The Northern Country Side
Standing atop the edge of the cliff know as Whitaker Point, I am able to gaze down into the deep valley of leafless oaks and tall green pines. As my eyes follow the tree line to the top of the massive rolling hills of the northern Arkansas countryside, I eventually come across the stark contrast that is the green hilltop and the darkening gray overcast of the sky overhead. A storm is coming. A cool breeze sweeps through the forest and the trees rustle in the wind, the branches and twigs dancing into one another. I still can’t get over the splendor of this vast space. One can truly stand in the wonder that is nature in a virtually untouched section of the American wilderness, in a corner of the country that is mostly all but forgotten.
Northern Arkansas is a truly breathtaking testament to the North American wilderness. Many people have become nearly completely out of touch with. Most of this untamed land is home to a few farms and cattle ranches that seem to appreciate the peace and tranquility the forty-five minute winding drive through the Arkansas Mountains provide them with. The town folks’ attitude toward outsiders is one of hospitality and warmth, even during the cool early spring when my few friends and I departed on this journey. My previous outdoor experiences dealt with southern Missouri; a far less impressive and far more miserable three years I spent wandering the cow pattied fields of Lebanon. Though perhaps this judgment is not quite fair. I have never been to Arkansas in the summer months. Almost everyone in the town is friendly with one another. In a town with no more than one hundred or so people, I do not see how it is possible to not know everyone. The town primarily consists of a dirt road that runs through the middle of a couple general stores as well as hunting and boat shops. One small inn sits at the edge of town. Being the most modern establishment of the bunch, it still keeps the signature outward appearance of a large log cabin.
Aside from raising cattle, the main lifeblood of this town is tourism. This is unfortunate; it is the tourist that is the only negative thing about this space. Though scarce, they make their presence known with ignorant laughter or complaining about Internet access. It sits on the edge of a national park, home to hundreds of grazing elk and the Buffalo National River. The close-knit community is one that you immediately feel at home with. The old man that help us cut our fire wood told us to just take the rest of his pile cause he was having a good day. The ins and outs of slimy businessmen are replaced with friendly bargaining and people doing good to others for the sole reason of being good. The children run around in bare feet while the dogs run along side them, barking and yipping with joy and ecstasy. Everything here begins and ends with a handshake, such a simple sign of respect among friends and strangers alike is foreign however refreshing to me.
Stepping outside of the general store and loading the firewood into the back of our truck I can already smell the freshness of the air and tingling sensation I get when I smell freshly split pine.
“Now these logs here are a bit wet cause’ they was on the bottom, see? But,” the old man bends over for another load, “you should have no problem getting those ones lit as soon as you get this other stuff burnin’” The last load of thinly split fire wood is thrown into the truck bed as his wrinkled face crinkles with a smile and sigh of relief. No matter your age here, you work. I am not sure anyone knows of their age until they die. Even then all they know is that they were too old to keep living. While loading the wood into the truck, my friend and I told the man that he could let us get the rest of the logs. This invitation was not well received. For a moment we were afraid we had insulted the old timer, but with a quick laugh he assured us that, “there is plenty of time to rest when you’re dead.”
Driving back to camp, windows down, we could hear nothing but the hum of the engine and the sounds of the wood. The wind was picking up and we could hear the hawks screeching and cows serenading as if we were in some Wild West film. It was the romance of it all that brought us to so intimately begin to love this space. Life here was something to be enjoyed. You had the time to hear the water rushing from somewhere in the forest, meals were never a rush, the people embraced you as if you had known them for twenty years before that moment, and the sight of elk grazing at the base of some step rolling hillside gave you this feeling of security and ease. The only pressure in life was to live.
The first hill I walked up was a deceivingly long trek. The pile of leaves, which covered the entire forest floor, came up to my mid-shins. My thighs began to burn and I couldn’t stop coughing as the fresh country air cleaned out my city lungs. In this part of the world, you work for everything you get, but once you get to the top, the reward is insurmountably greater than the bloody shins you get tripping over the barbwire hidden by the overgrowth of forest. For miles and miles the only view was rolling hills of trees. The three-mile hike to Whitaker Point is to be a far more treacherous hike.
The next day, we awoke as soon as the sun poked its head out from its visit from some other countryside. That day we made our way down into the valley and walked along a frequently trodden path following a small creek. At the end of the hike our troop looked up at a waterfall, at the mouth of which was a cave. The low entrance meant that my nearly six and a half foot frame had to duck. There is something about being away from the pressures of society that is liberating. I suspect that the people here will live far more fulfilling lives than I will, and I assume that they think the same of an outside like me. It is this assumption that I hope to keep a space such as this a rarely visited piece of America. An overexposure to simplicity eventually becomes a bore, I don’t ever want this to happen, nor do I think it will.
At the end of the day, we took a three-mile hike through the woods. Though the tall anorexic trees provided us with no foliage, however the setting sun at this point did not pose much of a threat. Standing at the edge of the cliff I discarded most of my clothes and soaked in every sense of the event unfolding before me. The sun was setting behind the hills to the east. As the sun disappeared, the clouds began to gather and the wind swept through the valley and shot up the side of the cliff. Not inches from plummeting to my death, I closed my eyes and smelled the air of an uninfected slice of nature. My bare and aching feet, now cooled by the stone below, planted firmly and reassuring me I would not fall. Something I experience everyday, just without all the distraction. This is a space that is unique, especially in a world where such uniqueness is not often appreciated.