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TRAVELS WITH LAMBO

for Conde Nast Traveler Magazine

by Stephan Wilkinson

DO NOT LET this magazine fall into the hands of the Arkansas Highway Patrol, for we're going to tell you a secret. Some of the most scenic and sportiest driving roads in the United States lie within the borders of that oft-derided state, and Traveler happily proved it with a 200+-mph, 492-horsepower, $265,000 supercar, a 1995 all-wheel-drive Lamborghini Diablo VT. If you want your own private Nurburgring, springtime in the Ozarks, before the travel trailers and campers lurch into the left lane, should mark your first pitstop.

Day one, Springfield, Missouri to Eureka Springs, Arkansas (93 miles)

It's good to know that cars can still be sex objects, for God knows, the driver isn't. I haven't been on the road for more than five miles in what is arguably the world's all-time fastest production car when a young blonde with a face-in-the-propwash hairdo has stuck her Dodge coupe's DEBI B license plate into my 80-mph slipstream, and even an easy blast to 100 doesn't shake her loose. It is a "problem" that will recur during the next few days. ("That car must draw women like flies on shit," one Arkie will later comment with country succinctness.)

But I'm going to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and she isn't. The road south takes the Rambo Lambo through the Mark Twain National Forest and across Table Rock Lake, a twisting, flooded river with an outline that ripples across southern Missouri and northern Arkansas like a Chinese festival dragon. We cruise through Blue Eye and Maple to Berryville, and the road is ample proof that the greatest beauty draws the harshest ugliness. Intermittent pockets of tourist-trap schlock--Bible museums, snake farms, billboards--interrupt stretches of spare, lovely country.

The marquees of the dozens of motels on Highway 62 just outside Eureka Springs trumpet not only cable TV and Jaccuzis but fierce devotion. "Our God reigns and Jesus is king," announces one, driving me like a werewolf to find mine deeper in the hidden, vertiginous town itself as afternoon shadows creep over the hollow that hides it.

The small sign on the door of Dairy Hollow House, a superb little country inn, says "No soliciters, religious or otherwise. We are happy the way we are. If that changes, we'll call you." An oasis in the Bible desert, and the innkeeper is even wearing an AIDS ribbon. "Oh, this is the most polarized town in the country," she laughs. "Out there on the highway, you've got the zealots, the people heavily involved with the passion play [a summerlong Eureka Springs extravaganza], even the KKK. Down here, you've got gays, lesbians, vegetarians, Buddhists...it's a great place to live, but there aren't many middle-of-the-roaders."

Whether they're deviates or devouts, the entire citizenry seems to have agreed to make Eureka Springs...well, either lovely or cute, depending on where you're coming from. NPR plays in the background in New Age-y bookstores and arts-and-crafts galleries, and most of the town seems to be a self-appointed historic area. It struggles up and down a deep cleft in the Ozarks, some houses built on outcroppings of the layered shale and sandstone laid down as sediment when this land served a spell as a seabed.

Eureka Springs was once itself a kind of 19th century New Age destination, when its hot springs bubbled forth restorative waters and cured the afflicted. They came by rail through the woods and were met by six-horse tally-hos and tiny electric streetcars, which all had better turning radii than the Lambo. The wide Italian car, hard-pressed to make U-turns on four-lane highways and prone to ground its front spoiler on manhole covers, is overmatched by the tiny town's steep, winding streets, so I park it and walk, instantly transforming myself from mystic bachelor billionaire to anonymous geek tourist.

Day two, Eureka Springs to Hot Springs, 252 miles

Just west of Eureka Springs, signs begin to appear warning, "Crooked and steep next 3 miles...next 7 miles...next 2.5 miles." The road is a smooth, blacktop two-lane weaving along the edge of a gorge, and the Lambo is in its element again. A few corners are posted 20 and even 15 mph, and the yellow caution-curve symbols seem to be diagramming fleeing serpents. The car is remarkably light on its feet attacking the sweepers and switch-backs, tangibly loose under power yet perfectly balanced and controllable.

East of Fayetteville on tiny Route 16, hawks thermal over the White River bottoms, and the fields are dotted with thick-muscled beef cattle, far more competent-looking than the round-bellied bovines of dairy farms. A flock of wild turkeys suddenly flaps across the road like something out of a bourbon ad, and several launch themselves toward the treetops in surprisingly graceful flight. "Real turkeys fly," their bumper stickers might read.

An Arkie stacking firewood on a porch is literally open-mouthed as he watches the car blast past, a three-foot-high green space capsule leaving behind a metallic wail that rattles his shack. The Lambo has appeared in his life and left it too fast for comprehension.

Too fast for its fuel tank as well. I'm getting less than 10 mpg, the needle is bottoming fast, and the population signs on the few gas-stationless hamlets bear such numbers as "165." St. Paul is my salvation, with a rude little corner store that empties at the Lamborghini's arrival. "Aw, man, the people who need to be driving this thing are guys younger than you and me," one local laughs, "people with the fahr in the blood. Two hundred and sixty-five thousand? You'd have to be both rich and stupid to own one of these. Even a millionaire would be smart enough to leave that much money invested." Interesting bit of backwoods wisdom.

