An Alien Landscape: Joshua Tree National Park

There is a bizarre and surreal place at the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts in Southern California that was several million years in the making. It was worth the wait. With massive rock formations rising up from the flat desert floor, Joshua Tree National Park is like a geological museum that is slightly larger than Rhode Island. It is hard to imagine that these stone towers, created from magma rising from deep below the surface and eventually hardening as it cooled, are what is left behind from millions of years of soil erosion. Boulders the size of boxcars are miraculously balanced on top of each other, like rock piles left behind by the children of gods.

Rock pile at Joshua Tree National Park
Rock pile at Joshua Tree National Park

There are also large masses of rounded granite that have been altered and even sculpted by rain, wind, ice, chemical reactions, plant roots, and other forces to form fantastic shapes and configurations. Set against the backdrop of nearby mountain ranges and surrounded by the desert floor, these structures are truly impressive. Throw in a developing thunderstorm billowing above (yes, it does rain in the desert) and you have all the makings of a classic Thomas Cole masterpiece.

Rock formation at Joshua Tree National Park
Rock formation at Joshua Tree National Park
Skull Rock at Joshua Tree National Park
Skull Rock at Joshua Tree National Park

Then there is the namesake of the park, the Joshua Tree, which would fit perfectly into the backdrop of almost any picture book by Dr. Seuss or on the cover of a paperback book about planets on the other side of the galaxy. Belonging to the same family of Agave plants native to tropical South America, Joshua Trees are a type of Yucca, which we often associate with the short, dark green spiky plants of the tropics and deserts. Joshua Trees have an almost whimsical character, proving yet again that nature has a sense of humor. The plant takes on many different shapes and sizes, as if taking its cue from the rocks around it. Joshua Trees have a rather limited range within the deserts of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.

A Joshua Tree at Joshua Tree National Park
A Joshua Tree at Joshua Tree National Park

There are several places in this wonderful park where visitors can get breathtaking panoramic views of mountain ranges and valleys that stretch out for miles. At just the right position and vantage point, the scene is reminiscent of something out of a science fiction movie. At the very least, these vistas could serve as inspiration for visual art depicting imaginary worlds. Joshua Tree National Park is one of those natural wonders of the United States that is somehow liminal, neither here nor there, but somewhere between.

Keys View at Joshua Tree National Park
Keys View at Joshua Tree National Park

Introducing the Ozarks: An Annotated Bibliography

In late 2018, my wife and I moved from Georgia to Springfield, a town of about 170,000 people in southwest Missouri. It’s a great location for us because we have family and close friends in Georgia, Kansas, Texas, and Arizona. We really enjoy traveling, especially to the desert southwest, but we like the Florida beaches and places like New York City, Chicago, and Nashville. Living in Springfield strategically positions us near the center of the country and makes it easier to get to family, friends, and fun destinations. The icing on the cake is the small national airport that is a mere twenty minutes from our house, which is serviced by three major airlines and a few budget carriers.

Southern Missouri and northern Arkansas make up the bulk of the region known as the Ozarks. It as an area of the country defined by a variety of factors, from geology and topography to culture and customs. It is also quite beautiful. It is rich in natural resources, especially water, minerals, and forests. It is a complicated region in almost every category imaginable. Although it boasts no major cities, it does have some bustling urban centers. There are some wealthy people in the Ozarks, but there are far more families living in serious poverty. On the political spectrum, it is largely conservative with pockets of progressivism mostly in and around the cities.

Admittedly, I knew very little about the Ozarks. I had never set foot in Missouri and only visited once just a few months before we moved here. To get “learned up” about our new home, I did what I always do when encountering something new and unfamiliar. I started reading. The following is an annotated list of books I have read about the Ozarks over the last three years or so. My bibliography is in no way intended to be comprehensive or even representative; however, these books have given me greater insight into the history, culture, and people of the Ozarks. All of these titles are nonfiction, but I have also read fiction by Ozarks writers or stories set in the region. Perhaps sometime I will write a post reviewing those books as well.

A History of the Ozarks, Volume 3 by Brooks Blevins
A History of the Ozarks, Volume 3 by Brooks Blevins

A History of the Ozarks, Volume 3: The Ozarkers by Brooks Blevins
Brooks Blevins is the uncontested authority on the history of the Ozarks. He is a professor at Missouri State University in Springfield, where I am also employed. But his full-time residence is in northern Arkansas, so he has his feet planted in the two main states of the Ozarks. He is a fine writer, a serious scholar, a respected teacher, and an all-round nice fellow. I have only read this 3rd volume of his trilogy, but I intend to at least go back and read the 1st volume covering the early history of the region.

