By Ken Lass
I have good news. In this age of huge, urban, metropolitan areas soaking up all the people and dictating the culture, I am pleased to report that Small Town, USA is alive and well. I know this because Sharon and I recently took a nine hour car trip to Branson, Missouri for a little vacation break. Branson was awesome, but I will write about that another day.
The most intriguing part of the journey was the drive through the Ozark Mountains. A lovely romp on US Highways 412 and 65 through breathtaking autumn colors and majestic mountain vistas. Miles and miles of uncivilized countryside, interrupted every so often by tiny communities that have somehow managed to survive the epic migration to the big cities.
The names of these little towns have real character. Sharon and I enjoy trying to guess the stories behind them. Some are easy. For example, Blue Eye (population 46) must have reflected the facial features of its founder. Rose Bud (population 494) clearly came from the gardening habits of somebody important. Curves (no population listed) is an obvious reference to the zig zagging roads up and down the hillsides. Marked Tree (population 2,286) is pretty self explanatory.
But there are many town names that are more enigmatic. Yellville (population 1,178) must be very noisy. Gassville (population 2,171) was either named after the number of filling stations or local folks who ate too much spicy food. I thought maybe Bellefonte (population 411) was named after Harry, the famous singer, until I realized it’s a different spelling. Lead Hill (population 274) might refer to metal discovered in the ground. There must have been a lot of burning going on in Ash Flat (population 1,137).
My favorite town name was Smackover (population 1,630) where discipline must be very strict. Then there were a few villages where I don’t even want to know the name origins, such as Weiner (population 647) and Bald Knob (population 2,522). We were impressed by the little burg of Valley Springs, whose welcome sign stated its population was just 134, yet they had their own high school. The school building was roughly the size of the Chick-Fil-A in Trussville.
Traveling through these rural hamlets can make you work up an appetite. We stopped in Bee Branch, Arkansas and checked out a gas station called Doublebee’s Gas It & Grab It. Best fried chicken in all of the Ozarks I reckon. Sometimes our trip seemed downright biblical. We saw road signs directing us to places such as Canaan, Judea, Egypt and Palestine. One town had a shop called “Guitars, Guns & Knives”. Sounds like it should be the title of an old country song.
We noticed the “hub” of each of these wide spots in the road centered around four basic things. A bank, a gas station, a Dollar General, and a Baptist church. This confirms my long-held suspicion that if you have a little money, gas, food and God, you have everything you need.
You cross a lot of creeks in these parts, and most every one has a fun name. We went over Dead Timber Creek, Huzzah Creek, Crooked Creek and Little Mingo Creek. My personal favorite was Hog Thief Creek. Must have been a hangout for pig rustlers back in the day.
When you’ve been driving through boroughs of a few hundred people for several hours, a city like Harrison (population 13,069) seems akin to New York City. Here you find rare sites such as a movie theater, a barber shop and a furniture store. They even had a dentist and a post office! And a four lane street!
The adventure coming home was a little more intense. Have you ever been at the complete mercy of your GPS? Out in the middle of nowhere with no clue where you are, relying solely on the directions your device is giving you? That was our experience when the gadget told us we had to take an “alternate route” to avoid a road closure at the Tennessee border. We kept getting diverted on to roads that became more and more remote, and eventually wound up on an unpaved, gravel connection between two state highways. Just about the time I started thinking about writing my eulogy for when our bodies would be discovered, the pavement reappeared and we were greatly relieved to see a sign welcoming us to the town of Beaver, Arkansas. Population 64. The rustic, two-pump gas station was a beautiful site. And if the doors to the little Baptist church hadn’t been locked, I would have stopped in to give thanks.
Eventually, we made it home to our beloved Trussville, which I suddenly realized was many times the size of any town we had been through in the past seven days. Of course, I had to wait forever to make a left turn off Highway Eleven into our subdivision.
I’ll bet they don’t have that problem in Smackover.