Seven years in Xanadu

It’s the summer of 77’ and I’m headed to visit my father in Arkansas. He, recently remarried, invites me for a summer stay. Leaving Houston was going to be a pleasure. City boy was embarking on an adventure into the country!  Dad was living his dream! He reinvented himself once again and pulled up roots and discovered this place surrounded by Mountains and Lakes everywhere! His phone call a week earlier described it like out of National Geographic to me. Heck yeah, on my way!

I’m sixteen and on summer break. I never flew on a plane by myself.  Just trying to find the right gate for my flight out was daunting enough. Houston is congested and hurried. We make a transfer in Little Rock to what I assumed was an Alaskan Wilderness Adventure plane; Rio Airlines.  As I step off a massive Continental Airline flight and head towards this little, tiny yellow aircraft that couldn’t seat more than twelve, short people, my imagination starts working overtime.  How remote of a place did my Dad move to?  I hope they have T.V. there.  Do I have to kill my own food? I thought this was a summer vacation, but after flopping around in this tin can for an hour, I’m starting to think my Dad is living off the grid.

When we landed, all twelve passengers applauded.  It was a very rough flight.  Looking out my window, I’m imagining at any moment a wild bear or cougar is going to spring out of the brush, but this place looks civilized. Okay, so I’m not deploying my Boy Scout skills just yet. There is my hero, my Dad greeting me at the gate.  Yep, it had just one gate. This is so far from being Houston. No skyscrapers, no crowds, no confusion.  After a short greet, I ask where to go to pick up my luggage. There is just one guy in the building.  I recognize him.  Wasn’t he the pilot? And the guy that took my ticket at the gate, and the luggage handler too? There are no escalators or a luggage conveyor. The One Man Show points over to the front door.  Okay, this is about as simple as it gets.  I’m starting to catch on.  Slow down. No one is in a hurry here. Leaving the tiny airport, I glance over and notice that you can watch T.V. through a miniature screen for twenty-five cents.  Pay per view. That’s a new one. (Later I would discover they only have four channels broadcasting locally). Luggage in hand, we head towards Dad’s new place.  Along the way, I take in the landscape.  I see endless green forest.  The highway was nothing more than a winding asphalt road, but they call it a highway here.  Guess they never been in Houston before.  Have to admit, it was gorgeous!  No straight lines, no traffic, no concrete and houses so spread apart, like as if everyone was allergic to neighbors. (Loving this idea)!  I’m soaking it all in and realize I don’t see one McDonald’s, or any other recognizable brand name.  Are we so remote that I’m going to have to learn how to milk a cow and hunt my own hamburger meat?  Traffic on Hwy 70West is virtually non-existent, but when someone does come along, they wave casually.  Then another passes with a two-fingered wave, then another.  Wow, my Dad must be real popular up here! I find out months later that this is the local custom of the natives. They call it “Being neighborly”.  You don’t have to know them to wave at them.  What?  You’d get shot in some parts of Texas doing that.  We finally pull up to the property.  It sits in the middle of a forked street; right up against what I thought was the Ozark Mountains. How would I know?  This is the closest I’ve been to anything country.  Back home, you’re five minutes from everything; Endless shopping centers and occasionally a tree, maybe. The house, (I like to refer to as a cabin, just because I can) stands on a hill, sloped from the back.  A rear deck overlooks a duck pond Dad built with an Island and a bridge at the center.  Oh yeah, and real ducks!  I’ve seen those in a zoo once. Don’t know if they bite. (That reminds me of an incident when I was eight years old during Christmas, one of the big Malls in Houston had a real Reindeer display. They were fenced off so you couldn’t touch them.  I didn’t like that idea, so I maneuvered my index finger through several layers of wire and was able to touch a Deer’s nose!  It was the coolest thing ever for a city boy, until Rudolph bit me. Shortly after, I was rushed to the hospital to have a shot.) That was my extent into wildlife. After a nights rest, I decided to explore the area. I crossed the forked rode, and went up against the dense forest.  What I saw next solidified my desire to live in this magical place.  A young black bear had stuck his head out amongst the trees, right in front of me!  At first, I thought it was just a huge dog or maybe some kind a farm animal, but I was frozen still, and had plenty of time to recognize what is was.  I can still recall the feeling of my heart stopping, but I didn’t want to run away.  Captivated, I just stood there motionless, staring at each other. Then before I could gather my thoughts, it abruptly disappeared between the trees.  The woods were so thick that ten feet in would swallow any sign of him. I ran back to the house and at the top of my lungs, announced what I just saw.  Turns out, that was normal around here.  Still, that one moment with wild nature did it for me!  Where do I sign up to live this experience again!