Blevins is at his best when he is dispelling many of the misconceptions and over-generalizations of the Ozarks as a place full of backwoods hillbillies with no connection to the modern world. He also does a great job of pointing out the most attractive features of the region without romanticizing or falling into the trap of exceptionalism, which is always tempting to do if you are so identified with a place, which I believe he is.

The chapters on “Ozarks Society” and “Putting on a Show,” along with his “Conclusion,” were the most interesting to me because they highlight how much the Ozarks have changed over the last 150 years and are continuing to evolve. I’m not sure I agree with Blevins that the specific location of the Ozarks, a topic of serious debate for generations, is best defined by where the Ozarkers live; however, there seems to be a strong sense of place appreciated by so many people who live here, quite similar to sentiments held by many people in the Deep South about their region. This is a solid historical overview of a complex and fascinating part of the country in the modern period.

Living Waters: The Springs of Missouri by Loring Bullard
This book is well documented and researched. The photographs of the springs and streams they feed are stunningly beautiful. The layout of the book makes it easy and enjoyable to read. However, aside from the technical aspects of the book, Bullard clearly has a passion for his subject that is both personal and professional, which is demonstrated in the text of every page.

The organization of the book is especially fine, with chapters focusing on features and functions of springs rather than on individual locations. Bullard incorporates a considerable amount of history to offer context and appreciation of how past generations have understood and valued springs in the state and have taken advantage of them as valuable natural resources. Of course, the environmental message throughout is of paramount importance — we must take good care of our state’s springs because of the vital role they play in providing clean water for the ecosystems they feed.

White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909 by Kimberly Harper
Harper presents a thoroughly researched and well documented scholarly study that helps explain why the southwestern Ozarks is such a white region of the country. Lynching occurred in many places across the South, and obviously, into the Midwest. Many white people who had lived during the time of slavery, whether they actually owned slaves or not, resented the new autonomy of black people in their communities during Restoration. Over the decades, resentment evolved into a fear. “While blacks may not have been true economic, social, or even political competitors in the region, whites viewed blacks as a threat to their wives, daughters, and police officers.” Obviously, much of the fear centered on the perceived sexual predation of black men. “It was believed that women were not safe in the country or the city, so long as African American men roamed free.”

However, Harper goes beyond the acts of horrible white mob violence to explore why African Americans were driven out of communities, often at the same time lynching took place. Similar action was taken in other parts of the country — Forsyth County in north central Georgia comes to mind. Other areas of north Georgia, especially in the Appalachian foothills, still have small black populations to this day.

In the Ozarks and in the north Georgia mountains, the economy in the early 20th century was primarily subsistence farming, which did not require much labor outside the extended family of the farmer. As Harper observes, “This was in contrast to the black-majority regions of the South, where inexpensive and readily available black labor composed a significant segment of the local economy, making African Americans indispensable to local white employers.” One could easily make the same argument in recent decades for why white farmers have not been so anxious to deport undocumented Latinos from regions of the South where industrial agriculture is dominant and depends on vast numbers of inexpensive laborers.

This is a fine addition to American history and African American studies. Harper’s book joins more recent work on lynching by prominent African American scholars. Highly recommended.

Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks by Jared M. Phillips
I had the opportunity to hear the author speak on a panel with two people who were involved in the Back To Land movement in the Arkansas Ozarks at a conference in West Plains, Missouri, in September, 2019. The people who decided beginning back in the 1970s to trade in urban dwelling for a rural, subsistence lifestyle among the hills and “hollers” of the Ozarks are often referred to as Hipbillies — a hybrid of hippies and hillbillies.

Phillips does a good job of placing this movement in the context of 20th century back-to-the-land and counter-culture philosophy characterized by the works of people like Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. He gives proper credit to the successes of the Hipbillies while also recognizing their failures and some of their less-than-pure intentions. He credits them for fighting for environmental health, sustainable agricultural practices, and social justice issues. One of their greatest accomplishments was succeeding in modest changes to how the US Forest Service approached the management of timber.

