I am now down to two aunts--one by marriage in Fort Worth, whom I visit every January, and one by blood in Arkansas, whom I visit every May. I enjoy my annual overnight jaunt into the Ozarks and back. My aunt, now almost 88, remembers her happy central Texas childhood in great detail. I hear many of the old stories every visit, but there are always a few new ones thrown in for good measure. I had never heard her tell of the wheat harvesting in the community, or her experience in the Church of Christ Tabernacle with the preacher (and kinsman) who reminded her of Ichabod Crane, or of the time one of my uncle's caused the evacuation of the Copperas Cove High School (as well as ending his school career) by opening a bottle of skunk essence. She enjoys talking of old times--and of the Jehovah's Witness faith she has clung to these last 40 years. Obviously, I try to keep the conversation directed towards family matters (sigh.)
I will have to admit that I have even warmed-up to Arkansas. I have always harbored a Texan's instinctive disdain for our neighboring states. Our view of the westward migration is that anybody with any gumption did not linger in Louisiana or Arkansas, but came on to Texas, as any right-thinking person would do. But it is true, Arkansas is one beautiful state. The key for my changing attitude has come about by 1) avoiding the south-central portion of the state, and 2) staying completely off the Arkansas interstate highway system. My favorite regions are the Delta, from Memphis south, and the western third of the state, from Texas to Missouri.
Staying on the back roads as I do, I spend about 7-8 hours winding my way up to my aunt's. If you are looking for stereotypical hillbillyiana, well there is plenty of that, to be sure. But this sells the region short, for there is more beautiful, productive farmland than you might think. This trip, I kept my eyes opened for any interesting churches I passed along the way. For a few, I stopped to snap a picture.
The white church at the top is the old Boxley church, school and community center, a few miles down the road from my aunt's. Newton County is perhaps the most mountainous in Arkansas, and Boxley Valley is the only area where any real farming can be realistically accomplished. The narrow river valley is a protected area, spotted with white two-storey farmhouses with even larger barns, and all the accouterments of an on-going agricultural culture. This landmark is one of my favorites, but far from the only one of this nature in the area.
Crossing the Arkansas River, I came across this rather substantial red-bricked church out in the middle of nowhere. I was surprised to find a Catholic church out here in the middle of nowhere. The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul was constructed in 1917. A few miles down the road, I understood a little better. The Subiaco Abbey and School, a Benedictine institution, crowned an Arkansas hilltop. This neighborhood is obviously a Catholic enclave. Next trip, I plan to stop and look around a bit more.
In Paris, AR, I slowed down to take a picture of the impressively solid and fortress-like First Christian Church. After reading When Church Became Theatre (3 posts previous), I understand the context of this particular take on church architecture.
Further along, outside of Driggs, I encountered a sign for the Clark Chapel Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith. I had no idea what a Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith would look like, exactly, so I turned down this dirt road to check it out. Four miles on, I still had not reached the chapel, and realizing that I really needed to be heading in a southerly direction, I turned back. Again, a project for a future trip. I couldn't help chuckling a bit though, and thinking of my friend Milton's alter ego, the Rev. Buford T. Smeets, Pastor of the Gum Springs Tabernacle Greater Apostolic Church of the Final Thunder.
Fortified by a real hamburger at Mena's Skyline Cafe (since 1922,) I pushed on. South of Mena, one encounters a patch of what you might describe as stereotypical Arkansas. I made a u-turn after a caught a glimpse of this metal yard. The owner had constructed elaborate biblical quotes and spiritual admonitions out of heavy iron chains. The one pictured is only the main one at the scrap yard entrance--the other iron-clad makeshift billboards lined the entire front of the property. In her day, Flannery O'Connor could have made good use of this. I was kind of impressed myself.
DeQueen is the next town of any size south of Mena. With the dearth of any signs downtown en ingles, I think they probably should just go ahead and rename it de Reina. I turned off here, and headed west. A few miles before the Oklahoma border, I turned up Brooks Road, and stopped at All Saints of America Orthodox Mission, a sight even rarer in these parts than the rural Catholic church above.
This is a ROCOR church located on a beautiful country homestead. Fr. George walked across from his woodshop and greeted me. The farmhouse was his grandmother's and he retired here a number of years ago. The present church started out as a family oratory. While small, it held 45 for Pascha, with some driving from as far away as Little Rock. The walls are covered with icons, and the small dome is a real one, not a tacked-on affair. A nice hall, guesthouse and bells round out the picture. Fr. George invited me to visit sometime and stay in the guesthouse. I may take him up on that. We had a nice talk about current events in American Orthodoxy before I left.