The Scenic Route

Between Winslow and Mt. Gayler, across from Grandma’s Cafe

With the opening of Interstate 49, old Highway 71 through northwest Arkansas has lost most of its traffic. Formerly thriving businesses like the Smokehouse Restaurant near Mt. Gayler have folded up and slipped away in the night. Towns along this formerly packed thoroughfare have suffered losses as well, especially enterprises that depended on highway traffic as much as local customers to keep the black ink on their bottom lines.

Soon after the new four-lane highway opened with its easier grades, straighter curves, and swooping (terrifying) bridges high above the mere mortals below, state and regional officials began marketing the old highway as the “scenic” route. And it is, without doubt, scenic. Crossing the Boston Mountains with their sheer drop-offs and stunning vistas never fails to inspire.

Main Street, Winslow

Yet now more than ever, the underbelly of the Ozarks blossoms into view. Not so scenic are places where the property owners have lost the fight with their ‘stuff.’ Mounds of trash, some of it looking as though it was simply tossed out the door, litter their places of habitation. Old vehicles and various implements once used in the pursuit of livelihood sit haphazardly around the place. Cobbled-together homes make creative use of plastic sheeting and various and sundry bits of construction material.

Winslow across from new Dollar Store

These places have become a regular irritant to some locals, one of whom took these photos and sent them to me after I said I’d write a blog post about it. Locals like us have long since accepted the fact that some folks either can’t or won’t make the effort to present a respectable front to the world. There’s no shortage of such scenarios along just about any dirt road you might care to drive. But along the highway, a highway advertised as “scenic,” these places paint the entire region with a dismal color of decay and poverty.

Maybe the world expects to see evidence of destitution and apathy in the Ozarks. After all, ever since the publication of the “Arkansas Traveler” song in 1840, this region has suffered the disdain of many for its slovenly ways. Even now the more ‘civilized’ regions on either coast consider all of the hill states to suffer similar inability to come up to snuff–not that they don’t have their own ghettos.

Across from Silver Leaf campgrounds, Winslow

Unfortunately, time and again those stereotypes are borne out in real life. Homeowners barely scrape by, making do with what they’ve got, saving every scrap in case it might be needed. Or they’re renters unwilling and/or unable to improve on a place they’ll never own and whose owner can’t be bothered to make needed repairs. Or people whose lives have run over them with injuries or job loss or a litany of emotional defeats that leave them incapable of trying to make things better.

Brentwood

There are no zoning laws in Washington County that require people to clean up junk piles or dead vehicles or really much of anything. It wasn’t until the last couple of decades that an ordinance was passed requiring that electrical wiring standards be met in rural housing and that came about only after children died in a fire caused by poor wiring. Laws forbidding the surface disposal of sewage passed only a short time before that, and even now a properly-built outhouse remains legal despite the karst geology that allows pollutants to rush right through fractured layers of rock and loose soil to percolate into groundwater that surfaces as springs and streams. All of it, including discharge from septic tanks, ends up in Beaver Lake which supplies drinking water for the entire region.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that landfills were required to monitor discharge and place liners under the trash. Some efforts have resulted in the cleanup of junkyards where vehicles in various stages of decay leak oil, gasoline, and various other noxious fluids into the waterways. Other efforts attempt to stop residents from openly burning trash, a practice that releases toxic chemicals like dioxin, furans, and dangerous particulate into the air we all breathe.

But there’s a mindset lurking in the minds of our people, that this is their place and they can damn well do what they please.

And so they do.

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Winter

She speaks for us all, confessing to the check-out clerk with an excited laugh that if it’s going to ice, she’d better get ready. Milk, bread, chocolate bars, corn meal—her choices are different only in detail from the rest of us standing in line, in a store so jam-packed that even the stock boys work up front wearing jackets over their aprons and sacking supplies that will keep us secure when the weather moves in. Cars and trucks crowd the parking lot, some left running with the plumes of their exhaust whipping sideways in the freezing wind.

