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Posts Tagged ‘Ouachita National Forest’

The pavement ends. Potholes and asphalt yield to stony dirt, intersected by little gullies dug by rain on its way to the river. You’ve not merely crossed from Oklahoma to Arkansas, from Road to Trail. You have entered another place and time, where cell phones receive no signal and the internet and social media do not intrude.

Peace settles over you as the dust settles to the roadbed. Stop a moment and gaze at the bucolic scene, a scattering of houses among fields of hay and cattle. And forests. On your left Walker Mountain slopes up into the trees. On every quarter section sits a house with a front porch. Porch swings and rocking chairs invite you to visit. Gaze across the valley and the Black Fork River to the mountain brooding beyond. An occasional gash of gray from a rock slide interrupts the medley of greens and browns of the forest. Long ago people abandoned the mountain to wild things and memories. Not so much as a radio tower tarnishes the wilderness.

Once this valley buzzed with activity. Cotton was King. Black Fork, valley and mountain, boasted of stores and schools, homesteads and share croppers. Then came the Boll Weevil. Only sketchy tales linger of the many who left to seek fortunes elsewhere. The remains of their homes, reduced to debris, mingle with arrowheads cast aside by earlier denizens of the valley.

A small clapboard building perches on the bank of the road in front of an abandoned stone house. The old post office was small enough to move up and down the valley as the duty of postmaster shifted from neighbor to neighbor. Black Fork once had its own Zip Code, but the post office closed some forty years ago. Today, a rural carrier brings mail from Mena, on the other side of the mountain, over in Polk County.

One day when I visited my mother, the mail lady drove into the yard with a package too large for the box. No yellow slip of paper giving notice of something on a shelf miles away. When Mom asked about her recent trip, the carrier grabbed her photos and joined us in the kitchen. So, the neighbors’ mail would be a few minutes late today.

Two church buildings remain in the valley. Friendship Baptist Church still holds services for a handful, but most folks go to their chosen denominations in nearby towns. A few miles east, Piney Church once competed for the souls of the valley and doubled as a one room schoolhouse, but the building is now a social hall for a dwindling number of quilters. On the front porch is a pile of firewood for the pot-bellied stove. The door is unlocked. No one minds if you visit. The building is wired for electricity but has no running water. Out front is an old well and an outhouse in the back. A large quilt frame takes up much of the room. Look closely at the stitching – all hand crafted.

On the walls a few black and white group photographs attest that this was once a school. An eighth grade education was required for teachers. The scholars who remain in the valley are now grandparents. Their descendents are bussed to Acorn, a good 45 minutes away. Many children in the valley are home schooled.

Black Fork is 45 minutes from everywhere. Haw Creek, over in Oklahoma, has a thriving church and a mom-and-pop gas station which periodically goes out of business. Better gas up before you venture here. However, should your truck or farm equipment need repairs, Black Fork Garage is the one thriving business in the valley.

Most small communities lose population as the young people move elsewhere for jobs and the old move to cemeteries, but Black Fork is different. Retired people are moving into the valley and building homes and some of the young choose to stay. They have to commute to jobs or dabble in small local endeavors. Why do they live here? Because life is good.

This is no utopia. Lives have been lost in flash floods. Logging and farming can be hazardous, and Black Fork is not immune to illegal drugs and crime. By nature or nurture, some people have light fingers, so if something comes up missing, you can bet the owner has an idea who took it. If the suspect is innocent by reason of being in jail, well, it must have been his brother.

One hot August, some convicts escaped from a prison over in Oklahoma and one found his way to Black Fork. He hid in the woods and raided vacant kitchens for sustenance. Having lost his shoes, he stole a pair, but they were too big and left him with blisters. Because he was afraid of bears, he slept in trees, unaware that bears can climb. When the authorities caught up with him, dirty, scratched, plagued with ticks and chiggers, he was happy to go home to his cell.

People in Black Fork make do or do without. Or mobilize the community. Emergency vehicles take 45 minutes to get here, or if a train is parked at the crossing in Page, twice as long. So the citizens organized a Volunteer Fire Department, raising funds through bake sales and raffles, government grants and support from nearby VFDs. Everyone pitched in to build a firehouse and garner necessary equipment. Volunteers went to training and several became first responders.

Last winter, an ice storm downed power lines. Members of the VFD checked on the elderly and disabled, ensuring their safety and providing them with food, water, and firewood if needed. Roads had to be cleared before electricity could be restored. The fire department cut their way through over twenty miles of fallen trees. Service was restored in half the time it would have taken the utility company alone.

Looking out for one another is a way of life. After a flood damaged many vehicles, Black Fork Garage made repairs, charging customers for parts only, not for labor. “We didn’t do anymore than anyone else would have done in our shoes. The best pay is the love and appreciation we get from our neighbors, and the satisfaction of being the Lord’s hand extended to others.”

