Why North Arkansas? My First Trip to Gaston’s – Part 2 – The Rest of the Story…
by Beth Hardy Duff
SORTA KINDA LIKE SPAGHETTI, BUT NOT EXACTLY… I wish I had paid more attention to exactly how this gastronomic extravaganza came into being, but, being children and HUNGRY children at that, Mark and I had been given a snack and were sent out of the cottage to go find something to do until dinner was ready. We went outside and caught lightning bugs and played on the shuffleboard court until that got old and we got really tired of each other (again) and we went back in the cottage. When we hit the door, the smell hit us in our faces. What IS that smell? It smelled sorta kinda like spaghetti, but not exactly. Weren’t we having some of the fish we had just caught? “You know there’s nothing better than fresh fish that was just swimming this afternoon” If I had heard that said once, I’d heard it a thousand times”. Of course, I don’t know how I actually thought my mother would fix the fish. If you know my mother, you KNOW she doesn’t FRY anything – that just didn’t work its way into her genes, heck, it wasn’t even in her vocabulary! About that time, I remember my father walking in and saying, “Oh Betsy, that smells good!” I was thinking, well maybe it does to him… It was time to sit down for dinner and we got served (and I mean that in the exact sense it was said). My mother was so proud of herself – she had concocted a delicious meal for her family after having spent all day long out on the water herself. We looked down at the plates and gasped! It was our fish that we had worked so hard to catch, but somebody forgot to cut off the heads AND THE TAILS! Did they forget to scale ‘em too? The fish were decorated in a mountain of creole delights – tomatoes, onions, okra, squash, maybe even eggplant – YUCK!!! We looked at her with the “You don’t REALLY expect us to eat this, do you??” look. The look in her eyes clearly gave us our answer – “Yes – every single bite!” Thankfully, the Good Lord has removed whatever happened next from my memory but I’m sure it wasn’t a pretty sight. I will, however, venture a guess that it was the last time my mother fixed “Creole Trout” for her unappreciative children.
IN THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDER… The next day was another perfectly sunny day and this time, I paid more attention to the surrounding area than to that strange man who was our guide – this time he wasn’t so strange, he was my old friend Austin from yesterday. We set out from Gaston’s and I began to notice all the wildlife along the side of the river. There were lots of birds – herons and cranes and maybe even an eagle or two. There were deer – I used to have deer as pets growing up in the country. You just assume the responsibility of “mothering” unusual critters as pets when you grow up in the country. It’s understood and especially if you have the “Elly May” gene which I definitely do. I thought these deer were just as beautiful as mine. A mama deer and her fawns – they didn’t even run when our boat passed by them.
The shoreline sure was different from the fishing lakes I was familiar with from my “flatlander Mississippi home”. The river was flanked by mountains that seemed to shoot skyward and were punctuated by trees and the occasional bare rock spot. Bare spots where a rock had lost its once tightly held grip and fallen face first into the river and was now hidden or partially hidden from view. A rock that now changed the course of the river forevermore. This was my first encounter with the mountains and I thought they were the most awesome and beautiful pieces of God’s handiwork I had ever witnessed and I still do to this day; mesmerizing me to the point I just couldn’t and still can’t quench my gaze. The mountains along with the river made a permanent impression on my young mind – a mind that had never seen dirt piled any higher than what the dog had unearthed while digging a giant hole in the front yard looking for shade. Mountains that commanded you to hold onto your hat if you dared to peer all the way up to the top. Mountains that made and make me feel like “shrunken Alice” from Alice In Wonderland to this day. Some of my friends disagree with me that these mountains don’t qualify as “real mountains” because they aren’t tall enough or “west” enough, but I disagree. It’s not all about height or location, it’s way more than that – it’s all about how you perceive yourself and your place in the world once you’ve been taken in by them. It changes the way you look at everything from that moment on. But, I digress…
AS IF I NEEDED ANOTHER REASON… The sun beat down on us that day but it wasn’t like the sun of the beach because of the cool breeze of relief that always seemed to accompany the river. I never liked the beach very much – okay, I downright hated and still hate it today. I have very fair skin that burns beet red, hurts, itches, peels, looks gross and repeats the process if you’re dumb enough to expose yourself to the sun again. I had tried to like the beach – all my friends were always going there with their families and were always gabbing excessively about what a great time they would have there. They would run around and build sandcastles, play badminton, make ice cream, play in the gulf all day long, and end the day by squiggling their toes in the sand around a bonfire and making plans to enjoy the whole silly routine again the next day. Frankly, not one bit of that appealed to me – other than the ice cream and the bonfire (fires belong in fireplaces or fire rings, not on the beach). Beside the heat, and oppressive sun, there was the salty, sticky, smelly water, the sand that got into places that sand shouldn’t be in, sharp shells on the blazing beach and finally, my hair! My hair! The kind of hair that frizzes and stands out if it comes in contact with the least amount of humidity. Impossible to tame on a beach vacation so you wear a hat – a HOT hat – on a hot sticky sandy beach!
