I’m at a hot and sticky gig surrounded by groupies and the earth is moving slightly beneath my feet as complete strangers send me over cold beers and shots, catching my eye and nodding with raised glasses and smiles. The band comes on and the air vibrates with bass lines that melt my ears, but not enough to prevent me hearing the lead singer dedicate a song to me. People slap my back while I gravitate to the bar, a stupid adolescent grin on my face, and then I see her, the beautiful blonde I was introduced to last night.
“Hi,” she says. “Who you with?”
And with all the nonchalance I can summon, with an insouciance I have practised over and over in my mind, I reply: “Me? I’m with the band.”
No, this is not Heaven; this is Hot Springs, Arkansas, a town that was never on my bucket list of places to visit, but one which has a special place in my heart. It burrowed there unexpectedly — randomly — in October 2010 when I decided to break free from a dire sense of boredom by taking a road trip across the US.
But it wasn’t to be any old road trip. It was to be a quest to follow a $10 bill — serial number IA74407937A — as it was spent across the country for 30 days and nights. It was a madcap scheme, I know, but its randomness appealed to me and I love random travel. The itinerary is not for me; give me chaos and chance and let me follow it.
And so it was that IA74407937A and I ended up in Hot Springs via Lebanon, Kansas (the geographical dead centre of the continental US and my starting point), Hays, Kansas, and Harrisonville, Missouri, where the bill had been spent variously on lunch, bread rolls, a can of Pepsi and some pork ribs before being given to Dean Agus, the lead singer of an earthy blues and rock band called Crash Meadows, at Lucky’s Bar & Grill.
Dean, a man with the most arresting voice I’ve ever heard, didn’t spend the money for three days and then, sadistically, mailed it 460 miles to St Louis to pay his annual dues for a fantasy football league. I, of course, had to follow it. But during the three days I wasn’t chasing the bill, I got to explore Hot Springs and became captivated.
It nestles south of the Interior Highlands, a heartbreakingly gorgeous region of mountains and forests extending down from the Ozark and Boston ranges. About 50 miles to the northeast is Little Rock, the state capital, while to the west is the breathtaking Ouachita National Forest which stretches seemingly forever, punctuated only by the vast and glassy Lake Ouachita. The town itself (whose most famous son is President Bill Clinton) is named for the 47 hot fountains on the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain which feed water — at a toe-scorching 62C — to eight grandiose bathing establishments comprising Bathhouse Row. In 1946, at the height of the craze for taking to the waters, almost 650,000 people bathed there; by 1979, the number was just 96,000.
The good news is that some of the bathhouses — which had closed — are being renovated and opened up again. I dipped into the Quapaw to alleviate a Crash Meadows-induced hangover and had a marvellous time hopping between pools at different temperatures. I emerged lobster-like but hangover-free. But that isn’t all Hot Springs has to offer.
There’s Oaklawn Park racecourse slap bang in the middle of the city, while as you head north you find the old town, with its heady art deco and Spanish colonial architecture. There are bars and restaurants advertising live music, a Victorian-era theatre, beautiful promenades and magnolia-lined avenues.
And, of course, there’s the Gangster Museum of America. Yes, I’m serious, and it’s situated here for a good reason. Back in the 19th century, Hot Springs became a kind of Las Vegas before Vegas had been dreamt of. For almost 100 years, until Justice Department spoilsports ended all the fun in 1967, Hot Springs was the place you came to for illegal gambling and prohibited booze.
Everyone came, from Babe Ruth and Frank Sinatra to Al Capone and Bugs Moran. And while the St Valentine’s Day massacre might have been the culmination of a dispute between Capone and Moran back in Chicago, here disputes were left at home; there was an unspoken truce and the gangsters (Al at the Arlington Hotel and Bugs at the Majestic) honoured it.
All of this — the music, architecture, baths, beauty and history I found — reinforced my belief in random travel. Were it not for my 10-dollar bill, I would never have seen any of it.
And my time in Hot Springs with Crash Meadows also provided an addition to my ever-growing list of travel Dos and Don’ts: don’t ever spend three nights with a blues band. It could kill you.
Follow the Money: A Month in the Life of a Ten-dollar Bill, by Steve Boggan is published by Union Books. It was chosen by the BBC as a Radio 4 Book of the Week and Boggan was named one of Time Out’s The Culture 100 following its publication in 2012.
Published in the September 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)