Welcome to Eureka Springs

The gayest small town in America you’ve never heard of.

BY Chadwick Moore

April 24 2014 2:14 PM ET


Photos by Scott Munster

I reckon there’s gays in them-there hills.
 
I’ve locked eyes with a massive black bull as I putter behind an old Ford truck in my rented sedan. The bull looks scared. I’m scared for him. Around each zigzagging turn, he scampers across his truck bed like Bambi on ice, as we whirl up Highway 62 into the Ozark Mountains.
 
I’m headed to Eureka Springs, Ark., a town of 2,000 in the heart of Baptist country. It’s rumored to be one-third LGBT. It’s an hour drive east from the cul-de-sacs and McMansions of Bentonville, Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters, into a more ominous landscape. Dotting the roadside are a lot of houses with tumbled-off porches and caved-in roofs. The yards of tidier homes along this stretch are brimming with ghostly armies of lawn statues for sale, resembling Disney’s rendition of Qin’s tomb.
 
Alvin and Charlie are letting me stay at their place: Magnetic Valley Retreat. It has a pool and is a clothing-optional, all-men’s resort nestled in the shadow of a six-story statue of Jesus. “You can take your shirt off if you want,” says Charlie poolside, silver-haired and strutting in grey boxer shorts with his signature vodka-cranberry-Mountain Dew cocktail in hand. Charlie is a grandfather thanks to a previous marriage to a woman who held a grudge against him for years after he came out.
 
“No thanks,” I say.
 
“You can be as naked as you want, but there’s no sex allowed out here,” Charlie tells me. “For that, you have to go check out the china, thataway.” He indicates the makeshift back room, a section of wood fencing that looks like a duck blind a few yards uphill, covered in ornamental dinner plates with mottoes like “Cherish the Moment” and “Sisters are Forever.”

Charlie tells me an email has gone out to the whole town that a reporter from New York is coming; I’m expected in one hour at the Prayer Meetin’, a weekly happy hour gathering at Henri’s Just One More.
 
There are an unusually large number of people here tonight, some of them begrudgingly on their best behavior. Our bartender, Judy, is 63 years old, with platinum-blond hair, and is the kind of woman who takes makeup very seriously. She’s been here 25 years since fleeing San Diego “to get away from another man, again.” Somehow, she wound up here.
 
The Ozarks have always drawn the kind of person looking to hide out. It’s a region of homesteaders who, long before localized food trends, weren’t keeping boxes of Cap’n Crunch around. It’s where Pentecostals speak in tongues and charm snakes. It’s a part of the world where it’s possible to live and die without ever meeting anyone black or Jewish. It’s a 47,000-square-mile highland region spanning southern Missouri, northern Arkansas, and northeastern Oklahoma where suburban tourists ramble through towns thinking not much else is going on besides woodcrafts and locally made cheese. It’s where some say the tendency for wayfarers to settle down can be explained by vast, magical crystal formations beneath the mountains that create spiritual vortexes.
 
In April, the threat of snow lingers for yet another month. The rolling gray forests show the first puffs of spring, white plum tree flowers, and a dusting of crocuses. The budding dogwoods will be in bloom by the time the annual local Alcoholics Anonymous convention descends later this month, the location a nod to one famous Eureka resident, Carrie Nation, a sizable woman and temperance activist who traveled the country in the 1800s, smashing bar tops with a hatchet. She died here.
 
Those who work in the tourism industry as shopkeepers or servers are cautiously optimistic after a brutal winter decimated business. Throughout the season, numerous car shows come to town (including Corvette, PT Cruiser, and Volkswagen), as do a UFO convention, a crossdressers’ weekend, and pilgrimages by tens of thousands of Christians throughout the warm months. Last year, crossdressers’ weekend and the UFO convention took place at the same time, resulting in “a bunch of transvestite aliens walking around,” a man named Sparky says.

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