The Professional Guest: The Road to Arkansas

war_eagle_mill_sm2The last three days in Minnesota of packing, lifting, hauling heavy boxes, sweating, grunting and groaning were so… not fun. Dust flying, dirt tracked in and out, no lamps, no place to sit, very uncomfortable. And something happens to your home when you get rid of all your furniture, rugs, dishes, pots and pans, art, and stuff. You get rid of your smell, too. Over the last week of living in the shell of my home, I kept noticing that it no longer smelled like my home. It just smelled like a house, like sheetrock, carpet, wood and tile. The fragrance that was me had gone out of it.

I was running late on Friday morning as I returned my Comcast cable equipment to the UPS store and ran the borrowed air mattress back to my friend, Joyce. Try as I might, I could not get the mattress folded up neatly and packed into the box it originally came in and I was so exhausted that I just folded it into the carry bag and left bag and box on her porch. I could not exert one more ounce of energy. It was time to get in the car and drive.

Everyone’s life has its own soundtrack. I was bone-tired but the drive down I-35 was smooth, no hassles, no traffic snarls, no road bullies. I kept the radio scanning for all the local stations as I drove from town to town. Iowa was all classic 70s rock: Bob Seger, Creedence, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top—really good stuff to cruise to and appropriate for the state I lived in in the 70s. Music memories are “time-and-a-place” memories. You remember the time and the place you were when a certain song plays.

Then I hit Missouri, country music, gospel preaching stations with the occasional hip hop tune thrown in so I listened to public radio mostly. But once I hit Arkansas, the REAL rock n’ roll began and I had to throw open the sunroof, roll down the windows and crank the volume. It just kicked in and didn’t stop: Uriah Heep “Easy Livin,” Steve Miller Band, “Space Cowboy,” Nazareth, Savoy Brown, the Stones and more.

It took me back to my teenage days in Clear Lake, Iowa, after I had moved out of the parents’ house. I needed music and not being able to afford a stereo, I found a big old RCA Victor radio at the Salvation Army; the kind with the big booming, pulsing speaker and a jumble of glowing glass tubes inside. At night, I’d sit and finely turn the knobs to tune in stations from all over the country and the world. In between whirrs and whee-uus, a dim voice in a foreign language chattered, or toe-tapping zydeco music frolicked or a sportscast crackled through the airwaves into my apartment.

But late at night was when the magic happened. I could tune in “Beaker Street with Clyde Clifford” on KAAY radio blasting out of Little Rock, Arkansas on 50K watts. It went up to Canada and down to Cuba and played the best rock n’ roll in the country. I’d light candles, grab a beer, and dance in my living room into the wee hours of the morning. It was the party vibe in the house, too. Friends came over, we’d all get stoned and listen to one great band after another: Black Oak Arkansas, King Crimson, The Who, Rush and Pink Floyd.

Here I am 40 years later, clean and sober, driving into Arkansas on the eve of a blue moon and Arkansas STILL has the best rock n’ roll radio in the country! I’m spending a couple days with Rhonda, my college roommate and my very first southern friend. When I crossed the state line into Arkansas, it was night and hard to see the roads. Rhonda had told me to look for I-71b. I thought I saw it, veered off the beaten track and ended up in a hilly subdivision of homes built like castles and a church with a glowing white sign that read “THE ROAD TO PERDITION DOES NOT END HERE!” I called Rhonda. “Rhonda, I think I took a wrong turn. I’m driving around castles and it says, ‘The Road to Perdition Does Not End Here.’ I need to get back to Perdition!” There was that familiar easy cackling laugh I’d grown to love back in college. She guided me through Bentonville, Springdale, on into Fayetteville and up to her house, laughing all the way.

2015-08-01 11.10.01Rhonda is a petite blonde, an only child with a soft southern drawl, a head-thrown back, high-spirited laugh that goes on forever, the gift of gab, and a quiet confidence in who she is. If she loves you, she believes everything you tell her, trusts you implicitly, and takes you at face value. She taught me words like “I reckon” and “over yonder” and “fixin’ to.” I used to be jealous of her back in school because she believed everyone loved her just for who she was. She didn’t go up and down like a thermometer with insecurities and body issues. She expected everyone to love her. More importantly, she behaved as though she deserved that love, and if I tried to cast the shadow of my own self doubts upon her, she would grow quiet and just stare at me with her slanted, unblinking eyes, her lips turned down into a frown. Her silence would wait while I chattered nervously trying to fill up space. “I’m sorry,” she would offer. It was not an apology for her but for me. She was a rock.

I fell exhausted into her comfy guest bed and slept like a baby. The next morning, we woke early, drank fresh ground coffee and enjoyed a divine bowl of muesli and kefir with strawberries. She told me where we were going was a surprise and that we were going to church. After two hours on the road, I wondered, Who in the world drives two hours to church???

2015-08-02 13.15.57We arrived in Berryville at the Brothers and Sisters of Charity monastery and convent founded by the musician John Michael Talbot, who was very instrumental (literally) in my early days of Christianity. I was thrilled as we attended mass in a beautiful chapel that smelled of fresh cut cedar. Standing and sitting, standing and sitting, reciting prayers and creeds with a priest from India who I could barely understand. It was deathly quiet in there and my stomach kept growling loudly. Once a cough exploded out of me without warning and we all jumped.

