What Is Real?

Existence is a slippery construct, it seems to me. I tend to embrace the rational, the concrete, which makes it difficult for me to drift off into theorizing about other dimensions or other possible spheres of existence aside from our three-dimensional sensory world. But all that is countered by my own very bizarre personal experiences.

So far, I have refrained from talking about this because, well, people tend to look at you oddly when you bring up stuff like this. But hey, I’m not getting any younger and I want to put these experiences on the record. For what it’s worth.

In the mid-1970s, I was living in a rural area in a small cabin while my new husband and I tried to get a house built. The cabin sat on a ridge of pasture land surrounded by oak-hickory forest. To the north, the land fell away sharply into steep wooded hillsides. To the south, the pasture land dropped slowly for about a quarter mile before it too veered down forested hillsides. Ozark land verging into the Boston Mountains.

From the window of the cabin, looking west, the view spread across maybe forty acres of pasture and pond with woods all around. Midway in that field, I saw them one day, a man and woman standing side by side in the grass, facing me from about fifty yards away. Far enough that I couldn’t see facial detail, close enough that I could observe their clothing and posture.

They appeared in the corner of my eye. When I turned to stare, they vanished.

The man wore a brown suit and a brown hat, a vest and white shirt, the style dating to the mid-19th century. The woman’s dress was long and slightly full, what I assume would have been a modest garb with petticoat for someone who needed to walk across rough land. She too wore a hat, a straw hat held by a tie under her chin.

I saw them a few more times after I learned not to look directly. Each time they stood together, the man in his brown suit of clothes, not fancy, and the woman in a gray cotton dress with long sleeves and long skirt, the bodice fitted in the style of the times. I wondered at their presence, whether they had died there while their spirits remained, whether they had lived in that spot and attached themselves emotionally so that wherever they went afterwards, their energy remained there.

I’m a writer so I can think up stuff like that, their story, why I saw them. So I really can’t say whether those ideas explaining their presence were from them or from me.

A few years later, after moving into the new house, I had another sighting. Not the same place, but across the road and onto a wooded hill. From my office window, I can still point out the exact spot, a small clearing at the highest elevation of this entire ridge. At some previous time, a massive old tree had fallen and left the spot open to sunlight. I’ve walked out there over the years since, careful to take such jaunts in winter when the ticks aren’t out. There are large flat rocks like paving stones alongside the fallen tree, creating a defined space about twenty feet square.

I had not discovered that spot until the day of the sighting. I was staring into the distance from what then was a child’s bedroom, taking a time out from marriage, motherhood, and the demands of my profession. Two individuals appeared, again at the edge of my peripheral vision so I could only see them indirectly. These were Natives, two men dressed in deerskins and carrying the weapons of their culture. They were looking east while I observed them to my south.

Rendering of Osage First People by George Catlin. The Osage claimed this area for hunting grounds, moved off involuntarily when the U. S. government forced the Cherokee to relocate. Soon after, the Cherokee were also forced west into Indian Territory (Oklahoma). I think what I saw were Osage.

They were waiting for someone, or so the thought struck me. I saw a Native woman there once, alone, her long deerskin dress finely made as she, too, waited for someone. I saw them a few more times over the coming years, but as my life picked up speed and my time for staring out windows diminished to nearly nothing, I saw no more people hovering at the brink of this dimension.

And that’s what I’ve come to believe has occurred. Perhaps elevation has something to do with this portal, because the elevation is about the same for both spots. I reached that conclusion after a third and more disturbing incident that occurred twenty years later.

A friend had come to stay with me while she searched for a place to live. She had lived in Europe for several years, and on her journey back to the States had stayed for a time in London with an old friend. He was ailing and subsequently died. She told me about her mysterious experience with his ghost visiting her after his death.

After returning to the States, she lived at my house maybe two or three months before finding a rental she liked. After she moved out, a month or so later, I was sitting in the living room watching television like I did every night when I suddenly became aware of another presence in the house. The hair went up on my neck.

At first I tried to convince myself it was my imagination, because that’s what we all do at moments like that, right? Then I reasoned that if someone had come in at the back end of the house through that seldom-used door, I would have heard it. It didn’t open without a creak. I heard no creak.

But after several minutes of very eerie energy wafting through the house, I forced myself to go back there. I slowly walked the thirty feet down the hallway to that back door, gooseflesh on my arms. I even stopped to pick up a large bamboo rod to use on an intruder. I flipped on lights, calling out ‘Who’s there?’

