Stories of the Ozarks

We awoke tired and sore Tuesday morning at the Erbie campsite, halfway through our planned trek. The four of us were backpacking, and the trail to the next site, Ozark, was supposed to be both shorter and easier than the previous day’s hike, which had topped ten miles, and whose elevation gain was somewhere in the four digit range- the guidebook listed eleven hundred feet, but did not include our jaunt up the Kyle’s Landing road, which added another 350 feet of elevation gain at a 10% grade.

Buffalo River Trail

Erbie to Ozark was charted at less than seven miles with only about three hundred feet of gain throughout; unfortunately, though, we were fated not to make the hike. While Carl and I had been setting up camp the night before, Arwyn had told us that her shoe was torn, which we had brushed off for the time to focus on other matters. By the light of day, though, we could see that one sole was completely detached, and the other not far behind. Duct tape and paracord can only postpone the inevitable, and with blisters already on her feet, we made the decision that she would not be hiking that day.

While it may be easy to decide not to hike, there were logistical problems that had to be resolved. In the midst of a National Park, neither my AT&T nor Carl’s Verizon could pick up a signal to change our itinerary and have the Jeep dropped off at Erbie. Carl walked the campground, Ali tagging at his heels, looking for a payphone or cellular signal, but there was nothing to be found. Although we had all breathed a collective sigh of relief at taking the day off, we were now stuck in what Carl dubbed “the worst campsite ever,” with not even a decent view to distract us. We had begun to toss around the idea of him or I hiking on to Ozark alone while the other stayed with the kids and coming back with the Jeep, but we were reluctant to split the group, and both of us wanted to be the one to hike on anyway; eventually we suspended the discussion without making a decision and I went to make another lap of the campground to look again for a phone as well as to find a water spigot and refill our Camelbaks.

I passed an older man near a campsite as I searched, who exclaimed his surprise at seeing a fellow human being, and I laughed politely and walked on over to the campground message board, hoping to see water and a phone marked in the map.

They were not, of course, and as I stood there, the man who had spoken to me came over and began to chat. He was down from Minnesota with his son’s family in a couple pickups and an RV trailer and they had come in late Monday night. I was apparently the first person that he’d seen that wasn’t related to him since they’d made camp, and he was the gregarious sort who longed for a new friendly ear. We shared that moment of solidarity for our respective family vacations and I began to tell him about mine. His face turned sympathetic when I recounted the discovery of the rebellious shoe and he offered to give us a ride out to Ozark, as long as his son was okay with the idea. It turned out that he was- they had intended to camp at Ozark the night before instead so they could see Ozark’s bluffs, but couldn’t find the turnoff and ended up at Erbie instead. They wouldn’t mind at all going to see it. I hustled back to our site to break camp. We tore down in record time, returned, and threw our gear in the back of the indicated pickup. The old man smiled at Arwyn, still fretting about her shoes.

“I had that happen to me once. I was on an Antarctic cruise. Nowhere to buy shoes in Antarctica, you know.”

And the girls both chimed that it sounded way too cold, and incredibly, as soon as the subject of that frozen giant to the south opened, it was slammed shut and the conversation changed and then ended as the packs were settled, and we said our goodbyes to him and crammed into the backseat for the bumpy ride up the Erbie road toward Ozark. The son and his wife drove us, and their children and grandpa went off in the other truck and out of this story.

We made small talk, the kind the comes with the realization later that you actually learned nothing about them. Something about Minnesota weather, perhaps, but nothing of Minnesota dreams.

We arrived at Ozark and our good Samaritans, ready to head home, only spent a few minutes at the shoreline before saying their goodbyes and getting back on the road; with our Jeep still not delivered, we settled down at the nearly deserted campground to spend a lazy afternoon napping and playing on the shore.


The Ozark campground, much like Kyle’s Landing, boasts impressive bluffs looming just across the river. The bluffs are formed by mainly sandstone and dolostone, combined with some limestone, deposited during different geological periods, namely the Mississippian, Pennsylvanian, and Ordovician, the last-named layer being deposited nearly half a billion years ago, when the land we know was sea and the landmass called Gondwana was breaking up and beginning to head toward its modern locations, creating distinct places such as the Himalayas and Antarctica.

