ARRIVING IN HOT SPRINGS on an October afternoon, I parked between—and not among—the dead. Specifically, on the third floor of the Exchange Street parking deck, between a hearse whose rear window read “HOT ROD OF THE DEAD” and a midsized Toyota SUV with a gangly appendaged mummy slumped over in the shotgun. And to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t especially surprising to see either. The Spa City, after all, is a place better known for its history of the eccentric and aberrant—for its alligator farms, Capone and towns made in miniature—than its subtlety. For an outsider looking in, it’s a place whose capacity to surprise has been diminished by the relentlessness of its quirks.
Needless to say, however, when you spend any amount of time in the company of a local—especially someone so clued in to the goings-on of her community as Rose Schweikhart, owner of Superior Bathhouse Brewery & Distillery—that impression gets trashed awfully fast. Over the course of an afternoon, she very graciously showed us what she considers to be her Hot Springs—places that reflect her values and interests (and belief that, with the recent influx of entrepreneurs and burgeoning enthusiasm for downtown, the city is poised for a revitalization). And while the itinerary we followed (rather loosely) would likely be vastly different from just about anyone else’s, the places she chose are reflections not only of the town, but of her.
“There’s a paradox that I am discovering,” Rose says. It’s midafternoon, and we’ve spent the past few hours exploring nearby Cedar Glades Park—a sprawling 432-acre green expanse lined with mountain-biking trails and which just 12 years before had been the landfill for the city—and sampling the cold springs at Happy Hollow and Whittington Springs. Now, as we’re driving back into downtown, she’s talking about the challenges she’s noticed as a business owner in the area.
“Like, I have a business, we get a lot of attention, we get a lot of press, we’re busy, my numbers are good, and we’ve been successful. … [But] the truth is, I think that banks, which are conventional funding methods, are only loaning money to people who have money. There’s all these people with ideas, but they’re not conventional. They’re not what the banks see as good candidates.”
Stopping for some tourists passing in front of the truck, she abruptly breaks off. “There’s Sam the Bike Cop again. He carries around dog treats, makes friends with all the dogs,” she says before looking off to the left at her brewery, which is bustling. “What’s going on over there? That place looks cool. God, it’s busy. See, bank!”
“It had been raining inside this building for six years,” says Justin Clark, co-owner of Pale Horse Tattoo, as he gives a tour of the 135-year-old space at Central and Market Streets, which he and his best friend of 30 years, Trey Steelman, have owned and operated for the past year.Speaking over the virtually uninterrupted buzz of a tattoo needle, he goes on at length about the four months they’d devoted to totally overhauling the space—how they’d replaced the heating, plumbing, cooling, wiring and asbestos-caked flooring in late 2013—and how they’d managed to do it all without taking on any debt whatsoever. It’s the sort of business that Rose had been saying the city needs more of. (It’s also a place where, three weeks beforehand, she had gotten her first tattoo—a flaming bolt, angular and gnarly, which represents the frenetic character her life has taken on this past year and, more directly, the white-hot bolt that branded her right bicep when she and her staff were installing I-beams to support Superior’s new brewery tanks—which have since arrived and now hold beer.)
As Clark goes on about the renovation, however—how he found bank statements in the basement, along with a safe emblazoned with “1883” in gold filigree from when the 135-year-old building was a bank, and about a cache of syringes found behind a dummy wall in the bathroom from when the space was a tattoo parlor of questionable repute—it becomes evident just how much history is embedded there within the building. But even still, to hear him talk about their first year, of what it’s like to insert the key in the door and how far the business has stretched him, it’s clear they’re part of that history as well.
“What are you? Tell me what you are,” Rose says, speaking to her glass of beer. After spending some time at the tattoo shop, we’ve dropped in at Maxine’s, a bar just a few blocks north of Pale Horse, to meet up with some of her friends, people who were drawn to the city from elsewhere and never left.
Waiting for them to show, we sit at the bar, discussing the provenance of a wet-hopped IPA (California) that she’s ordered on draft, speculating as to what the former bordello might look like upstairs, and talking about her ownership of Superior and how it’s become so entwined with her identity since she acquired the historical property on Bathhouse Row in March 2013. (Seeing as her identity also involves being a classically trained tuba player and an ABD—all-but-dissertation—public administration doctoral candidate, this is especially interesting to consider.)
It bears noting it’s fairly calm as we’re chatting. And then, abruptly, it’s not. Her friends arrive in a swell of polyester, pink button-downs with red suspenders, Night at the Roxbury-blue blazers, and ponchos printed with what appear to be turkeys—all of which has been purchased exclusively from thrift stores for the occasion—shooting electricity through the bar’s hungover late-afternoon torpor.
For the past few hours, they’ve been hashing, a fox-and-hound game of running that has taken them everywhere from the Arlington Hotel, a few blocks away, all the way up the mountain and back down. In speaking with some of them as sugar-coated pop begins throbbing from the speakers, you get a sense that many have come from elsewhere, contributing to the diversity of attitudes and local cultural zeitgeist. As one of the group’s organizers, Scott Devlin, says, attempting to speak over “Timber” by Pitbull featuring Ke$ha: “You go to a place like this on a Saturday night, and there’s bikers and hippies and rich people from the lake, people who came from the racetrack. … It’s really cool. I don’t know if it’s because Arkansas is in a time of change or if that’s just the nature of the place.”
After leaving Maxine’s—and realizing that perhaps the itinerary, which, as originally proposed, included smoking cigars on the roof of her brewery and exploring abandoned buildings, had perhaps been a tad ambitious—we drive to DeLuca’s Pizzeria, where we meet owner Tony Valinoti. A native of Brooklyn, he tells us how his life has taken him from a career on Wall Street to California to Paris to Naples, Italy (where he spent six months learning the art of pizza from an older woman who taught cooking at Naples University). Even in the little time we spend with him in the kitchen, it becomes clear Valinoti considers his cooking a craft—especially when some dough fails to meet his standards, and he chucks several balls into a nearby trash container. (Seeing this, Rose tells him, “You better not run out of dough before you make our pizza.”)
After spending some time chatting with Valinoti about his philosophy—“I think once you know in your heart and soul that you’re giving everything that you have every day toward this thing, you’ll be happy with the results in the end,” he says between sips of espresso on the back patio—we return to the table and sit down to dinner, eating an arugula and pepperoni pizza that is, quite frankly, among the best I’ve ever had.
After saying goodbye to Valinoti, who leaves a flour handprint on my shoulder (which Rose says he’s wont to do, citing “flour fights” she’s had with him in the kitchen), she drives me back to the car, though not before identifying the driver of a horse-drawn carriage by the back of his head. Walking up the stairs of the parking deck, I find myself thinking back on those people I’d met and the portrait they collectively make of the city. It’s about that moment I realize the hearse and zombie have disappeared.