When I got to the room with the door, it was empty. So was the rest of that part of the house, including closets and under the beds. Yes, I checked. And the door was locked. But Something was there, an energy that was so strong and so haunting that I could feel it all around me.

I realized it was the ghost of my friend’s friend. I thought it must have followed her, since she was the person who had seen him through his last days. I remembered her remarks that she had visited with the ghost more than once.

Well, thanks a lot! I didn’t need that ghost and I didn’t appreciate her leaving it here with me.

It was hostile, maybe because she had left it behind. I didn’t trust it. Didn’t want it. But, I reasoned, it was likely just lost.

So I addressed it. I stood there in the rooms she had stayed in and told it this wasn’t where it needed to be. I tried to change my energy from fear and resistance to a more loving and sympathetic frame. I said it would rest better if it joined the other spirits in the places they lived. I told it to go to the light.

I thought it had listened, because the presence seemed to leave. Later, though, when I went back there after a few days, my eye caught on a work of art one of my kids had done in grade school. Taking pride of place near the end of the hallway, it was well done rendering of a clown with a tear drop on its cheek that had always made it a sad image.

Well, now the image was not sad. It was demonic.

The ghost had taken up residence.

Disturbed by what was either a supernatural presence existing within my house or, alternatively, the fact that I was losing my mind, I ended up asking my daughter to take the art to her dad. Where it remains. I have not been bothered by that ghost again.

There have been other transient ellipses of space and time at that end of the house, which isn’t space inhabited unless one of my adult children come to stay. One or the other of them has experienced unexplained sounds or an energy presence, enough that I’m fairly convinced—at least on that matter – that I’m not losing my mind.

But it occurs to me, in retrospect, that this was at the same elevation and in almost a straight line along this ridge with the other two occurrences. And in contemplating this, I have concluded that there might be a wrinkle in time here, a portal of sorts that cracks along this ridge and allows transitory visitations by one or another realm of existence.

I’m wondering if I’ll come back to visit, too.

One day they appeared, walking across my land. Then they were gone.

 

Old Remedies Work!

First affected area under the left ear, about ten days in.

Follow-up on the ringworm nightmare with my kitten Hellion, who appeared from under my barn in early June, apparently yet another dumped animal on this rural road. She weighed two pounds at that point and the vet thought she was about two months old. Of course she was terrified and hungry, but not completely feral, and after a week or so with food and lots of cuddles, she was quick to purr when held and petted.

On September 11, I noticed a small raw spot under her left ear about the diameter of a pencil eraser. By Saturday 9/14, the spot had increased to the diameter of a half dollar. The surface area was raw and oozing clear liquid, her hair coming off as it continued to expand. On the 16th, I took her to the vet who wasn’t sure whether it was an injury or a fungus. He cleaned the area and gave her a shot of antibiotics.

The infected area continued to expand. On Friday Sept 20, I took her back to the vet. He said surely it was a fungus and gave Conzol, a topical anti-fungal spray, Ketoconazole as an oral, and anti-fungal shampoo. I was to bathe her at least 3 times a week.

Not happy that he had not recognized the problem at my first visit, I sought a second opinion the next day. The new vet said she could do a lab test, but it would take 7-10 days. The first vet had also suggested a lab test, but was dismissive of the idea because of the time required to get results. At this point, I wanted to know what we were dealing with, so the second vet took a skin sample and in response to my concerns about the ketoconazole suggested a less potent oral med in pill form.

Although this photo is of the original area, this is the type of open wound that spread over her shoulders, up the back of her neck, onto her ears, and around her right cheek and throat.

A week passed as the area continued to spread. The second vet called and suggested I return to the first vet for a long-term antibiotic shot to ward off secondary infections. I did that and asked if he had anything that would reduce her pain on the raw areas. He gave me Neo-Predef, a powder application for open wounds that anesthetized and clotted the clear ooze.

Hellion hated the pills and as any good cat will do, she became expert at holding the pill (actually ¼ of a pill) in her mouth until she could spit it out. Since the hiss of the Conzol spray freaked her out, I began applying the Conzol with a cotton ball. I also bathed her.

Once.

Let me just say that bathing a cat is never easy, but when you’re supposed to keep the shampoo on the cat for ten minutes before rinsing, it’s pretty much impossible. First, a wet, shampoo-slicked cat becomes a self-propelled torpedo in the hands. The only option was to hold her by the scruff of the neck, but this was precisely where the fungus had taken hold. She flew out of my hands more than once and after five minutes and a complete drenching with anti-fungal shampoo, I deemed it good enough.

