Ozark Hillbillies? Hardly!

The Ozarks is a region of the North American continent that includes portions of five of the United States. It is defined both by geography and by culture. In terms of geographical features, the bulk of the region is in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, but it also includes the northeast corner of Oklahoma, a small section of the southeast corner of Kansas, and a sliver of southwestern Illinois along the Mississippi River. Most of the Ozarks is characterized by rolling hills and deep ravines or hollows, heavily forested in some areas and rich with rivers, creeks, and springs. It is a major portion of the U.S. Interior Highlands, and its features are the result of a deeply dissected plateau. It is a beautiful part of the country.

The geography of the Ozarks has had a significant influence on its culture, primarily because so much of the area was isolated from the more populous regions east of the Mississippi until the late 19th century. Although farming was and is difficult here because of the terrain and the rocky landscape, there has always been a strong connection to the land and rural living by its inhabitants. The major exception to this rule is the rapidly growing urban sprawl along a north-south corridor extending from Springfield, Missouri, down to the kingdom of Walmart and the flagship university in northwest Arkansas. In general, Ozarkers are fiercely independent and tend to distrust government. Much of the population is made up of white people of Scots-Irish descent who are religiously and politically conservative, especially in the more rural portions of the region.

Throughout much of the 20th century, the people of the Ozarks were represented in popular culture as poor, backward, shiftless, and uneducated. Similar to the inhabitants of parts of Appalachia, the Ozarkers were considered a bunch of hillbillies by the sophisticates of the east and west coast. Even in modern times, many Americans still think of the Ozarks as a place of mystery, perhaps dangerous. In books and movies, Ozarkers are usually poverty stricken, which in some cases is true. Those who have wealth acquire it through lawless activity. They are depicted as depraved folks delighting in illegal and deplorable lifestyles with virtually no moral compass. Netflix created a sensational and wildly popular series, Ozark, based on these stereotypes.

Not all Americans buy into this ridiculous assessment of the Ozarks, but it still prevails among many people in the country, mostly those who have never spent any time in the region. It is true that most Ozarkers have a rural mindset and still have an appreciation for simple pleasures like homegrown music, small-town festivals and fairs, church gatherings, school athletic events, and outdoor recreation like fishing and floating on rivers. But they are anything but lazy. It takes a lot of muscle and sweat to make a living in these hills, which helps explain the high rate of poverty. However, it is a mistake to assume Ozarkers are all a bunch of stupid, immoral hillbillies. Perhaps a few examples of some amazing people in the Ozarks provide the best evidence to make this case.

Tom Akers is from one of the poorest counties in the Ozarks, Shannon County, located in south central Missouri. He worked hard as a young man and earned a degree in mathematics from a branch campus of the University of Missouri in the Ozarks town of Rolla. He joined the U.S. Air Force, got his pilot’s license, and eventually decided to take a shot at becoming an astronaut with NASA. He became a mission specialist and logged an impressive number of space walks with the Shuttle program. His missions included deploying the Ulysses Spacecraft, repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, repairing a satellite, and visiting the Mir Russian space station. He eventually moved into administration with NASA and became a spokesman for the administration. Not bad for an Ozark hillbilly, wouldn’t you say? I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Col. Akers for an oral history project and can personally attest to his intelligence, integrity, and character. Oh, and just for the record, the Hubble Space Telescope was named for the astronomer Edwin Hubble, who was also from the Ozarks in Marshfield, Missouri.

Col. Tom Akers
Col. Tom Akers

Pat Johnson went to the 1st through 8th grades in the 1950s at “Pocahontas Colored School,” a small, one-room structure in Pocahontas, Arkansas, on the eastern edge of the Ozarks. Ms. Eddie Mae Herron was the only teacher for that school and all its students for over 15 years. Pat recalls as a 10-year-old going with some of her white friends to a local ice cream store, but when she walked inside with them, the manager quickly approached her and told her she could not come in. She had to pick her ice cream up from the window outside. She went on to graduate from a high school in the next county. She wasn’t allowed to attend the segregated high school in Randolph County where she lived. Pat got married and started a family shortly after high school, going on to work in the local hospital and then later for a government agency in Pocahontas. In the late 1990s, she spearheaded an effort to preserve the old one-room schoolhouse. She garnered support from the city, the Chamber of Commerce, outside government agencies, and the community. Now, the fully-restored little school house is the Eddie Mae Herron Center & Museum, which brings together people of all races and ethnicities for educational, civic, and cultural programs. Pat Johnson is about as far away from being a hillbilly as I can imagine. She will be the first to say that she doesn’t really identify with the Ozarks region, because it has largely been unwelcoming to African Americans. But she has moved past that rejection to bring people together, regardless of the color of their skin, because she knows that communication is the key to acceptance and understanding.

