limestone many millenia since this area was covered by an inland sea, and then eroded out to be washed up on this beach by the lake's waves.

By the time we finished our walk and returned to the point, the wind had picked up significantly.  If you care to, take a look at this 360 degree video of wind on the lake at the point of Caddo Bend. 

This was the far point of our bike ride.  We worked our way back to the Resort Lodge and Restaurant for a scrumptious lunch -- well earned -- and, with bellies full, pedaled slowly back to our campground.

Here, Kathy works her way across the lake's dam as we neared our campground:

The ride totaled about 14.5 miles, so it was a medium-length ride for us.  We were back by early afternoon, with time for David to give Ruby a walk and Kathy to sort further through her Crater of Diamonds treasure.  We hope to enjoy the rest of the afternoon with a leisurely hour or so at the driving range, hitting some golf balls and stretching and warming up for a possible round of golf on Sunday -- weather permitting.

Digging for Diamonds at Crater of Diamonds

 Thursday, April 28, 2022

Hi Blog!

Before we started our RV adventures we had a bucket list of place we wanted to go and things we wanted to do. The list including all of the National Parks, Alaska, Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, Quartzsite, Betty's RV Park, Newfoundland and Arkansas' Crater of Diamonds, just to name a few. In the past 10 years, we've managed to hit most of them. Some of them, we even visited twice! However, we kept missing the Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Arkansas. Until now..

Crater of Diamonds is a 911-acre Arkansas State Park. The park features a 37 acre plowed field on top of an old volcanic lava tube. The park is the only diamond-producing site in the world where the public can search for diamonds at their original volcanic source. The policy here is "finders, keepers," meaning the diamonds you find are yours to keep!

We did a fair bit of research before we came. We knew the best way to find diamonds would be to search out gravel washed out by recent rains. The gravel would have to be shoveled into buckets and taken to a wash station where we would screen it and wash it. Most folks are satisfied with searching their findings at the park. However, the Craterheads, those who make repeated forays to the park, bring their gravel home to dry to make searching for tiny little diamonds easier. The park allows folks to bring home one 5 gallon bucket of washed gravel.

On the way to the park, we stopped at Murfreesboro Hardware in order to pick up some rubber gloves, a trowel and a two gallon bucket. The gentleman who checked us out was a Craterhead. He was more than happy to show us the tiny little diamonds he had found over the years. To give you an idea of just how small these diamonds can be, here is a picture of some samples we saw in the Visitor's Center.

Now, that doesn't mean there haven't been some big finds over the years. The largest diamond ever found was called the Uncle Sam Diamond and it was over 40 carats.  While the Strawn-Wagner Diamond was only 3 carats, it remains the most perfect diamond the American Gem Society (AGS) ever certified in its laboratory. Graded the perfect grade of O/O/O (Ideal cut/D color/Flawless), or "Triple Zero," it is the highest grade a diamond can achieve. A diamond this perfect is so rare that most jewelers and gemologists never see one during their career. It's stories like this that keep the Craterheads coming back week after week.

The Visitor Center has an interesting display on the history of diamond mining on the property. The first diamonds were discovered in 1906. The land was sold to a commercial mining company. Over the years various businesses tried to make a profit, but couldn't compete with cheaper sources of diamonds. Arkansas purchased the property in 1972 and made it a state park.

After checking out the displays in the Visitor Center. We went over to the equipment rental building and rented our screen box and two 5 gallon buckets. We studied the diamond search area map and made our plan to find a nice gravel filled area to dig.

The Crater of Diamonds volcanic pipe is over 95 million years old. The deeply sourced lamproite magma, from the upper mantle, brought the diamonds to the surface. The diamonds had crystallized in the cratonic root of the continent long before and were carried by the magma as it rose to the surface. 

Here is our first look at the crater. It didn't look like an old volcano. It looked more like a farmer's field.

The park service plows the crater surface to loosen the dirt and make the diamonds easier to find.

Over 75,000 diamonds have been unearthed at the Crater of Diamonds. The location of the most famous diamond finds are marked with historical shovels.

Once we reached the search area, we filled our buckets with gravel and took them over to the wash station. The screen box is made of two sections. The top screen catches all the big rocks, If you find a diamond in this box you struck it rich.

You are more likely to find one in the finer gravel trapped in the second screen box. This is the gravel we planned to bring home with us to dry and sort at our leisure.

Once you are done examining your findings, the old gravel is tossed out and the plow spreads it out across the back area of the wash station.

While folks come for the diamonds, you can also find amethyst, garnet, jasper, agate, quartz, and other rocks and minerals. We did a quick look to see if anything looked diamond-like and set it aside. We found a few tiny shiny bits which we asked the park service gemologist to identify. Unfortunately, they were just quartz, glass and calcite.