No more baths!

So by now my sweet little kitty had started to fear me and it broke my heart to have to hold her down to treat the wounds and force the pill down her throat. We struggled along for another two weeks as the horror continued to spread, juicy with clear liquid and hair loss across her shoulders and around the other side of her head. The lab results finally came back – no one had clarified that 7-10 days meant working days. And I had to call the vet to get the information.

Ringworm.

Three days later, Hellion began throwing up her food and refusing to eat. By now I was researching alternate meds and learning that all oral meds for ringworm cause liver damage among other things. I also learned that the function of these meds was to reduce the proliferation of the fungal spores by making the hair less susceptible to host the spores. Talk about killing an ant with a hammer!

I stopped the oral meds immediately but continued applying the Conzol. The raw areas continued to spread over the next three days with some of the areas bleeding and forming large scabs. She was miserable, so I went the alternative route, reading my herbal remedies book and learning that 8-10 drops of tea tree oil in a pint of water made an effective topical treatment for ringworm. I stopped the Conzol entirely.

For a week, I used the tea tree oil solution. The spread of the raw areas decreased but the wounds weren’t healing. I continued to use the powder which soothed the raw areas, but she had begun scratching and several areas were bloody.

Then I remembered two things. In all my searching for information, I had run across the statement that ringworm is the same fungus as athlete’s foot. I also suddenly remembered that when my son was in his late teens and struggling with athlete’s foot, we tried a home remedy (after over-the-counter stuff didn’t work). He soaked his feet in apple cider vinegar and the athlete’s foot cleared up.

Almost healed from what was a bloody oozing mess two weeks ago.

So now I began using apple cider vinegar on Hellion’s wounds three times a day. This was Bragg brand Organic Apple Cider Vinegar (raw, unfiltered, ‘with the mother,’ unpasturized). The vinegar didn’t provoke a painful reaction on the raw places like I thought it would. Hellion seemed to actually like it. In THREE DAYS there were no new places and the wounds were healing. After another two days, I stopped applying the vinegar and in the ensuing week, there has been no recurrence, no new areas, and all the miserably wounded areas are almost healed.

Maybe this is an anomaly. Maybe vinegar wouldn’t cure all ringworm. But this experience has reminded me that modern chemistry and mainline physicians/vets would benefit from a little more knowledge about inexpensive, practical, traditional cures.

Hair starting to grow back, no open wounds.

Gem’s Gems

Excerpted from the book, Gem’s Gems — a memoir of my mother, Carmyn Gem [Morrow] Pitts.

[Her father Tom Morrow] ventured east into Madison County and ended up at St. Paul where the logging boom was in full steam. He brought his family to live first in a small house northwest of St. Paul before settling into the Casteel place, a two-story house with a bay window and porches upstairs and down, high upon a mountainside overlooking the White River Valley. They enjoyed a glorious summer in this scenic valley before cotton-picking time called them back to Texas.

Tom gathered his St. Paul crops and left Grandpa Clark in charge of the house and getting the sorghum cane to the mill. Left behind was the furniture—a wood burning cookstove, iron bedsteads and bedding, a rocking chair, table and benches, a marble-top round table, Sylvia’s “Princess” dresser with oval mirror, a small drop leaf desk, and a “matting” box with hinged lid Tom had built out of lathe for Sylvia’s quilts [Carmyn’s mother]. The family packed their “batchin’” equipment—a camp stove, a few quilts, feather bed, and feather bolsters, a white enamel bucket with plates, cups, and two serving bowls, the iron skillet, and a deep aluminum stewer Sylvia used to soak whole grain wheat overnight—into the beloved Baby Overland and headed south. Not left behind were the family cat Snowball and the German Shepherd dog “Lightnin’,” who rode on the fender.

On the journey, they stopped along the road each night and made campfires to cook supper. They would stop at a house to ask if they could get water at their spring and camp for the night. Mama made pallets for the younger children to sleep on in the truck and Papa, Durward, Douglas and Graydon slept on pallets on the ground under the truck. Once when they stopped at a house and asked to use the spring, the lady of the house brought them fresh buttermilk.

Littlefield Texas cotton-pickin’ shack. January 1929 L-R: Douglas with dog Trixie True, Graydon, Joy with cat Snowball, Tomazine “Sister,” Carmyn holding her doll Prudence, Una Mae in Durward’s lap

Upon arriving in Texas, they lived first in a cotton-picking shack at one of Sylvia’s sister’s place in Grayson County. After picking for two weeks, they moved on to another of Sylvia’s sister’s farms near Vera in Knox County where they stayed for four weeks. The shacks were crudely built one-room structures about twelve feet by fourteen feet with two windows and a door. Aunt Lillian fixed up their shack at Crosby County for her sister Sylvia and family to live in, scrubbed clean with curtains on the windows. She loaned them a coal-oil stove with an oven. They picked their cotton for three weeks and then finished the season in a shack near Morrison.

