Time: Water: Change.

14 Sep

How much change can thirty years produce?

This past week I traveled across the northern half of the state of Arkansas to take pictures of locales that had provided inspiration for scenes from my book. This weekend my son also marries a wonderful young lady. This trip gave me an opportunity to visit our old apartment where my children did most of their growing up, a place that was likely the first home they remember.

            The apartments hadn’t changed much at all. The city of Fayetteville continues to grow. In thirty years, the town has expanded outward until many of the rural roads I used to travel are six-lane highways.

            More than anything, I remembered the awe the town and the university had inspired in a ninth-grader who traveled there for the first time for a high school baseball tournament. Seeing Old Main for the first time was thrilling, and that thrill has never diminished. But the initial awe of the campus and town has.

            As I walked around the campus taking photos and searching for my name in the concrete sidewalks, I began to think about why I was no longer awe-struck by the city. I added up the years and realized in 1981 I had been a nineteen year-old who left Paragould, Arkansas, in a $400 1972 Chevy Impala with a wife, two kids, and $350 in our pockets.

            Seven years later I returned with a law degree.

            But I realized as I watched the students walking around the campus, as much as it had changed physically, it had not changed as much as I had emotionally. The nineteen year-old was now replaced with a fifty-two year-old, who had been through many battles. The mystery of a college education had been replaced with three degrees and years of teaching at the college level. The two babies I carried with me were grown, along with another one we had while at Fayetteville. The wife was gone too, along with three others who followed in her footsteps.

            I think more importantly, what I had lost were those initial dreams of the success I would enjoy and the fame that would be mine. Those dreams had evaporated–as my youth had. I was no longer a believer that an education could change everything. But as I developed that thought, I realized what a hypocrite I was being. I was making plans to register to take the GRE to apply to PHD programs for next fall. I must still believe in some small way in the ability of education to change lives if I am willing to devote another three to four years for another graduate degree.

            I would be on the down-hill slide into my sixties when I finished.

            The focus for my trip, however, was at Devil’s Den, where an old fishing hole I used to visit on many occasions with a dear friend who is now deceased had been the inspiration for a scene in a story titled “Healing Waters” that was now a chapter in my soon to be released story collection.

            I made the circuitous route to Devil’s Den, driving through the park, and then out past the horse camp into the Ozark National Forest.  The forest service road follows the creek for a few miles before taking a sharp right turn up the mountain. On the left-hand side of the road is a narrow and dangerous dip where I pulled off and parked.

            Walking down the creek bed, I could see there had been some changes. I wondered if my old fishing hole was even there. I was sure no flood could have washed away the huge boulders, but I have learned to never underestimate the power of water. Or of change.

            Approaching the first of my fishing holes, I recognized there had been some changes. The creek bed was much wider, and I could see the clear impact of erosion from high waters and flash floods. The water was low, but still there, and the creek bed was dry. This had always made these little holes–that always held water in the driest of summers–such great fishing. I took several pictures of the early holes and then stumbled on down the creek bed for the big one.

            The fishing hole I was looking for had changed drastically. Where the entire body of water had once been in shade all day long, now no part of the creek was in shade. The narrow creek had widened by a good thirty to forty feet. The boulders where I used to stand and cast to fish I could see lurking along the far bank were still there, but the far bank was far removed, and no longer within casting range. More importantly, the little hole had been rimmed with a high bank of gravel. The hole would have needed to fill up with another ten feet of water to overflow its banks and fill the rest of the creek bed.

            The area was still beautiful, but once again I wondered if I had changed as much as this favorite old spot of mine. I remembered fishing there with Teddy Joe White, a dear friend I had gone to elementary school with in the first, second and third grades before moving away and then returning to finish the seventh grade on. Our talks had been simple-friendly competitions to see who was the best “Mountain-Man,” attempts to identify tracks of the Three-Toed Great American Wookalar, and talk of the beautiful girls who attended Paragould High School we would have loved to ask out but who we believed hated our guts.

            We never dreamed our lives would eventually evolve around addiction, alcoholism, diabetes, high blood pressure, DWI’s,” divorces, incarceration, and eventually death.

            As I walked out of the creek bottoms, a good two mile walk, I thought of how time and water were instruments of change on everything they touched. Water uses time to effect its change, or perhaps the reverse is true. But even things untouched by water are still changed. Time had flown over me like the waters down the creek, and like the bank that held the creek in its place, I had been scarred, altered, changed. I thought of how. I carry the scars of those changes–both physically and emotionally. I wondered if someone who hadn’t seen me since college would see the changes in me—changes as drastic as those I had witnessed in the creek bed that day.

            But I walked away with an important realization. The creek, with all of its changes, was still there. Even though the waters that had scarred the banks had since drained into the Gulf to replenish our oceans, or evaporated into the sky to give us rain, or soaked into the ground to replenish the forest, they had left their mark behind, and the world was better for the water having been there.

So that is the challenge? To realize our days on earth are numbered? To find the ways we can leave our mark on the world and those who will follow in our footsteps? To leave enough positives behind so when we are remembered, it will be the good we achieved rather than the mistakes we made?

            I left Devil’s Den and drove to MT Nebo to take more photos. The mountain top park had not changed nearly as much as Lee Creek, but the changes were there to be spotted for the alert visitor. I traveled on up Scenic Arkansas Highway 7 to the old, dilapidated Dogpatch, where I had vacationed as a child, and where I had taken my own children while an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas. During its heyday, the owners had tried to pass off the amusement park as dilapidated homes for the characters of the Al Capp Dogpatch comic strip. Now the place was truly dilapidated. But as the sun set behind me while traveling east toward Flippin and Cotter—two towns now bypassed by the highway—and on to my home in Lafe, I realized I was decaying and changing just like the locales I had visited. And I realized I had a new goal in life. Despite the deterioration of those places I loved dearly, they would always hold a special place in my memory.

            Now I knew what the challenge was—to do the same and use my own life to leave memories, inspiration, and guidance for those who would follow in my footsteps. As I look forward to assuming the role of grandpa in the future, acknowledging this role and the importance of this role opens a new chapter in my life, providing new challenges, and creating a new urgency to succeed in every task.ImageImageImage


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