The spring after my grandfather, my mom’s dad, passed away, I, my parents and my aunt Donna from California came down to where he was buried to plant flowers in front of his headstone, which we were all seeing for the first time since his funeral.
To my grandfather, there was no place more beautiful than Arkansas, where he was born and where he spent his days as a young man before moving to Indiana. When my aunt and I started planning a month-long trip to Europe my senior year of high school, Grandpa said to us many times that he didn’t understand why we would travel across the world when we could see the most beautiful sites there were to see right down in Arkansas. We explained to him that we had already seen Arkansas and there was nothing wrong with exploring and looking for the second, or third, most beautiful site in the world, which could very well be located in Europe. It was a good thing we had already seen the most beautiful place on Earth because that trip to Europe never happened as the conflict that eventually turned in the first Gulf War started to escalate and my mom didn’t want me to travel.
Because Grandpa was so fond of Arkansas, especially the area around the Arkansas Ozarks, we made several trips here when I was a kid. I’m not sure how my parents first found the place, but after our first trip to the Holiday Mountain resort in Mountain View, AR, it became my and my brother’s “favorite campground.” Every summer when we started planning our seasonal camping trips we’d beg and plead, “Can we pleeeease go to our favorite campground? Pleeeease?” Mom and Dad would usually give in and to Holiday Mountain we would go, and usually Grandpa came with us. It was there that Grandpa taught me how to fish, I rode a horse for the first time and went “swimmin’ in a crick” while minnows nibbled at my toes.
I think I was only seven or eight years old the last time we camped there. After that, we started using our summers to take cross-country trips to California that lasted pretty much from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Then my parents traded the pop-up camper for a travel trailer that was a little more difficult to maneuver around those narrow mountain roads so we never made it back down there.
On the trip in the spring of 2004, when we came down to visit Grandpa’s grave and plant flowers, we had an afternoon to kill so I asked my dad if he remembered how to get to “my favorite campground.” Grandpa’s grave was near Batesville and dad remembered the campground was near Mountain View, about 40 minutes away, but couldn’t remember specifically where it was located. But me, my mom and dad and my aunt Donna took off looking for it anyway and about an hour later, we were crossing the swinging bridge that leads you into the campground. I remembered how badly driving across that bridge used to scare me, but when Dad would suggest going in the back way to avoid the bridge, I would protest and insist we drive across it. I guess that was a piece of the experience I couldn’t miss out on, even though it scared me.
A little while later, we were standing on the banks of the Sylamore Creek, which runs through the campground. I remembered being a little girl, fishing with Grandpa and dipping my toes in the water, sometimes at the same time, which usually led to Grandpa saying, “Sister, you’re gonna scare them fish away.” I think he appreciated the fact that he had my splashing around in the water to blame for his lack of catches.
As we stood there looking around, I told Dad that I would love to come back there and camp sometime. The place was not as pristine as I remembered but there was so much nostalgia. It was then that the plans began for a family reunion that would take place the following summer in 2005.
My brother was the only one who had a camper at the time, a pop-up, so he was the only one who truly camped. Brian and I rented a small cabin at the campground and the owner of Holiday Mountain had a larger cabin about a half mile away that he agreed to rent to us to house the rest of the clan. A total of thirteen of us came down for a week that July.
We sat around the campfire one night and my aunt Tammy, who was there with her husband Tom, said how happy Grandpa would be that he finally got the whole family down to Arkansas. Donna and Jo Ann, my other aunt who, along with Donna, helped care for my Grandma in California, started talking about how simple life was there and also how cheap real estate prices were. This was in the middle of the real estate balloon, before it busted. Elsewhere in the country, especially where they lived in California, houses that should never have been worth more than $100,000 were selling for half a million. It got the wheels turning in their heads and the next year, they were in the process of selling their home in California and looking for property along the White River in Mountain View. The plan was to sell their California house, use the money to retire and come to Arkansas where they could buy a lot of land and build a dream home where they could care for my Grandma full-time.
They found about three acres along the banks of the White River, right outside Mountain View. They built a small one bedroom house while their house in California was on the market so they would have some place to go once it sold. They planned to live in the small house while they constructed what would be their main house, a beautiful four-bedroom ranch with a huge porch in the front overlooking the farm lands and a large screened-in porch in the back that overlooked the river. Once it was complete, the small house would be a guest home, and they would have a family retreat of sorts.
Five years, a catastrophic flood that forced them to rebuild just one month after moving in (another story for another time) later, and the dream became reality.
I have been coming down at least once a year, sometimes more, since the moved here. It’s become my happy, calm place where I come to decompress and live simply for a few days at a time. As I write this, I am sitting on the screened-in porch in the back of the house, watching the White River flow by. The insects are singing a symphony in the trees that separate the house from the river bank. Birds are squawking in the distance.
I’m pretty sure if there were a vote among travel writers for the Worlds Most Beautiful Places, this wouldn’t make it to number one. But for me, it’s a place I will always return to and never grow tired of. And the beauty is as much about the way this place makes me feel as it is about the beautiful bluffs that line the river banks, or the caverns tucked away in the middle of the forests or the peacefulness of the water flowing by as you drink your morning coffee. Grandpa would be proud.