As we gazed at the bluffs, we were particularly interested in the black stains that ran down the rock, similar to others we had noticed elsewhere in the region. After further research, I found that the staining of the bluffs, or “painting” in the local parlance, is caused by a precipitate of manganese oxide, carried by water that has seeped out of the rock. Manganese, an element used in metal alloys, not only has its uses in industry, but it is exceedingly valuable in nutrition too, helping the body to process and use the vitamin thiamine. It is also beautiful. Manganese oxide, also known as pyrolucite or psilomelane, can create fern patterns on sandstone that nearly appear to be fossils, or it can alternately form what is referred to as “rat’s hair,” delicate tufts of pyrolucite fibers that protrude from the surface. Gorgeously painted bluffs, like the ones that stood before us, were but another effect of the mineral.

“Rat’s hair” and painted bluffs at Steel Creek

Ozark thankfully also had the fine feature of a phone, and we were able to call and revise our arrangement for the Jeep, which arrived late in the afternoon, delivered by Buffalo River Canoes. We had initially planned for it to be at Ozark on Wednesday, but to our delight, they were able to deliver it early.

Our first order of business was to get a room and a round of showers. We were all sweaty and not a little dirty, after an afternoon in the sand with no cover from the sun and the previous day’s hike. This turned out to be easier than most of our trip up to that point: we’d rented a cabin in Jasper at the Arkansas House which was supposed to be ours the following day but it was empty and clean so we were able to check in early.

The proprietor was friendly and immensely talkative, with a story for everything; I happened to be wearing a Jack Daniels t-shirt that day, and he launched into a tale that made me think of an old 19th century merchant mariner, spinning a yarn behind his pipe and cup of grog. Perhaps in another life he’d been a whaler alongside of Ahab, or fought under Jean Lafitte during the pirate’s legendary display during the Battle of New Orleans, or maybe a member of some other ancient armada.  Whatever the case, the old man’s eyes softened with the mist of memory as he began to speak, undoubtedly reciting a tale that he’d heard since infancy.

“Jack was just a nickname, you know,” he began. “His real name was Jasper Newton Daniels.”

“Like here,” I said. We stood in the Great Room of his inn, decorated with chandeliers and antiques. The far wall was dominated by a large painting of fully-rigged sailing ships, their canvas tight with wind, which served to intensify the unreal effect. On a map, you would have found us in Jasper, Arkansas, the county seat of Newton.

“Yes, like here,” he agreed, “and others too. There are Jasper, Newtons in Kentucky and Tennessee and throughout the south. Did you know that George Washington was a moonshiner? During the Revolution, the south was just minding their own, but then Washington contacted Jack Daniels and told him that the British were going to tax their liquor. So Jack Daniels spread the word and rounded up some men, and the south joined the war and their men made the difference in some of the last few battles to beat the British.”

He beamed at me, obviously pleased with his tale, and a good one it was, although it could not be true. Washington died half a century before Daniels was born, but it didn’t matter; the story was a myth of the Ozarks with as much flavor as the whiskey in question.

We spent the rest of our stay exploring Newton County and the surrounding areas, with our cabin serving as home base; multiple times we set out in the Jeep in different directions, just to see what we could discover. One day we headed toward a town called Vendor and the mountain vista was interrupted by ruins, few but stark, of the old town- an ancient chimney rose over a meadow, another on the other side of the lane that wound down into the valley, and further on we came across another structure that had survived more than whatever had bore the chimneys- we couldn’t quite decide if it had been a one-room schoolhouse or if it had been a small church, but by this time all that remained were the mortared stone walls and facade, overrun with vines and other growth. I attempted to find some more information on Vendor’s history, but there was not much to discover without having stopped in town to try to talk to locals.

Ali explores the schoolhouse

I found cemetery records going back into the mid-1800s through the Newton County Historical Society‘s website and an anecdote on Wikipedia about the name, saying that it came from traveling salesmen setting up by the road in the area. I struggle to accept Wikipedia as a source, but with no others to be found, I must admit that it sounds reasonable, especially as those aforementioned cemetery records contained no surnames of Vendor.