In the winter of 1928, the Tom and Sylvia Morrow family moved back to the Casteel place in St. Paul, Arkansas, but Grandpa Clark convinced Tom that the ground was too rocky for farming, so they rented a house together—the Greenway place—about 1.5 miles southwest of Springdale (near the present-day Wal-Mart). It was a temporary home for the two weeks it took Tom to find “Trouble’s End,” the name of the place in Springdale that was their first home with a bathroom and running water. Their seventh child Una May was born here. They had apples and strawberries, and were joined again by the grandparents, who again kept the house when Tom began preparing his family for another summer run back to Texas to pick cotton.

Austin Place, Springdale Arkansas August 1929 Tomazine and Una May

Tom traded the Baby Overland for a big truck, made a wooden box for the pet cat and a puppy to ride in, and the German Shepherd rode on the fender. On the journey, Sylvia and girls slept in the truck while Tom and the boys slept on pallets under the truck. Back in Texas, near Littlefield, they lived in a shack and picked cotton, but the kids all came down with whooping cough, so they couldn’t return to Arkansas until March 1929.

Back in Springdale, they discovered that Grandpa Clark had failed to pay rent at “Trouble’s End,” and had moved three miles east of Springdale to the Crane place. He had rented a nearby house, the Austin place, for Tom’s family, but it was only one bedroom. Tom closed in the breezeway to the smokehouse to provide more room, but that fall he found the Nix place with three bedrooms and a big corner porch. He moved the family there and went to Texas to haul grain from November until February 1930.

Tom Morrow with his mule team, baby on the wagon seat

 

Read the rest of Gem’s Gems! Available at Amazon.com

The Red-Headed Bug

The car kicked up a cloud of dust as I hurtled down the long driveway. In my rush, I turned onto the county road and traveled another half mile before I noticed the creature that held on furiously just outside my side window, some kind of small waspish fly, its bulbous eyes perched like wire-rimmed glasses on its orangey-maroon head, its tidy black veined wings tucked sleekly along the sides of its narrow black thorax. Its thin legs flexed and strained to remain anchored in spite of the force of the air stream as I sped along.

This was not a singular event. My rural wooded property hosts bugs of infinite variety, some of which end up resting on my car.  On any given trip to town, I might inadvertently transport tan walking sticks, red, yellow, or black wasps, skinny dirt-daubers, black, blue, or green flies, beetles of every conceivable shape and shade, spiders, ticks, bees, mosquitos, gallinippers, moths, ants of assorted size, and any other of so many multiple-legged beings that I suspect some of them have, to date, escaped scientific classification.

Notable creatures such as the saddle-backed, black stinkbug or the lime green praying mantis usually merit my immediate pull-over, where I carefully remove them to roadside vegetation wondering if they find any advantage in new territory. I’ve considered whether higher insect intelligences, like flies, might purposefully plan for such transport. One large green fly made it all the way to town, having carefully positioned himself in a joint of the windshield wiper, perhaps with a particular lady city-fly in mind.

I rarely see them as I load in my gear, back up, and drive away, not until I have picked up speed, until they begin to slide, inexorably, across the waxed paint of the car’s body or the smooth glass of the windshield. They ride in ignorance, misunderstanding the threat. From their egocentric viewpoint, the problem is not that they are unwitting passengers on the rides of their lives, but simply that a strong wind has sprung up.

The challenge is to hold fast.

On this particular morning, the red-headed fly had arrived at my parked car door, at what seemed a perfectly fine spot to rest, groom, and digest his latest meal. As I began driving and the sudden gale blustered around him, he braced himself, securing every foot firmly to the spot. He had no concepts through which to anticipate that his greatest risk came with hanging on to what seemed familiar surroundings, that ultimately he would be farther away from what he knew and desired than he would have been if he had simply let go.

As I cruised along the road, the tiny red and black fly gripped ever more frantically to maintain his hold. In order to offer the least wind resistance, his body bent and contorted, stretched and elongated, the severity of his effort betrayed by erratic flare-ups of his wing tips.  Staring at me through the side window glass, he seemed to question me in panicky stares.