Eddie Mae Herron Center
Eddie Mae Herron Center

Noel is a small township in McDonald County at the southwest corner of Missouri bordered by Arkansas and Oklahoma. In the late 1990s, Tyson Foods took over and expanded the operation of a poultry processing plant in Noel. To meet the demand for workers in this labor-intensive industry, Tyson began to recruit foreign-born people who would endure the grueling conditions in the plant for year-round employment and relatively good wages compared to seasonal migratory jobs. At first the non-native workers were exclusively Hispanic, but moving into the 21st century, Tyson began to employ immigrants and refugees from around the world including Central America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. In a few short years, Noel’s population went from predominantly white to almost 50% nonwhite, which also introduced new and unfamiliar languages, religious practices, and cultural norms. These rapid changes strained the governmental and educational resources of the town. Some local leaders and many of the native inhabitants were less than welcoming to their new neighbors. The most disgruntled of the locals sold out and moved away to nearby towns or left the county altogether, which presented its own set of problems by lowering the tax base.

Fast forward twenty years and the situation is looking different and in a good way, thanks in large part to two community leaders who refused to give up on the town. Angie Brewer grew up near Noel. She moved to Texas with her first husband and started a family while working as an elementary school teacher. The marriage ended in divorce and Angie moved her children back home where she eventually remarried and became the principal of Noel Elementary School during the tumultuous period after the initial impact of the immigrant population shift. Angie and several of her close friends made an important and life-changing decision. They were going to buck the trend of distrust and alienation to live out the Christian faith they have claimed all their lives by loving their neighbors regardless of race, faith, or origin. They became social media soldiers, quickly shooting down disinformation and rumors about immigrants and refugees. They petitioned government and business leaders, including the suits at the Tyson home office, to assist in helping foreign-born families assimilate into the community. Officials at the county level obviously recognized Angie’s leadership efforts, promoting her to principal of McDonald County High School and Assistant Superintendent of the county school system. She has made a tremendous difference in the lives of so many students and parents, crushing the Ozark hillbilly stereotypes of isolationism, xenophobia, and even white supremacy.

Community Baptist Church, Noel, MO
Community Baptist Church, Noel, MO

Joshua Manning was working at Walmart in 2017 and contemplating becoming an overseas missionary when he was called to be the minister of a small Baptist church in Noel, not far from where he was born and raised in Southwest City. The congregation had dwindled to only a few families. They had no pastor. Many of the white members had abandoned the church and moved to other churches in the county during the drastic shift in the town’s racial and ethnic balance. And although Manning and his wife initially thought their time in Noel would be brief, they ended up finding an opportunity to share their faith and reach out to immigrants and refugees, giving them a place to gather and worship freely – a place where they are loved and welcome. Today, Community Baptist Church facilitates several different worship services in multiple languages. The church sponsors a food pantry and provides a variety of goods and services for anyone in the area in need. Manning is the first to admit that building this ministry has been a struggle and that Community Baptist is anything but a normal church. But he and his family have found their place of service and seem to be content. Rev. Joshua Manning’s moral compass points straight and true. Thankfully, there are many more like him and Col. Akers and Pat Johnson and Angie Brewer in the hills and “hollers” of the Ozarks.

A Musical Tribute to Flannery O’Connor

During the early stages of the COVID pandemic in 2020, I wrote a pop song as a tribute to Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Those who know me best will not be surprised that I would do such a thing. She is my favorite author, and I think she was a comic genius – far ahead of her time.

If Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy had a love child delivered by Neil Young, I can imagine this is what it would sound like when the baby cried. The title of the song is “I Just Don’t Fit.” I decided on a western-style tune to give it some distance from O’Connor’s South, but the darkness is still there.  It’s probably enough to turn Bruce Springsteen’s stomach, but it’s the best I can do with what I have.

Here is a link to a YouTube recording of the song. The lyrics are printed below.
https://youtu.be/8zkRxEC4_Fk

Me – vocals, lyrics, music, and acoustic guitar
Justin Larkin – harmony vocals, electric guitar, bass, drums, mixing, and recording. (Lyrics and performance copyrighted 2021; all rights reserved)

Here’s to clean spectacles and parrot-print shirts.

