Life has a subtle way of reminding us we are really not in charge of what happens to us. I realized this as Max and I traveled to Little Rock to visit our daughter, Emily, for Father’s Day.
When my family left Thayer after my high school graduation, I knew that I had seen the last of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Oh, I would be back for visits, as my extended family still lived in the area, but my frequent contact with that part of the country was finished.
Or so I thought.
Now, half a lifetime later, I felt right at home as, for the umpteenth time, we headed through the Ozark Mountains, albeit on the western side as opposed to the south central area where I grew up.
In 2007, I wondered why Emily decided to go to Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., five hours straight down U.S. Highway 65. She thought the mix of liberal arts and art in general would be helpful if she were to follow through on her plan to save the world through art, so to Arkansas she went, passing up scholarships that would have taken her to New York or Portland, Ore., or even my alma mater, William Jewell.
Max and I visited her a few times each year, staying at the same hotel, eating dinner at the same restaurants — surprisingly good for a small town — and Max became acquainted with the rules of a state that is “dry” or “wet” by county: the voters in each county have the right to determine whether liquor can be sold and consumed there.
I, of course, knew all about the county decision issue, as Thayer was right across the Arkansas line, and Fulton County was dry. I remember the State Line Liquor Store, which was, as its name implied, right on the state line. It had a drive-through window on the back side of the building so that no one could see who was buying liquor. Liquor-buyers and consumers were pariahs in Thayer.
During her college years, Emily pulled me back into southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, telling me about floating Spring River, where I floated when I was in high school, about going to Fred’s Fish House, where the fried catfish is in the running for the best in the world, about going to “our little church” in Williford, Ark., where my forebears are buried, and about traveling to Jonesboro, where our high school band marched in the Christmas parade every year. I told her that she was reliving my youth.
Then she headed to Savannah, Ga., and I again assumed that my time in the Ozarks was finished. I would not travel there again, as all my family who had lived there were now gone from this earth and I had no reason to drive four hours to look around the teeny-tiny town where I had grown up.
But this past weekend, there I was again, heading south, feeling as if I were coming back home as I saw the red clay around Springfield, saw chickens in front yards and people sitting on front porches, looked at the little houses built of rock, saw blooming mimosa trees and crepe myrtles, and passed through towns with populations of fewer than 200 souls.
I felt the cool breeze emanating from tree-studded bluffs that butt up against and shade the curvy, hilly roads, saw cattle grazing placidly in pastures, and withstood the challenge of farmers on tractors and “Sunday drivers” trying to slow our pace.
We passed through the Buffalo River area, akin to the Spring River area in Mammoth Spring, where a little motel overlooks the rushing river, a canoe rental business takes adventurers to “put in” and “take out,” and views of the countryside are simply stunning.
I gazed over the gentle hills of the Ozark Mountains stretched out before us, seeing layers and layers of beautiful, green forests, and I realized that life had tricked me. I thought I was leaving those many years ago, but I now understand that place to have been, and probably to always be, my heart’s home.