I advised him based on my previous experience.

Some bugs come to a forty mile per hour realization, I said. While I’m still on this back road, in a serendipitous flash of insight, they let go.

I waited for his response. He tensely adjusted his wings and aimed his head more into the wind.

After some scary free fall, I continued, they find themselves in the thickets near Miller’s pond. We drove farther and his stance remained resolute.

Or in the rocky ditch, I said, or in the middle of Mr. Breedlove’s herd of Angus. Wherever you might find yourself, I’m sure you could optimize the situation—you know, discover a trove of aphids or a lonely female.

I glanced to see if he was listening. The red-black fly showed no hint of a high-speed epiphany but instead re-exerted his desperate clench.

Ignoring the urging of my more generous side, I accepted little ongoing responsibility as to the fly’s future well-being. It was, after all, an insect. And I was in a hurry.

The road merged onto the highway, and I accelerated. Listening to the radio, absorbed in anticipating my day’s schedule, and maneuvering through heavy traffic, I failed to notice when his tiny sticky foot pads ripped loose from the slick paint of my car door.

Halfway into town, I realized he was gone.

Briefly, I suffered anxiety on his behalf. Had he made his leap at the right moment, I wondered? Was his grip torn free in the surge of a passing truck, bringing him to join countless distant kinsmen already pasted to its front grill?

Had he ever understood the threat?

Had he understood and somehow just hadn’t figured out the best timing?

I narrowed my thoughts to more pressing considerations. The city lay ahead. In a continuing ethical quandary about my role in the greater scheme of things, I decided to believe that he knew what he was doing all along and got off right where he intended.

Excerpted from my book, I Met a Goat on the Road:

Ebook and Paperback available at your local bookstore or at Amazon.com


My Dad

Family of Floyd Pitts at the family home, Cane Hill, Arkansas: Standing back row, left to right: Older brother Harvey, his wife Ina, youngest sister Verna, younger sister Opal, Floyd, oldest brother Noah with wife Nellie holding Betty with Laverne standing. Front row, children of Harvey and Ina, Bobby Ray and Joy Lee. Seated: William “Bill” Pitts and his wife Nora West Pitts.

My dad, Floyd D. Pitts, didn’t fit a traditional male identification, not that he wasn’t fully male. His talent for music set him up for ridicule and bullying by his two older brothers. He hated the fields of cotton where, as a child, he was once flogged with a cotton stalk by his mom for sleeping at the end of a long row with his bag only partly filled. He was eight years old. It was a lesson in working to survive, and he never forgot it.

His high school diploma from Morrow, Arkansas, hardly counted when he entered college on a music scholarship. He’d already been part of a popular men’s quartet with classmates from high school performing regularly on Fayetteville’s KUOA, Voice of the Ozarks radio station. He played piano and fiddle, and also taught singing school. A makeshift piano tuning hammer had been fashioned from a tie-rod end by his blacksmith father because invariably when Floyd showed up at some rural church house to teach shape-note singing, the piano needed tuning.

Band Director, Rogers Arkansas circa 1940

Time in the U. S. Navy during World War II gave him the opportunity to later obtain a master’s degree as well as hours toward a doctorate. After the war, he returned to Rogers (Arkansas) to again teach choir and band. Another forty years would pass in this career, at Fort Smith in the 1950s, then Miami, Oklahoma until 1967, then part time at Westville, Oklahoma and Lincoln, Arkansas, until he retired from teaching.

From the early 1960s on, however, he advanced his moonlighting career of piano tuning and repair, which he took up full time once he left Lincoln schools. And while I had been his student in the Miami schools band, my first opportunity to work at his side came with the piano business. And it was here that we stepped outside the normal father-daughter roles.

He didn’t treat me like a girl. I remember that even as a youngster, when he was trying to remodel an old house we lived in at Fort Smith, he’d show me how to drive a nail or spread mud on a sheetrock seam. When I began ‘helping’ him in the piano business, he didn’t pay attention to whether my nails would get broken or if my feet were cold. He’d say “Come hold this clamp, sis,” or “Get that Phillips and come over here.”

I learned so much this way, not only how to repair and rebuild these complex instruments called pianos, but how to refinish wood whether solid or veneered, how to mix stains to get rid of red tones, how to smooth off delicate veneer edges with 220 grit sandpaper. If I had a shop today, there’s no end to the kinds and numbers of projects I could pursue and conclude with pleasing results.

Most women don’t get that kind of education.