This magical place is Hot Springs, Arkansas!  Dad lived on the outskirts in a place called Pearcy.   For the next three months, wearing a permanent grin, I would visit unlimited perfection in nature and countless fishing and camping adventures with him. In the middle of the day, if business was slow, Dad would just flip over the sign at the front of the store that read “Gone Fishing”!  Yeah, Dad really was living his dream. Lake Ouachita; Water so pure, you could drink from it. Places called Crystal Springs and Gulpha Gorge.  Zig Zag, Sugarloaf and Blowout Mountain, Trails with names like Goat Rock and Dead Chief, Even a trail that starts on the seventh floor of the Arlington Hotel.  (No, that wasn’t a typo, look it up). The views are a transcendent experience!

Hot Springs is a National Park, the smallest and oldest. Yellowstone is usually mistaken for the oldest. (Trust me, I did the research)!  Then there’s The Promenade, a scenic walk located behind historical Bath House Row.  And then of course Hot Springs itself.  This place is teaming with nature at its doorstep.  I could write endlessly about this place but what’s the fun in spoiler alerts.  Oh yeah, forgot to mention that Hot Springs is also the only Urban National Park.  The city sits right in it.  You won’t find that anywhere else!  Yeah, Dad was right; Mountains and Lakes everywhere.  Just like watching an episode of National Geographic!

Back at the house (aka: Cabin), I get a chance to meet the local natives.  Larry and his family live up on the hill past the fork.  His son Tommy greets me as I’m exploring the neighborhood.  I’m invited in and meet the whole family. They are suspiciously too nice.  Heck, I’m a stranger from the city, and Houston for that matter.  This is the kind of behavior you only see in black and white reruns of “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father knows Best”.  Larry and a couple of his sons, DeWayne and Brad are wearing camouflage, and plenty of rifles around.  But I’m starting to get the hang of this.  These folks are real.  Their kindness is genuine. None of them are wearing watches, because no one is in a hurry.  I get thirsty and ask if I could get a drink.  “Help yourself”.  I heard that a lot during my summer visit.  It’s getting dark and I better head home, (I forgot to tell Dad I was off exploring), I head for the door and ask them if they want me to lock up.  “No” Larry answered.  Down the hill, I see the garage door is wide open and the four vehicles parked in the driveway have the keys in the ignition.  Now pay attention here because I thought I had entered the Backwoods Twilight Zone:  I go back up the hill and knock on the door. I inform Mr. Hansen about the garage and the keys.  His response was: “Yeah, I know, it makes it easier shuffling the cars around in the morning”.  I didn’t say a word. I just picked up my lower jaw, turned and headed home quickly. (What, they don’t have crime here)?  The first thing I said to my father when I arrived, short of breath was “Dad, I want to live here”!  That was my moment!

Mr. Hansen was able to convey to me what living here was like in one sentence.  I stayed for seven more years, attended Lake Hamilton High School and the Community College and wore that permanent grin everywhere.  I made lifelong friends who still reside in Hot Springs and Pearcy. And the Hansen’s attitude was not unique.  Everyone I met, was that neighborly, and a true genuineness about them.  I went back thirty years later in 2010 for a Class Reunion, and the place has grown a bit through progress but the spirit of the locals is still there and the beauty of the place hasn’t been spoiled. I even caught up with my sidekick in High School, Phillip, who graciously took me fishing!   Last time I casted a line on the lake was with Dad, but he’s gone now.  Phillip will never know how meaningful that day was for me spiritually.  My friends haven’t changed, they are remarkably connected to this place that I call my Xanadu!

P.S.  I’m making plans to move back shortly!