Phillips admires how the Hipbillies, especially the pioneers from the early 1970s, faced overwhelming odds and even life-threatening circumstances yet still persevered to make it as homesteaders in a part of the country where the land is not so forgiving. He dispels some of the myths about how native Ozarkers rejected the Hipbillies. Instead, they often embraced them and even saved their lives during harsh winters and unpredictable farming seasons. There were clashes in places like Eureka Springs, but that was more a conflict between counter-culturists and town leadership.

The Hipbillies had big dreams when they landed in the Ozarks. “What was sought, then, was a rehabilitation of American culture — one that began in the dirt and grew over time like the forest that slowly reclaims and heals a ruined field,” Phillips writes. He contends that the Hipbillies took themselves seriously as revolutionaries. They “came to the Ozarks seeking refuge and a place in which they might build a new world for themselves, and hopefully, all of humanity . . . . While they did not always succeed, the story is not over — they are still alive and are still powerful cultural, political, and economic forces in the Arkansas highlands.”

Hillbilly Hellraisers: Federal Power and Populist Defiance in the Ozarks by J. Blake Perkins
The myths and stereotypes about the Ozarks are deeply ingrained in our consciousness, but they never have painted a true picture of the people and their culture, desires, needs, problems, etc. Perkins’s book reinforces one essential truth about Ozarks people: they tend be proud and fiercely independent, even in the face of long-term adversity.

There is a strong tradition of tension between individual rural families and individuals and/or institutions in authority. Poverty has always been a dark shadow hanging over the Ozarks, even when other parts of the country were climbing out of it. Although many people here petitioned for government assistance in the past, there is a history in this region of distrust of government programs, which ended up being administered and exploited by local and state officials. Law enforcement was fine as long as it didn’t try to stop individuals from scraping out a living, even through illegal means. More than anything, native Ozarkers have always just wanted to be left alone. When their autonomy was threatened, especially by outside forces, they sometime became violent.

Ozarks Hillbilly by Tom Koob and Curtis Copeland
Koob and Copeland do a good job here of presenting the stereotypes of the Hillbilly as the term has been used in literature and other art forms to describe many of the rural folk in the Ozarks. The authors argue that, contrary to the traditional image of a lazy, shiftless, ignorant, depraved character, the Ozarks Hillbilly is quite industrious, shrewd, and highly skilled. Hillbillies are survivalists and generations of them have struggled to provide for themselves and their families in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

I found it odd in a book about the Ozarks how much time the authors spent on discussing Appalachian Hillbillies. They seem to have keen interest in the way Hillbillies were presented in Deliverance, the novel by James Dickey and the popular film adaptation starring Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty. There are definitely similarities between the two regions of the country, which have been explored by numerous scholars. The stereotypes of the rural residents of both areas also share commonalities. Perhaps a comparison/contrast book would have been even more helpful and intriguing. 

Where Misfits Fit: Counterculture and Influence in the Ozarks by Thomas Michael Kersen
For Kersen, the town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, serves as an archetype for his thesis of how counterculture distinguishes the Ozarks and is among its more charming and sustaining features. As he states it, “The magic of Eureka Springs is that the town is a mass of contradictions and microconflicts that breed [sic] creativity.” No wonder that the book’s title is also the semi-official motto of the town: Where Misfits Fit.

Kersen does a good job of weaving the eccentricities of the people who occupy the Ozarks into the history of the region. He first offers his identification of the region, defining it by geography and culture. He then proceeds to outline its countercultural characteristics through popular myths, artistic expression, supernatural fixations, cult activity, musical influence and inspiration, and the back-to-the-land movements primarily of the 1970s (the author’s parents brought him to the Ozarks from Texas as part of this larger movement).

A thread running throughout the book is Kersen’s use of the adjective “liminal” to describe the Ozarks – a place that is difficult to box in and that continually crosses lines. He writes that “the Ozarks defies boundaries of all sorts — it is a work in progress.” Here again, the contradictions of the area come into play. For instance UFO enthusiasts that have been drawn here for decades rely on scientific knowledge about astronomy and space exploration but scorn scientists who fail to validate their paranormal claims. Kersen recognizes that “eccentric places attract eccentric people — people willing to live and think in the margins.” He also believes the Ozarks “offers something unique for its inhabitants and even American culture at large.”

