America's Best Idea

Oct. 21, 2009

Part III
  
One drizzly, misting day we decided to leave the Mountain Home area and headed south.
   I had been a little disappointed in that region, to be honest. Though its hills were high and its views expansive, I expected more dramatic changes in elevation. Just to the south of us was a division of Ozark National Forest and we decided to go see it.
   I had stopped at Blue Ribbon Fly Shop in Mountain home the day before. My friend Larry Offner of Denham Springs has been to Mountain Home so often, he’s become fast friends with the owners and staff. I met Bob, as nice a guy as you’d ever wanna know. We bought some recommended flies and other fishing gear, then strolled over to the adjoining Anglers’ Coffee Café for a couple cups of java and a bite. The owner had married a guy from Destrehan. The coffee shop was adorned for fishermen: Antique angling gear, tackle and photos adorned its walls, a rustic wood cabin décor. There were old outboards on display, a huge fireplace and sitting area in addition to the tables. Old tin signs advertising everything fishing, a really great place to kick back and take it all in.
   We drove down to the town of Norfork, crossed where the Norfork River ends and headed south, then following the White River. Both the Norfork and the Buffalo River empty into the White. We were skirting the edge of Ozark National Forest, on our way to the southernmost gateway into the area.
   It was a long drive, but suddenly, what I longed for was before my eyes.
   Here the Ozarks turned into smaller versions of the Great Smoky Mountains. While the Salem Plateau where Mountain Home is located is at least, high-hilled, we were at last driving along great bluffs of gray stone, fractured like building blocks of creation, alongside the road. We made steep inclines and steep declines, and our ears popped a lot. Craggy outcrops jutted like stone chins, and here and there trickles of spring water cascaded sparkling down the rock face.
   Once we entered the forest, as the scars of civilization diminished, the mountains became lush, saturated, almost unreal. I had forgotten my maps back where we were staying, but I was trying to find a place called Sylamore Creek in the ranger district. We never got there, but we did find Blanchard Springs.
   At the ranger headquarters, we stopped for information and the ranger we talked to surprised us by knowing where Franklin was. He had, in fact, married a girl from Kaplan, and was quite familiar with our area, even mentioned our lampposts. Is that cool, or what?
   We got directions up to the spring area, where we got out and took a wonderful, boardwalk stroll. The forest here was so lush, so vibrant and with a sense of wildness, if not wilderness. Like Harry Middleton, I seldom use the word “wilderness” anymore because there is no true wilderness left in the United States. “Wildness” is more appropriate. A gorgeous little stream meandered quickly alongside our path, clear and crisp and cold, fed by the still unseen springs ahead. I hadn’t expected such beauty in these low-slung mountains carved from an eroded plateau, but here it was, gloriously.
   Finally we turned a corner, and there it was. Blanchard Springs. I’m sure our mouths were hanging open with awe.
   “Some things in the natural system seem exempt from the passage of time,” the Forest Service relates. “Blanchard Springs is one. Here in 1971, scuba divers entered to explore the mysterious watercourse all the way to the natural entrance. In 4,000 feet of unexplored, mostly water-filled passageways, the scuba divers mapped five inaccessible air filled rooms and corridors. They returned with photographs of remarkable cave formations, waterfalls and cave life…they determined that it takes eighteen and a half hours for water to flow through 1,000 feet of cave passages full of water, and five hours to flow through 3,000 feet of stream in the air-filled rooms. A cave journey of less than a mile takes almost 24 hours.”
   We stayed there a long time. The water burst forth from the side of a sheer bluff, spilling not in a fall but more of a spout, to a pool below, which gathered to create the creek we had followed to the spring. We found an old stone inscribed with what appeared to read: “Half Mile Cave…(something)…Registry Shelter” and then a half-arc like a cave opening. It was lying in a pile of stone rubble with many others, like an abandoned quarry.
   Transfixed by the water erupting from the side of the cliff bluff; we stayed a long, long time. There were few other visitors, few crazy enough to get out in the lousy weather we had tolerated to journey to this place. I never got to see Sylamore Creek, but this sufficed exceedingly well. We explored off the trail, touched the water, felt its chill and realized that it was water touched by none other than the hand of the Creator when it leaped white and foaming from the mountain. What is not awe-inspiring about that?
   Perhaps its part of why Suzie and found each other. We are uplifted by forest, mountain, and of water. At our happiest, right there, at Spring River, at Blanchard Springs, at the Buffalo River, at such places where man hasn’t done all that much to damage the earth.
   Branson, Missouri was less than two hours away. Last year, when we visited the Smokies, we were a mile or two from Dollywood. Our eyes never looked upon either. Instead, we took in forests, their roots climbing the mountainsides like needled and leafed soldiers; rivers, of course, rivers wild and free, unencumbered; stones larger than our homes, many larger than our local courthouse; great valleys hidden inside a ring of mountains, turned golden and ocher with autumn, and great landscapes, mountainscapes, the truest works of creation and the Creator.
   There we stood, and took it all in, and were young again, vibrant with the earthblood of the spring and the steadfast antiquity of the mountain. It is humbling, in a way no object made by man can compare.

   Filmmaker Ken Burns called the national parks, inclusive of the national monuments, forests and such, “America’s best idea.” But for the efforts of people like John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Ansel Adams and many, many more, such places might no longer be there. Forests leveled for their timber, mountains dismantled for their ore and stone, rivers dammed and diverted, wildlife hunted to extinction.
   And it occurred to me that still, at that moment I was standing watching the spring leap from the mountain, there are people in the world, probably most of the people in the world, who would destroy this. Who would look at it and only see profit or a nice spot to build a factory. Muir, I think, had more faith in humans than I do:
   “Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees. Their sermons on the mountains go to our hearts; and if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish.” – John Muir
   Thank goodness someone had the foresight to put places like this into protection; Even the great scope of the national parks and forests and such are tiny in comparison to what has already been lost. But from Yellowstone to Yosemite, from the Great Smoky Mountain to our own Kisatchie, there are still places that are reminiscent of how this continent appeared five centuries ago.
   What, do you think, might have happened in our own state, had the great oak forests and cypress stands been protected, at least in part? The upland prairies? What great wonders would we know right at our own doorsteps?
   Much as I love wildness, the irony does not escape me. That I must journey hours and hours upon a concrete highway to soak it all in, when a scant 15,0000 years ago no human foot had stepped on this continent. And only 150 years ago, herds of buffalo covered entire states, flocks of waterfowl blocked out the sun, forests stretched out for thousands of miles uninterrupted and, but for greed and avarice, we might have prospered here just as well if we had only taken the time to coexist, rather than subdue.
   And we believe we have done something great, created a better society, progressed, evolved.
   (Photos accompany these columns on my website at www.native-waters.com.)