It’s Sunday evening . . . late . . . and I’m sitting in my recliner in the darkened living room, once again battling against (and losing to) the insomnia demons. I am in a foul mood. Not only am I frustrated that in a few short hours my alarm will sound and I will be facing a challenging Monday with very little (if any) restorative sleep in my arsenal, but I am also silently mourning the passing of one of the best weeks I have had in a long, long time . . .
I have been on SPRING BREAK–an event so rare that, yes, it is deserving of all capital letters. I cannot remember the last time I had a week-long spring break–in my neck of the woods, scheduled spring break days are almost always gobbled up as “make-up” days for January ice storms and February snows. In fact, a “best-case spring break scenario” is usually a cold, rainy, three-day weekend in March. But not this time.
This time I had nine whole days (if you count the before and after weekends) all to my needy self–nine whole days of warm temperatures, glorious sunshine, and budding flowers and trees. A variety of projects cluttered my “to do” list–all things that I could have (should have) completed within those nine days, if I hadn’t decided instead to expand my current philosophy of eliminating “should” for a day into an entire week of focusing on feeding my soul and fueling my passions. (Yep, in other words, it was all about me.)
After a few days spent riding my bike, devouring a good book, and photographing every flower and weed in the immediate area (all subjects of upcoming blogs), I decided I needed a change of scenery. Where could my camera and I go–somewhere I had never been before that would make an easy day drive and an interesting photographic opportunity? After gathering numerous suggestions from my online friends and doing a little research of my own, I had my answer: Calico Rock, Arkansas.
Calico Rock appealed to me for several reasons. For one, it wasn’t that far from my home, and there would be other, photo-worthy sites along the way. It was also home to the fictional character in the book I was reading (again, that’s another blog) and home to one of the few log cabins still in existence that pre-date the Civil War. Most interesting to me, though, was the fact that it was home to Peppersauce Bottoms. The name alone intrigued me, but when www.arkansas.com informed me that it was the “only authentic ghost town inside the city limits of a town in America,” I knew I had to see for myself.
My adventure began long before daybreak; I was hoping to watch the sunrise along the way, but low-lying clouds permitted only a gradual pinkening of the eastern skies. No matter, though–any dampening of my spirits was quickly thwarted when I stopped at a drive-up donut shop for chocolate cake donuts (a rare and sinfully delicious treat), and the elderly lady working the window called me “sweetie” and wished me a beautiful day. It was a good omen.
When I reached Norfork, Arkansas, which was to be the location of my first photo shoot, it was still too dark for taking pictures. I drove on to Calico Rock, but it was still darker than I wanted it to be, and so I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to drive on to Mountain View, which was about another thirty miles down the road. (After all, I was on adventure, and the day was mine.) When I reached Mountain View, I quickly realized that this scenic town nestled in the Ozarks Mountains and claiming to be the folk music capital of the world was worthy of a much longer visit–but that would have to be another day. After wandering the streets for an hour and snapping a few pictures, I loaded up and headed back to Calico Rock–and Peppersauce Bottoms.
Calico Rock is a picturesque little town (less than a thousand people inhabiting about 3.6 square miles) on the banks of the White River. Peppersauce Bottoms, the ghost town, is located just a couple blocks off of Main Street, so as soon as I had parked my car in front of the “Old Fashion Ice Cream Shop,” I slung my backpack over my shoulder and my camera around my neck, grabbed my heavy-duty tripod, and took off walking.
Almost immediately I was greeted by a beautiful, one-lane, rusted iron bridge with a shallow creek meandering beneath it. I wanted a shot of the bridge, but when I saw that the morning sunlight was reflecting a scrappy little tree onto the creek’s surface, I knew I wanted a shot of that reflection, too. Even though the place seemed deserted, I didn’t want to stand in the middle of the bridge to set up my shot and risk blocking possible traffic, so I carefully positioned myself and my tripod on a very narrow ledge on the other side of the guard rail. I should not have done that.
I was contentedly flipping back and forth through my camera settings, trying to get the “perfect” lighting, the perfect angle, the perfect depth of field; I was so focused on the shot that I wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings. I vaguely remember the sound of a vehicle starting to rattle across the old iron bridge, but I paid it no mind because I knew I wasn’t in the way. I remember hearing voices, too, but they seemed far away–until a booming one startled me out of my reverie . . .
“HEY, PRETTY LADY WITH THE CAMERA!”
After jumping–and almost losing my balance on the very narrow ledge–I turned around to see an old, white Buick stopped on the bridge right behind me, its leering driver so close that he could easily reach over the guard rail and grab me if he so desired. He was a very large man, and he was grinning foolishly at me–as was his passenger, another large man who was holding a frenzied brown dachshund in his lap.
They scared the hell out of me.
The driver spoke to me again, but his words didn’t register–I was too busy trying to memorize details for the police report that I hoped I would be alive to file. Tanned, weather-lined faces, stocky frames, dark eyes, one brown ballcap and one blue, matching brown Carhart jackets, matching gap-toothed grins–and they both appeared to be in their late 30s or early 40s, although I wasn’t really sure (the older I get, the younger everyone else looks).