Carmyn Gem Morrow and Floyd Denver Pitts, Benton County Fair circa 1945

Maybe he realized he wasn’t a “traditional” male in the sense of muscles and macho. Maybe he realized I wasn’t a traditional female in the sense of lace and flirting and whatever else defines that sort. Maybe he didn’t realize any of that but rather just moved forward through time with the work his hands could do well and the concept of work as an honorable and necessary pursuit.

I learned more from my dad’s view of the world than from my mom’s. Oh, I washed dishes and hung clothes on the line and changed my little brothers’ diapers. I sewed most of my own clothes through high school. Gardening, milking goats, keeping chickens—those were also part of my education through mom. But none of that really meant much in the greater world of the late 20th century when a woman might need her own income.

Whereas my mom’s social circles didn’t reach much past her extended family, my dad had to learn how to interact with the greater community despite his rural background. He’d have a social drink, laugh at jokes, and recruit band parents and faculty to help sell snow cones to raise money for new band uniforms. It was his charmingly open approach to people that showed me how to build a social network that became an essential part of a thriving thirty-year career as a piano tuner/technician.

If he thought I could lift one end of a 1910 upright piano, who was to say I couldn’t? If he could dig mouse nests out from under piano keys or drill through the cast iron plate to insert lag bolts in restoring a pin block to its correct position, then so could I. I was stronger than I knew, more mechanically minded, my hands—like his—able to tug strings made of cold drawn steel into the right position on a tuning pin.

Me and my dad, mid-1990s at the piano shop, Pitts Piano Service, Fayetteville

I admit to occasional worries that I had lost all chance of being a ‘real’ woman. What woman crawled under a grand piano to refasten the pedal lyre? In 1982 when I passed my Piano Technician Guild exams for registered tuner/technician status, there were less than two dozen women in the field. Plenty of customers would open their door at the appointed time and express shock at seeing a female tech. My hands weren’t delicate with slim fingers and manicured nails, but rather slightly rough tools used to create a well-tuned musical instrument.

But then, even as a child, I never felt feminine. The mysterious talent by which a female might lure a male into courtship totally escaped me. My body didn’t cooperate with the idea of feminine wiles, but rather expressed itself in somewhat androgynous terms—tallish, fairly flat-chested, angular. Interestingly, my dad too seemed somewhat of an anomaly in his family, handsome, lithe rather than muscled. Did he recognize, at least subconsciously, that we both didn’t quite fit the mold?

Nevertheless, I enjoyed my share of love and marriage, cherish my three children, and never turn down a romance novel–unless it’s poorly written.

As his oldest, I gained my dad’s attention first and perhaps it was only the bond of fatherhood that propelled his urge to teach me what he knew. In his heart, he was a teacher more than anything else. He was also an artist—a bass vocalist who could track any part in a four-part harmony, a clarinetist,  and a pianist who loved to pound out the keyboard version of jump music like “Bugle Call Rag” or marches like “Under the Double Eagle.” He cherished his role as both a composer and a conductor who pushed his students to produce excellent music whether Sousa marches or Copland’s Appalachian Spring. It was natural for him to insist I learn piano, clarinet and oboe and how to sing alto, and to teach me how to shim a cracked soundboard and identify the difference between real ivory and early celluloid keytops.

All five of us kids learned music. Both my brothers earned master’s degrees in that field. Sadly, I was the only one privileged to work with him in the piano trade and see the broader side of him than as just a parent.

Whether by conscious intent or as the consequence of his personality, my father allowed me to be me. He encouraged me in skills that were beyond anything considered traditional for a female. His open-mindedness about the life choices of his oldest daughter freed me from any sense of duty to the stereotypes that so often limit women.

Today, fifteen years after his death, I appreciate him more than I was ever able to express while he lived. Thanks, Dad.

Award Winning Article!

I am pleased to announce that I have been awarded the 2018 Walter J. Lemke prize by the Washington County Historical Society for my article on Jesse Gilstrap. The article will appear in the Fall edition of Flashback, the Society’s quarterly journal.

In 1852, Jesse Mumford Gilstrap settled in Washington County, Arkansas, with his wife and three children. He had ventured to the county earlier; his first child was born here in 1848. An adventurous and passionate young man, in 1850 Gilstrap had trekked westward to join the gold rush while his wife awaited him at her family home near Carthage, Missouri. Back from his adventure and a few dollars richer, he returned to Washington County where he immediately invested some of his earnings in a partnership in one of the county’s earliest mills. In 1856, took full ownership. Then as the winds of war heightened, Jesse spoke out on behalf the Union cause. In 1862, he gathered a company of fellow patriots to form the first company of the 1st Arkansas Cavalry. Jesse went on to serve in the state senate before his untimely death in 1869.

