I DON’T KNOW if this was such a good idea.
I’m having trouble relinquishing control.
Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
Unclench the jaw.
I have let my husband Dave plan the day. I have dragged him to more hometowns than I can count—visiting antique stores and diners and whatever caught my fancy—and it just seemed like the fair thing to do. To let him have a shot. He has told me to wear something I don’t mind getting wet and, in fact, to also bring a change of clothes.
“You do remember I have to take notes on whatever it is we do today, right?” I ask. Is the grin I’ve plastered on at all convincing?
“So we need to get waterproof paper?” he asks, smirking.
Unclench the jaw.
And when he says “I was just supposed to figure out what I’d do if I was going to Malvern, right?” and I say “Well, we are going together…” and he’s like “I mean, yeah…,” my confidence level does not rise.
Ah, Malvern. Home of the Leopards. Population 10,839. County seat of Hot Spring County. Origins rooted in the railroad and the self-proclaimed Brick Capital of the World.
It’s not a terribly interesting route, Interstate 30, but we do pass a truck hauling a literal Conestoga wagon, and the husband does change lanes after it’s gone. “Do you ever change lanes just ’cause you’re bored?” he muses.
This is the man I’ve trusted my day to.
We arrive in Malvern, and I hop out at the McDonald’s to use the facilities. When I get back to the car, Dave’s been busy.
He. Better. Be. Kidding.
We pass Petty’s Knives, a now-boarded-up building with cool paintings of different blades on the facade. That would’ve been cool to see. We turn down a side road and pass Tanner’s Towing, with a full-size tow truck perched atop a three-story pole, which I wouldn’t have minded taking a picture of. And we pass Friends Hair & Nail Salon. Does he not know I’d be thrilled with a wash and style or a mani-pedi any day of any week?
But then we turn onto Riverview Drive, and there’s nothing I can see of interest. Just a parking lot. An unremarkable parking lot. A totally average parking lot.
And that’s where we pull in.
To be fair, it’s not a completely empty parking lot. There are two buildings—one that says “Restrooms” and one that says “Dressing Rooms.”
And there are some people here. People getting out of trucks. People wearing swimsuits. People pulling out kayaks and inner tubes and … You know what? When Dave and I were talking about getting wet and needing a change of clothes, I specifically asked him if I needed a swimsuit and HE SAID NO.
Unclench the jaw.
We walk down a boat ramp (that I will begrudgingly admit is shaded by a lovely tree canopy) to a well-worn trail along the Ouachita River.
“When I looked up Malvern,” he says, “I saw that Entergy opens their dam upriver and encourages people to take a float.”
Sure enough, the view opens up, and I see a hilltop across the river that is teeming with RVs of all shapes and sizes, and people are sitting along the trail, dipping their toes in and even wading out thigh-high.
This particular area that we have found ourselves in, it turns out, is the Ouachita River Whitewater Park, where kayakers come to … practice … and stuff. What stuff, exactly? I have no idea. But a lady, Brittany, sitting in her tiny kayak on a set of concrete steps leading down into the river, long copper hair flowing out beneath a white hardhat helmet, does.
“This is called a playboat kayak,” she says of her little vessel. “You can do all kinds of tricks in a boat like this—bow stalls, cartwheels, loops. Show her one, Joe.”
Nearby, a dude in another playboat flips front over back—nose over stern. It seems like a pretty challenging move, especially at this particular place in the river. We’ve found ourselves at the Rockport Ledge, a place in the flow that creates class 2 rapids, giving experienced kayakers a real challenge.
Brittany and Joe are both members of the Arkansas Canoe Club, which has a membership of more than 700 households across Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. Their big annual event, Rendezvous, happens the first weekend of October right here along the Ouachita. Folks get together and camp and visit and ride the river. It coincides with the Ouachita River Challenge—a 5-mile float, a 20K bike ride and a 5K run—on Oct. 5.
“People from all over the state come here to trick,” Brittany tells us. She points a little further to the other shore, where some tall rocks erupt from the water. “That’s called the Tiger’s Jaw. If you go over there, you’re gonna get a bite.”
Not everyone is equipped to handle those class 2 rapids, including me, for sure. And to be honest, I’m not sure why anybody would risk life and limb to come here just to show off their tricks. And I definitely don’t get why anyone would want to participate in some warped triathlon that sounds like the most exhausting thing the human mind could conceive of.
“When you’re out on the water, you just think about the water,” Brittany says, looking across the river. “Nothing else. You can’t think about your work problems or if your house is clean or what you’re gonna make for dinner tomorrow night. You’re in the moment. It’s so relaxing.”
If today had been up to me, I would’ve headed to Lisenby Jewelry or the Picket Fence Vintage Market. We’d have eaten at El Parian (which is reported to have the best sweet tea in the entire world) and scheduled a tour of the Historic Ritz Theatre that the College of the Ouachitas has recently taken over and is promising to be a catalyst to the revitalization of the downtown area.
Instead, I am squatting on the bank of a river, my shoes a little damp.
Brittany and Dave and I sit in a little cluster without talking. The sound of the whitewater churning wipes my mind clean. I look at the river, at its clarity and at its shores, so lush. I have no need to remind myself to breathe. No need to relax my jaw.
I reach behind me, grab my husband’s hand and squeeze.
Test the Waters
Taking a dip in Hot Spring County
Keeney’s Food Market
Early this year, Keeney’s Food Market was inducted into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. And lest you wonder why a small, family-owned grocery-turned-restaurant was afforded such recognition … Well, you clearly haven’t been there on Thursday, aka steak day. In a hurry? Get a turkey leg to go. (facebook.com/KeeneysFoodMarket)
Ouachita River Whitewater Park
Visit Rockport Ledge on a day when the water’s fine, and you’ll likely need to brush up on your playboating (aka trick-focused whitewater kayaking) vocabulary: blunts, loops, squirts, wave wheels, etc. Us though? We just call it fun to watch. (facebook.com/ouachitariverwhitewaterpark)
Hot Spring County Museum
Sometimes to learn the story of a place, you’ve got to turn to primary sources—and the Hot Spring County Museum, located in The Boyle House, is very much of the place. In the two-story home built in 1899, you’ll find pieces of local history, ranging from Caddo pottery, Civil War memorabilia, and even rocks and minerals from nearby Magnet Cove. (Search “Hot Spring County Museum” on Facebook)
Picket Fence Vintage Market
Under normal circumstances, we defer to the maxim of “be wary of what you find on the Internet.” However, the 22,000-plus photos posted to The Picket Fence’s Facebook page—glassware, antiques, pottery, uncountable uncategorizables—tell us one thing: There’s an awful lot to comb through. (facebook.com/thepicketfencevintagemarket)