The towns are nouns: Beaver and Gateway, Hicks and Heidi, Crosses and Combs, and south on Highway 21 through the Ozark National Forest, Ozone. There's a small, unmarked exotic-animals ranch outside tiny Ozone--ask at the general store for directions. (I'd studied the Arkansas volume of the excellent Globe Pequot Press series of state-by-state Off the Beaten Path guide-books to find it.) Brenda Messling quite ignored the arrival in the driveway of a car that looked like an amusement-park ride, for she was vastly more interested in the rheas, emus, Vietnamese potbellied pigs, miniature horses and ostrich that she was tending.

"The owners had a pair of ostriches, but there was a lot of ice last winter, and the female couldn't figure out how to walk on it," Messling explained. "So she just lay down for three days, and I guess her systems all shut down. She died in the car on the way to the vet. They're worth $10,000, so that was a considerable investment lost." If I had a $10,000 animal, it would be sleeping in a four-poster and I'd be bunking on the ice, even if, like a full-grown ostrich, it was eight feet tall and loped like Jerry Lewis imitating a spastic. "It's hard to know what will affect these animals until it happens. We lost 70 rhea chicks last year because we built brand-new, scrupulously clean pens, including the gravel, but they they ate the gravel."

Another danger is awkward mutations among the more cozily bred animals. One minihorse looked like a giant daschund, with legs the size of bratwursts. But at least he, unlike his brother-in-law, didn't try to kick me.

The best-known scenic road in Arkansas, and one of the finest driving roads in the country, is Route 7. The short stretch from Interstate 40 south to Dardanelle is awful, but south to Hot Springs (and north to Harrison) from that brief slab along and across the Arkansas River, it is a highway that makes me laugh at the purse-mouthed whine of every spoilsport who hears I've been set loose in a Diablo: "But where can you ever use the performance of a car like that?"

How about right here?

Bumper sticker on an Arkie pickup truck: "Impeach the President. And get rid of her husband, too."

South of Ola, a Geo Prizm becomes my pilotfish, yet another cute blonde stuck to the Lambo's bumper. An easy prod of the 5,700cc, 48-valve V-12 shakes the little 108-horsepower Corolla clone loose, but whenever I let the speed drop below 70, she's back. I pull off onto an overlook. So does she, in a flurry of gravel. "Ohmygod, a Lamborghini," Karla says. "Nobody's going to believe this!" What will they say when she tells them I gave her a ride?

Every five minutes, there's another spectacular vista--the endless green carpeting of the piney Ouachita National Forest, silvery lakes in the distance--and the untrafficked road writhes over ridges and crests. (The road runs south, and the Ouachitas are the only mountains in the continental U. S. that lie dead east-west.) The low, late-afternoon sun is harsh through the Lambo's huge, nearly horizontal windshield. It silhouettes the car against the roadside sandstone, and I'm racing the shadow of a low-flying F-16 fighter. Yet I find it impossible to assimilate the fact that I'm inside it.

Day three, Hot Springs to Fort Smith via Oklahoma (334 miles)

Hot Springs is a rarity in our increasingly homogenized land: a small city utterly unlike any other. Not just a town on top of a percolating, bubbling geothermal vent system, it's as architecturally and emotionally unique as New Orleans or San Francisco, Charleston or Santa Fe. Once it was our Marienbad, replete with the Capone gang in one hotel and Lansky's goodfellas in another. Today, it's half national park and half playtown, offering everything from horse racing to therapeutic baths, topless table dancing to Bill Clinton's favorite barbecue joint (McClard's, where the fall-off-the-bone pork ribs come buried under a mountain of fries big as a basketball).

There were once eight busy bath houses in a row, downtown. Today, they're still handsome but dormant, though extensive baths remain available in all the big hotels. One bath house--the Fordyce--has been restored by the National Park Service and provides a look at the hydraulics of the early 20th century equivalent of today's fitness clubs. Some of it could serve as a '30s film set for the bridge of an H. G. Welles spaceship--net-works of chrome and brass piping and valving, primitive rubber vibrators, strange stainless-steel cabinetry, Frankensteinian electrotherapy devices, an exercise chair that looks like a combination of a Nautilus machine and Old Sparky.

Do people still believe in the efficiacy of Hot Springs' waters? "I do," insists Kitty Page, who works the Fordyce's bookshop. "I been here since '38, I've made it to 75, and I'm still kickin'. I've got the arthuritis, but the water helps it. I've seen so many people come here in wheelchairs and leave walkin'. I don't bathe in the summer too much--it's too hot--but I drink the water year-round, keep a bottle chilled in the refrigerator. When you take a bath, they give you two cups hot when you get in and two cups when you get out. Twenty-one baths used to be our course, but now it's 18; the prices been goin' up."