“I Just Don’t Fit”

(Verse 1)
My father called me a different breed, and I guess that’s what I am
I must have done a mighty evil deed that even Jesus can’t comprehend
You think that if I pray
You can walk away
But everything’s out of balance now with too many debts we can’t pay

(Chorus)
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit
No reconciliation so I shoot from the hip
If you’re looking for a good man you might as well quit
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit

(Verse 2)
I’ve tried my hand at so many things, and I’ve seen my share of pain
You’re gonna need more than common blood if you want to wash away that stain
Can’t accept the fall
Until you lose it all
The undertaker never gets a tip; the remittance is always too small

(Chorus)
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit
No reconciliation so I shoot from the hip
If you’re looking for a good man you might as well quit
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit
No, I just don’t fit

(Instrumental verse solo)

(Chorus)
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit
No reconciliation so I shoot from the hip
If you’re looking for a good man you might as well quit
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t . . .

(Final Chorus)
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit
No reconciliation so I shoot from the hip
I can walk away and leave you bleeding in the ditch
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit
No, I just don’t fit

I Will Miss You, Rick

I lost someone recently, and the space left behind seems unimaginably large right now. For over 30 years Rick was my close friend, longer than anyone has been a close friend to me. Others were probably friends with him longer than I was, which is quite fortunate for them. I don’t remember the first conversation we had when he came to my church as minister of music and youth. I can’t really say why we forged such a close bond. We had some things in common. We both loved BBQ; we liked bike riding together on farm roads back in the day; we both liked to travel, especially out West; we liked reading and occasionally made book recommendations to one another. In fact, I was reading a book that he had recently recommended when his sweet wife called to tell me Rick had suffered a serious incident with his heart.

We both loved music, but our abilities in that regard were not equal. I’ve always been a lazy musician, learning how to play something just well enough to get by, and he certainly knew it. He never said it, but he knew it. Rick was anything but lazy. He was quite accomplished at the piano, but that’s because he worked and worked at a piece until he got it right. He was like that with a lot of things, which made him so good at what he did in ministry, and then later as a piano technician.

We also shared a similar sense of humor, and for those who know me best, I hope they won’t hold that against him. He was so patient with my endless disruptions during choir practice. We ribbed each other mercilessly, and Facebook was just like . . . fuel. I consider myself so very fortunate to have had the opportunity to talk to Rick less than 24 hours before he passed away. I had texted his wife asking about his condition, and a minute later he called me. He told me he’d had a good day and was feeling much better, which is such a deceptively cruel but common occurrence with critically-ill patients. During the conversation, I said something — I don’t know what — but it was most likely ridiculous, as I am wont to do. Rick chuckled lightly and said, “They’ve got me hooked up to all kinds of monitors here, so I can’t laugh, or I’ll set off the alarms.”

Rick and I certainly didn’t see eye to eye on everything. But that’s not what defines true friendship, is it? One of the many qualities I admired in Rick was how honest he was. He would give it to you straight – always. And if he were able to speak right now and I could hear him, I have no doubt he would say, “The least you could do in my memory is get a haircut.”

I don’t really know what Rick got out of our relationship over the decades. I hope somehow I made life better for him, because he definitely did that for me. What I do know is that I became friends with Rick at a pivotal point in my life. I had serious questions without a lot of good answers. He was only a few years older than I was, but his maturity far exceeded his age. On those Thursday mornings we got together for coffee before heading into work, we had some really deep discussions that I will never forget and for which I am eternally grateful. I told my wife and his, I can’t imagine the world without Rick in it. I’m not going to get used to that. I love you Rick, and I’m going to miss you for as long as I’m still around.

Art for Everyone

In 1967, a German sculptor named Fitz Koenig received a commission by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to install a work of art to be featured on the Austin J. Tobin Plaza situated between Word Trade Center’s twin towers, which were being built at the time. Koenig created a 20-ton cast bronze sphere 17 feet in diameter mounted on a disk pedestal positioned in the middle of a water fountain. Anyone visiting the plaza could pause to witness the largest bronze sculpture in the world at that time. After the twin towers fell in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Koenig’s Sphere, though seriously damaged, was the only work of public art at the World Trade Center that survived the destruction.