Visiting Black Fork is like returning to a forgotten way of life. Not a perfect life, but one we rediscover when we slow down. The visitor can set aside worries for a time and hold responsibilities at arm’s length. I always leave with regret and look forward to coming back.

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Traveling the Backroads, I stumble across many interesting little places that you will not find along the interstate highways. Scattered around the Southeast are small public springs and artesian wells where the public is free to take water. I’m not talking about  springs where you go swimming, but places where you drink the water.

One of the most famous, though hardly off the beaten path, is Hot Springs, Arkansas. People have enjoyed its healing waters for thousands of years. About one million gallons of water flow daily from forty seven springs. This  is ancient water which fell as rain some 4,000 years ago and percolated slowly through the Earth’s crust, finally to emerge from the depths at 147 degrees Fahrenheit, rich in minerals. Over the past one hundred fifty years, bathhouses have been constructed over the springs, and various health treatments have been offered to supplement the waters. Although the popularity of bathhouses has declined, people still flock here every day. Many do no more than fill water bottles at the public spigots. I once encountered a hale senior citizen whose car trunk was full of gallon jugs. He told me that this water is what keeps him alive and healthy, and he is not alone in this contention. I go out of my way to visit Hot Springs and take some of its health with me.

Over in Oklahoma, along Highway 259 in the Ouachita National Forest, is a small roadside park called Pipe Springs. The place has a history I will not relate here. Today it is visited only by the few who pause to picnic, climb the nature trail, and drink the water. This spring is no more than a pipe sticking out of the rocks which emits a steady stream of sweet water. It is not much to look at, but the water is well worth stopping for.

Back East, somewhere in the Carolinas on Rt. 15, is another little park whose name I do not know. An artesian well gushes from the ground through pipes. Here you will always find a line of people with their water cans ready. They seem to be mostly local people who know the value of the tasty mineral water, but there are a few like me who have wandered by and taken the time to stop. The water is good.

One of my favorite places is Healing Springs, near the antique town of Blackville, SC. I often overnight at the nearby Barnwell State Park, which is a comfortable days’ drive between my home and other destinations. I was told of this place by a park ranger and I make the pilgrimage about once a year. Native Americans considered this spring to be sacred and they would bathe here when they were sick or injured. During the American Revolution, as the story goes, four British soldiers were brought here by friendly Indians for this purpose. The men had been mortally wounded in battle. Two able bodied men had been left to care for them and bury them when they died.  Six months later, the soldiers rejoined their garrison in Charleston, healthy and ready to resume action.

Since that time, ownership of the springs passed from the red man to the white man. In 1944, the last owner deeded the property to God, so that the water could be enjoyed freely by all people. This is a legally recognized deed. The place cannot be sold without God’s signature. An adjacent church maintains the park, called God’s Acre, which is no more than a couple of picnic tables and several pipes in the ground. Each pipe has four branches from which a generous stream of water continually flows. What is not collected in people’s bottles spills into a picturesque little creek. Healing Springs is visited daily by folks of all walks of life, some of whom swear to the healing power of its waters. I always take some home to my loved ones.

These waters have diverse histories and their taste is different depending on their mineral content. They may or may not have purported or scientifically proven virtues, but the one thing I have found in common in all these places is the friendliness and good will of the people I encounter there. None of them know me and few of them know one another, but they will engage in cheerful conversation. It’s as though, coming together to share a gift from the Earth, people find a common connection that goes beyond ethnicity, social class, or religious affiliation. Is it the magic of the waters? Or is it something much deeper that finds a bond among our souls? At Healing Springs, especially, parting is frequently accompanied by a heart felt, “May God Bless.”

There is another, very unlikely place that I consider it to be one of the friendliest I have found to take water.  DeFuniak Springs is a little town in the Florida panhandle, built around a spring-fed lake which is ringed by a public park. A street encircling the lake and park is lined with Victorian era houses. This is a popular place for locals to jog or walk. But what I find most interesting here is not the park, and the water I take is not from the lake. At the sidewalk in front of one of the houses is a water fountain inviting one to stop and take a drink. A sign posted behind the fountain quotes, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” Although no food has ever been evident, I almost never fail to stop by for a few minutes to take a few sips of water.  Usually I am the only one there, but I feel a connection with others who stop by and with the owner of the house who has extended hospitality to strangers, many like me just passing through, some who may never return.

So when you travel, slow down and explore the back roads and out of the way places. Don’t be afraid to stop or take time to visit. You, too, may find yourself partaking of the gifts of the Earth or sharing the hospitality of strangers.

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