When I first started interviewing people for my historical articles in the Observer, I was driving a Ford Thunderbird. The one year they decided to grow that particular model from the original sports car to one as large as a sedan. One of my first drives into the depths of the wilderness occurred in the spring. It was rainy season and creeks were rising.
I received a call from one of the daughters of a couple who were soon to celebrate their 73rd wedding anniversary. The Holllingsworths lived in a cabin outside Delaney surrounded by the Ozark National Forest. They had always lived there.
With directions lying on the seat beside me I drove out highway 16 to Delaney, turned onto the gravel road as instructed, you know, the one where the white horse is in the pasture, and began a journey I will never forget.
The road narrowed, twisted and turned until it was two ruts with weeds growing up in the middle. I braked at the first of several creeks, looked at the other side to make sure I could climb out once I went in, and drove down into the shallow, but rushing waters. Back then many things were different than they now are. Another of those things was if a car’s brakes got a soaking set they no longer functioned.
About the time I forded several more of these watery crossings and steered around a curve that literally hung on the rim of a bluff I wished for the dozenth or more time that I’d bought a Jeep before I took this job. No one warned me. Oh, I’d lived in the Ozarks of Arkansas for quite a while and knew some roads were iffy, but this one was a real challenge, especially in a low-slung Thunderbird.
But what utter beauty surrounded me. Sometimes I caught my breath at the sheer magnificence. The air was sweet and filled with silence broken only by the songs of birds and my car making its way deeper and deeper into the wilderness. And, on yes, the movement of crystal clear water over and around rocks.
And then I began the final climb, and perched right in the edge of a thick forest, at the very end of the road, was a log cabin. And on the porch sat a man. Once he caught sight of me he raised a hand in welcome. A fence surrounded the yard. I parked and opened the car door.
“Get out and come on up.” He waved some more as if I might not see him.
I stepped out, went through a gate that screeched shut behind me. Sounds were exaggerated in the silence. The peaceful feeling that came over me that day would be one I experienced often during my years of traveling for miles into another strange land to meet someone who had something special to tell me. Something worth my time and whatever struggles it took to arrive at my destination.
Marvin told me the thing he worried about most was that something might change his way of living before he would no longer have to worry about how he lived. He said that they had already passed some ridiculous laws like making it against the law to kill rattlesnakes. “What hillbilly won’t kill a rattlesnake every chance he gets,” he added. I was with him on that.
His grandparents came into Arkansas when virgin timber covered the hills. He told me that the woods were full of tents and cabins then when people came to make a living in the timber. That would’ve been the 1800s. He was born just under the hill where he lived with his wife Ruby who was 16 when they married. The only time he had left the place was in 1919 when he was drafted and went to Springdale. In those days Springdale had one main street and wooden sidewalks. He waited all day Sunday for the bus and never saw one single car. Before he could be inducted, as he put it, “the Kaiser gave it up,” and he was sent home.
He never drove or owned a car. And the first one he saw was when someone brought a Model T up the road. The couple had 12 children and at that time when I interviewed him they had 131 living descendants. His son Burt and daughter-in-law Jo Ann lived there with him and Ruby, who was deaf and almost blind. She sat silently with us during the interview, and when she felt me stirring to get ready to leave she put a hand on my arm and said, “Oh, stay more. Stay more.” It was a vivid moment while I considered how lonely she must have been for adult company over the years. I couldn’t imagine it.
Sitting there on that porch, looking out over the mountains I had a taste of what it was like to live in the pure wilderness a hundred years earlier. We can only imagine that kind of life, probably don’t desire it, yet there was a certain pure serenity in the surroundings.
Jo Ann told me they were going to keep the older couple around a few more years and would have the biggest party ever when they celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. I was to visit the couple two more times. Once during that very celebration and one last journey when I visited their final resting place. They were buried together on the hill overlooking the house in which they had spent their entire lives.