The Sphere in New York, NY
The Sphere in New York, NY

The sculpture was removed from the wreckage and brought back to Manhattan six months later and reinstalled in Battery Park, several blocks from its original location. It was later moved to Liberty Park. Ironically, Koenig’s Sphere was dedicated in 1971 to “world peace through trade.” The Sphere represents a remarkable example of how a work of art can take on a whole new meaning for the public based on outside forces that transform the piece, literally and figuratively. Upon its rededication, Koenig’s Sphere was recognized as “an icon of hope and the indestructible spirit of this country.”

I have written in a previous blog post about the value of public gardens, which I define as those that are open and free for everyone to enjoy at no cost. In a similar fashion, public art offers an opportunity for people to experience creative expression in almost endless media, shapes, sizes, colors, and settings. Large cities all over the world are adorned with magnificent art in public places, but even the smallest towns and villages show pride in their communities with various art installations, modest as they may be. They may take the form of a sculpture honoring a benefactor of a local garden, which is a wonderful way of celebrating two different treasures available to the public.

Springfield Botanical Garden in Springfield, MO
Springfield Botanical Garden in Springfield, MO

Municipalities often use statues or murals to draw attention to important figures in the history of their communities or significant events from the past. Then again, statues can be whimsical or can portray a particular type of character, including those from works of fiction or fairy tales. Wildlife is a frequent subject of public art too, which all ages tend to appreciate. Some businesses install works of art in front of their locations for the public to enjoy, which also attract customers and can even assist with brand recognition. Sometimes a statue or other work of art can have a dual purpose: as a stand-alone piece that also serves as a planter, an entrance, a directional sign, or any number of other functions.

Dred and Harriet Scott in St. Louis, MO
Dred and Harriet Scott in St. Louis, MO
Duke Kahanamoku in Huntington Beach, CA
Duke Kahanamoku in Huntington Beach, CA
Top of the Rock near Branson, MO
Top of the Rock near Branson, MO
Memphis, TN
Memphis, TN
Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, MO
Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, MO
Breckenridge, CO
Breckenridge, CO

Museums and galleries that charge admission fees will often have several pieces of art located outside their buildings for people passing by to see. Better yet, some of them include free walking trails on their grounds featuring artwork that is usually quite spectacular and impressive in size and concept. Most valued and valuable works of art in the world are kept in secure, climate-controlled buildings and guarded closely. Access to these treasures is primarily limited to those who can afford admission fees; however, many of the world’s most famous art museums open their doors to the general public for free, at least several times annually. How fortunate are the folks who can take advantage of opportunities to see first-hand the works of the masters from centuries past. But we should never take for granted the art that surrounds us wherever we go. It’s there, and some of it is absolutely amazing.

Santa Fe, NM
Santa Fe, NM
"Stone Heart in Wooden Hands" at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, AR
“Stone Heart in Wooden Hands” at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, AR

Suggestions for Christmas Future

Christmas tree reflected in window
Christmas tree reflected in window

Without fail in late November and into most of December, I begin to see social media posts from convicted souls proclaiming to us all what Christmas is really about. These gentle reminders are often delivered in the form of worn and faded phrases such as “Jesus is the reason for the season” or “Keep Christ in Christmas.” Are any of these folks celebrating the Holy Day one bit different than most everyone else? They are most likely rushing around for weeks – enduring thick traffic, unruly crowds, unintelligible websites, and supply-chain woes – trying to get just the right gifts for family, co-workers, and the people they love. How many of these defenders of the faith are spending more time with worship and liturgy than they are all the secular trappings of the holiday season? Very few if any, I suspect. So, with respect to Christians who feel the need to defend Jesus and the commemoration of his birth, here is a list of gentle and not-so-snarky suggestions for future Christmas seasons.

1. Please don’t get offended if someone wishes you Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Accept the greeting as an example of someone who understands that Christianity isn’t the only religion that celebrates holy days near the end of the year. God rest ye merry gentle people, let nothing you dismay.

2. Please stop insisting that the word “Xmas” is a communist plot to take Christ out of Christmas. For the love of God (you know, Jesus’s father), Google it and stop that nonsense. How long did you sing the phrase “in excelsis Deo” without having a clue what it meant?

3. Please don’t get irritated with people in the service industry at any time during the holidays, for just about any reason at all. They probably have a much suckier job than you do. Tip them extra and spread some of that joy to the world we like to sing about every year.

4. Please resist accusing the government, social media, the press, Bill Gates, or anyone else in this country of trying to get rid of Christmas. It ain’t happening, even if some of the new atheists would like to see it go away. If you still believe that thick slice a bologna, your gullibility score is flying higher than the angels we have heard sweetly singing o’er the plains.

