Here's a piece I published in April 2010 about my first trip to Arkansas. While you read this I'm tramping around some of the beautiful country mentioned. Do you have a place that makes your heart sing? This is one of them, for me.
Lessons from Grandfather’s Land
Sometimes, if you miss someone bad enough, you’re going set out in search of him.
For my sister and me that meant going to the Ozark Mountains, in search of Grandad. He’s been gone now for some time, but that didn’t prevent us from looking for him, or at least the whispers of him, in his boyhood home.
An Arkansas Ozark spring is clear green and as pretty as a young girl in love. We knew my Grandad grew up in poverty. We didn’t know he’d grown up in such riches of beauty.
As we steered through twisting mountain roads, though, it wasn’t just the scenery that took our breath away. Sometimes it was the drop-off side of the road, and we would both shout out in only somewhat mock terror, “guardrail!” Wishing there was one. Knowing that only 10 inches of rocky shoulder separate you from the clear blue sky of an Arkansas morning is a little unnerving, no matter how beautiful.
We researched our ancestors at courthouse and library. From dusty pages we got dates. But from the hills their character leaped to life, and of this I am certain: they didn’t have any guardrails.
One ancestor, Francis Marion Millsaps, was a soldier in the Union Army, and lost an arm in the Civil War. Perhaps being a southerner who fought for the Union made him a man of great virtue, but I somehow doubt it. He was also a moonshiner of some local renown.
Another great-grandfather, who joined up to fight the Confederates on the same day as Francis Marion Millsaps, was Jesse Sparks. In his portrait no smile softens a hard lean face. He looks meaner than a starving stray dog. They say a clock stopped ticking at the time of his death. I’m not sure it wasn’t his scowl that killed the clock, and him too.
Yet another forebear, Sam Davis, came to these hills in search of a sister who’d been kidnapped by the Indians. In his later years he was on fire for the Lord, or insane, depending on whom you ask. He would climb up a mountain now named after him to preach, sometimes only to the wind and the trees. Local legend says he disappeared and was never seen again. I like to think he was preaching on his mountaintop during a thunderstorm, and his Maker just took him on home.
These men, along with some equally stubborn and colorful women, somehow made a life and a clan on these mountains. Once upon a time in a beautiful April much like the one in which we visited, there came to this tribe a baby boy that would one day be my Grandad.
I don’t know what Grandad knew of the mountains in his youth. Did he see the poetry of bird, sky, fish, water, stone, tree? Or did he only comprehend the shoeless winters, the trap-lines for rabbits, and the other stark realities of 1920s poverty in these hills?
The Ozark Mountains were achingly beautiful, but hard as rock on the people who settled there. There were no protections from war, revenuers, horse thieves, wildcats, typhoid, buckshot, hunger, and the Holy Spirit.
Life is still like that, only the varmints and rascals take different form. My life is beautiful with my sons, my work, my family and friends. But there’s no guardrail for a marriage off course, for an uncertain economy, for risking your here-and-now for a future that might, only possibly, be better.
I think my ancestors and Grandad knew this somewhere deep down, where you don’t even think about it in your brain—it’s just knowledge you hold in the fiber of your being. They settled in a land and lived a life that would knock the tar out of them one day, and turn around and offer speckled trout, blackberries, and pale blue wildflowers the next.
They obviously thought it was worth it. I hope I always remember this too.