Driving through the Ozarks

Now that Thanksgiving weekend is in the rearview mirror, I’m left thinking about how thankful I am for that interconnecting bit of a family holiday that annoys so many people. I’m thankful for the time I spent driving through the Ozarks over the past few days. We traipsed up and down and back and forth over most of the Salem Plateau, and I loved every minute of it. 

I know that sounds strange to a lot of folks, because surely I’ve seen and heard 5 or 10 complaints about driving through the Ozarks for every single instance of praise. Apparently people don’t like the long distances, the winding roads, the rough terrain, and the rougher people the more urbane drivers imagine live around here. Everyone’s entitled to like what they like and dislike what they dislike, so I’m not here to shame anyone for dreading their drives through the hills. I’m just saying that I enjoy traveling through the Ozarks. I especially love my travels this time of year, because family gatherings oblige me to drive through the hills to visit our far-flung kin. That way I don’t have the guilt of an aimless, pointlessly polluting, recreational drive to contend with when I get home.  

I love every bit of every drive. 

I love the way the road wriggles and back and forth and up and down, demanding my attention rather than lulling me into complacency like flatland roads do. I love the intimacy of the hollers when the woods crowd in around me on steep hillsides. I love the sudden, exploding openness along ridgelines and pasture ground. I love the way my ears pop as we plunge down and climb up the same hundred feet or so of elevation over and over again. I love those moments when I chug to crest a ridge and my breath catches at the undulations beyond, before, and below me. 

I love the farms, ranging from hardscrabble to pretentious, strung out along the roads at unpredictable intervals. I love the cattle, whether they watch me pass or ignore my vehicle altogether. I love the old hog houses and rooted up lots, even though the reminders of Ozark swine, mostly invisible to those who never raised hogs themselves, make me mourn for a time that once was and is now lost. I love the corn planted in optimistic rows in narrow bottom fields, even now still waiting a combine because there’s just not enough grain for the bother yet. I love the gumption that keeps a person farming hill-ground in this day and age.

I love the sudden creeks, the meandering rivers, and the occasional branches (whether running or not). In the daytime, I love the sycamore trees—stark and white this time of year—that forewarn of water ahead. In the evenings, I love the fog that clings to the low spots in wisps on dry nights and lays in fluffy blankets when the dark night is damp. I love the gravel bars and flood plains. I love the water splashing down limestone steps or filling placid holes perfect for fishing or swimming. 

I love the possums and raccoons on their rounds after dark, although I do thank them to keep to the side of the road, for both our sakes. I even love the deer flitting about at dusk, all too often onto the road, for I remember when they were still newly returned to our hills. I’m still sentimental enough to be pleased by the bald eagles. I smile at our red-tailed hawks. I love the turkey vultures my kids used to mistake for eagles, at work on the casualties of the road. I love the wild turkeys that spread out in our fields and even across our country roads. I love the smaller birds of the field that clump together by the thousand alongside our roads this time of year, wheeling and soaring with that mystical unity of purpose of their kind. I even love the scent of skunk that invades any vehicle at least once if it’s traveling overnight on an Ozark road, for those pungent portents remind us that there’s parts of nature best left alone. 

Of course I love the people. I love the little houses, the ramshackle cabins and the new-money mansions intermingling, sometimes right up against one another and sometimes with miles of nature buffering between them. I love the little towns clinging to the highway, with businesses both common and peculiar proclaimed by signs and window lettering. I love the kitschy general stores begging me to stop, the antique and junk shops with their best wares out along the road, and the gas stations where locals and tourists alike mingle at the pumps. I even love the people flying political flags I find obnoxious and mean, because I’ve known enough mean hillbillies in my life to realize that they’re the exception, not the norm, for the hills; I give them my love as I drive by even whilst I disagree with them. I know that love’s more apt to change them that need changing; I also know that my love is also more apt to annoy them than my anger would, and despite my bleeding heart I’m still mean enough of a hillbilly myself to like the idea of that. I love the drivers of slow-moving vehicles that gather up a parade behind them, and I love the jackasses who make ill-advised dashes past the slow-movers across double-yellow lines (even though I most definitely do not approve of the way the jackasses drive). I love the little snippets of life I see in the yards and fields: the hunters butchering a deer, the families decorating their yard for Christmas, the sullen teens walking toward town, and the gardeners still cleaning out their beds and rows. I love the Ozarkers of every vintage and kind.

Most of all, there’s the travel’s ends. There’s aunts and uncles, cousins of varying degrees, grandparents and in-laws, nephews and nieces, all hosting or waiting or arriving or departing like us. Then there’s the warm house with familiar smells to gather us back when the night is deep and both the driver and the passengers are tired from family, miles, and hills. 

It’s all perfect. It’s our Ozarks.

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