Natural States 

Blanchard Springs, Arkansas, offers fresh air, clean water, and kitschy culture.

I take a long, deep breath, look up, and remember why I loved coming here as a kid. Above me, the sky is barely visible due to the canopy of green leaves hanging from the branches of age-old trees. Under the bridge below, water rushes from the spring a few feet away. I retreat into a Zen-like state.

And then I'm interrupted by the screams of my boyfriend.

"Look at that frog! He's huge!" he says, pointing to a football-sized toad perching on rock near the spring. "I'm gonna catch it."

And he's off, climbing down rocks to reach the area below the bridge. We're near Mountain View, Arkansas, a small community on the Eastern edge of the Ozarks that boasts the touristy Blanchard Springs Caverns. Right now, we're at the springs outside the cavern.

Our day began with a four-hour drive from Memphis. As a native Arkansan, road trips to Blanchard Springs were common in the summertime, but it'd been years since I'd made this journey.

When we arrive, we're both famished, so we search for a restaurant -- something mom-and-pop but still vegetarian-friendly. I didn't expect to actually find that in these parts. This is deer-huntin' country, where people wear camo to church and talk about shootin' six-point bucks at the dinner table.

I spot a sign for P.J.'s Rainbow Cafe in the historic downtown square. I figure anything with the name "rainbow" has to be great, and it turns out I'm right. Our waitress informs us that we've stumbled onto the only place in town that serves veggie burgers.

So I order a patty with fried corn-on-the cob, fried squash, and fresh-sliced tomato. My meat-loving boyfriend orders the Kansas City strip, which he later declares as the best steak he's had in a long time.

The place is just oozing with kitsch. Retro cookie jars line every shelf, and the women's bathroom has been converted into a rock-and-roll shrine, complete with a large velvet Elvis.

Next up is a cavern tour. Blanchard Springs is an active cave filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstones. We purchase our tickets for the Dripstone Trail, a one-hour guided tour.

click to enlarge p._22_cover_story4.jpg

(The United States Forest Service also offers a Discovery Trail tour of the second level of the cave, but it involves 700 stairs, so we pass on that option.)

We board an elevator that takes us deep underground. As we step off, the "oohs" and "aahs" begin, as people in our tour group take in the beauty. Lights have been strategically placed to illuminate the dramatic and intricate formations.

Our guide leads us through, explaining how various formations are created. At one point, he calls our attention to a huge dark mound.

"Anyone know what that is?" he asks. No one answers. "That's guano -- bat droppings."

He goes on to explain that bats no longer live on this level but flourish in other areas of the cave. The poop we're looking at is so old it's petrified.

When the tour's complete, we change into our bathing suits and head to a public swimming area. The natural-spring water is crystal clear, and rocks and small creatures are easily spotted. Standing ankle-deep in the water, I watch a school of tiny fish close in on my feet. I place my hand in the water and they scatter.

My boyfriend, who apparently has a penchant for chasing small, innocent animals, catches at least 10 crawfish and two baby copperhead snakes (which he places in a bucket and later releases into the woods out of the way of swimming tourists).

Then, for something completely different, we drive a couple miles west of Mountain View to eat in a tiny town called Fifty-Six, Arkansas. (Population: 156. Seriously.)

We spot a large green and yellow shack with hand-cut wooden letters that read, "Cody's Restaurant." The gravel parking lot is packed with pick-up trucks and old-model cars.

Apparently, the whole town is here. Large families sit packed into booths. They stare as the strangers walk in the door. I look up at a far wall to see at least five stuffed deer heads also staring. Creeped out, I politely ask the host to seat us facing away from the dead animals.

Obviously, this place isn't quite as vegan-friendly as P.J.'s, but it definitely has down-home ambience. The plywood walls are filled with pictures of graduating classes from Fifty-Six. (Most with five to 10 students each.) We fill up at the salad bar and begin the long journey home, tired but refreshed -- our trip to "the Natural State" a success.

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