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The Observer visits Northwest Arkansas 

The Observer took a rare vacation last week, loading up the fam and heading to North Arkansas.

It's pretty up there — so neat and clean and mostly crime free that it makes Little Rock look positively gritty. The Observer loves the mountains so much that we periodically swear we're moving up there someday, usually while we're in our cups. Once we come back down to earth, though, we realize that there's way too many gatdamn Regressives up that way for our Progressive behind to ever feel comfortable, not to mention — horror of horrors — the possibility that we might well wind up in the background of a scene on "94 Kids and Counting," the Duggars' reality show on TLC. That might well just finish us off.

So, for the time being, we're just going to have to enjoy the NWA via a series of vaycay jaunts to those green hills.

As we often do when we wander that direction, The Observer wound up in Eureka Springs for a night. That Victorian interlude of a town, with its narrow streets and switchback sidewalks, calls to us almost as no other place in Arkansas. Eureka owes its very existence to the sheer, human capacity for hope — that and healing-waters quackery — so we dig it quite a bit for that. Too, the reporter in us loves Eureka for the great ideological divide there: 100-foot concrete Christ of the Ozarks standing up on the hill, overlooking a burg with a town-sanctioned gay marriage registry at City Hall. Only in America, folks.

The Observer and Spouse stayed at the Basin Park Hotel down on the main drag on our honeymoon years ago, but this time we wanted to try the Crescent Hotel. It's a grand old pile perched on the rocks above the city, directly across the deep valley from Concrete Jesus. It's one of those places that could have only seemed like a good idea to the Victorian mind: a massive, turreted castle standing against the sky above a town that is still remote and would have then been in the Middle of Nowhere in 1890.

The Crescent bears some resemblance to the hotel The Observer saw in our head when we first read Stephen King's "The Shining" years ago, so it's unsurprising that a number of ghost stories have sprung up around the place over the years. The Observer's needle on matters of the supernatural has swung sharply toward the skeptical in the past few years, but The Crescent is making it work for them, charging true believers $18 bucks a head ($7 for kids) to walk around the hotel and peer at the doors of rooms where haints supposedly lurk inside. Junior, always the curious sort, isn't one of those believers — not enough to think spending nearly $50 bucks for the three of us to go on a ghost tour is a good deal — but he wants to believe. Given that, when midnight chimed, he rolled his Old Man out of bed to go creep around the empty hallways of the hotel, speaking in whispers.

A big hotel is a strange place in the middle of the night (especially so on a Thursday night). Long, empty hallways led to other hallways. The elevator whirred up and down. In the lobby, the hotel cat dozed on a chair. Through an open door behind the high desk, the night clerk watched television with the sound turned low. On the fourth floor, the bar was still open, but mostly empty. "Do you ever see any ghosts in here?" a woman asked the bartender in conspiratorial tones. "Depends on how much I've had to drink," the bartender said.

As the Witching Hour wore on, The Observer and Junior crept upstairs and down, the old staircase creaking. Eventually, just before 1 a.m., we wound up on the rooftop deck. There was a full moon riding low in the sky — a silver coin on gray velvet. Down below, the valley was filling with fog. Standing there with Junior, a bit loopy from lack of sleep, The Observer was suddenly struck by the gravity of it all: the two of us — Dad pushing 40 and Son soon to be a teen-ager — looking for ghosts.

"We'll never be here again," Dad said, almost to our self.

"You mean we'll never come back to this hotel?" Son asked.

"No," Dad said. "This place. You and me, here, right now. Be sure to remember this someday." Junior nodded gravely, but didn't really understand, we think. One of these days, he'll get it — maybe even get it better than we do. He's smart like that.

We stood there together in silence. Down below, the valley was a great white lake of cloud, with the streetlamps of the town glowing in its depths like ghostlights. Somewhere out there, we knew, Jesus stared serenely into the darkness.

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