Rules for Newbies

Just moved to the country? Never lived in the country before? Here’s a word of advice: don’t piss off the country people.

In a trend beginning with the pandemic and continuing today, people are moving to rural areas and away from big cities. The options of working from home make such a move increasingly attractive. With this influx, those of us who already live out in the sticks have a few words of advice. Pay attention.

There are unwritten rules out here along these winding back roads. One of the first you need to always remember is about driving. Do not tailgate.

Nothing pisses off an old timer like somebody crawling up our tailpipes. Makes us want to slam on the brakes, then jump out and storm back to your car where we’d tell you that you won’t get where you’re going any faster by driving twenty feet from my bumper than you would at fifty feet. Even fifty feet is pushing the boundaries of politeness. If it’s after dark and your headlights are torching my eyeballs through the rearview mirror, a hundred feet isn’t far enough. Just ease off and give it some room. You moved out here to relax, remember?

I once had a short-lived neighbor who drove without any consideration whatsoever for these rules of the road. If they zoomed up behind you on the road, they’d hover within a few yards of the rear of your car and flash their lights. Like that’s going to make us go faster? Or pull over? Buddy, that just guaranteed that we’ll ease off the accelerator to creep along at ten miles per hour, knowing these roads offer zero room to pass. They were too stupid to know that when someone in front of you taps their brakes, it means back off.

Those folks lasted about two, maybe three years. I’m not exactly sure if they moved or if someone just killed them and dropped their bodies down a gully. They deserved to die, not only for their rude roadsmanship, but also for the fact that they took a perfectly fine old rock house, knocked out all the interior walls then couldn’t understand why the roof sagged. Crow food.

Another rule about driving in the country is the nod you give to an oncoming car. If it’s someone you know well, you exchange the full hand wave. If it’s an acquaintance or a neighbor, you lift one or two fingers from the steering wheel. You could nod, but nods are hard to read in a moving vehicle, so the hand motion up by the windshield is the best way to show that you’re not armed and you wish them well.

By the way, if you’re a gun nut and get off on shooting, try to aim so your bullets don’t go near my house. Also, don’t fire off rounds late in the evening unless you want someone to call the sheriff, thinking somebody is getting killed. Got a block of tannerite you can’t wait to set free? Keep that damn stuff away from my property unless you want to buy me a bunch of new windows.

Also, do not burn your trash. Even under the cover of darkness, we can smell it and we will call the law on your sorry ass.

Keep in mind that nobody lives in the country to be snuggly close to other people. There’s a good reason we’re parked out here on a piece of land without neighbors ten feet away from our bedroom window. We like our privacy. We like the quiet. We like nature. So if you’re moving out here thinking it’s okay to visit your new neighbor with a bunch of chatter about nonsensical bullshit just to be flapping your gums, stop right there. Do not come out here thinking we’ll welcome any of that.

In Washington County, Arkansas, where I live, there are unwritten rules about noise. If your dog stands outside and bays at the moon for five minutes, nobody’s going to come knocking. But if that sucker is out there barking barking barking for an hour or more, you’d better do something and fast. I’ve been known to call a neighbor and tell them if they don’t shut up that damn dog, I’m going to call the sheriff. Now the sheriff would laugh if I actually called him, and there’s no chance he’d actually do anything about my complaint, but this move serves the purpose of letting the neighbor know the situation has become dire.

By the way, it’s never okay to shoot somebody’s dog. If it gets that bad, just start calling your neighbor when the barking wakes you up—two a.m., three a.m. Like that. Pretty soon they get the idea.

On the other hand, if your dog runs up by my house and kills my cat, your dog will die.

The only time it’s okay to visit a neighbor you don’t know, especially if you’re new to those parts (defined as living here less than ten years), is if somebody died. Then you can fry up a pan of chicken or whip up a batch of fine beef chili, or bake a cake, then go in nice clothes to their door and offer your condolences. If they invite you inside, it’s up to you whether you want to walk into a house full of grieving relatives who don’t know you from Adam and don’t care to know you now. My advice is to hand over the vittles and go on your way.

Remember, nobody moves to the country to socialize.

Out here, we appreciate the beauty and bounty of Nature. So when a newbie buys up a piece of, say, twenty or forty acres and sets the bulldozer to it, our curses will summon dark forces that will haunt you forever. We’ll drive by wondering why you didn’t just stay in town if you didn’t want to see Nature. That land you ‘cleared’ is now stripped of topsoil and these hills erode quick. Next thing is you’ll have gullies carved down to the clay or nothing but a jumble of rocks, and you won’t get anything to grow on it including grass.

Some folks do that thinking they’ll get a horse or two, that old gentleman farmer fantasy. They spread fertilizer and wait. Nothing grows. Or they think they’ll have a lawn. We have a guy on our road who spent the first three years up here trying to grow a lawn. He lay in sod. It died. He lay in sod again. Finally, his third season he bought himself a  fancy little tractor rig that he drove hour after hour, lifting the soil, raking the soil, smoothing it and probably praying over it until finally his last batch of sod survived. I see him out there, nursing it along with fertilizer, weed killer, and so forth, and I have to admit he’s got himself a nice smooth patch of Bermuda out there. I think he might crawl around with scissors to trim the edges.

I’m sure he froths at the mouth about the land on both sides of him where fescue, wild flowers, and all other sorts of unruly plant life thrives. But then, he built his house about forty feet from the road, so even before he started his lawn quest, we all knew he was an idiot.

What we respect and admire are new property owners who respect and admire what came before them. There’s a new house going up on a hill on the north side of the road. He left all the trees except where the house is located. Down by the road just before his driveway cuts up toward the new house, there’s an old rock structure built in the 1800s. It’s been there through thick and thin, its impressive stonework still proudly exhibiting the expertise of its builder with smooth long stone lintels over the windows and doors and a fireplace that would draw even now in that roofless stone cabin. It’s a landmark we enjoy seeing every time we fly up and down that road. When we saw that property up for sale, we lived in mortal terror that some citified person would snap it up and send the bulldozer out after that sweet little relic.

We take care of our road, at least, we’re supposed to. As I once wrote about Roy who lived up here in a little Airstream with his dog Cindy, he took it on himself to patrol our half mile of dirt road. He’d walk that road just about every day with that German Shepherd and pick up any refuse that had blown out of somebody’s truck or had been tossed out by some hoodlum from town—beer cans, plastic bags, fast food wrappers, bottles of all kinds, an endless stream of trash that, since Roy died, has slowly collected in the ditches to be churned into the ground whenever a road grader makes its way up here.

I do what I can along my road frontage, on occasion finding beer cans tossed onto the first twenty feet of my long driveway, enough to let me know some jackass from town parked there to drink and have sex. When I’m picking up that mess, I’m angry enough to think I’ll put up a gate or at least set a game cam down there, but then it’s easier to just pick up their trash and glare at the next stranger who drives down this way.

You can always tell when they’re not from around here. You give your wave or lift a couple of fingers in greeting. If they give you a dumb stare, you know.

They’re moving in fast these days. New houses going up here and there, for sale signs on big stretches of pasture that have been cut up into pieces. There’s cleared hillsides that look like an aluminum recycling facility for all the trailers parked up there, one after another, some of them neatly landscaped but most of them surrounded by trash and clutter that tells you exactly what kind of people live there. They’re so ignorant they don’t even realize that their trash wouldn’t be such an eyesore if they’d left a single damn tree standing. I mean, if you want to hang it all out, move to west Texas where the land is already flat and treeless.

We’d be glad to see you gone.

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.