5. Please rethink the idea that the only way to honor the advent of the baby Jesus is to spend a few hours in a church listening to choirs, singing carols, lighting candles, reciting Bible verses, praying, and taking Holy Communion. All of these traditional rituals are perfectly appropriate and meaningful to millions of believers; however, when people choose to celebrate the occasion by spending their time and sharing their love with family and friends outside the formal walls of worship, it doesn’t mean they are getting it wrong or missing the point. Perhaps the reason for the season is to find new opportunities for expressing compassion, grace, and charity, which should happen no matter where we are. If we ever get that part right, maybe more people here and around the world can sleep in heavenly peace.

A Charitable Manifesto

Thanksgiving Day and the religious holidays that follow tend to make me more conscious of how fortunate I am to have a spouse and partner who adores me and who means the world to me. I also have two sons that I love dearly who are independent and responsible people, finding their own path in life. I am proud of them. I have an extended family that loves me; we have a lovely house in a good neighborhood; I have a great job; and as far as I know, we are in pretty good health for our age and habits. I know how lucky I am to live in a country that is mostly prosperous, reasonably governed, and quite beautiful. In so many ways I have lived a charmed life, which I cannot necessarily attribute to wise decisions or abundant skill sets. On too many occasions to count, I have been in the right place at just the right time.

What I am also reminded of at this time of year is the contrast between my comfortable existence and the plight of so many people here and around the world. I know that living conditions have improved for most of the world’s population over the last hundred years, but the disparity between the haves and the have nots has only widened further. Throw in a pandemic, a few civil wars, wide-spread political unrest, and several natural disasters, and the last two years have presented a setback for a whole lot of people. Those of us who never have to worry about our next meal, a place to sleep, or adequate healthcare have a moral responsibility to share from our abundance with those who struggle just to survive.

I have spent a good portion of my career trying to raise money for charitable causes, mostly associated with education and historic preservation. For me, philanthropy was a commodity I peddled. As important as these activities were, they did not address the most serious challenges that people face. My wife and I also work with and financially support organizations that provide services to people in our community and elsewhere who are in need. We enjoy being involved in directly helping local folks, mostly through our Episcopal parish. On the rare occasions that I pause and give it much thought, I know I’m not doing enough.

If all goes according to plan, we will be retiring in a few years, which means that our schedules will drastically change with a lot more free time on our hands. Like many retirees, we hope to travel and enjoy leisure activities that entertain us. But we also have talked about the desire to volunteer for local organizations, and I am feeling more compelled these days to concentrate my efforts on helping the most vulnerable people in our town. I haven’t been generous enough with my time and resources through the decades. Promoting philanthropy is fine, but I need to spend the last chapters of my life living it.

Chasing Waterfalls

Waterfalls are a recurring theme for me in this blog. I am drawn to the sound of rushing water: waves crashing on the shore; rivers and streams; fountains in ponds; and waterfalls. I have hiked miles just to hear water running over rocks into a natural pool or to see it cascading over boulders. If possible, I take photographs when I find these bold exhibitions of nature. I often make videos too. Sometimes I will pause for a few minutes, or more, to simply look and listen. There is something about the sight and sound that soothes me and helps me appreciate how much beauty there is on this planet. For this post, I have collected photos of a few of my favorite waterfalls.

Multnomah Falls near Portland, Oregon
Multnomah Falls near Portland, Oregon

When I look at waterfalls, I am reminded how all life on Earth originated in the water, how essential water is in sustaining life, and how much of our bodies are composed of water. I think about how rapidly running water has been a source of power for people for as long as civilization has existed. I am amazed that the same liquid that quenches our thirst and caresses our skin can, over time, wear down and erode some of the hardest substances on the planet.

Lower Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone National Park
Lower Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone National Park

I have chased waterfalls in so many places in the United States, from coast to coast. I have stood in awe with throngs of other sightseers in national parks gazing at some of the largest falls in the country. I have visited state parks and scenic byways, looking skyward as the spray falls over cliffs to jagged rocks below. As magnificent as the most popular waterfalls are, I am still humbled and even mesmerized by a small stream spilling over a ridge deep in the forest. I can’t help wondering how long water has been flowing at such places. I am often by myself when this happens, which always presents an opportunity to reflect on how lucky I am to be alive and how precious the short time is that I have here.

