In June of 1981 my husband-to-be, who had just graduated from the Water Patrol Academy, was stationed on Bull Shoals Lake and was told to find a place to live in the Pontiac area. We were both from “swampeast” Missouri–Poplar Bluff, to be exact–and at the time, neither he nor I had ever heard of Ozark County or Bull Shoals Lake, much less Pontiac. It was not the glamorous assignment we had been hoping for, but since we really had no choice in the matter, he found a small house to rent on Hwy. W and began his career in law enforcement. Following a December wedding, I moved to the area six months later.
My first impressions were not exactly good ones. I had been living in Cape Girardeau, a decent-sized college town, going to school full-time and working full-time; the apartment I had been sharing with friends was within walking distance of anywhere I wanted to go. Suddenly I was plunked down in the middle of winter in the middle of nowhere with no school, no job, no car, no acquaintances, no cable TV–and the nearest Wal-Mart was 30 miles away! Within a few short months I knew every depressing character and story line on Days of Our Lives, Young and the Restless, and Guiding Light, and I had attempted (without much success) almost every recipe in my new Betty Crocker cookbook. I was also convinced that, within a few more short months, I was going to be completely and certifiably insane.
The isolation and boredom were bad enough, but then I was confronted by other “foreign” features that seemed to confirm my outsider status. First were the never-ending hills and curves. I had grown up in swampy flatlands where it seemed I could see every house, every dog, every vehicle within a five-mile radius; now every time I popped over a hill I feared slamming into a slow-moving tractor or slower-moving Buick on the other side, and every time I rounded a curve I worried about grass-munching deer darting into my path–and every 30-minute trip to Wal-Mart meant enduring several hours of dizzying carsickness afterward.
I was also thrown completely off guard by all the people waving at me when I drove to town. How did all these strangers know me? Or did they just think they knew me–was my husband’s car similar to someone else’s? Or were they trying to signal me about something–did I have a light out? Was there a deer around the next curve? I quizzed several locals until I discovered that all these enthusiastic wavers really were just trying to be friendly–what an unusual concept! It took me a long time to “loosen up” enough to wave back.
I was most unnerved, however, by the tiny scorpions invading my shower and the saucer-sized tarantulas invading my yard. I thought these were desert-dwelling creatures–was Mother Nature playing some kind of sadistic joke on the newcomer? My friends back home refused to believe such things existed a mere three-hour drive away; surely I was making this up. As proof, I retrieved a dead scorpion from my shower and mailed it to one of those nay-saying friends. Then, returning home one day, I spotted a tarantula crossing the road into my front yard. I ran inside to get a gallon jar and a broom with the intention of gently coaxing my hairy adversary into the jar and mailing it to my friends as well–that would show ’em! I placed the jar in the tarantula’s path and then attempted to sweep the tarantula into the mouth of the jar. There was just one minor flaw in my plan–no one had warned me that TARANTULAS CAN JUMP! When that hairy nastiness landed on my bare leg and started inching upward, my screams echoed off the surrounding hills, and my leg suffered repeated whacks from the broom handle until the tarantula finally jumped off and scurried away. It took a couple weeks for the bruises to pale–much, much longer for the nightmares to fade away. Some time later I was able to get the proof I needed by sitting safely on the hood of my car and using my camera’s zoom lens (geez, I wish I would have thought of that to begin with!).
I wanted to go home–back to my familiar flatlands where the closest thing to a curve was a left-hand turn, where deer stayed in the woods, and where strangers kept their distance. True, back home we had mosquitoes the size of wasps, but we could buy repellants at the Wal-Mart just up the road; we also had more than our small-town share of crime, but as long as we stayed away from certain parts of town, we were unaware and unaffected. It wasn’t perfect, but it was familiar and it was home.
That was 29 years ago. After the initial shock of “this place” subsided, I started to notice characteristics that I hadn’t seen in my pouty beginning, and within two short years I was so in love that this place had become my new home and I refused to leave–but you’ll have to read Part II to get that side of the story.