Men wait holding meat, bananas, coffee, restless in insulated tan coveralls with the legs unzipped over their heavy clay-soiled boots, their hair packed down against their heads where knit hats had been. Uneasy in a role usually filled by their wives, they joke, catch up with old acquaintances who also stand in line, promising to call soon, men not accustomed to being off work at one p.m., hurrying home to family before the sleet starts.

The cold comes first, thirty-five degrees when I started to town in the morning, twenty two when I return home, fifteen by three. Wind rocks the great oaks side to side, piling stiff dead leaves in new arrangements at the corner of the woodpile, at the steps. Twelve degrees at dusk, the clouded sky pale pink and white, the countryside settling into frozen night.

More wood on the fire at midnight and two a.m. I shiver by the fire. The house creaks.

Five-thirty a.m. by my bedside clock, the tick-tick of sleet against the windows wakes me. I indulge in another hour of fitful sleep, comforted by heavy quilts and cats at my feet. Plans of all I could do race through my dreams, the albums not finished, correspondence neglected, the watercolors so long set aside. Roads coated in ice mean a day without visitors, a day at home tending the fire, tending myself.

Dressed in sweaters not worn for five years, in long socks and with no regard to appearance, I sip hot tea at the window. Only a small shift in the light signals dawn, lifting the dark blue cast of the air to a lighter shade.  Barely visible deer move slowly through the woods, pawing at the ice-coated duff.  Tiny crystalline flakes of snow filter into the sleet, thickening the white of the downfall, obscuring trees at the fence line.

Four degrees.

I build a fire in the wood-burning cook stove. A kettle of water with cinnamon oil steams while I craft my list of things to do, tasks that seem too petty or cumbersome for normal days when open roads and obligations burden the hours. I simmer apricots with honey and ginger and fry half-moon pies, edges evenly crimped with tender fork lines. I sketch scenes, the road to my house, the long-familiar contoured hills, and let watercolor swirl on the heavy paper, a skyscape of gray and blue, fields tan, oaks silhouetted black.

Freshly washed clothes hang by the blistering stove whose greedy heat soon pulls out all moisture. With satisfying frugality, a pot of vegetable soup thick with garlic and a pan of beans decorate the stove top, cornbread in the small sooty oven. Every few hours I rush out for more wood, lingering coatless in the sharp scent of cold and wood smoke, large flakes of snow tumbling down into my hair, resting on my eyelashes.

The winters have not been accommodating in recent years, failing first with abbreviated snows, then disappointing even in temperature. In the onslaught of global warming, the Ozark hills have increasingly remained accessible in deepest January, when a few decades earlier our steep, curving roadways had been reliably impassible for at least two arctic weeks of the year. We grew up expecting that at times chosen by Nature, no one would venture out. The guy with the local wrecker service would make enough money to last until June.

In this mid-South clime, we don’t get winter enough to justify the county’s expense for snow plows. It suits us better to schedule school years with extra days for snow. It pleases us to find ourselves unexpectedly confined to the house discovering long lost treasures at the back of the closet, reading magazines, standing at the window as midday lightens the sky to a shade barely more luminous than the snow lying thick on the ground.

Lately, with the warming climate, there has been little winter at all. Days have run together, no time to reflect, restore, sleep in the afternoon. We long for the cold, the ice, roads we could not drive, jobs we could not attend.

Welcome then this celebration of ancient instincts to stay in the cave, content with the provisions we have hoarded, the firewood we have stacked near the door, wrapped in the warmth we have made. Embrace this triumph of man over the elements, a proof of our adequacy in a time when little else seems so clear.

This piece is excerpted from my collection of essays, I Met a Goat on the Road–and other stories of life on this hill. Published 2013

Last Minute Gift? Visit your local bookstore

Great gifts abound at your local bookstore. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, that means Nightbird Books on Dickson Street where you’ll find all my books on local history.

