I AM A cheater.
When given the opportunity to follow Zeek Taylor—award-winning watercolorist, published author and the first gay man to be legally married in the state of Arkansas—around Eureka Springs for a day, I sneak up the night before to stay in a treehouse. Online, these little homes on stilts are so gosh-darn adorable, I can’t resist. So on a Tuesday night in July, I make my way up the winding “Pig Trail” of Arkansas 23, passing the World’s Largest Tuned Musical Wind Chime, the Nuttin’ Fanci (yep, that’s how it’s spelled on the sign) Motel and Ozark Mountain Zip Lines. I’m beginning to think I might want to spend more than one night here when I pull into the driveway of the Grand Treehouse Resort. And then I notice the welcome sign, which is flanked by plaster statues of meerkats.
Now I know I want to spend more than one night.
I am a dork.
I gawk at the furnishings filling the Grand Treehouse Resort’s office. The oak woodwork? Pristine. A beautiful Tiffany lamp illuminates the front desk, and more meerkats peek out from under a bench to my right. But Frank, the lovely man checking me in, doesn’t seem to notice.
“You’ll be staying in Sanctuary,” Frank tells me. “It’s my favorite.”
I smile giddily, take my key and park my car in front of a sea-foam-green wooden cabin, three round windows adorning the front. Everything about this treehouse is charming and well-thought-out: the French doors that open onto an intimate deck suspended among the oaks; the whirlpool bathtub big enough for all three of my children (whom I craftily left behind); the kitchenette and queen-size bed and light-switch-activated fireplace. Even the curtains, a beautiful toile crafted in tent style with country lords and ladies walking among red flowers, amaze me so much I take a picture of them with my phone.
I am an interloper.
After Googling “Eureka Springs events,” I find that I’ve fortuitously chosen Fleur Delicious Weekend to explore Eureka. On this night in particular, the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow is hosting a local guest chefs’ sampling and a tasting of wines from Railway Winery, which isn’t but 15 minutes up the road. Although I know no one, and my real research doesn’t start until tomorrow, how can I resist?
Near the front door sit two ladies in costume: floor-skimming skirts, tightly pulled bodices, feathers tucked into their coifs. One is resplendent in pink, the other in green. Both sip out of Austrian-crystal drinking flutes, color-coordinated with their outfits. I am too shy to introduce myself to them and instead beeline for the food table. The duck is delicious; the mushrooms are magnificent; the wine is wonderful. And with two glasses of wine down the hatch, I approach the ladies.
They’re both named June. “It was like the rapture,” June Hegedus says of her first visit to Eureka almost 40 years ago, her accent betraying her Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, UK, origins. “A spiritual experience. As I’m telling you this, the hair on my arm is standing up.” She and her U.S. Air Force husband loved the place so much that they applied for a loan that first day. Six hours later, they were the proud owners of 5 acres in Eureka. Their two daughters thought they had gone mad and came to the town to investigate. One of them also owned 5 acres before the sun set.
June Owen, dressed in pink, concurs: “This town is terrific.” June O. was born and raised in southern Illinois and, at age 89, makes all of the costumes the “Junebugs,” as they’re known, wear.
“Do you know why we’re dressed like Marie Antoinette?” June H. asks me.
“I don’t,” I reply.
June H. launches into a definitive history of Marie Antoinette, detailing her marriage to France’s Louis XVI when she was just 14 years old and Louis was just 15. How she didn’t conceive for seven more years, and the French people were unhappy. How she didn’t understand the troubles of her starving people and how she ultimately met an untimely end.
“We dress like Marie Antoinette in honor of her beheading,” she tells me. “From July 7 through the 14th. And on the 14th (Bastille Day), we eat cake.”
I admire the Junebugs’ audaciousness. Even though June H.’s husband “doesn’t like to dress up,” she has no qualms about doing what she enjoys. Maybe it’s Eureka itself that has emboldened this fine lady to be herself. When I ask her what makes Eureka Springs Eureka Springs, she tells me, “the people. They’re very openhearted and accept everyone. They’re free.”
Standing nearby, Elise Roenigk, owner of the historic Crescent Hotel, echoes the sentiment: “It’s the place where the misfits fit.”
I like the sound of that. I return to my treehouse, saying the word “Sanctuary!” like Quasimodo did in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.
I bet ol’ Quasi would fit into Eureka Springs just fine as well.
I am an observer.
I drive along the upper part of Eureka’s “Historic Loop” to get to Zeek Taylor’s house, where we have agreed to begin our journey for the day. I pass an exquisite human-sized angel sculpture in someone’s side yard, a bearded barefoot guy playing guitar on his front porch and an old church with colorful stained-glass windows that has been converted into the Intrigue Theater. And yes, I’m intrigued.
