Song of the Ozarks

September 12, 2008
Filed under Destinations

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Autumn in OzarksWhen you think about the Ozark Mountains, do you think, as we do, of the singing of a fiddle echoing from the mountaintops, the lilting sounds of a dulcimer floating across deep secluded valleys or perhaps the excitement of banjos played on a country porch? Do you hear the wind in the trees, the cries of migratory birds, the hollow sound of an axe falling on dry timber? Do you smell the wood smoke drifting from farmhouse chimneys, the whistle of a train winding  through a faraway mountain pass, the taste of catfish or beans and corn bread? The Ozarks are all of this and so much more. There is the endless roll of soft mountain peaks stretching from horizon to horizon, crystal clear streams, vast forests, enormous lakes, tiny villages and a quiet mountain culture similar to that of the Appalachians.

Spring and summer bring a chorus of wildflowers while winter is a quiet, moody time with an occasional snowfall. But it is autumn that brings a unique and exciting symphony of color to the Ozarks as each shade of red, gold and green seems to resonate with its own musical frequency.

There is an old folk saying about the Ozarks: “It’s not that the mountains are so high, it’s just that the valleys are so deep.” Covering much of the southern half of Missouri, the northwestern and north central part of Arkansas and westward into the southeast corner of Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma, the Ozarks are a vast and largely remote region. Its forests, lakes and hundreds of miles of scenic rivers, known for world-class fly fishing, attract fishermen and other outdoor enthusiasts from around the world. Musicians, too, are drawn to the Ozarks in great numbers to participate in the lively mountain music.

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When we approached Eureka Springs, in the northwest corner of Arkansas, we were right in the heart of the Ozarks. We had a month to explore this beautiful mountain region and the fall color was justbeginning. By early November, this area would be in its peak fall foliage. Built on a steep hillside, Eureka Springs grew up in the 1870s and ’80s around many natural springs reported to possess miraculous healing powers. People flocked to the area seeking health and even eternal life.

Today, tourism is the big draw and Eureka Springs sure knows how to roll out the welcome mat. Visitors are treated like royalty and the list of things to do and see could fill a lifetime. Campgrounds are plentiful and reasonably priced. Our choice was the Beaver Town RV Park & Campground (479-253-5700, www.beavertownrvpark.com), about 7 miles west of town.

During our first day in Eureka Springs we explored the downtown area, where exquisite handmade quilts hang by the dozens in many shops and fashionable, one-of-a-kind clothing drapes dress-shop mannequins. Chocolate shops with alluring smells tempt even the strictest dieter. Interesting old hotels provide a glimpse of the luxuries awaiting early 20th century travelers — and seem very gracious even by today’s standards. Then a drive through the city’s Victorian section took us by beautifully restored homes built in the early days. Leave your trailer at camp while exploring Eureka Springs, as the streets are narrow and crowded.

It was sunny and bright the next morning when we set out on a cruise of Beaver Lake aboard the Belle of the Ozarks. Brilliant autumn color shimmered in the sparkling water as we cruised around a 200-acre game preserve island listening to a lively narration of the area’s history. Thousands of birds sang from the treetops while a large bald eagle, perched high in an old snag, seemed to be conducting the orchestra. Occasionally we spotted a fisherman angling for trout, bass or catfish.

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After a week of exploring the Eureka Springs area, we moved camp east to Parker’s RV Park (888-590-2267, www.parkersrvinc.com) in Harrison, Arkansas. Our explorations there took us south along scenic Highway 7 through beautiful pastoral scenery. Billed as one of the 10 most scenic highways in America, the fall color was a bit sparse but the scenery spectacular anyway. Inviting trails led us through quiet forestland and along mountain streams that trickled a song of their own as they wound around river rock and over miniature waterfalls. Just south of Jasper we stopped at the popular Cliff House Inn for lunch. We continued south as far as the Booger Hollow Trading Post (we couldn’t resist the name) and then found other interesting back roads to make a loop drive back to our campsite.

Another scenic drive in the area took us east to Yellville and then south on Highway 14. Just a few miles south of town a dirt road leads about 6 miles back to the ghost town of Rush. A number of old buildings still stand, giving testament to a booming metropolis that grew during the Civil War and later years because of the Zinc mines in the area. Abandoned for decades, it is a wonderful piece of history and offers endless photographic possibilities.

Again we moved camp, this time north to Branson, Missouri, known as “The Live Music Show Capital of the World.” The streets of this Ozark town are lined with more than 40 sparkling music complexes — and with more than a hundred shows to choose from, we spent several evenings seeing as many as possible. During daytime hours, we searched out some of the old water mills that still exist in a remote region of the Ozarks east of Branson.

The mornings were often overcast as we set out on our searches using our tow vehicle and driving into hauntingly beautiful watercolor landscapes along narrow country roads. Missouri had perhaps as many as 900 of these old mills during the mid-1800s to early 1900s, located along secluded mountain streams around the state where farming families brought their grain to be milled. The mills generally became the social centers for their region, and each one reflects a very special slice of Ozark history. Though most of those mills have vanished, five of them still remain in the Branson area — Rockbridge, Hodgson, Zanoni, Dawt and Hammond. All have had some restoration and are open to the public with the exception of Hammond, though it, too, is rumored to be restored one of these days.

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The fall color intensified as we moved camp again, traveling southeast, deep into the Ozarks, to Mountain View, Arkansas. Music is what this town is all about and it claims to be the “Folk Music Capital of the World.” Musicians from around the globe gather there in the town square for informal pickin’ and strummin’ sessions, especially during Beanfest held the last Saturday in October, or the Annual Fall Mountain View Bluegrass Festival held in November. You’ll hear a bit of everything — folk, mountain, bluegrass, Cajun and Gospel music. Bring a favorite instrument of your own and join in. You’ll always find yourself welcome. One note of warning, if you intend to be in Mountain View during these festivals, make campground reservations months ahead as during those times the population swells from the normal 2,900 to more than 40,000 people who come to make music together.

Mountain View is also home to the Ozark Folk Center Park, where you can experience the rich traditions of the Ozarks in our country’s only state park dedicated to preserving folk culture. Potters are busy at their wheels, weavers at their looms and spinning wheels. We watched broom makers and woodworkers turning out lovely pieces made with old-fashioned tools while soap makers distributed samples of their fragrant wares.

While at the Folk Center, you may see men dressed in Civil War uniforms reciting war experiences from the point of view of a young, uneducated country boy. That was a real learning experience for us. Musicians entertain throughout the park, playing the stringedinstruments of the mountains such as the fiddle, the banjo, the guitar and the dulcimer and singing ballads from the 1800s.

While in the Ozarks, we fell in love with the sound of the dulcimer, and so stopped at the Dulcimer Shoppe in Mountain View, where George Looney and Larry McSpadden showed us how they lovingly make their dulcimers by hand. You’ll find it hard to resist buying one of your own. We are told they are not hard to learn.

Curious about what lies beneath the surface of the Ozarks? A tour of Blanchard Spring Caverns, just a few miles northwest of Mountain View, displays a wonderland of glistening rock formations. Still an active cave, these formations continue to evolve. This is only one of the many underground caverns that snake beneath the Ozarks.

We loved our trip through this grand section of America and know you will, too. And all the musical sounds that made up a part of the “Song of the Ozarks” will linger in our hearts forever.

Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, (501) 682-7777, www.arkansas.com.

Branson, Missouri, (800) 619-5708, www.branson.com.

Missouri Division of Tourism, (573) 751-4133, www.visitmo.com.

Mountain View Area Chamber of Commerce, (888) 679-2859,

www.ozarkgetaways.com/chamber.html.

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