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.
Eureka is the only city in Arkansas to officially endorse same-sex marriage, and it keeps a same-sex partner registry. But in lieu of a city-sponsored Pride celebration, three times a year, in April, August, and November, Eureka celebrates Diversity Weekend. The weekend officially kicks off on Saturday morning in Basin Spring Park with the triannual Public Display of Affection, where dozens of locals and visitors gather for a photo op to give their neighbors a big kiss on the cheek.
The Jericho Riders Motorcycle Ministry, a local Christian group, is suspiciously absent from today’s kiss-in. They usually pour in for the PDA to support their leader, Kevin Thompson, who stands atop an overturned milk crate and condemns everyone to Hell.
“It’s a shame he’s such an asshole, because he’s really cute,” Alvin says.
The rest of the weekend is for downtime, taking in the sites and local color. On the Friday night before the PDA, I’m at a drag show at Eureka Live, a popular nightclub in Eureka’s downtown, a charming pair of Victorian streets carved into a hillside that look part French Quarter, part Deadwood.
Keith Cofield is an evening cocktail waiter here, part of the migration of middle-aged gay people into Eureka. He was a Pentecostal preacher who came out of the closet at age 40, after 16 years of marriage and two children. Now 53, he’s a bubbly, stout man with a hee-hawing laugh who works by day at a nearby Tyson chicken processing plant — one of the large employers in the region, behind Wal-Mart and J.B. Hunt, the trucking company — inspecting poultry that’s been stripped from the bone and sent down a chute to him.
“Oh honey, I still preach all the time, it’s just a different kind of preachin’ now!” he laughs. After his partner died of AIDS six years ago, he moved from eastern Arkansas to Memphis, where he felt disappointed by city life.
“It’s hard in the big city, because everyone is so cliquish.” He jokes that he used to bounce over to Nashville, hoping to run into Randy Travis on the scene there.
“That skinny little thing?” Lee, his boss, interjects. “That’s like suckin’ roadkill.” Lee is from Memphis and remembers the old days of tiny, secret gay bars there, back when it was illegal for a man to dance with another man. After a certain hour the doors would lock and you were either in or out.
Ken Ketelson, a handsome New Yorker, moved here in 1996 and owns Farm to Table Fresh, a restaurant serving mostly local fare. In the Steel Magnolias version of the town he might be Olympia Dukakis’s character, slightly envied and a little above the fray. He’s excited about the arrival tomorrow of his very own chickens, which will live in a coop behind the restaurant.
“I think, in a lot of ways, moving to New York or San Francisco has been done before. Why do we have to move there? Why can’t we just be anywhere? And here is anywhere,” he tells me as I wolf down a plate of a brontosaurus-sized short ribs in his restaurant. Ketelson is refurbishing a house for his mother, who plans to move here from Long Island next year.
Eureka doesn’t have a gay bar. When Lee and his partner, Walter, bought Eureka Live two and a half years ago, some newcomers in town hoped that would change.
“You wouldn’t be able to support a gay bar in Eureka,” Lee says. He’s a hefty, thoughtful man, and he points a forefinger sporting a massive silver dragon’s-head ring at me. “I think when you call yourself a certain bar — whether it’s gay, straight, topless, whatever — you’re stereotyping yourself and you’re not allowed to see the big picture.”
It’s also very un-Eureka to segregate — someone’s going to feel left out. In 2008, when the deeply red, one-horse town of Silverton, Ore., elected the nation’s first openly transgender mayor, one could practically hear Fred Phelps and the ACLU gasping simultaneously in surprise. But that election wouldn’t have shocked anyone in Eureka, where they know how non-partisan and personal small-town politics can be.
At Eureka Live, the drag show has drawn a capacity crowd (who knew there were so many variations on the spiked pixie cut?) with a wait 30 people deep outside. I meet a 26-year-old woman with her two lesbian moms, who met each other in the military.
“Even though it said, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ we still did it,” one mom says. Together they have two other children and one grandchild. “Our straight son is over there, flirting with the drag queen.”
There are some methy-looking youngsters slumped around the pool table, a lot of smokers, some big Southern hair, people in hunting fatigues, and coeds from the nearby University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
“I was married 15 years. I have two daughters and a grandbaby. One of my daughters is here tonight,” the drag queen tells the audience. “My wife left me because I’m prettier than her.” This gets a roaring laugh from an obese man in biker garb and a knee slap from his elderly mother.
“Maybe people are curious about gays or drags, but they wouldn’t ever go to a gay bar. They can come here and see that no one’s going to grab ’em,” Lee says.