Pulling into Zeek’s driveway, I admire his old gold-and-forest-green Victorian cottage. At the end of his driveway sits a matching outbuilding and a frivolously dressed chimp adorning a sign labeled “Zeek’s Studio.” I have arrived. I stop to make a few notes, and when I exit my car, Zeek has walked down the steps to greet me.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, as well.”
He escorts me up the stone steps to his house, and we set up shop in his living room, which is decorated with paintings and antique furniture. Zeek is, for me, the main attraction, with his tousled white hair and Van Dyke beard; however, he is sitting quite still, obviously nervous, hands folded in his lap. He’s had a slew of interviews in the recent years—mostly regarding the gay-marriage cause. He’s been in touch with the Human Rights Campaign, the “biggest news organization in Japan,” and even The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. But getting asked to be the ambassador for his city is a new one for him. So I ask questions about his house, and his education, and his career, to try to make him feel more comfortable.
“I had a minor in art, and a bachelor’s in communication, and journalism,” he says. “I did a lot of work in an emphasis on radio and TV. I thought what I wanted to do was more in the marketing. Combine art and television to do computer graphics. I didn’t ever work in that, but that’s what I thought I’d do.”
I tell Zeek my undergrad was in psychology, and we laugh at the relative uselessness of many bachelor’s degrees.
“After taking some of the radio courses—I couldn’t change my accent,” he explains, his Southern drawl in full force. “They wanted that, you know, neutral accent. Sound like you’re from Kansas City. And it was too hard. And it wasn’t anything I really wanted to do anyway, I don’t think.”
I get the idea that one of the reasons Zeek likes Eureka so much is that he doesn’t have to change anything about himself to fit in here.
“There’s a sense of neighborhood. We work together as artists. And that’s one thing that really makes Eureka Springs Eureka Springs: the thriving art community,” Zeek says. “We just celebrated our 25th year of the White Street Studio Walk, which happens during the May Festival of the Arts. Hundreds and hundreds of people come through that, and come through my house, and get to know this part of town, which a lot of people haven’t been in.”
I have to admit I’m one of those people. Even though my mother-in-law is the minister of First Presbyterian in Eureka, I’ve never been in Zeek’s neck of the woods. And it’s a great neck of the woods to be in.
“I can walk out on my front porch and can look in any direction and see a place where an artist lives or works,” Zeek explains. “Just from my front porch. Any direction. People try to guess how many live here, and the lowest estimate is 250 artists. Up to 400 artists. And we’re talking about a town of 2,200 people!”
That’s 10 to 20 percent, according to my quick mental math. “Why do you think so many artists flock to Eureka?” I ask Zeek now that he’s really warming up.
“One thing, during the ’60s and ’70s, the counterculture found Eureka Springs,” Zeek tells me exuberantly. “The ‘hippies,’ so to speak. And they started moving in and loved it here. The counterculture has always included artists and people who like the arts. It’s a beautiful place, an inspiring place, and a lot of people feel like it’s a magical place. So for all those reasons, the counterculture and the artists ended up here, and like attracts like. And also in a tourist town, there’s the potential to sell art.”
And that art is made in many different kinds of studios in and around Eureka. Zeek’s studio, while advertised as being the building at the end of his driveway, is actually currently located in the room right next to the living room, separated only by a set of original oak double doors. Memorabilia of a life well lived adorns every free space. Antique watercolors line the top of an antique chest. His marriage license—the first same-sex one issued in the state of Arkansas back on May 10, 2014—hangs in a frame on his wall. And his Arkansas Arts Council Governor’s Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement (his “pride and joy, next to Dick [his husband] and my fur babies, ha!”) sits on a bookshelf, the blown-glass sculpture in itself a work of art. I could spend all day just perusing this one room, but we have places to go, people to see and—lucky for me—food to eat.
I am ignorant.
The first stop on my official Eureka Springs tour is Lux Weaving Studio, approximately two doors down from Zeek’s house on White Street. No one is there, and the door is locked, but not two minutes after we arrive (and the very instant that Zeek tries calling her), Eleanor Lux, an artsy woman with a purple flower barrette in her gray hair, strides up and lets us in. Her studio, which occupies the open, airy lower level of a two-story cottage, smells like violin-bow resin. Classical music plays softly in the background. A huge wooden desk and hutch grace the wall on the left, a display of jewelry festoons the wall on the right, and toward the back are large wooden contraptions, the likes of which I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before. Before I can ask her a single question about herself, however, Eleanor asks me, “Did you have an easy trip? Did you drive up this morning?”
“My husband and I drove up last night,” I respond. “We stayed at the Grand Treehouse Resort.”
Her follow-up question floors me: “The curtains in your room at the Grand Treehouse, were they lovely? Or did you notice?”
“Are you kidding me?” I choke out. “I took pictures with my phone!”
Eleanor points across the street at Mary Tait Interiors. “The woman who made those is right over there.”