Tanyard Creek near Bella Vista, Arkansas
Tanyard Creek near Bella Vista, Arkansas
Latourell Falls near Portland, Oregon
Latourell Falls near Portland, Oregon
Waterfall at Vogel State Park in Georgia
Waterfall at Vogel State Park in Georgia
Bridalveil Falls at Yosemite National Park
Bridalveil Falls at Yosemite National Park
Waterfall near Tate City, Georgia
Waterfall near Tate City, Georgia

A Different Kind of Coast

Having lived most of my life in Georgia, many of the vacation days I spent outside the state were on the Atlantic Florida coast, with a few excursions to the Gulf Coast in Florida and Texas thrown in the mix. I have friends from my hometown who speak rhapsodically of the azure and green color variations of the water and the bleached white sand of the Eastern Gulf. They save up all year for a week at the beaches of Panama City, Pensacola, Gulf Shores, or Clearwater. With all due respect to their idea of paradise, the Gulf just doesn’t compare to the Atlantic side of Florida for me, mainly because of nostalgia and my personal sense of aesthetics.

My experience of the Atlantic coast in Florida is limited to the northern quarter of the state: Amelia Island, St. Augustine, Ormand-by-the-Sea, and New Smyrna. However, I have spent more time at Daytona Beach and Daytona Beach Shores than all those other locations combined. I still have old black and white photographs of me as a toddler playing in the sand at Daytona back when my family would make the pilgrimage almost every June in the 1960s and 70s. The waves are generally higher and the beaches much wider than at any other location I have visited in Florida. The sights and sounds of the crashing surf there touch me at a very deep level, which I wrote about in an earlier post.

I have visited beaches in other places, such as the coastal islands of Georgia and South Carolina, Huntington Beach in California, and Brighton Beach on the southern coast of England. My wife and I have spent a bit of time together along the rocky cliffs around San Francisco, Monterey, and Carmel-by-the-Sea. I must admit that the west coast has a powerful attraction of its own, and my appreciation for it expanded considerably in the summer of 2021 when we spent a week in Oregon, which included several days at Netarts, a small village on the shore of the Netarts Bay on the northern coast of the state near the town of Tillamook. We rented a small house boasting a spectacular view of the bay and the Pacific Ocean beyond it.

Netarts Bay, Oregon (right) and the Pacific Ocean
Netarts Bay, Oregon (right) and the Pacific Ocean

There are a several features of the Oregon coast that distinguish it from the beaches of Florida. Most of the northern Oregon coast is bordered closely by a rainforest, with thick stands of conifers and hardwoods lining the winding roads that offer access to the collection of seaside resort towns. The landscape of the north Florida coast is mostly characterized by palm trees, palmetto, and sea oats. The northern Oregon shoreline is guarded by the Coast Range, a series of cliffs and ridges that rises dramatically from the Pacific to average heights of 2,000 feet and peaks ascending over 3,700 feet. By comparison, most of Florida is incredibly flat, especially along the Atlantic coastline. For that matter, the highest elevation in the state is Britton Hill in the Northern Florida Highlands, which logs in at a whopping 345 feet above sea level and is almost 50 miles from the Gulf. Lastly, the north Oregon shore contains a mix of light-colored sand, black pebbles, sedimentary rock, and intertidal sea-stack formations of volcanic basalt ranging from modest to enormous size that bulge up from the sand and water. Most of the north Atlantic Florida coastline is buffered by a narrow strip of low sand dunes that quickly levels out to the sandy beaches, with few rocks or outcroppings at all. The fine sand is composed of ground quartz, with a bit of iron oxide mixed in, which gives some areas a light to even dark brown tint.

Manzanita Beach, Oregon
Manzanita Beach, Oregon
Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, Oregon
Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, Oregon

We took the opportunity while we there to make day trips up the coast to visit some of the beaches between Netarts and the Columbia River. Among the features the two coasts share is the look and feel of the towns that thrive on tourist dollars in both locations. Although the resort towns in Florida tend to be larger and flashier, there are still some villages along the northern shore that remind older generations of the way things used to be when they were young, what many folks refer to as “Old Florida.” The quaint seaside village at Fernandina Beach is a fine example. Most of the beach towns in northern Oregon look more like Fernandina than Daytona, such as Oceanside, Rockaway, Manzanita, Cannon, and Seaside. They all seem to be family friendly and pleasant places to visit or even live full-time.