Afterward a bubbly nun named Sister Mary Catherine and one big old dirty golden retriever who looked more like a bear than a dog led us around the grounds graced with ornamental gardens, quiet areas for meditation, and rainwater collection systems. It was beautiful and a real highlight of my trip to go to this contemplative place I’ve heard about for years.

Rhonda Lunch Local Flavor CafeThen we drove along winding roads through the bluffs of the Ozarks to Eureka Springs for lunch at the Local Flavor Cafe which was adorned with odd and unusual lamps all high up on a shelf. We walked the hilly town filled with curiosity shops and interesting old stone hotels and parks for sitting, a place where gays can get married but you can’t smoke. Back in my spending days I would have come home with an armful of purchases, but I am in a new phase now. No more “stuff.” I need to be free like a bird to fly from place to place.

Which is why when we climbed into the car to leave Eureka Springs and the song “Freebird” came on the radio, we blasted it as loud as it would go; Rhonda driving erratically, playing air guitar, me keeping my eyes on the narrow mountain roads. Yep, we are Thelma and Louise.

Thorncross ChapelWe visited the famous Thorncross Chapel hidden high in the Ozarks. It is an architectural wonder designed by Fay Jones, an understudy of Frank Lloyd Wright. Its glass and wood enclosure makes you feel as though you are part of the woods and nature surrounding you. People say that miracles happen to them when they enter there.

Christ of the OzarksAfter that we drove to the towering white Christ of the Ozarks statue high up on a mountain top. It was fun to see all these places I’ve only read about in books and seen in episodes of “Aerial America” on the Smithsonian Channel.

We crossed the old War Eagle Mill Bridge in Springdale, a narrow, one car wooden suspension bridge over a creek where one of the few remaining grist mills stands and the site of a very large arts and crafts war eagle mill bridgeshow every year that occurs one weekend in May and one weekend in October. Our soundtrack continued and the bridge soundtrack was “The Bones” by Rusty Shackle, a Welsh Indie rock group. That song gets into your head and never goes away. We sang “Da da da da da di da da dat” the rest of the day.

I especially love people and friends who become part of my soundtrack. Before I left Minnesota, my “other” southern friend Carole had thrown me a going-away party in her beautiful home decorated straight out of Better Homes & Gardens. She’s a talented musician and over the years I have loved accompanying her to gigs, running sound for the band on occasion and crashing wedding parties. Carole is my son’s godmother and was there in the birthing room when he arrived into this world. Her deep Texas laugh never fails to get me rolling into fits of laughter.

Carole's party 1She had invited some other dear friends: Mary Beth, a gifted classical pianist/composer/ arranger/songwriter and faithful prayer partner with a wry sense of humor and a contagious giggle. And Carol Z, a darling gypsy of a girl who plays guitar, keyboard, a host of other melodic instruments and sings beautiful ballads at local wineries. Also invited was my friend, Elaine, a brilliant woman of medicine I’ve known since we were teenagers and with whom I enjoy regular bouts of tear-sprouting laughter. To my delight, Holly, my sister-in-law also came. She was the one who found me my beloved house on Scotch Pine Court fourteen years earlier and knowing my slim pocketbook would barely get me into the house, she forewent her real estate commission on the sale in order to help me out. I will never forget that.

At the end of the party, we all stood around the baby grand piano in Carole’s living room and sang while Mary Beth and Carol Z played. It was pure heaven on earth to me. I mentioned that when we get to heaven, my mansion was going to be on the same street as theirs so I could enjoy their music for eternity. They replied, “What mansion? You’re not going to have a mansion. You’re a professional guest and you’ll just go from place to place staying with all of us!” Sounds perfect to me.

I’ve noticed that the friends I feel closest to possess two great gifts: the gift of easy, joyful laughter and the gift of music. For years as I struggled with an alcohol addiction, my son would pray not that I would quit, but instead for joy and laughter for me. Now that he lives away from me, he calls me every Saturday and one of his first questions is, “Mom, have you had any joy and laughter this week?”If I ever open up a retreat center for recovering addicts, it will include bouts of uncontrollable laughter, daily doses of joy, and plenty of music. The success rate will be astonishing.

Rhonda is a music lover, too so as we drove through the Ozarks, we listened to track after track of Americana-style hill music, Crooked Still, Jason Isbell, Steel Drivers, Railroad Earth and more. This day could not have been any more perfect.

Today, I head down to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, positioned at the fork of the Leaf and Bouie Rivers with an amazing historic district I hope to prowl around. I can’t wait to listen to my Mississippi soundtrack as I go. As Rhonda would say, “I’m fixin’ to fly.”

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3 thoughts on “The Professional Guest: The Road to Arkansas

  1. Keep a list of your favorite radio stations while traveling, and be sure to share them with us. You can listen to them again anywhere in the country via the free app, TuneIn Radio!

    Like

  2. Thanks for my brief trip to the south! I was so immersed in your beautiful use of words that I literally lost track of time and almost felt I was riding along with you! Great fun! Now I need to go back and read some of your earlier writings!

    Liked by 1 person

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