Check out Murder in the County: 50 True Stories of the Old West, a collection of murder stories from the 1800s here in this county.

Less expensive but just as intriguing, The Violent End of the Gilliland Boys chronicles the amazing journey of one pioneer family, also a local story.

Don’t live in Northwest Arkansas? Simple — check out all my books at Amazon.com

I Met a Goat on the Road

A visiting guinea? A ‘possum in the dining room? What strange and wondrous occurrences can one expect while living on an Ozark mountaintop for over forty years?

These lyrical adventure stories feature chickens, raccoons, bugs, dogs, cats, and natural critters of this woodland home. Throw in a few neighbors who shoot copperheads or remodel the dirt road. Ponder the passage of time through a philosophical lens of wonder and delight. The seasons bring summer heat, winter snow, pouring rain, the power of fire. Lessons learned, questions posed–who has lived and died on this land? What is our responsibility to this place, its creatures, each other?

Come meet the goat on the road.

Amazon buy link

South County

1972. A Yankee learns the Ozarks way and lives to tell his tales. Now almost a native, Denny fondly reminisces about the people and places of his adopted home.

Denny Luke is an adventurer. During his years as a Navy man, he built hot rods with money he made with shipboard loansharking. He returned to his native Ohio where he soon tired of the mechanic’s life. Computers had just started to break the surface in 1966, the perfect attraction to a young man with a sharp mind and plenty of ambition.

Hot cars and Enduro racing occupied Denny’s next few years as he helped usher in the computer age in Minneapolis. But another adventure awaited when in 1970 he fell in with a bunch of hippies. By 1972, he had found his way to the Ozarks.

An avid photographer and storyteller, Denny shares the adventures of his life as he recalls the outrageous backwoods tales and colorful characters who populate the southern fringe of Washington County in Northwest Arkansas.

Amazon buy link

The Old West

In the completion of my recent book, Murder in the County: 50 True Stories of the Old West, I discovered that three of the fifty murders profiled there were committed by members of the same family! Intrigued, I researched more about these folks and the result is now published under the title The Violent End of the Gilliland Boys. Fascinating and shocking, this story features more twists and turns than an Ozarks dirt road.

Christmas Day horse races 1872, Middle Fork Valley.  Young Bud Gilliland waits, eager for another chance at his neighbor Newton Jones. Only this time, after two years of sparring, Newton gallops up in a cloud of dust, aims his Spencer rifle, and sends Bud to a well-earned grave.

The death of Bud surely grieved his father. But before the curtains closed on these descendants of J. C. and Rebecca Gilliland in 1891, two other sons and a grandson would die a violent death while yet another grandson served hard time for murder.

What was it about the Gillilands?

This recounting of the family tracks their ancestry, their pioneer years on untamed land, and the hard work that made them one of the wealthiest families in Washington County, Arkansas. A fascinating tale of brash ego, brave gallantry, and plain old bad luck.

Paperback now available for only $9.95 at. Don’t miss it!

 

New Release: Murder Stories!

Murder in the County: 50 True Stories of the Old West

Contrary to popular notion, Arkansas was part of the Old West along with Texas and the rest of those more familiar dusty southwestern places. Its western border joined up with the Indian Nations where many a weary marshal rode out with his bedroll and pistol carrying writs from the U. S. District Court at Fort Smith in a search for a steady stream of men rustling livestock, stealing horses, selling whiskey, or running from the law.

From its earliest days, Washington County, Arkansas, experienced some of the worst the Old West had to offer. At unexpected moments, county settlers faced their fellow man in acts of fatal violence. These murderous events not only ended hopeful lives but also forever changed those who survived them. Not to say that the murders in the county all stemmed from conflict along its western border—plenty of blood spilled within its communities and homesteads.

The fifty chapters of this collection each focus on one violent incident. Through family histories, legal records, and newspaper accounts, the long-dead actors tell their shocking stories of rage, grief, retaliation, and despair.

Available now at Amazon.com