Seaside Beach, Oregon
Seaside Beach, Oregon

In the final analysis, the landscape of the north Oregon coast is far more dramatic than that of the north Florida coast. For those who love the mountains and the beach, Oregon features both in the same place – a twofer! The natural resources seem more diverse too, especially the flora. The cliffs offer better and more expansive views of the coastline and the ocean. There is much less development between the beaches, giving the appearance of a more pristine environment. I will always love visiting the Atlantic beaches of Florida, but I can definitely feel a strong affection growing in me for this different kind of coast.

View of Manzanita Beach from Neahkahnie Mountain in Oregon
View of Manzanita Beach from Neahkahnie Mountain in Oregon

Coming Clean About Robert E. Lee, the Civil War, and the Deep South

Ty Seidule has written a book that immediately and unequivocally transforms him into a turncoat in the eyes of many southerners. Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause (St. Martin’s Press, 2021) is not the first book to challenge Confederacy sympathizers, but it offers a unique perspective from an author who has made the journey from apologist to critic and is completely forthright about a subject that is still extremely sensitive for so many Americans.

I am about the same age as the author, and I was raised in Georgia, the state where he spent many of his formative years. I know the landscape. I understand the vocabulary. I am keenly aware of how a horrible war that the rebellious Confederacy lost over 150 years ago left wounds that in many circles have yet to heal. I have seen the battle flag of that failed insurrection flying in the bed of pickup trucks, hung in windows of trailers and houses, proudly displayed on government property, and waved through the halls of the U.S. Capitol by modern-day insurrectionists. I have seen the long, dark shadow cast by the iconic and mythical leader of those Confederate forces – a man who is still revered and memorialized all over the South with language usually reserved for Biblical characters described in Sunday School lessons and from pulpits.

Confederate Response to Juneteenth in Graham
Confederate Response to Juneteenth in Graham Anthony Crider, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

It takes amazing courage for a southerner who is also a decorated officer of the U.S. Army and a retired history professor at West Point to openly and very publicly admit that Robert E. Lee committed treason and should be viewed as a traitor to his country. And that’s exactly what Ty Seidule has done. I applaud his bravery and the extensive research he has completed to make that claim. This is a damn fine book, not because it covers new ground or reveals any real hidden truths, but because someone in a position of authority and respect is making a form of confession that deserves serious consideration.

Seidule has heard every excuse in the book for why the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, for why the Confederacy didn’t really lose the war, and for why Robert E. Lee was such an honorable man. For the first twenty years of his life, he believed the excuses too. He probably doesn’t give quite enough credit to his wife for finally helping him escape the vortex of Confederate mythology. She forced him to question what it means to be a “Christian Southern Gentleman,” something he had aspired to from childhood through his graduation from Washington and Lee University, an institution that has been responsible more than any other place for perpetuating the cult of Robert E. Lee. His thoughts about what it means to be a Christian and a gentleman have drastically changed through the years, and his perception of the South is much clearer than it was when he was a young man.

Robert E Lee Memorial, Richmond, VA
Robert E Lee Memorial, Richmond, VA Hal Jespersen at en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This book should be required reading in just about every college and university in the South, and even in many other parts of the country where the Civil War is still romanticized beyond recognition for what it truly was: a rebellious uprising against the United States of America. Seidule spends a lot of time talking about the impact of the novel and movie “Gone with the Wind,” which is appropriate; however, I wish he had given some attention to the earlier movie, “Birth of a Nation,” especially in his discussions of the Ku Klux Klan. One of the most striking arguments he makes concerns the inaccurate terminology that has been used for generations to describe the Civil War, including the ridiculous names for the conflict itself, from “the recent unpleasantness” to “the war of northern aggression.”

Seidule also makes a convincing point about how using the term “Union” is an inappropriate way to describe the U.S. Armed Forces while they fought against the Confederacy, as if the Union were some entity separate from the United States. That distinction brings us back to the problem with Robert E. Lee, who abandoned his commission as an officer of the U.S. Army and chose to side with a rebellious confederacy of states – a domestic enemy against whom Lee had sworn to protect his country. In the end, Lee was more loyal to the State of Virginia and the other southern states than he was to the United States, and that makes him a traitor. And it’s about time southerners and the rest of the nation came to terms with that stinging but absolutely honest indictment.