How she knew I’d love those curtains, and how she did not laugh at me for taking pictures of them is beyond me. She shows me some of the leftover fabric she inherited after just such a curtain job was completed by her friend.
“You’ve got a crib over there,” I notice.
“Oh, yes.” Eleanor smiles. “You need to go over to Oscar’s and have lunch and see the most popular person in the community right now. Her name is Wren, and my daughter-in-law runs that restaurant with her. She’s 5 months old, and she’s a restaurant baby. She just loves everybody, and you pass her around, and she dies laughing at things. She’s cute. So I’m here for emergencies. She spent all day here yesterday.”
Turns out Eleanor has two daughters close in age, with one son eight years behind whom she calls the “caboose.” I have two sons close in age, with one daughter seven years behind. I show her pictures of mine and know we could talk all day about families and our adorable cabooses. Instead, we start to walk back toward the front. I have to ask her my signature question.
“What makes Eureka Springs Eureka Springs?”
“Its tolerance,” Eleanor says. “We just love eccentric people. And most of us are!”
“One of the original definitions of Eureka is the place where misfits fit,” Zeek chimes in, and I do a double take. It’s exactly what Elise said the night before. “And we like that!”
I look up, and through the window just over Zeek’s shoulder, I see a baby sitting in a child’s seat on top of a table across the street. A sign out front says “Oscar’s.”
“That’s not your grandbaby right there on the porch, is it?” I ask Eleanor.
“Probably.” Eleanor looks out. “Yup, that’s her! You should see her. She will belly laugh if you play peep-eye. She thinks that’s the funniest thing she’s ever seen.”
I think Eleanor is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. She tells me about Doug Stowe, the “Arkansas Living Treasure” who made her towering desk, with its curved sides and its hidden drawers, by hand. She relates the most hilarious story of her son getting arrested for criminal mischief for stacking benches in Basin Park when he was a teenager. He was with a group of friends, and the police car only had room to transport the girls. The boys were told to walk on down to the station, where they would be formally arrested, and they actually did.
I’m sad to leave such a charming conversationalist, but with Eleanor’s recommendation and Zeek’s seal of approval, we head out to boldly go where Zeek has gone many, many times: Oscar’s. I thank Eleanor for her time and tell her one last time how beautiful her work is.
I fit in.
Someone has knitted a cozy for the tree outside Oscar’s. Two young people are standing barefoot on the front porch, singing in harmony and alternately playing ukuleles and guitars and saxophones and mandolins. They are very talented, but for me, they are seriously overshadowed by the food at Oscar’s. I order a Brie-L-T sandwich, and the creamy cheese melted over smoked bacon sends my taste buds into the culinary stratosphere. Zeek and I chat about his husband, a retired master electrician, and my husband, a school teacher and bus driver. We sip our ridiculously delicious strawberry lemonades and marvel at the mild weather, so cool on this partially rainy July day that we can actually sit outside to eat.
When the best sandwich I have ever eaten in my life has mysteriously disappeared (I couldn’t have eaten all of that so fast, could I?), we zip along the Historic Loop to the Crescent Hotel. The doorman knows Zeek, as does most everyone we encounter in Eureka, and Zeek escorts me to the top floor, where, standing in the rain, we look out over the lush green valley of downtown Eureka to East Mountain facing us.
“I wish it weren’t raining,” he repeats for what must be the sixth or seventh time today.
“I’m sweet, but I’m not made of sugar. I won’t melt.” He smiles at my Southern cliché.
Back on the first floor of the hotel, I see that the gift shop carries his work, as does the place he takes me next, the Norberta Philbrook Gallery downtown (named after one of Zeek’s paintings). This is but the first of a spree of galleries he takes me to, ushering me to the likes of the Eureka Fine Art Gallery and Brews, a taproom and coffee bar that has rotating art shows. This week’s theme? Outsider art. Amazingly appropriate, I think.
And speaking of outside, Eureka even has an Art Wall, where local artists are celebrated and examples of their art are on display for all to see—just sitting at the back of a parking lot. Little surprises like this are all around Eureka. Stand in Basin Park and look above the Turpentine Creek store—you’ll see a sparkling mosaic statue. Look at the staircase leading up to Henri’s—you’ll see a rainbow mural painted by local high school students. Go to the little store Mountain Eclectic—you’ll find a spring flowing inside the building.
And to me, the surprises are what Eureka is all about: the unexplored streets, the hidden treasures, the pure and unconditional acceptance.
At the end of our tour, Zeek takes me to visit the East Mountain Overlook. “It’s better in the winter,” he tells me. “The leaves are gone, and the snow blankets everything, and you can see all the houses.”
He’s right. I can’t see much down in the valley, but just below us, among what Zeek thinks are purple butterfly bushes, two hummingbirds flit back and forth. I am delighted by this last little surprise. He tells me that while he was indeed nervous at the beginning of our visit, soon it just began to feel like touring with a friend.
I like that surprise even better.