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.
by Beth Hardy Duff
WHY NORTH ARKANSAS?… You might wonder what ever made Paul and me decide to visit North Arkansas and the White River area in the first place. Most people would assume it was my husband’s sincere love for the great outdoors and fishing and that he dragged along his somewhat unwilling and unsuspecting wife on that first trip. But that is far indeed from the truth! Let me tell you the story and in the process, let you in on a little bit about myself.
FIRST SIGHT… My first recollection of that beautiful area would have been from a trip my parents took my brother and me on many, many years ago. I’m guessing that I was about 12 or 13 and my brother was about 4 or 5. Getting there was NOT half the fun, but rather twice the battle! I was imprisoned in the backseat of my parents’ Pontiac Bonneville along with my little brother – that was already bad enough. Neither of us loved long trips in the car OR in the backseat OR with each other. To boot, I remember both of us turning as green as could be since neither of us were tall enough to see outside as Daddy drove up and down and all around those winding mountainous roads enjoying the dickens out of how his new Bonneville hugged the road and handled the curves! Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World could not have taken any longer or been more arduous than this interminably long trip! Mama and Daddy chatted away up front thoroughly enjoying the scenery as if the forgotten children in the backseat were on another planet. At long last, (approximately 8+ hours after bathroom breaks and coke stops), the car finally turned in and came to a halt. Upon arriving at Gaston’s White River Resort, I remember scrambling out of the car and thinking – WHAT? Where’s the nice hotel, big playground and swing-sets, WHERE ARE THE OTHER KIDS??? Instead, what unfolded before me were a bunch of little pink-cabin-looking-things, a shuffleboard court, a big LONG mowed yard that looked like we might could play kickball on it if we could scrounge up some other kids (that turned out to be the airstrip) and a bunch of screeching peacocks!
HOME SWEET HOME, FOR THE NEXT SEVERAL DAYS… So we got checked in, ate whatever we had brought since we were staying in one of the pink cottages with a kitchenette (I found out I had mis-identified the little pink-cabin-like-things and that they were correctly called “cottages”) and settled in for the night. The next morning came oh, so early. I had always enjoyed fishing with my father, but that was lake fishing at home and we always went at some decent hour of the day – like about 4:00 in the afternoon or so. My mother, who has never enjoyed fishing, has always loved my father, so being the dutiful wife, she shoveled the children out of bed, fed us something for breakfast and herded us down to the dock. Daddy was already there and oh so ready to get out on the river. I remember it being cold and foggy and wishing I could go crawl back in bed. There were two boats and guides all set up for us – Daddy and Mark would go in one boat and my mother and I would go in the other. Our guide’s name was Austin and he was nice and funny, Daddy and Mark went with Preston and I believe he was Austin’s brother. I remember Austin being short and round and Preston being as tall and skinny as Austin was short and round. I kept wondering how in the world those two men could be brothers, but they were. Regardless, we geared up for a day on the river.
ME AND MY ZEBCO 33… I was allowed to carry my very own rod and reel combination as it was MINE and I was so proud of it. Daddy had given it to me not too long ago and had finally taught me to somewhat successfully cast with my Zebco 33. Its only experiences with me up until that morning was casting lures at “where the bass should be” and coming up empty, but I loved it nevertheless. My father “somehow” always had all the luck catching fish casting with those lures and I sure wished I could catch a fish on one like him. On occasion, I had done a fantastic job of snagging a “limb bream”, but no fish had ever been harmed due to my Zebco 33 & me.
