So not a plateau. So something else, here on the western fringe where topography becomes scrambled and nothing is as it seems, where valleys are hollows and streams are cricks and the land is riven and sundered and smoothed over with a carpet of green, green beyond belief and imagination, and turning now as autumn waxes, colors at once dulling and flaming as if in opposition to one another, the yin and yang of the universe, balance in all things save for the plodding of iron-shod horses and the creak of harness as three covered wagons make their descent into the Ozark Plateau.
In name only. And how did they go, what path did they take, what road, now lost to even the oldest plat maps? East from Cassville, that much is known; not today’s two-lane highway which leaves the relatively straight contours of that gateway city to immediately turn on itself, twisting and writhing as it adheres to the curvilinear topography of verticality. East then, a few miles, before the road, such as it was, climbed the flanks of Bald Mountain and followed the ridgeline a few miles before plunging into a narrow, rocky crevice.
Until 1932 when the present highway was built the Roaring River Road was the only entrance into the valley. “The roads throughout the area at that time were narrow, winding, rough, and muddy, or dusty as the seasons dictated,” a history of Barry County states. “But the little lanes that wound through the valleys of the tracks that precariously climbed the hills at Roaring River were worse than most. They had the added hazard of many, many fords, where the road crossed the river.”
Our road was more benign and not nearly as scenic, though surprises and wonders were abundant. I was first and foremost a desert rat, preferring the stark beauty of open vistas to the claustrophobic confines of eastern deciduous woods with their mosses and fungi, their alien pines and odd-shaped leaves, whose very fecundity seemed an affront to the natural order of things. And all the more mysterious for it, and inviting. Green is a soothing color, psychologists tell us. Green is the color of solace, of refuge. But for Sadie and the others, the hollow was anything but a refuge though it enveloped them so completely that once into the canyon there could be no turning back.
The previous night had been silvery with moonlight, Sadie wrote. The others mentioned the caterwauling of a wildcat, but she and Fred slept through it all the way to a pack of coon dogs invading the camp like darksome specters. The hounds flowed through pausing only to sniff and bay and disappeared as suddenly as they arrived leaving in their wake a preternatural silence that left them all straining to penetrate.
After breakfast they trudged on, the road paralleled by twin split-rail fences until such time as the fences gave way to woods and the mouth of the canyon. “We went down and down what seemed like mountains,” she wrote. “We saw the prettiest scenery when we looked at the bottom. There was only room for our wagons. If you moved a foot out of track you would upset. There were hills on both sides, you could look up and up and see only trees, all kinds and colors. If you looked straight up you could see blue sky. But on each side was every thing to see.”
Every thing to see. In that we were alike, wanting nothing more than to stop and explore, to step outside ourselves, our transports, our lives, to touch and smell and feel this new world. To hear its songs. We are all children in the face of the unknown.
Fred was the worse. At the reins he fidgeted and squirmed, mercilessly constrained by the narrow wagon seat and its paltry view of a pair of horse’s asses and swishing tails, of swaying harness and twitching ears and the rubbled road ahead. Sadie, at his side, studied him from the corner of her eye. The impatience that inflicted him, its seething inescapability, was instantly recognizable, as intrinsic to his personality as his facial features or the patterned whorls on his fingertips. He could no more constrain those impulses than he could make the canyon floor less jarring. For her part Sadie patiently waited for the denouement which would come sooner or later, usually sooner, and when Fred could take no more quietly took the reins and watched him leap from the wagon.
“There is no need of saying he saw fine places to set his steel traps,” she wrote that night. Her entry of October 23 would be the longest of the trip, easily three or four times the length of an average entry, filled with a girlish merriment of discovery and wonder. “We saw some of the prettiest rock clifts,” she added. “We were thinking the river had dried up when about nine o'clock we saw a rock clift with a hole in it. Fred said when we get to that we will see something worth looking at.”
He had hurried ahead to the sound of waters and returned with a look of astonishment written on his face. Ahead the canyon opened into a narrow valley studded with a roughhewn settlement consisting of a combination flour and saw mill, a general store and two farm houses. Piber Hollow came in from the northwest and Dry Hollow from the south with the narrow track of the Seligman Road branching off to the southwest. Tame geese wandered at will. But it was the water that captured her attention.
It erupted from the face of a perpendicular cliff. Impatient now herself to escape the wagon, Sadie hastily watered the horses and pulled the wagons to a small clearing. Then she was off, bunching her skirts and hastening toward the cliff.
“There was a wall and a dam laid up and a mill race came out at the bottom and some came running down some race steps all in a foam,” she wrote. “I went up on top of the wall and all around the pond on a path. The rest followed. [There was] a hog in the water catching little fish. The boys saw some fish they could not name. Then we went around a little and by and by we saw the beginning, where the Roaring River came up out of the ground way back in a cave and a stream of water came from the top of that rock clift. You could look up and up some more.”