I found some of the most valuable information in the Conclusions chapter, especially about the impact of in-migration into the Ozarks from countries around the world. The author wonders how Ozark identity will change as the racial and ethnic profile of the region continues to change. The book has extensive end notes, an impressive bibliography for further reading and study, and a decent index. Just a few points of criticism: the book could have benefited from skillful editing. There are too many typo kind of errors for an academic press book. Also, I suspect this book is a collection of separately-written essays because there is considerable repetition of information in the chapters. Otherwise, it is a fine book that is both accessible and informative.

Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America by Bill Geist
I was drawn to this book primarily because I visited the Lake of the Ozarks just a few months after settling here. I didn’t know anything about Bill Geist as I never watch Sunday Morning on CBS. I may have read his columns before but am not aware if I have. I can relate to many of the references Geist makes to growing up in the 1960s and 70s, although he is a bit older than I am. Some readers will no doubt be put off by the political incorrectness of the author’s perspectives, language, and the circumstances from his adolescence, but I suspect he is being perfectly honest and straightforward with his recollections and descriptions of his life and times working for his uncle and aunt at their lakeside lodge. There are some really laugh-out-loud passages in this book, which made it an enjoyable read.

Footprints in the Ozarks: A Memoir by Ellen Gray Massey
This is a pleasant read. It isn’t challenging; the text is straightforward; it doesn’t reveal anything new about the Ozarks region; it gets a bit sentimental in places; and it is so bucolic that the reader can almost smell the cow manure on the farm where Massey lived and raised her family. She also worked as a high school English teacher, and apparently quite a good one. She supervised her students over a ten-year period as they produced a quarterly journal titled Bittersweet. The value of this book lies in Massey’s descriptions of the social mores of her community, the relationships of family and friends, the tragedies her family faced (including the death of her husband), and how life in the rural Ozarks was fulfilling and rewarding to her, as it has been for so many others for many generations.

The Wow Factor of Niagara Falls

I have written several posts about waterfalls because they are among my most favorite elements of nature. I have driven, hiked, and climbed on many occasions to reach them. I have seen everything from little trickles of water falling from rocky ridges in the mountains of Appalachia to white misty veils crashing from great heights at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Columbia River Valley. I have been mesmerized by all of them.

When my wife and I had an unexpected opportunity to visit Niagara Falls as a result of being in Erie, Pennsylvania, we both agreed it would be worth the two-hour drive around the Lake Erie coast to see this iconic natural wonder. Like the Grand Canyon and so many other magnificent landmarks around the world, photographs and videos simply cannot capture the grandeur of something so massive and powerful. Seeing the scope of the falls, hearing it, feeling the moist air and spray on your face, and even feeling the rumble of the crashing water is impossible to replicate electronically.

Niagara Falls, American side (left) and Horseshoe Falls (background)
Niagara Falls, American side (left) and Horseshoe Falls (background)

With almost 76,000 gallons of water pouring over the edge of the American falls every second, the volume is quite hard to imagine. Yes, that’s over 4.5 million gallons a minute! The water is about two feet deep at the crestline, which gives the edge of the falls a deep emerald hue. It is stunning. The deepest section of the Niagara River is just below the falls. It is so deep that it equals the height of the falls above, which is 170 feet. Upstream from the falls between its northeastern banks and Green Island, the Niagara River rumbles and rolls as it makes its way to the main attraction.

Pedestrian bridge over Niagara River
Pedestrian bridge over Niagara River

Niagara Falls has never been on our bucket list of places to visit, mainly because it seemed too much like a tourist trap. However, we were pleasantly surprised. There are plenty of chain restaurants, souvenir shops, and other retail vendors nearby, but the American side of the falls is bordered by a state park that makes no attempt to outshine the headliner. The Canadian side is full of high-rise hotels and some casinos, which is probably an enticement to cross the border for some visitors. We were perfectly content with the marvelous wonder of Niagara Falls with very few distractions. If you can stand on the observation deck beholding that vista and not say “wow,” I’m not sure what would impress you.