Jesse’s story tumbled out of my research for my new release, The West Fork Valley: Environs and Settlement Before 1900. As I studied early settlers, then the first mills, then the Civil War, Jesse’s name kept popping up. It was a pleasure to connect with a descendant who provided photographs and more details about this man and his family.

I consider Jesse the real winner of this award. I am only the messenger.

West Fork Valley — New Release!

Riverside Park, West Fork. Perfect display of how the river has shaped the land, creating high bluffs and rich bottom land.

I moved into the West Fork Valley in 1973. I had no previous experience here except, as a child, one train ride from Fort Smith to Fayetteville circa 1952 and then passing back and forth from Fort Smith to Fayetteville during the 1950s in our 1949 Chevy (and later our 1954 Chevy). Driving Highway 71 in those days provoked high tension whether we had to pull over to wait out a driving rainstorm or creep along due to impenetrable fog or shudder as big trucks zoomed past.

Mount Gayler provoked an outcry from me and my younger sister—could we stop and have pie at Burns Gables? Could we ride the train? Only one time that I remember did the journey involve stopping for a train ride, a thrilling dash along the tracks circling the pond, wind in my hair, grinning as the high-pitched whistle blew. Another time we sat around a table at Burns Gables to savor a slab of delicious pecan pie.

The landscape of high mountains and sheer cliffs made its mark in my memory. For years my amateur drawings portrayed hills of the same height marching off into the distance in ever faded color. I never understood why it seemed mountains should look that way until, as an adult, I took another look at the profile of the Boston Mountains framing the West Fork valley.

Passing through West Fork on our way north marked the last hurdle before finally reaching Fayetteville, but the only thing that lodged in my memory about the place was the rock “tourist court” along the highway. Then the green-and-white rotating light flashed through the sky at the Fayetteville airport, a magical sight in fog or rain. In those days on that two-lane narrow highway, the trip took nearly three hours.

Imagine my surprise when, in middle age, I discovered that I had ancestors buried at Brentwood and Woolsey! After the Civil War, my dad’s grandfather, Charles McDonald Pitts, moved from Johnson County, Arkansas, to the Brentwood area along with his mother Elizabeth and several brothers and their families. Charles’ mother and his first wife Easter (Parker) and newborn daughter Tennessee are buried at Brentwood as well as a young niece Eliza. Two brothers and some of their children are buried at Woolsey. Charles would remarry there, a local girl named Linnie Mae Rose who became my great-grandmother. The Pitts family moved away by 1900 to take up residence in the western part of the county.

See full map at https://www.bwdh2o.org/beaver-lake/watershed-maps/

Now, after nearly fifty years of living here, I can almost claim to be an old timer. But fifty years is nothing compared to the two hundred years of family heritage a few of the valley’s residents can claim. I wanted to know who came here first, who built these towns, what it was like to carve out a living in this rugged land. So I started digging.

The West Fork Valley, my new release, is what I found, a history of the watershed of the West Fork of White River, its natural wonders, its past, its people through 1900. It’s my great pleasure to announce this book to the world!

Visit the book page on this site for more information and purchase link.

Works of Man and Nature

A few days ago I headed out to explore a road I’d never been down before. It’s less than fifteen minutes from where I live and in my current work-in-progress on the history of the West Fork valley, the road is mentioned often. I thought I should see it.

I was not prepared for what I found there.

Winn Creek Road. Named after the creek and Zadock Winn, a man who drowned there back in the early days of settlement. Other Winns established homesteads up that valley, too, and maybe the road took that name before Zadock drowned back in 1852. The road veers off southwest from Woolsey Road south of West Fork amid wide flat pastures framed on either side by steep, thickly-wooded hillsides.

You know you’re getting to the good part when you see the “Pavement Ends” sign. The road narrows. You slow down as tires hit the gravel and a cloud of dust rises behind you. The valley attenuates to its essential elements and tree canopy encloses the roadway in welcome shade.

To the right, the hillside rises sharply, its massive rock outcroppings mostly hidden in dense undergrowth and hardwood forest. I imagine how it must have looked to the first man to blaze this path, hacking his way through brambles and vines. I imagine how he eagerly awaited the next curve of the creek as it curled through the 30-foot deep ravine to the left, perhaps thirsty, perhaps eager to splash water on his sweaty neck.