Not content to stare into the twilit gloom of the cave, Sadie gingerly balanced on a series of slick-smooth rocks and made her way into darkness. Fred and Charles Chambers followed her as far as they could before the cleft narrowed to a sliver. The water was ice cold and so deep it appeared bottomless. And blue, bluer than the autumn sky or a bluebird’s feathers, “the prettiest blue you can not begin to imagine it,” as she described it. “I just looked and could not see enough of it. That was Roaring River Point.”
The dam, built in 1865 by William McClure, confined the water in a deep reservoir used for the turning of the mill wheel. Two openings, or races, provided waterfalls that foamed down to the channel of the river. A second mill, located at the end of the mill race, stood where the current park lodge is now situated. The mill supplied facilities for grinding grain and sawing lumber, and also acted as a primitive woolen mill, with spinning wheels, looms for weaving and a carding machine. Interestingly enough, the creation of the dam silenced the roar of Roaring River, whose spring flows at the rate of more than 20 million gallons per day.
Roaring River State Park (roaring no more) is the latest iteration of what was once a Native American encampment. Billed as Missouri’s finest trout fishery—a statement that at one time would have quickened my pulse—it now consists of a narrow stream choked with anglers of all sizes, shapes and permutations of tackle, from fly-fishers to bait-slingers, packed cheek to jowl in what appeared to be a sort of communal harmony. At the head of the stream, sandwiched between the rivulet and the cleft, lies a fish hatchery and an assortment of stone buildings built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s. The place had the air of a summer camp about it, tinged with nostalgia of former times when the world was simpler and less dangerous. Visitors jostled to peer into the watery tanks holding thousands of sizable trout, fodder for the masses below. Others walked to the cleft and peered within even as Sadie had done, though there were no more stepping stones leading into the cave; nor was there a bottom to it, from the looks of the gloom. The pond, half in sun and shadow, mirrored the sky and the wooded inclines, its surface shattered now and then by skimming swallows.
Far above the pond a small rocky knoll circumscribed by a wooded fence jutted from the cliff. After some scouting around I found a trail leading upward and pulled Lori behind me. The trail steeply rose into dappled shade, its switchbacks ill-fitting limestone slabs grooved by footsteps. For a hundred yards it hugged the ace of a cliff before reaching a junction where a narrower trail descended to a viewing platform. Lori was altogether unsure of the stability of the structure nor was I, and neither of us had plans on leaning against the rail to peer into the turquoise depths of the pond. But the view was stunning, and while studying the birds aloft I shouted “Black vulture!” and “Broadwinged hawk!” and knew we were in the South.
After making our way down we cut through the CCC camp to a road leading to the park’s maintenance shops. Beyond that the road continued into the canyon, narrowing to a rutted path barely wide enough for a car to maneuver. A ranger told us that people drive it all the time but a four-wheel-drive vehicle was recommended, and as we had neither the time nor the vehicle we chose to walk about a half mile into the canyon.
After the first bend the sounds of the park receded. Birdsong filled the air, thrushes and robins and chickadees. Butterflies gathered in rainbow clusters around small pools of water, and a new species of moth I was never able to identify led me on a merry chase. On either side the woods climbed to the heavens. So rapt was I in trying to identify birds and butterflies that Sadie’s presence took me by surprise. One minute I was studying a likely specimen through my binoculars, the next I was practically reeling in wonderment. “She was here,” I whispered. “Here. Right here, right where we’re standing.”
Dazed, we turned to retrace our route—Sadie’s route—down and down to the car. So much had changed in the past hundred years, and so very little.
Leaving the spring, Sadie and Goldie picked ferns. Sadie’s came from the cave and Goldie’s from along the stream, six distinct varieties altogether. Sadie also picked up a small shell from the water’s edge.
The road was a road in name only. “We went on down the valley and forded that river 14 times before dinner,” she wrote.
The constant fording of the river took its toll. By the time they chose a likely site for a meal they and the horses were exhausted, though not so exhausted that the “boys” didn’t have the energy to break out the fishing tackle. Fred wanted to make camp so they could fish for supper but the others chafed to continue, so they carried on. Fred managed one small bass before hurrying to catch up.
“The roads are like cow trails,” Sadie wrote. “You did not know which you were following. We have come over the worst roads, the worst hills [we] ever saw, but we did not double teams. We are all tired as we rode late this evening.”
How they went, where they went, is a mystery. Two canyons split from Roaring River, one following the river itself southeast toward Eagle Rock and the other almost due south to its conjunction with Butler Hollow. The Seligman Road would have taken them part way. Butler Hollow curved toward the southeast at a 45-degree angle leading almost directly toward their destination before its confluence with the White River. Such was the likeliest route.
By dusk they had cleared the hollow. Below them the broad White River reflected the last light of the sunset. Birdsong gave way to the thrum of crickets and the first stars. They cobbled the horses and built a small fire for cooking and sat there weary beyond words, but not so weary that Sadie couldn’t draw aside with pencil and paper to tell of the day’s adventures, concluding with an update on their positioning. “We are now in Arkansas tonight,” she wrote, “and six miles from Eureka Springs.”
(To be continued)