Monday, September 6, 2010

Rurality Then and Now, Here and There (Part VII): Ecotourism (partially) remakes a remote place

In May of this year, I traveled to the place where I grew up, Newton County, Arkansas, population 8,608 with a goal somewhat different than my usual plan when I visit there, just to see my mom. I wanted to be a tourist in Newton County, to visit some places about which I've heard and read over the years since I left Arkansas in 1989. Where, for example, I wondered, was this place called Hawksbill Crag (formerly Whitaker Point, the name locals still prefer), touted as one of the most photographed places in Arkansas and probably the most photographed in Newton County? I wanted to see this vista about which I had never heard as a kid, but which had since become a tourist attraction. I assumed it was in a part of the county I had never been near--how else could I have missed it growing up?

Turns out that I had driven within a mile or so of Hawksbill Crag many times in my life. Although it is far off any paved road or otherwise "beaten path," the trail head to it begins on Cave Mountain Road not far from the childhood home of one of my long-time school friends. I visited her home on Cave Mountain a few times a year for sleepovers when we were growing up, but I didn't know then that I was passing in close proximity to a scenic wonder. My friend's parents had deep roots on Cave Mountain, but I don't recall them mentioning this beauty spot, about which they surely knew. Of course, as a child, I hardly appreciated the scenic places around me so I likely would not have gone out of my way to visit Hawksbill Crag, had I known of its existence so close by.

So, on Mother's Day 2010, we met my mom at Boxley Church (read more here and here) and set out toward Cave Mountain Road. I knew its intersection was close to where Boxley church sits back from Highway 21, but I didn't recall exactly where. We looked for a sign directing us toward Hawksbill Crag or labeling Cave Mountain Road, sure we'd find one since this is the way to such an important natural attraction--a big ecotourism draw for the county. But the road wasn't marked, and as we drove farther and farther south and southwest on Highway 21 in search of it, we ultimately found ourselves so far southwest in Newton County that we'd crossed into Madison County. We decided to make our way to the other end of Cave Mountain Road and on to Hawksbill Crag from there.

As we passed signs along Hwy. 21 that marked the communities of Pettigrew, Mossville, Fallsville, Swain, Red Star, and others (a map showing some of these communities is here), we looked for a sign marking the other end of Cave Mountain Road. About where we expected to find it, near Red Star, we saw a building that looked like a school. Having driven through what appeared to be Red Star--marked by no commercial establishments, but merely a slightly denser collection of homes alongside the road, we circled back to the apparent school building, which featured solar panels (pictured above). How hip, I thought. The building was labeled "Headwaters," so we realized it was a school about which I had been hearing for years--a "hippie" school run by the community of families who use it.

It was at the Headwaters School (named for its proximity to the headwaters of the Buffalo National River) that we found the "back door" of Cave Mountain Road--a rough clay and gravel affair--and made our way towards Hawksbill Crag. Along the way, we passed what--based on the paper map we were using--must have been the community of Ryker. Like many of the communities through which we passed that day, our GPS unit did not identify it. The only thing comprising Ryker, as far as we could tell, was acres of junk surrounding a little farm house where two men smoked on the front porch. Cows grazed among the junk. I commented that it was about the most unsightly, sprawling collection of junk I'd ever seen, but my mom said it reflected "industry" and reminded me that a number of people in Newton County eke out a living, in part, as junk dealers.

Farther on, we passed a few tidy houses, a few falling down ones, and the childhood homes of my friend, where I'd spent many a night in the 1970s. Farther along still, we came to the trailhead for Hawksbill Crag--really barely a wide spot in the road that accommodated half a dozen cars. A few other vehicles were pulled over alongside the road.

We made the couple miles round trip hike down to the Crag and took the photo shown above. We saw the area that local nature photographer Tim Ernst calls Cloudcroft, and we met a family who recently moved to Cave Mountain. Their son planned to attend Headwaters School which, they explained, meets two days a week. They said it supplements the education that home schoolers provide their kids, while also providing a social outlet. The family told us that the school is left open all the time--that we could have gone in and looked around.

After our hike, we descended Cave Mountain to Boxley Valley--the road's intersection with Hwy 21 finally revealed to us! Along the way, we passed a few more well-kept farm houses and the Cave Mountain Church and Cemetery. We could see the amazing physical geography of the place: acres of virgin forest, beautiful mountain top pastures, and steep drop offs from both sides of the ridge. I was also reminded of my many childhood trips up and down the mountain, in the beat-up old station wagon of my school friend's mother. The school district paid her to transport the Cave Mountain kids up and down the mountain each day, meeting the school bus below in Boxley Valley. I remembered the great adventure of just getting up and down the mountain when rains turned its clay roads treacherously slippery, even as my friend's mother drove them fearlessly.

And so it was that I saw Cave Mountain from an entirely different vantage point--that of a tourist seeking Hawksbill Crag--more than three decades since my last visit as a child.

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