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

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

Exploring Bennett Spring State Park

Missouri is often referred to as the “Show Me” state, a reference to a late 19th century lawmaker’s observation that its citizens as a rule prefer visible proof over blind faith. Given the political climate in Missouri in 2021, I would argue that this moniker is no longer applicable. A much more accurate appellation would be the “Float Me” state. River and stream floating trips are a major source of relaxation in Missouri with a long history and a strong tradition. According to multiple sources, flat-bottom jon boats originated, or were at least made popular, in the late 19th century in the Ozarks because they were perfect for navigating the shallow waterways characteristic of the region of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. With an abundance of large lakes, rivers, and streams, water recreation is a huge business in Missouri attracting millions of tourists each year; however, native inhabitants have been enjoying the simple pleasures of just floating downstream for many generations.

Not only is Missouri blessed with plenty of water resources, but the Ozarks comprises one of the nation’s richest concentrations of natural springs. There are well over a thousand of them in the state. The maximum daily discharge from some of these overflowing aquifers can exceed 500 million gallons. On average, more than a billion gallons of water flow from the ten largest springs in Missouri every single day. For many centuries, springs provided drinking water for settlements and towns throughout this region of the country and were later used for powering mills and producing salt. Some springs purportedly had healing qualities. In recent decades, these groundwater flows have predominately functioned as recreational resources centered around fishing, camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities.

One of the largest springs in Missouri is Bennett Spring, located in what is now Bennett Spring State Park in Dallas County. As one of the state’s oldest parks, this spring was the site for several grist and flour mills going back to 1846, the most successful of which was operated by a man named Peter Bennett, the namesake for the spring and park. In 1924-1925, the state purchased the spring and part of the surrounding area to create the park. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps contributed much of the present-day character of the park, building cabins, a shelter house, roads, trails, the arched bridge across the spring branch, and the rustic dining lodge.

Bennett Spring branch
Bennett Spring branch

Bennett Spring State Park features many different ecosystems including rich bottomland and stream habitats associated with the spring valley and oak-hickory woodlands in the upland areas. Many animals native to the Ozarks make their homes here, including numerous pickerel frogs, northern water snakes, pileated woodpeckers, river otters, muskrats, and bobcats. The park’s diverse flora includes dense forests of trees, grasses, and herbaceous plants. Wildflowers such as bluebells and purple coneflowers flourish in the summer.

Bennett Spring branch headwaters
Bennett Spring branch headwaters

The park features a series of hiking trails, which is what sparked my interest in the late summer during the COVID pandemic and prompted a day trip to check out the site. Upon arriving at the park mid-morning, I made a quick visit to the Nature Center that serves to introduce visitors to the ecology of springs in general and to the natural resources specific to the park. I then made my way to Whistle Trail, which mostly travels along the east side of the spring’s branch, winding its way over the bluffs rising above the stream. It connects with other trails in the park that lead to the spot where the branch flows into the Niangua River, a tributary of the Osage River of south-central Missouri. According to the park’s website, Whistle Trail is likely prehistoric but was used more frequently by local inhabitants from the 1840s to the present.

Pileated woodpecker at Bennett Spring State Park
Pileated woodpecker at Bennett Spring State Park

The views from Whistle Trail are quite wonderful at times, especially because of its proximity to the water and the path it cuts through the lush surrounding forest. I was lucky enough to encounter a pileated woodpecker, only my third sighting of this magnificent species to date. Typically, I prefer the solitude that hiking trails offer, but in this case, it was quite entertaining to watch people wading in the stream trying their luck at hooking a rainbow trout, which I could easily see swimming all around the anglers in the crystal-clear water. The Missouri Department of Conservation stocks the branch daily during the regular fishing season, from March through October, and there is a hatchery located near the spring. The park attracts over a million anglers a year. From what I have heard, there are so many people in the stream fishing when the season first opens that you can barely see the water!

Anglers in Bennett Spring branch
Anglers in Bennett Spring branch

I spent the rest of my time wandering around the buildings, other structures, camping sites, and open grassy areas, just enjoying the beauty of the surroundings. I sat in a swing by the spring branch watching families fish and play in the water. For the last hour or so I explored the spring itself, which creates a gorgeous pool of blue-green water about 50 feet in diameter. Again, the trout are clearly visible swimming just below the surface. The water emerges from a 20-foot-wide seam at a temperature of approximately 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Discharging 100 million gallons per day, the spring creates the trout stream that meanders 1.3 miles through the park before flowing into the Niangua River. Bennett Spring is the principal groundwater outlet for the extensive karst geographical area in south-central Missouri.