I was also busy trying to figure out an escape route. I had carelessly placed myself in a very uncompromising position–I couldn’t simply step back from the bridge because I was inches away from tumbling down the steep creek bank, I couldn’t move to the right because the bank disappeared completely, and if I tried to run back in the direction from which I had come (with my bag and my camera and my heavy-duty tripod), they could overtake me within seconds. Just when I decided my only possible option was to slam my heavy-duty tripod into the driver’s unsuspecting face (and hope that my old lady reflexes were quicker than their stocky man reflexes), he spoke again . . . and this time his grin was gone.
“Lady, I asked you what you’re doing.”
Instinctively, I shrugged my shoulders. First of all, I really didn’t want to engage in a conversation with these “good ol’ boys,” and secondly, wasn’t it obvious what I was doing? I mean, seriously, he had moments earlier referred to me as the lady “with the camera”; if I responded with, “Umm, I’m taking pictures,” would that be interpreted as a smart-aleck response? (That’s surely how it would have been intended.)
And then he demanded: “Well, what are you taking pictures for–are you taking them for the paper?”
Wanting to remain non-committal but realizing that I could probably safely answer that one, I responded with a brilliant, “I don’t know.” (Even under the best of circumstances, I’m not a great conversationalist.)
But then he smiled (leered) again. “Now, see, I knew I could get you to talk to me!” A line of brown tobacco juice dribbled out of the corner of his mouth as his buddy continued grinning foolishly and the little brown dachshund continued its spastic sprint from dashboard to lap to dashboard again.
I tightened my grip on my tripod, ready to slam it home and imagining the bloody, pulpy mess that it would create . . . and then a beautiful thing happened. A block away a well dressed, elderly lady with two rottweilers on leashes rounded the corner, and she was headed in our direction. The two men in the car spotted her as well and appeared to be as frightened of her presence as I was of theirs. The driver tipped his hat, and before rattling on across the bridge offered one last bit of conversational innuendo:
“You have a nice day, Pretty Lady with the Camera. We’ll be seeing you again.”
And just like that, they were gone. I wanted to thank the elderly lady for her timely appearance and to ask if she knew who the men in the Buick were, but when I looked up the street, she was gone, too.
I was spooked. I could have (should have?) returned immediately to my car and headed home in defeat, but I had driven all that way to see a “ghost town,” and I was determined not to let two gap-toothed good ol’ boys keep me from my mission. My senses were on high alert, and I assured myself I would now be more careful. Taking one more survey of my surroundings and seeing that I was completely alone, I continued on into the heart of Peppersauce Bottoms.
And it was worth the risk. Old, abandoned buildings covered several blocks–each building left standing in its original condition but each building in some degree falling victim to the ravages of time and nature. (I’ve included several pictures with additional information below.)
I didn’t see the good ol’ boys again; nor did I see the elderly lady walking her dogs. However, near the entrance to one of the old buildings I did hear chanting voices and clanging noises. The old wooden door to the building was hanging open, and I peered cautiously into the darkness, but no one (or nothing) was there. Just when I thought my imagination was playing tricks on me, the voices and clanging grew louder. Nervously, I peeked around the corner of the building, and then I located the source of all the noise–on the building behind this one was a large group of men working on the roof. There appeared to be ten or twelve of them, all swinging hammers and a few of them staring belligerently in my direction.
At first I thought it was a roofing crew, but it seemed strange that there would be so many of them–and all of them dressed in the same white jumpsuits. And then a flash of blue caught the corner of my eye, and when I looked to the left I saw four armed, uniformed men on horseback–some of them also staring in my direction. Apparently, I had stumbled upon a “chain gang” from the nearby state prison. I wanted desperately to take a picture of that scene (if for no other reason than to later prove to myself that it wasn’t a figment of my over-active imagination), but I didn’t want to be disrespectful, and I certainly didn’t want to risk having my camera confiscated (were there laws against taking pictures of guards and prisoners?). I decided not to push my luck, and I quickly turned around and headed back to the safety of my car. No one followed me out of Peppersauce Bottoms, and no white Buicks appeared in my rear-view mirror as I made my exit out of town.
The rest of my day was relatively uneventful. On my way out of Calico Rock, I stopped for a few pictures at the Trimble Cabin, and then I stopped up the road in Norfork to take pictures at the historic Jacob Wolf House, which was built in 1829 as the first courthouse for Izard County in the Arkansas Territory and is the oldest public structure in Arkansas. (If you’re ever in the neighborhood, it’s worth a visit.) And then I returned home–safe but not quite sound–from my very first solo adventure.
. . . A cool, pre-storm breeze stirs through the open window beside me, chilling my bare feet and sending goosebumps shuddering up my exposed arms. Somewhere in the house a door slams shut, apparently (hopefully) caught by a gust of wind. My alarm will ring in a couple hours; there is still time to close my eyes and pray for sleep. The insomnia demons may have claimed yet another victory; this particular battle may be over–and spring break with it–but this war–and my adventures–and have just begun.