This mentality is pervasive and explains a recent controversy in Eureka over some townspeople who started a gay business guild to promote LGBT tourism.
Sparky — real name Mark Wetzel — came to town a year ago. Like many who have migrated here in the last decade he’s middle-aged and, after the death of his partner from bone cancer complications, came to Eureka to start anew.
“Why can’t it just be a business guild? It’s almost like going back in the closet to call it ‘gay,’” he says.
Sparky has a narrow face and a silver goatee and hair. He’s wearing a psychedelic blazer that conjures up images of a Hare Krishna’s robe tossed on the linoleum of a double-wide, Kool smoke ensnaring the receiver of a princess telephone. Actually, that description sums up more around here than just Sparky’s blazer.
“When Roger died I was so sad on the inside I started wearing really loud colors, because it made people happy,” he tells me when we next meet. This time he is wearing neon pink houndstooth.
Eureka began to take on its current character in 1964. That’s the year Gerald L. K. Smith arrived: a rabid white supremacist, Hitler admirer, anti-Semite, and former contender for the U.S. presidency. He began buying up property in Eureka Springs, which he hoped to turn into a Christian amusement park aimed at saving the white race. The amusement park didn’t happen, but he managed to complete the Christ of the Ozarks, a modernist, 67-foot-tall white Jesus statue perched atop Magnetic Mountain. There’s a view of it from behind the china wall at Charlie and Alvin’s. Some around town call it “Chalk Monster,” “Gumby Jesus,” or “The Milk Carton of the Ozarks.” Smith also established The Great Passion Play, which is still performed next to the statue six months out of the year (though it was recently revamped to scrub the heavy anti-Semitism from the original). Its first year, 1968, the play attracted 28,000 visitors. Today, more than 7 million people have seen it. It’s the sort of thing church buses load up for and families haul the kids out to on a spring weekend, because that’s what they did as a kid.
At the same time Smith was doing this, the back-to-the-land movement was sweeping the nation. Hippies flocked here in droves and established communes, many of them feminist and heavily lesbian. Marijuana was also a major draw — locals quietly call it the area’s main cash crop. Locals say that Willie Nelson once told Oprah Winfrey that the best pot he ever smoked came out of Carroll County, Ark. The town also has an isolationist reputation, an affordable cost of living, and abundant freshwater springs.
Bill King arrived here during that time. On a Saturday afternoon, he’s circling his hillside property looking for his goats. King is a tan, wiry guy with a grizzled goatee and tinted glasses worn beneath a low-slung baseball cap. He runs a no-kill dog rescue shelter in nearby Berryville called Go East, Young Dog and lives on this property just outside town with his husband, John Rankine, a local found-object sculptor.
They are part of a 20-couple lawsuit against the state of Arkansas over its same-sex marriage ban. King started a local paper, the Lovely County Citizen, in 1995. This week, both it and the other local newspaper have photos of gay and lesbian couples on their front page.
In 1976, King caravanned here from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with a crew from Short Mountain, Tenn., stopping at diners in Georgia and sucking the air out of the room as the guys bandied about in heels and earrings.
“It’s become more segregated as more people have moved here. In the old days everyone mixed together. It was just a community of alternative-minded people,” King says.
Alternative-minded can go either way. Thirty minutes down the road, in neighboring Boone County, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan maintain its national headquarters in Zinc, Ark., just outside Harrison, where a highway billboard proclaims anti-racist is a code word for anti-white. That went up in 2013 after controversy arose when news spread that the Klan had sponsored a portion of the Rosa Parks Highway for years in the Adopt-a-Highway program, complete with their own sign.
“Once you get outside Eureka, you’re still in Arkansas,” a local man wearing a Star of David around his neck tells me. “I’ve never had any problems, but I don’t go to Harrison unless it’s in a speeding car.” There are still some places in Arkansas that have sundown laws on the books — though most likely not enforced — that forbid black people from staying the night.
The antigay American Family Association noticed what’s going on here. They’re Coming to Your Town is a 28-minute instructional DVD for sale on the AFA's website (for $14.99) that explains how to organize your own community so that it doesn’t go the way of Eureka. Eureka Springs, they say, will be the new normal should the homosexual agenda be allowed to prevail.
If Eureka is the new normal in any way since the Stonewall Riots 45 years ago, it’s because this community is booming, running counter to the idea that in order to have a fulfilling life, gays have to run to the coasts and be competitive, wealthy, superficial, and sometimes nasty to one another.
Here you won’t find chiseled pecs, high fashion, Fire Island timeshares, or people classifying themselves based on facial hair or body type. In Eureka, a sense of pride is a Southern thing, and it’s much older than any contemporary conventions.