Trout swimming in Bennett Spring pool
Trout swimming in Bennett Spring pool

Missouri has over 90 state parks, and Bennett Spring is among the most popular. A variety of interpretive programs are offered at the park for all ages. The park’s concession hosts offer fly fishing classes too. Canoes, rafts, and kayaks are available to rent for floating on the Niangua. There are multiple options for lodging including a motel, cabins, and camping sites. With seven hiking trails ranging in distance from 1.3 to almost 12 miles and elevations from 849 to 1,102 feet above sea level, hikers can get their fill of exercise, wildlife gazing, and plenty of fresh air. I found the property to be just what I wanted for a day trip, but a weekend would be lovely too. Bennett Spring State Park represents the best of what the Ozarks has to offer for outdoor enthusiasts. I highly recommend a visit.

Kayakers entering Niangua River from Bennett Spring branch
Kayakers entering Niangua River from Bennett Spring branch
Losing stream behind Bennett Spring
Losing stream behind Bennett Spring

For more information, check out the Bennett Spring State Park website at
https://mostateparks.com/park/bennett-spring-state-park

The Living Desert

Yes, the title sounds like a contradiction in terms, a true oxymoron. Deserts typically conjure up images of sand, rocks, and tumbleweeds with no water in sight. Many consider them lifeless, especially people who have never actually set foot in one. Of course, David Attenborough and others have done their best to illustrate how deserts are teeming with life, but there are still plenty of folks who cling to the misconceptions. The unconverted are often convinced there is only one season in the desert – summer. They also tend to think that all parts of a desert region are the same regarding topography, temperature, weather patterns, vegetation, and wildlife. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Phoenix, Arizona
Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Phoenix, Arizona

The only desert I have visited is in the American Southwest, primarily the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. However, I have read about other deserts around the world and have been mesmerized by documentary productions from PBS, BBC, National Geographic, and the Smithsonian. Depending on the time of year, there is incredible beauty to behold all across the desert landscape. Water may not be abundant, but it does exist. It also rains in the desert, although it tends to come all at once. In some areas it even snows, especially in the higher altitudes. Desert flora and fauna have evolved to survive in these conditions through a variety of innovative adaptations.

Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Phoenix, Arizona
Phoenix Mountain Preserve, Phoenix, Arizona

Green is my favorite color, I suppose because in the botanical world it signifies life. I love the lushness of forests, glades, mossy creek banks, fern blankets, and understory shrubs, but the desert has its own rich palette of green in so many different shades. The Sonoran Desert explodes from mid-March to late April with hundreds of species of wildflowers. Portions of the region stay green throughout the year with signature plants that are the most familiar in the Southwest. What adds even more interest is the plethora of shapes and sizes, from the golden brittlebush to the giant saguaro cactus. Some of the plants look as if they are extraterrestrial. The shapes and configurations get a bit funky sometimes, but these oddities are great for home or business landscapes because they are so unusual and even whimsical.  

Desert blooms in early spring in Arizona
Desert blooms in early spring in Arizona
Hillside of cacti in the Sonoran Desert, Arizona
Hillside of cacti in the Sonoran Desert, Arizona

For American travelers who seek magnificent scenery and some of the best outdoor recreation the country has to offer, overlooking the desert Southwest is a huge mistake. There are hiking trails everywhere. Depending on the location, the temperature is pleasant all year. The region is great for fishing, camping, cycling, mountain biking, birdwatching, and so much more. The same opportunities are available within deserts all over the world. If “getting away from it all” sounds appealing beyond the necessities of social distancing in the age of COVID, the desert is the place to be. So, dismiss the stereotypes and dig a little deeper to discover just how alive the desert is, and then make plans to witness it in the flesh.

Landscape plant at Scottsdale's Museum of the West, Scottsdale, Arizona
Landscape plant at Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, Scottsdale, Arizona
A palette of green in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Tucson, Arizona
A palette of green in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Tucson, Arizona

Walking In Memory of Autumn

A ten-year study conducted by Paul Williams and Paul Thompson published in 2013 concluded that brisk walking several times a week can significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart failure, and dementia. No weightlifting, jumping jacks, or push-ups required – just a fast-paced walk. Furthermore, individuals who do exercise regularly in other ways can still benefit just the same from walking. That magic 10,000-step-a-day threshold that our Fitbits remind us about daily was reinforced by another ten-year study completed in 2015 that demonstrated how meeting that daily goal can lower risk of death by 46%.

