My husband and I, along with our three-year-old daughter and the beloved family dog, drove some 3,000 miles from our home in Oregon to spend the entire summer exploring the southern region of the United States. As anticipated we found a cultural wonderland filled with passionate musicians, skilled artisans and culinary genius around every kudzu-covered corner. Our host states (Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and the Carolinas) sit rooted in a landscape as diverse as their peoples.
From the white sands and dusty pink beaches of Southern Florida to the lush green paradise of Western North Carolina, the south offers unique camping, backpacking, and wildlife; all the things we love in an adventure. Like all great adventures it was an unexpected twist that provided an unforgettable highlight.
After a serious flood in Memphis we skipped town and headed West on Highway 62 past watermelon stands, soul-food joints, and dirty little bars boasting air conditioning. We were thrilled to find ourselves on the edge of the St. Francis National Forest in the Sylamore district of the Ozark Mountains. 130,000 rugged acres of hardwood trees, limestone bluffs, wild rivers, and spring-fed creeks. We stopped to ask some locals about camping. On a side note, Welcome Centers, The Forestry Service offices, and due diligence on the Internet are also helpful when planning trips like this. We do make it a point to stop at the Forestry Service to check on weather advisories, road closures, and just to let them know if we plan to head deep into unpredictable terrain. In my experience locals almost everywhere can and often love to give you the real skinny: favorite local digs, directions to the nearest Laundromat, and in this case, an invitation to a barn dance in a little town right up the road happening that very night. What’s that, you say? A dance? Hot damn! My daughter and I had each packed a party dress for just such an occasion, and my husband, in a clean pair of jeans, drove us straight into the orange mist and steam leading up towards the little town of Mountain View, Arkansas.
There’s a scene in the movie “Big Fish” where the main character, poised on the edge of a picture-perfect town is greeted by a little girl. Standing on the endless green lawn she instructs him to “take his shoes off” explaining he won’t need them there. This was that town, with an “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. When we hit the main drag, it seemed, well, eerie; not a store open, nor a soul in sight. As night fell, we began to see lights in the distance. “Happy lights!” my daughter clapped her hands. As we drew closer, we began to hear live music and singing. We hit the top of the ridge and found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the town square. Next to the train tracks, under a fast-rising moon, hundreds of people were gathered. Grandmothers plucking banjos, teenagers playing mandolins, dads on fiddles and moms on the upright bass. Tiny children, no bigger than my girl, strumming guitars. And this was no amateur hour. Every porch and gazebo, every bench and patch of grass boasted clever musicians playing traditional bluegrass, gospel, and regional folk music. Smooth vocal harmonies were accompanied by cheering, dancing crowds. Noticing my look of awe an old man stopped to ask if it was our first time in town. “Well, y’all should come more often. We do this every weekend.” Off he headed, fiddle in hand.
After an hour or so, we remembered the happy barn and followed the can’t-miss-it directions up the river road. The Jimmy Driftwood Happy Barn and Rackensack Folklore Society have a mission: to promote, preserve, and perform the region’s traditional music. Jimmy Driftwood, a history teacher during the Depression, traveled the Ozarks, performing historical songs he wrote to music he played on his fiddle. The instrument, made from a headboard and a fence rail, was one he would play all his life. With Nashville so close, it wasn’t long before songs like “The Ballad of New Orleans,” which won a Grammy and “Tennessee Stud,”(The Johnny Cash cover is my favorite) were played on the radio for all to hear. With a body of work that numbered about 5,000 songs, Jimmy Driftwood went on to perform at the Grand Ole’ Opry, Carnegie Hall, and for the United Nations. He founded the Rackensack Folklore Society and continued to teach and perform all his life. He died in 1998 at the age of ninety- one.
We left the barn dance exhausted and elated, pulled up next to a creek, and slept like babies in our little teardrop trailer. In the late morning we enjoyed a delicious meal at the Main Street Cafe (also
a great place to view local art) bought some peanut butter and other staples from Yoders Country Cupboard, an organic Amish food store also on Main Street, and headed up to a Forest Service campground fifteen miles outside of town.
Gunner Pool, a self-pay, no-RV campground, has vaulted toilets, potable water, and a great swimming hole. It’s right up the road from Blanchard Springs, a large, living-stalactite cavern, open daily for tours. The surrounding forest is rugged. There are poisonous snakes that swim, and feeding hour for a nasty variety of biting, flying insects, happens nightly between 5 and 7, so bring your keen eyesight and intact screens and bug spray. Dangerous flash floods are common with sudden summer storms, so watch your proximity when creek side camping. Despite these minor annoyances the region offers beautiful hikes, serious trout fishing, relaxing hot springs, and my personal sport of choice for a hot summer day in the Ozarks, long floats down the Buffalo River.
We stayed for the week, soaking up the sun, floating down the river and following the music all over town. We left on a Sunday, two gallons of sweet tea on the floorboard and a watermelon in the cooler. We bid Mountain View and the whole South a fond farewell, and headed toward Colorado and our home in the West beyond. Happy again.