AND WE’RE OFF… We all finally got seated in our appointed boats after I made one last mad dash to the bathroom since my mother reminded me, “There’s nowhere to go out there for a girl, so you’d better go good now.” I remember us getting to the first spot in the river that it was deemed we should fish and the boat came to a stop. Austin baited my hook with corn and pink salmon eggs. I can tell you right now that I thought our guide was CRAZY! Everybody knows fish don’t eat CORN! But I was willing to go along with this crazy man – he seemed to think he knew what he was doing. And besides, it looked like he forgot to bring the worms or the crickets. Just wait till I get back home and tell my friends that this idiot was putting corn on a hook to fish! And then he put these pink things on there too – kinda looked like my Barbie’s new earrings. HA! So, all baited up and so excited I could hardly sit still, I managed to eek out a meager cast (at best) and that was when I first noticed something quite different about this area. I could see clean down to the bottom and know what was even better??? I could see…yes, I think it is….A FISH…wow, not just one, but BUNCHES of ‘EM! I got so excited I nearly fell out of the boat – screaming, “I see one, I see one!”
THE “DE-FLOWERING OF MY ZEBCO 33”… Austin got me calmed down and told me just to wait and see what happened. In no time at all, I felt that wonderful jerk, jerk, jerk of “something” on the other end. I had a fish! I had a fish! Despite the fact that I nearly capsized the boat with all my excitement, I reeled and reeled as if I were winching in Moby Dick and we did manage to land that fish (he must have swallowed that hook clean down to his tail, thank heavens) and we got to keep him! WOW, that was just great – give me some more of that corn and some of those pink things – let’s get another one!!!
WHAT ARE YOU DOING??… As the day wound on, I was just as excited every time I reeled in a fish as I had been with the first one. Then it got to the point that Austin was quietly throwing my fish back. I caught on and couldn’t imagine what was wrong with this man! WHY ARE YOU THROWING ‘EM BACK? He told me we could only keep a certain number of the fish and that we had to leave enough for somebody else to catch, but that we could come back again tomorrow and catch some more. As disappointing as all that was, I understood and then it hit me and I grinned a big ole grin — I GET TO COME BACK AGAIN TOMORROW!
I truly cannot tell you what my mother was doing all this time – in fact, I pretty much forgot she was even in the boat! (Kinda the same way she & daddy had forgotten my brother and I had been in the backseat of the car). She may have felt honor bound to wet a hook for a little while, but I never saw it. Most likely she was just as content to read the good murder/mystery she had brought along under her new groovy blue flowered hat.
During the day, we had worked our way up and down the river and by afternoon, it was time to head back to Gaston’s with our catch. I was just as pleased and proud as I could possibly be – grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Not only had I gotten to catch my limit of fish, but I got to SEE the trout swimming in that crystal clear icy water too. They looked so big and happy and graceful swimming against that current so close to the bottom of the river. At home, the lakes were always too muddy or cloudy to see the fish, so seeing them in their natural state BEFORE they were in the boat was a big treat for me!
THE EXCITEMENT’S NOT OVER… On our route back, Austin had slowed down to navigate a shallow, gravelly area in the river and when he cut back the throttle on the boat motor, I could hear a dog barking. I looked up and a white and brown dog had started to bark at us from the shoreline and was wagging his tail. I thought he looked like a happy dog so I yelled, “Hey puppy!” to him. Apparently that was the only invitation he needed! Before anyone knew it, that dog had shot off the shoreline, swum his way out to the boat and was clawing at the sides to get in! Next thing I knew, the dog was in the boat and Austin was not real happy about it. The dog was thrashing about like the deliriously happy animal he was, knocking over the tackle box, clamoring over rods, licking me in the face and doing his best impression of the “wet dog shake”. Austin stood up and calmly took the dog, picking him up by his rear end and his collar, and launched him overboard. Thankfully for him, the dog decided he had done what he had set out to do – to say howdy to the boaters with all the gusto and enthusiasm of a newly appointed Wal-Mart Greeter. Thank Heavens he happily opted to swim back to his shoreline and stretch out in the noonday sunshine for a much-needed recuperative nap.
When we got back that afternoon, we were all as tired as we could be. The cold fried chicken lunches that had been brought by our guides had been delicious, but that meal was gone and we were beginning to get really hungry. So off we children went to get bathed and my mother set up shop in the kitchen, doing one of the many things she does best – COOK!
Stay tuned to part II, SORTA KINDA LIKE SPAGHETTI, BUT NOT EXACTLY…