Honestly, we all know we need to move to stay healthy. A treadmill will do the job, but strolling five miles on a churning rubber belt is about as exciting as working in a meaningless profession from 9-5 every single day, which is why the treadmill analogy works so well for those circumstances. The good news is, no matter where we live, there are usually at least a few good options outdoors to pack in several miles of vigorous walking when the weather permits. Local nature trails, state and national parks, city and county recreation areas, national forests, greenways, river walks, and so many other options are available to us if we are serious about staying healthy.

What if we live in a big city? Well, there are typically public parks and gardens with paved trails for walking. We can even map out a “trail” in our boroughs, neighborhoods, or suburbs. However, there is another great space for walking that we should always remember – cemeteries. True enough, most of us don’t exactly consider walking among gravestones to be a source of happiness, but take into consideration the design, maintenance, and accessibility of cemeteries. They can be quite beautiful. Most major cities have several of them, and they may be even larger than parks and recreation areas.

Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO
Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO

Obviously, people tend to have an emotional connection to cemeteries where friends and family are buried, which means that they usually support them through political influence, volunteer hours, and donations. In this sense, cemeteries are beneficiaries of charity in much the same way churches and hospitals are. Through their function as spaces of “eternal rest” for the departed and places for contemplation and memories for those left behind, cemeteries have evolved into sanctuaries characterized by creative architecture, landscaping, and gardening.

Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO
Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO

Acre for acre, we are hard-pressed to find more diversity of trees, shrubs, and other plantings in urban areas than what cemeteries contain. Many of them have water features, bridges, statues, prayer gardens, chapels, gazebos, and special monuments and memorials. The older they are, the more character they have developed. They are rich repositories of history and genealogy. Cemeteries speak volumes about a community’s past and the promise of its future.

This autumn I decided to take a walk in one of the cemeteries where we currently live in Springfield, Missouri. Maple Park Cemetery dates to 1876 when a group of local businessmen established it on a 31-acre tract where an old fairground was once located. Some of the city’s most prominent citizens are interred there. One of the most famous people buried in Maple Park is known not by his own merit but by how he met his end. David Tutt was killed on the square in downtown Springfield by Wild Bill Hickok.

Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO
Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO

Maple Park gets its name because of an abundance of the species, which according to early newspaper accounts were growing on the property when the cemetery was first established. Because Maple Park is almost 150 years old, there is an interesting variety of grave markers and mausoleums. There is also a wonderful mixture of mature and young trees of many different species, which put on a spectacular show in autumn months.

Many of us drive for hours to visit mountains and valleys to see fall leaves on a grand scale, but Maple Park Cemetery offers a chance to see those brilliant yellow, orange, and red trees in a setting that is peaceful and even reverent. My walk among the memorial markers under the canopies of color helped me appreciate how wonderful it is to still be moving, how the turning of the seasons is a perfect metaphor for our lives, and how precious beauty is because it is so brief.

Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO
Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO

Andalusia’s Outdoor Learning Center

When the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation decided it was time in 2002 to make the author’s farm home in Milledgeville, Georgia, available for public tours, we began exploring various ways we could attract visitors to return to the property after they had already seen the house and outbuildings. Of course, the almost-worshipful fans of O’Connor would travel great distances to make the pilgrimage multiple times and never tire of standing at the door of her bedroom/study, strolling around the farm complex, or sitting in the rockers on the wide front porch to read, chat, or simply gaze across the lawn at the line of trees in the distance. I wrote a post about these folks several years back. However, as the director of the organization, I was charged with developing activities, programs, and attractions that would bring less-devoted visitors back to Andalusia, including locals.

During the thirteen years I was at Andalusia, we developed an annual lecture series, brought authors to the farm, hosted an annual Bluegrass concert, and worked with other institutions and organizations to sponsor various programs on site and around town. We also opened a gift shop that would bring local residents out to the farm, especially near the holidays. We welcomed groups to the property for school field trips, college classes, book club meetings, and even a wedding. Our ongoing restoration projects attracted people from around the state interested in historic preservation.

Bluegrass concert at Andalusia
Bluegrass concert at Andalusia

All these efforts paid off and boosted the annual visitation numbers, which also increased revenue through sales, fees, and donations. The most ambitious project we undertook toward this end was designed to attract visitors who may not have much interest in O’Connor or her work at all – hard to imagine. Beginning in 2003, the Foundation applied for and received a series of grants from private organizations to develop an outdoor learning center. This long-term project helped us expand the interpretation of Andalusia by making the natural connection between O’Connor’s work and the landscape that inspired so much of it.

