One of the last times I saw my sister alive was on a trip I took to the northwest area of Arkansas, near the Arkansas Grand Canyon, where I spent about eight days with my sister and her husband. It was a memorable vacation, one of few I have had in my adult life. Because it was with my sister, it is even more memorable for me. She was still healthy then.
This mountain, the Boston Mountain, is remote by anyone’s standards, and very unspoiled; wildlife freely roams the sparsely populated mountain. We were at a high elevation, which made the summer heat more bearable than the heat in the valley below, but it was still hot and humid and the thin air made it harder for me, the asthmatic, to breathe. Because it was late July, there was no one at this church campground, but my sister, her husband Richard, the two camp custodians, and me. It was a large campground with multiple cabins and plenty of spaces to pitch a tent.
One afternoon, Richard was busy mowing the campground and killing a nest of Copperhead snakes he had found while mowing. I asked my sister if we could go for a drive on one or more of the dirt roads that ran off the paved road near the campground. She thought that would be all right, so we took off on our adventure. Each of these dirt roads was perhaps eight to ten feet across, and there were some pullout spots to sit to let another car pass, if there were another car. Deep ravines ran on one side of the road, obscured by trees and underbrush, I had to take care to not mistake brush for land and find myself tumbling off the road by having driven off the edge. The other side was the side of the mountain with sometimes flatter land that had occasional houses perched on a small patch of cleared land.
As we were driving down this mountain road, my sister told me that up ahead was a chicken ranch, and the woman who owned it had been driving back to it one day, when a rattlesnake as long as the road was wide, and as big around in the middle as the woman’s thigh, had slithered across the road. Later on in my vacation, I saw black snakes crossing the paved road that were almost as long as the two lane road, so I believed this story of the huge rattler. The woman thought she might be able to kill it by driving her SUV over it. She was wrong. It was still writhing and rattling, so without getting out of the car, she went up the road a piece to a small cabin owned by her neighbor, and told him about the snake she had injured with her car but had not killed.
He told her to go on home, and he would take care of it. A few days later, she noticed the snake’s skin nailed to dry on the side of the man’s shed. She asked about it, and he said, “Well, it was tough but tasty meat.” He intended to sell the snakeskin to a dealer who might resell it for making shoes or purses. My sister and I shared a laugh and a groan about eating rattlesnake meat. We talked about how it would have been to be even poorer than we were when we were growing up, so poor that we might have resorted to eating snake, possum, and whatever could be gotten for free, though we had eaten plenty of free meat as kids: pheasant, venison, rabbit, and an occasional squirrel.
Once past the chicken ranch, we came to a bridge over a river, which was only big enough for one car to pass over it. We decided to drive over it, and we stopped in the center to look at the almost dry river bed, and there, as if it had been sent there for us alone, was a large Heron. I did not try to photograph it because it was so close that I thought any movement of mine might scare it off. It was dipping its head and beak into some pools of water, looking for crawdads or fish to eat. When he flew off, we crossed the bridge and turned to go back.
We turned around, mostly because we were afraid of getting lost. My sister said there were places in those hills where no roads had been made and children who lived in those places had never been sent to school. I’ve seen too many scary movies to be foolhardy. We both felt safer going back to the main road and to the campground, so after more than an hour of slow driving across these dirt, not gravel roads, we headed back to the relative civilization of the paved road and campground.
We stopped frequently, so I could take photographs of the picturesque hillside shacks, which is what those homes really were. On our way back, close to one such shack, a place that had two shiny Chevy trucks in the driveway, I wanted a picture. The place itself had rusted corrugated tin on the roof, and probably was no more than 500 square feet for the entire house. I wanted a picture of the incongruity of the new trucks against the ramshackle place. Just as I had my picture framed, a man of indiscriminate age came out holding a shotgun, which he pointed in my direction.
“I’d take it kindly if you didn’t take any pictures of my place,” he said.
“Not a problem,” I said. “Sorry to have disturbed you.” We drove on down the road and back to the main road and campground from where we had come. My sister and I were laughing, mostly out of fear, and glad to have gotten out of there without being a news headline. Our laughter was part hysteria and part just plan amusement. We wondered what he was worried about. Taxes? Revenuers? Drug Enforcement Agents? Whatever it was, he didn’t want any photo evidence. What he didn’t know was that I had already taken pictures of his place on our way down the road.
My brother-in-law was waiting for us and was done mowing. He told us if we went near the burn barrel, where he had thrown the dead copperheads, to not touch the dead snakes, which he thought might be as dangerous dead as alive, if we accidentally came into contact with a razor sharp fang still full of venom. I never went near the burn barrel, and made a wide berth around it for the rest of my stay on the mountain. We had an otherwise pleasant, civilized evening, watching flocks of hummingbirds above us in the twilight, though I must have dreamed of snakes and more that night. It would have been impossible to not have dreams, after all of that.