Oddly, after a year of living here pretty much full time, that’s what Stone County has given me. A reconnection to the person I ran from, but always was, and always will be.
As a child, when someone asked where my family lived, the response was vague, but one we believed everyone understood.
“Out in the country,” I’d reply.
There were no blocks or street corners helping measure distance, and other than the misspelled Macey “cemetary” sign forever marked by some drunken loafer with a .22 pistol and too much time on his hands, few points of reference to help anyone find us. We simply lived out in the country on Highbanks road down close to the river.
Home was rural as rural gets, and I’d frequently sit in an old threadbare lawn chair in the early evening hours gazing as jetliners painted amazing geometric designs in the red-orange western horizon dreaming about where all those passengers were going. It was fun dreaming those dreams, because tomorrow we’d go right back to the gumbo fields plowing soybeans in a cabless tractor featuring a giant radio that played nothing but static from local station KBIB.
As other kids visited recreational lakes for weeks at a stretch, or checked their summer pass at some municipal swimming pool, it was like we lived in the middle of nowhere. Maybe even the capital of nowhere.
From the time I was 10, most of my days on the farm were spent dreaming about the day I’d leave forever.
That day came in August of 1984 when I drove away to college leaving behind 10 years indentured servitude as the only son of an only son, and an 800-acre cotton farm that taught me, among other things, how to spew a nice string of cuss words together in a single sentence.
It was on that day that I walked away from rural life and invested everything I had in becoming something – anything – other than what I’d been all those years. I hated being from “the country.”
A few dozen therapy sessions later, something changed.
There were many things about my own father’s passing that changed me beginning in 2010. With him gone, I was the person who’d spent more time, labor, and sweat than anyone in the fields of our family farm. Not that my mom wasn’t heavily invested. She was, and without her there would have been no farm. But when it came to boots on the ground, there was no one who had a closer kinship with the dirt. For the next seven years following dad’s death, that knowledge loomed like a fog of truth trying to tell me something.
Then, some time around 2017, I decided to write a book about the relationship with my dad, and living through that era of the 1980s known as the U.S. Farm Crisis. It took two years.
The most surprising result of that effort was how it reunited me with all things rural, from morning coffee and loafing sessions at the feed store, to duck hunting and crappie fishing to the foods that were staples of our country living. A place where boots and jeans weren’t fashion statements, but the standard uniform of the American farmer.
It was one of the most unexpected feelings of my life – this reconnected kinship with rural America. In the name of truth, I embraced it.
Fast forward another three years to a moment when I discovered a place called Round Bottom Valley in Stone County, Arkansas.
The entire experience of living in Stone County has become an extension of that journey back into the rural way of life.
We live in wide-open bowl of a space with bluffs and a river and green, meadow-like pasture land almost as far as the eye can see. Sometimes on a July night it’s difficult distinguishing the unpolluted sky’s stars from the lightning bugs, but between the two producing millions of blinking lights everywhere, it’s quite a show.
We’ve almost filled up a freezer with garden produce and there are many days when I come to work at the Leader with dirt still showing under my fingernails from planting squash or digging potatoes or putting a new fruit tree in the ground
It seems like there’s a parade down Main Street just about every week, and on Friday and Saturday nights the air is filled with the legacy sounds of the Ozarks and lyrics that mention moonshine, and hollers, and cotton bales, and beans.
I have two pair of Big Smith overalls in my closet now. And I like wearing them.
I came to Mountain View a year ago and built a place to get away and write and unplug from all the noise. Liked it so much, I ended up pretty much staying here full time.
Never did I imagine it would be the place that would roll out a footpath back to the person I most truly am.
Followup to last week’s column on the challenges of rural living: Our poultry operation at Tranquility Base suffered a slight setback last night when some varmint ATE all seven of my chickens.
See you in next week’s newspaper.
(Steve Watkins is a writer/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org).