A good portion of Andalusia is covered in trees, with open fields interspersed across the property. In some areas, the forest is dense enough to act as a buffer from the encroaching development that surrounds Andalusia. A common image in many of O’Connor’s stories is a line of trees, which often serves as a metaphorical passageway to revelation. The woods can be an area of sanctuary or the place for terrifying encounters. At other times, trees are personified, like witnesses to the events unfolding in the story.

The first phase of the outdoor learning center was the renovation of a half-acre livestock pond located down the hill and in view from the front porch of the main house. The pond dated back to the 1950s when the farm was operating as a dairy. Understandably, when in 1976 the PBS producers were looking for a location to shoot their film adaptation of O’Connor’s short story, “The Displaced Person,” they selected Andalusia. Both the opening and closing scenes of that movie were filmed from the dam of the pond, looking back up the hill at the main house. We hired a local independent contractor who had retired from the U.S. Soil and Conservation Department. His team drained the old pond and completely rebuilt the dam with a new drainage pipe. It took several months for the spring fed pond to completely fill again. It was beautiful.

Restored pond and main house at Andalusia
Restored pond and main house at Andalusia

All visitors to O’Connor’s home could appreciate this easily accessible water feature, but for her readers, the pond may have taken on even greater significance. As a devout Roman Catholic, Flannery O’Connor understood the symbolic importance of water, especially the Sacrament of Baptism, and incorporated the theme in her fiction. To many of O’Connor’s characters, water represents purity, initiation, sanctuary, and salvation.  Water provides both literal and figurative cleansing. Some of the most climactic scenes in her fiction involve water.

Restored pond at Andalusia
Restored pond at Andalusia

The second phase of the project took several years to fully accomplish and consisted of two nature trails. The first was a short trail around the pond. The second was a much longer trail through the forest taking off on either side of the dam of the pond. Again, we hired our local pond builder to design the trail and cut the eight-foot wide path through the trees. In two places it crossed Tobler Creek, which runs through the middle of the 544-acre property. In the following years after the trail’s completion, we installed bridges over the creek, other foot bridges over wet areas, benches and picnic tables, and interpretive signs. We were fortunate to have plenty of volunteers from the community, from Georgia College in Milledgeville, and from boy scout troops to help with these enhancements to the trail.

Bridge over Tobler Creek at Andalusia
Bridge over Tobler Creek at Andalusia

Again, this feature of the property is attractive to a broad audience, including school groups and locals looking for a place to enjoy the outdoors and perhaps to get a glance at wildlife. Andalusia is home to a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  Natural stands of pine and hardwoods, along with the open field areas, are ideal habitats for deer, songbirds, dove, quail, turkey, and squirrels.  The undergrowth in the forest offers an environment suitable for smaller animals such as rabbits, chipmunks, armadillos, lizards, and snakes.  The waterways and floodplains provide food and shelter for beavers, frogs, turtles, and aquatic birds, including the great blue heron.  Natural predators on the property include foxes, coyotes, and birds of prey such as hawks and owls.

Nature trail at Andalusia
Nature trail at Andalusia

In 2010, the Foundation decided to name the outdoor learning center after Dr. Bernard McHugh Cline, an uncle of Flannery O’Connor. Dr. Cline was a physician who practiced in Atlanta and acquired the Andalusia property in the early 1930s. He enjoyed raising and riding horses on the farm when he came down from Atlanta on the weekends. Dr. Cline also purchased wooded tracts to the north of the farm from other owners, which remained undeveloped for many years as a wildlife preserve.

Nature trail at Andalusia
Nature trail at Andalusia

The development of the outdoor learning center added to the aesthetic value of Andalusia, but it also provided funding opportunities from grants and donations that even extended beyond the outdoor resources. A major organization that supported the nature trail’s construction later made a significant gift toward the restoration of one of the outbuildings at the farm. Professors and students used the pond and trails to conduct various experiments and to identify and catalog the flora and fauna there. The Foundation hosted workshops, lectures, and other programs exploring the natural resources of the center. I was as pleased with the outcome of this project as I was with any of our accomplishments at Andalusia.