It should be taken like the tale of Jack Daniels and the American Revolution- a story, no more and no less. It can be so easy to get carried away by the tide of imagination in trying to discover history, so I will stick to the facts: Vendor is a hamlet of perhaps two hundred people, not far from the Scenic Byway 7.

That is all I know.

As for what I can imagine, those people each have lives and petty grievances and dreams and ancestors, and those ancestors left those artefacts that linger in those fields to tell the story of a tiny backwater that is fading away.

Remains of old Vendor

Maybe after leading the young United States to victory near the end of the eighteenth century, the very premature Mr. Daniels then set out for the county whose name he carried to establish a school.

Maybe in such a place, we should just revel in the fictions, as closely held are the facts.

There was only one storyteller that we encountered who disappointed me. Driving from Harrison to Jasper, we noticed signs for a show cave called Mystic Caverns and at Arwyn’s request, we made a stop on Wednesday to check it out. We bought passes to Mystic and its sister cave, Crystal Dome from fresh-faced youngin named Joey, who turned out to be the guide for the tour as well.

Mystic Caverns and Crystal Dome

I don’t think he liked us from the beginning. Admittedly, we can be a little silly sometimes and have been known to ham it up on occasion, such as when Joey the guide asked for someone to sing in one part of the cave in order to demonstrate the acoustics- we volunteered Carl, and the guide’s eyes flickered around the room for alternatives. Nobody else volunteered. He reluctantly selected Carl, who bounded up to his appointed stage and belted out the jingle for his fictional product Snake Leash, accompanied by my hysterical laughter and Ali sweetly singing along.

We can also come across as pretentious, especially where caves are concerned. The girls love to brag about their underground accomplishments and this occasioned no exception; considering their ages and accomplishments, the pride is well warranted.

I don’t know if young Joey rolled his eyes at them, but it would have fit well with his attitude, and this was what underlaid our fundamental difference: our pretention is that caves are fantastically beautiful things that are worth exploring, understanding, and protecting, while for him, it was clearly just a job.

While navigating the switchbacks of the mountain roads one day, in our perpetual awe of the area, Carl and I talked about how wonderful it would be to have those views from one’s own house, and he mused about what a shame it would be to become jaded with such a place. That was the impression I got of our guide- maybe he was thinking about the upcoming weekend, or something going on at home, but he showed little interest in the beauty around him and was not receptive to our questions about the geology of the cave. He had a script, but knew little behind it.

Arwyn asked how old the cave was and he said that he didn’t know, and furthermore that there was no way to tell. She suggested that the formation growth could give us an idea, but he was quick to point out that different factors could affect growth. True, but can’t it be estimated?

“There’s just no way to know,” he responded, taking refuge in the safety of negation.

The Pipe Organ at Mystic Caverns

We were deprived of its history, so I’ve taken it upon myself to find another story of the Ozarks, one that is more ancient, dating back to the formation of the land itself. According to geological maps, the area is on the edge of the Springfield Plateau, made of rock deposited during the Mississipian Period somewhere around 320 million years ago, back when Arkansas was covered by a shallow sea. And while it is true that different factors affect formation growth, such as outside temperature and amount of rainfall, estimates can be made for annual growth ranging from .13 millimeters to up to 1 or even 2 millimeters. The main attraction of the cave is a gigantic formation called the Pipe Organ, reported varyingly at 28 to 36 feet tall. This definitely complicates the issue of estimation, the math allowing the wide window of four to eighty five thousand years.

Even if we go with the lower end of the estimate, that would mean that the Pipe Organ was already beginning to form, drop by slow drop, while the first human civilizations were amassing, the pyramids were being erected in faraway Egypt, and the Olmecs of Central America were building their massive basalt heads. On the other end of the time frame, the cave could be as old as the most basic hominid culture and rituals, dating back to the era when homo erectus still roamed the younger Earth and homo sapiens had not yet emerged.

Each drop leaves its fine layer of calcite, growing with the patience of immortality.

With a droplet, we have modern humans.

Another drop, and ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, flicker and flare and fade.

Another, and another, and modern saviors are born; they live and they die; and there are wars, always wars, but there is also life, and joy, and hope.

And at the end of it all, there is a column, and it holds the whole of human history.

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