Creeks were the roads before roads, paths cleared by regular torrents where in times of low water, man or beast could walk without fear of ambush by tick or cougar. Infinite generations of rocks large and small line the creek bottom. Pale brown, gray, occasionally black where the roaring water has undercut shale, limestone and sandstone claim the greater share of the lithic congregation. I pass a few houses, some buried on deeply wooded hillsides with “No Trespassing” signs at the driveway, others laid out alongside barns and white graveled drives.

The valley and its waterway curl under the dominating rise of these northern slopes of the Boston Mountains. Here and there ancient landslides or silted bends form little meadows suitable for a house, a garden, even pasture. I drive along watching the land slowly rise as I pass further south. I think of pioneers who claimed these places as their own, the long process of clearing fields to plant their wheat, corn, oats, cotton, and tobacco. I think of their log cabins, the children they raised, perhaps descendants living here still.

I’m immersed in the past when travel through places that required heavy wagons pulled by mules or a faithful horse to pick its way across the rugged land. I think of the millennia before white men, when Natives crept through the underbrush watching buffalo herds graze. I think of the millions of years it has taken this tiny place on our planet to form, primeval seas that covered the land then receded, the rush of glacial melt carving its way through countless layers of primordial continent with its fossils of all that came before.

Finally the road and creek bed approach the same level. I could stop, walk past a broken down fence line, and wade. I could sit and watch the water sparkle in sunlight as it rushes along its path.

I round a last curve and stop mid-breath. My heart leaps into my throat.

A surreal scene spreads across the narrow valley. My mouth falls open in shock. I’m instantly transported to a science fiction world. It’s almost more than I can take in.

There, straddling the stream and rising so high I must lean forward to see the top, are massive square steel pillars that hold up Interstate 49. The juxtaposition of the interstate and its structural supports against the backdrop of this venerable wild landscape is almost too much to absorb.

I stop, take pictures, try to come to terms with this bizarre reality. I examine the way the highway engineers planned to use the upper canyon wall as a launching pad for the roadway to fly across this valley. I study the exposed layers of earth and stone cut over countless eons by this now-trivial stream, laid bare as if pages of a book waiting to be read.

Not so trivial, even now, it seems. Evidence of raging flood mark the edge of the roadway, grass twisted and brown with silt, knots of weed tangled in fences. I think of Zadock Winn who believed he could cross even though the water foamed and seethed in its torrent. I thought of how, in all things, Nature will always win.

She will win here, too. For now, traffic clatters and roars far above my head, the steady drumming of tires, the regular lub-dub lub-dub as one after another vehicle crosses each section. Some bracing rattles more loudly than others, perhaps already loosening from its original moorings. There is no peace in this valley.

I drive on. Another quarter mile up the road, the creek takes a ninety-degree bend, providing me the fullest view of its intrinsic beauty.

I peer down from the road where it hugs the hillside forty feet above the water. This is the widest point of its course, ornamented in sparkling ridges as layer upon layer of rock gradually step down through the curve. I can almost hear children laughing as they splash and play in the shallow cool water.

Ahead, if I ventured another three miles or so, I’d arrive at Highway 74 where a left turn would take me to Winslow or a right turn would drop me into the wonderland of Devil’s Den State Park. I turn around and go back the way I came.

I drive home slowly, jarred from my normal frame of mind. The experience of that creek and its valley remains an arresting memory I won’t soon forget. It compares with the best stories I’ve seen or read where astonishing realities intersect with the commonplace. The interstate and its undergirding simply do not belong in that landscape.

Yet I’m twenty plus years past any of this being new. Surely the people who lived here during construction grew familiar with the mind-boggling scale of the interstate’s design. Surely the workers laboring day after day through the pouring of concrete and operation of massive cranes to erect these towers saw their labor as being rooted in the ground. It is rooted in the ground. No doubt the foundations for these support towers are driven deep into the strata far below the creek bed.

I wonder how long it will stand, this high-flying roadway built to accommodate a life lived too fast for contemplation of creek bottoms and tumbled rocks. How many decades will these pillars remain? I imagine a future time when only the towers still stand, the path for vehicles long since rusted and crumbled by the forces of weather, traffic, and time. How much of the concrete will fall to this scenic valley? What will it look like here in a hundred years, a mere blink in geologic time?

I’m disappointed in my words and even the photographs to adequately describe my visceral experience of this location. It’s worth the drive to put yourself there, to stand staring up at the work of man while surrounded by the work of Nature. Questions of time, space, and existence arise spontaneously. Of our place in the continuum, of what the future might hold.

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.

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