Westbound on Highway 270 toward Mena, on the Oklahoma border, a billboard murmurs, "Caution. Dry counties ahead. Stock up now." Soon, even such signs of civilization are behind me, and the road becomes a stunning, sinuous, empty two-lane. The Lambo cruises at an easy 150 mph, and the tenths on the metric odometer spin by like the counters on a gas pump. The only danger is a wandering mutt or deer, but that's my own risk. The road is visible and clear well ahead, and the radar detector is silent.

In Mena, I run into Jerome Brown, the nephew of a friend. Eighteen years old, he has just been signed as a shortstop by the Minnesota Twins. "My uncle told me you were coming," Jerome pants as he pulls up in his spotless, flaming-red Mustang Cobra. "Saw you go by the car wash, and I said I'm outa here." Jerome drives the Diablo--brutally, as befits an athlete, slamming the shifts and jerking our necks like bobble-head dolls'--but when we're done and the car is ticking and hissing as it cools down, he's ecstatic. "If I make the majors, I'm definitely getting one of these," he announces, slapping the wheel. Bonus baby to be, he just might do it. I've given his baseball career more of a goal than any coach could.

And his uncle gives me a steer toward the best piece of high-speed road in all Arkansas, an empty stretch that easily equals the vastly better-known, heavily trafficked and patrolled Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. It is Arkansas 88/Oklahoma 1, the Tallmena Scenic Drive, arcing along the top of a long, loaf-like range for 30-odd miles while the land drops away first on one side and then the other, revealing panoramas almost Southwestern in their spare immensity. The Lambo is a fast-moving flea dancing along the spine of an enormous sleeping cat, and I'm torn between stopping at the frequent overlooks and continuing to hammer through the swooping bends and roller-coastering straights. Decisions, decisions.

Day four, Fort Smith to Branson, Missouri, 253 miles

A 2,753-foot mountain might not sound like much, but when it's the highest point between the Rockies and the Appalachians, the view is just fine. Besides, what Conde Nast traveler could resist Magazine Mountain? Great gorges and clefts fall away from Magazine's several overlooks, and stumpy, windblown cedars cling to cracks in the defiles. It would have been Magazine Island when this was the Great Ouachita Ocean Basin, and even a geological illiterate like me can imagine the flatlands far below as the floor of a sea. Like all of Arkansas' heights, the mountain is flat-topped, almost butte-like; the entire state seems to have been cropped by a Jovian barber's clippers set at around 2,500 feet.

Back on Arkansas 7 again--northbound now--the Lambo swoops through the part of the state that markets its dark Li'l Abner image, where billboards tout such towns as Yurshurwelcome, Dogpatch USA and Booger Hollow ("population seven countin' one coon dog"). But soon, the only sign says, "Crooked and steep next 63 miles," and the road ropes its way up into the Ozark National Forest, where hidden glens open far below.

It's PC to think of roads as nasty strips of concrete, but driving these remote highways through wilderness is a reminder that the Dark Ages were dark in part because the best--the only--tracks through Europe then were the few the Romans had built. And they had lain untouched and crumbling since those early graders and pavers retreated back behind the Alps. "Europe was covered by the same trackless forest primeval the Romans had confronted 1,500 years earlier, when, according to Tacitus's De Germania, Julius Caesar interviewed men who had spent two months walking from Poland to Gaul without once glimpsing sunlight...[for] there were no roads," wrote William Manchester in his evocation of Medieval Europe, A World Lit Only by Fire.

But roads also built Branson, the small south Missouri town that has become perhaps the largest and tackiest single chain-motel, fast-food, franchised-entertainment complex north of Orlando. I'd expected country music's "new Nashville," which is how it all started--go hear Waylon or Willie, maybe Emmy Lou's in town, catch Randy or Dolly--but as the billboards begin to appear along Highway 65, the question becomes not "Who's in town?" but "Are they still alive?" Pat Boone. Tony Orlando. The Osmonds. Andy Williams. Bobby Vinton. Roy Clark. The Lawrence Welk Orchestra. The Glen Miller Band, forgodsakes. Branson seems to have become the La Brea Tar Pits of entertainment.

As the big tour buses pass the Diablo on the highway, I can see the drivers far above point and speak into their guide-spiel mikes. They've probably spotted the silver-haired driver and are saying, "We've got celebrities everywhere! There goes Kenny Rodgers now!"

The Lamborghini is a hit downtown, and the pants-suited LOLs from the tour buses are absolutely knocked out by the thought of a car that cruises at airplane speeds and costs twice as much as their house. The husbands hang back, a little abashed, cranking their hearing aids down when I crackle the air with the V-12's big quadruple exhausts, but the girls dive right in with questions and jokes and even the occasional polite request to just sit in it for a minute. "Go ahead, Ethel," their friends yell, "We'll just pop you out like a cork when you're done!"

I'm done, too--sated with speed, filled with the splendor of an energetic, little-trafficked corner of the country that I'll remember next time somebody asks, "So where are the best roads yous've ever driven?" But remember: mum's the word as far as the Arkansas Highway Patrol is concerned.

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