Robert E. Lee and Me by Ty Seidule (book cover)
Robert E. Lee and Me by Ty Seidule (book cover)

Retreating to Mountain Home, Arkansas

I had the pleasure of spending a long solo weekend in Mountain Home, Arkansas, earlier this summer. I began taking solo weekends about five years ago, in my mid-fifties, to recalibrate my head, get creative with writing and music, devote large chunks of time to reading, and explore the outdoors hiking. My wife is an incredible partner who not only tolerates these self-indulgent excursions but encourages them. I’m a lucky guy. I have written posts about previous solos, which have taken me to places like Cherokee and Blowing Rock in North Carolina and Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. This trip to Mountain Home was my first solo weekend in Arkansas and my first time doing so in an Airbnb.

The Attic Airbnb in Mountain Home, AR
The Attic Airbnb in Mountain Home, AR

My accommodations were perfect. “The Attic” is a recently renovated upstairs apartment over several professional medical offices located a few blocks from the quaint downtown square of Mountain Home. My host was a gracious and extremely attentive woman whose brother had just opened a new location on the square for his business, Rapp’s Barren Brewing Company. This modern rustic brewery occupies the Baker Building, the oldest on the square that dates to 1892 according to some sources. Rapp’s Barren was the name of a trading post near this location settled in the early 19th century by a legendary European character named Henry Rapp. White settlers probably considered the land in this region of the Ozarks to be barren because it was composed of tall prairie grass with very few trees. By the time the town was incorporated in 1888, the name had changed to Mountain Home. At any rate, I made more than one stop at Rapp’s Barren Brewing Company during the three days I was in the town – great spot.

Rapp's Barren Brewing Company, Mountain Home, AR
Rapp’s Barren Brewing Company, Mountain Home, AR

In addition to playing my guitar for hours each day and reading a good novel by Ron Rash, I drove outside of town to explore this scenic part of the Ozarks. Mountain Home is positioned between Norfork and Bull Shoals lakes and is flanked by the White and North Fork rivers. Obviously, Mountain Home is a popular destination for anglers and those who enjoy other water-related activities such as boating, skiing, paddle boarding, and floating. Campsites are abundant along the banks of the rivers and lakes.

David's Trail at Norfork Lake, AR
David’s Trail at Norfork Lake, AR

I was particularly interested in hiking, which on my first day led me to David’s Trail along the shore of Norfolk Lake about nine miles east of town. The trail honors the memory of David Floyd, a local outdoor enthusiast and community activist. I took a four-mile trek in and out from one of the trailheads, which gave me great views of the lake and several of its tributaries, in addition to some lovely plants, a timid snake, a well-camouflaged deer, and a couple of pileated woodpeckers that refused to let me get close enough for a photo. The portion of the trail I hiked had some moderate hills and featured some shady fern banks and moss-covered rock outcroppings that were lush and green. I never saw another human being the whole time I was on the trail. It was a warm morning, but I was in the shade of the tree canopy for most of my hike. I felt invigorated and extremely hungry afterwards.

David's Trail at Norfork Lake, AR
David’s Trail at Norfork Lake, AR
David's Trail at Norfork Lake, AR
David’s Trail at Norfork Lake, AR

On my second day, I took another short road trip to see the White River. Meandering its way 722 miles through Arkansas and Missouri, the White River is ranked as one of the top trout fishing waterways in the country, although white bass, catfish, walleye, and sunfish populate the river too. The river also presents the opportunity for one of the most common pastimes in the Ozarks – floating. Climbing in a canoe, kayak, or johnboat and letting the river carry you downstream at a slow, relaxing pace has been a popular form of recreation in the Ozarks for ages. I visited Buffalo Shoals access area at the little hamlet of Buffalo City where the Buffalo River merges with the White River just south of Mountain Home. Stair Bluff rises 689 feet along the southside of the White River and is a spectacular site. There is a parking area at the river’s edge with access to boat ramps and a sandy bank. I enjoyed watching families wading and fishing in the chilly water while others launched canoes and kayaks and drifted with the current. I found several other walk-in access points for the White River, where I could soak up the tranquil environment all alone.

Stair Bluff at Buffalo Shoals on the White River
Stair Bluff at Buffalo Shoals on the White River
Floating on the White River at Buffalo Shoals in Arkansas
Floating on the White River at Buffalo Shoals in Arkansas

In an unpublished journal, the famous naturalist John Muir wrote a brief sentence that has become one of his most famous quotes: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” I suspect many people realize that, to get in touch with ourselves in a profound way, we must be reminded occasionally how small we are. We need to take external journeys to probe internal mysteries. We search for our place in the realm of nature. These solo weekends that I am privileged to experience allow me to go out, then go in, and come back home with a new perspective on just about everything.

White River in Arkansas
White River in Arkansas