Because mining equipment of the early period usually included bottom screens with mesh larger than 1/16 inch, thousands of small diamonds were allowed to pass through. The bulk of these ended up in drainage cuts of varying depths all over the search field and in the big natural drains on the east and west edges of the diamond-bearing section of the volcanic deposit. In recent decades, those small diamonds have been the bread-and-butter of recreational diamond digging. 

After cleaning four 5 gallon buckets, we had filled our 2 gallon bucket with fine, sifted gravel to take home. We took a break for lunch and then decided to stretch our legs by doing a little surface searching. When the sun is bright, it is possible to find diamonds just laying out in the field.

While we didn't spot any diamonds, we did find some old mining equipment.

There is even an old mine shaft building still standing from when the property was operated as a commercial mine. The shaft went down 65 feet but was abandoned when it didn't produce any more diamonds than the surface strip mining.

After a nice walk around the search area, we decided to head home with our bucket. On our drive over to the park, we noticed a sign for Footsies Beer & Wine. We never realized that, in Arkansas, 34 of the 75 counties are dry.

Once we got back to the RV Park, it was time to clean up our gravel and lay it out to dry. We told our friends, Jane and Kim, that if we found any diamonds, we would add them to the rocks we've been collecting for them for the past two years.
Here is Kathy sticking her shovel into the bucket of sifted gravel for the first time.  Maybe a diamond will show up in the shovelful of gravel!

Well, what do you know.  We scored two HUGE ones.  We hope Kim and Jane like these little beauties!

One item we did pick up on our way home was a saruca. This round, bowl-shaped screen has very fine mesh and is used to resift gravel. Most folks use a tub or barrel. We had an entire lake.

Once the gravel was cleaned, we covered our picnic table with a tarp and turned the washed gravel out to dry.

By Friday afternoon, the gravel was completely dry. We began the slow process of looking carefully through it and collecting anything that remotely looked diamond-like. Ruby was eager to help. Just like the Paul Simon song, she had diamonds on the soles of her paws!

We wish we could tell you for certain that we found a diamond. We have a small bag of shiny bits. One of them could be a diamond. However, the drive back to Crater of Diamonds State Park is about an hour and we're not sure we want to drive two hours to have them tell us all we have are quartz bits. We will put our bits in a souvenir case and call it an adventure. Check one more off the bucket list!

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

A Short Paddle on Degray Lake

We've been waiting for this stop for several years:  a chance to hunt for Diamonds at Crater of Diamonds State Park, north of where we are camped in Degray Lake State Park.  We arrived early and were allowed into our campsite, and had gotten set up by 2:00.  After giving Ruby a long, one-hour walk around our campsite and down to the lake, we decided to open up the kayaks and paddle around a bit to get to know the lake.  This was especially important because rain is in the forecast for the majority of our week's stay here.

We feel especially spoiled when we can put our kayaks into the water right at our campsite.  This is the second campground in two weeks where we've been able to do that!  Kathy celebrates:

Pushing out into the calm waters of the lake, we started around the point where our campsite is located:

Around the point, a quiet cove backed up to some of the campsites across from ours:

Degray Lake is not known for hosting flocks of migratory birds, but Kathy did spot this coot plying the water for his dinner:

And many turtles were certainly out, enjoying the warm, sunny, calm weather.  Many were swimming and poked their heads up out of the water curiously as we approached.  We spotted several sunning themselves on logs, but they were extremely shy and dove into the water before we could get close enough for good photographs:

The park has put birdboxes along the lakeshore, and we enjoyed looking at a few of them as we paddled by:

Degray Lake boasts a paddling trail with numbered stops.  We're hoping that (weather permitting) we can try to paddle it.  In the meantime, however, we spotted this observation deck on the north shore of the lake, decorated with a sign identifying it as Stop 5 on the paddle trail.  It made us curious where the other nearby stops might be.

We circled a small island further on toward the Resort on the lake, then worked our way back to our campground, enjoying this view of the point where our neighbors' RV's were perched:

From the point, we could look down along the shoreline, with each campsite boasting its own piece of lakeshore for paddling, fishing, or just plain sitting and looking:

David spotted a shallow water marker buoy out in the main body of water directly across from our RV, and he paddled out to get a photo of it.  Our campsite and motorhome are behind the buoy to its left in the photo below; if you look carefully, you can see Kathy in her kayak in the distance on the far left edge:

We only paddled about 1.5 miles, but it was a relaxing introduction to our new home, and some welcome exercise after having sat in the cockpit seats for four hours or so.

Tomorrow:  The Hunt for the Elusive Diamonds!