The Ozark Mountains stretch from North Eastern Arkansas to Southern Missouri. They are more like high hills rather than real mountains and are criss-crossed by rivers and lakes. They appeal to walkers, canoeists and fishermen. But the big attraction of the Ozarks is the country music.
We’d rented a cabin near the town of Mountain View. The drive from Little Rock was an easy 1 ½ hours journey starting on Interstate roads, gradually switching to more rural roads and finishing with a steep climb up an un-surfaced road past a number of other cabins until we reached Sunset Rose Cabin at the end of the road.
First impressions were very favourable. It had everything we could need including a very large living space and a wide veranda that nearly circled the house. There was also a resident humming bird that had its own sugar water dispenser, no doubt replenished regularly by the housekeeper. What more could we ask for. Well there was one thing, places that sold booze.
This was a “dry” county and it was lucky that this was noticed before we set out on the journey. The back of the van was loaded with a suitably sized supply of beer and wine, enough to last us the three nights that we had booked. On the way we had stopped off at a supermarket in Mountain View to stock up with general groceries for the weekend.
After we had settled in and unpacked, it was time to head back down the track to The Anglers Resort where we had planned to meet Oliver who was coming direct from work in the city of Searcy about 50 miles north-east of Little Rock and 65 miles to the south-east of Mountain View. The Anglers had a reasonably wide-ranging menu and, for a charge of $10 the party could buy annual membership of their drinking club. It felt rather like an alcohol tax by any other name.
The Anglers is right on the banks of the White River which at this point is about 100 yds wide. Some river. It is over 700 miles in length and we were at about the mid-point. Flowing almost for its entire length through Arkansas, it is the main drainage route for water from the Ozarks to the Mississippi. It amazes me that a river of this size is more or less an unknown quantity to anyone outside of the USA and maybe even outside of Arkansas. It is more or less the same length as the Rhein/Rhine in Germany, the longest river in Western Europe.
After breakfast we set out for the Blanchard Springs Cavern. This is one of the many caverns for which the Ozarks are famous. They have been formed initially by water flowing through cracks in the calcium carbonate rocks and gradually dissolving the rocks, thus creating the biggest caverns we’ve ever been inside. The main one we were in was nearly 1/2 mile long and for a lot of its length is over 60 feet high. The water that continues to seep through the rocks has formed, and is continuing to form, stalactites and stalagmites of all shapes and sizes. We were told there were large colonies of bats in the cavern but none were visible today. We did, however, see orange salamanders scurrying around.
The tour started from the Visitors’ Center by descending about 200 feet in a lift. Our guide then took us through a couple of airlocks before entering the gigantic open space. It was, to use an American expression, awesome. Apart from all the rock formations, the colours were unbelievable. The was every shade of red, brown and grey that you could imaging. There was low-level lighting to guide us along the pathways. The guide was able to switch on other lights as we went along to show off parts of the whole spectacle. And, by the way, in the cavern system the temperature is a constant 58F which was a great relief from the outside temperatures on that day of nearer 100F. For more information follow this link.
Exiting at ground level, we encountered a prisoner work group, just as in “Cool Hand Luke”, if you’ve seen the Robert Redford film, right down to two guards wearing dark glasses, white Stetsons and mounted on horseback. I could swear that the horse had on shades as well!! All a bit sinister.
Our guide had advised us to follow a road that would take us down to the point where the water flows out from the cave system. It was about 200 feet lower down. There was quite a torrent of very cold water emerging from a break in the rocks. We had been told that when the water emerges it has spent 24 hours navigating its way through the caverns. Very impressive.
We finished our time at Blanchard Springs with a visit to a nearby creek which had ideal conditions for swimming. The kids plus Oliver and Katie took full advantage whilst Margaret and myself did a bit of sunbathing. All very relaxing.
From Blanchard Springs we headed to Mountain View with the objective of exploring the music scene. As we approached the town a building at the roadside attracted our attention. It turned out to be the shop and home of Papa Mellon, a local musician. Once we met him it did not take much persuading for us to buy tickets for that night’s show.
We then went into the town and found an eatery opposite the Court House. After lunch it was time for a wander around the nearby streets and then to head for the Ozark Folk Centre. This was a place with a shop, a craft village and a large auditorium for concerts. Looking round the shop I found some CD’s of Papa Mellon’s music and picked one at random. It turned out, by pure fluke, to have most of the tracks that we would hear later.
At 7.30 on the dot we were seated in the 35-40 “theatre” at the back of Papa Mellon’s shop. It was about three quarters full. A voice from behind the curtains called out “open up Leroy” and a man in the audience went over to the corner of the stage and started turning a handle that cranked the curtains open and revealing the band in all its glory. There was a middle-aged man playing harmonicas, a young lad playing a mandolin, another young man playing a double bass and Papa himself on guitar. He was also the main singer.
They played great rousing country music. Papa interspersed the music with small comedy turns, some fine but others extremely sexist. The latter seemed to go down well with the family based audience, which was rather odd in this openly Christian area. I guess we were the odd ones out in thinking it was on the margins of acceptability. Fortunately that didn’t detract from the music.
At one point the two young players were introduced. They were brothers aged 15 and 16. Both were remarkably good musicians for their ages. Later on we were “treated” to two young girls, aged about 10 or 12, doing their country party pieces. They really struggled with a couple of Patsy Cline numbers and no wonder. Her kind of songs need a mature, experienced voice not the voices of young schoolgirls.
After a few rousing finales from the band, the evening came to a close. It had been good fun and we were able to listen to the music over and over again during the days that followed courtesy of the CD.
Our next stop was downtown to have a look and listen to the outdoor music that we had heard goes on in the square. There were a few impromptu groups playing but it was all a bit too serious after Papa Mellon so we decided to head back to the cabin.
At this point I will take a short break in blogging. Part two will follow soon.