The river and the mountains had offered the antithesis of the beach. How wonderful it was with its cool morning fog and the sun that peeked in over the mountains but never seemed to heat my body past it’s boiling point. The beautiful birds tending to their young in their nests and silently gliding by us just inches over the water’s surface. The deer on the shore munching on grasses and tree leaves and their fawns leaping and jumping at each other without a care in the world. Sometimes they would stop to watch us pass by, but not always, then back to mischief. This beautiful green peaceful world with its majestic boundaries and tranquil liquid situated ‘neath our seemingly endless sky. It was paradise indeed.
TEMPORARY HOME… We had had another wonderful day of fishing and laughing and enjoying our time on the river. My mother was able to finish reading her book and no dogs ventured to join us in the boat that last day. On our way back to our temporary “pink” home, I once again tried to take in all that I could so that I would have these wonderful memories to enjoy once I was back in the flatlands. The herons and cranes and deer seemed to say, “Come back any time, dear, we’ll be right here waiting for you.” I closed my eyes and tried to remember each and every inch of the river and its green slathered mountains as the hum of the little motor on the boat tried to lull me to sleep. I opened my eyes and I was surprised and a little disappointed to see the welcome of the little pink cottages this time, for my slideshow of memories had come to an end. This would be my last time on the river before we headed home. We gathered up our belongings and said our fond farewells to our new friends, Austin and Preston. We trudged back up to the little pink cottage and I decided to take one last walk around before coming in for dinner.
THAT PERCEPTION THING AGAIN… The peacocks that had greeted me with their shrill screeching voices when we’d first arrived had now become a welcome sound and the sight of them was as magnificent as the mountains themselves. Not only the beautiful blue ones, but a white one or two also. They roamed pretty much where they wished and sometime would sit atop the Gaston’s sign, a building or stand in the middle of the road daring you not to stop. The shuffleboard court had become our afternoon playground and lost its definition as an old person’s sport. The little pink cottages became more like home than any fancy hotel with its elevators and fountains and it was like leaving home to leave them. The big mowed yard I had once envisioned with plans to play kickball on had been transformed into an airstrip and was the magic rainbow on which airplanes came and went out of this little piece of Heaven. That is indeed another (LONG) story and another love of mine as well, flying – save that story for another time. As for other kids, well, there did end up being other children there which we made friends of and with whom we enjoyed much fun. Although many did not share my disdain for the beach, they all had great fun while there in the mountains too.
AND SO… Over the course of the years, my parents took my brother and myself and eventually some “very well behaved friends” of ours back to the White River vacation spot where we had first had fun and where we had fun again. Each and every time, the river and mountains spoke a little more to my soul and created such an impression upon me that I really felt like a bigger part of me stayed there each time I left.
One afternoon while my husband and I were sitting around talking with my parents, the subject of the White River trips came up. It was like opening a 2-liter coke bottle that had been dropped on the floor! I began to talk about it and talk about it and talk to the point that I think I might have exploded the very next second if I hadn’t gotten to gush all about my good times there and why it was my favorite place on earth. I don’t know why I had never thought of it before, but it was my husband’s suggestion that maybe we should go there sometime. Perhaps he saw that my sanity would vanish completely if a trip wasn’t scheduled and scheduled quickly! It was such a grand idea and yes, one visit was all it took to make an addict out of my husband too. And that, my friends, is how we have ended up spending every free moment we possibly can on the White River in North Arkansas.
It’s where a little more of our souls stay every time we leave.