we land at nat’s outside harrison, arkansas. he’s a drill operator who works one week on one week off on a rig in Oklahoma. we sit out in the barn discussing mules, the women we’ve seen since last time and disagreeing on the existence of god. the girls join us after a few jager bombs and soon a new bra is sitting in the rafters. nat sings us some country songs on with his strong voice and guitar. he shows leah how to ride a mule and she says, “i’m scared to do it so i have to.” one more reason i love her.
we wake up to a southern breakfast of bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy. he drawls, “you ain’t used to that. the grease will put it right through you.” he wasn’t lying but i’ll spare you the details. we nap and find the mules ready for our covered wagon ride. he also has an RV, a few four wheelers amongst the hay piles and mules and horses in the pasture. “that mare is fixin to foal in a week or two.”
nats always looking for an excuse to work his mules or head off into the woods. his cousin adjusts the stirrups for leah and i to ride the two mules alongside the wagon. they put a cooler of beer, gatorade, vodka and water bottles into the back (the water goes mostly untouched) and hitch up nat’s team to the wagon, a red and white version of what families took west for a four month journey to oregon or california. a radio flyer wagon sized up to fit two bucket seats from a junked caravan sit in the front and foldable lawn chairs in the back with convenient cup holders for beer. leah and i let the mules pick their own way behind the wagon. falling behind and then a light kick to trot and catch up.
nat’s son chats with me from the wagon. only six, he’s already shot a deer and turkey. a crack shot with the BB gun, killer of all birds who get near the house. he has a proud and adoring look while riding the mule and is a protective gentleman while minding the three year old addison, a sweet girl who adores him and has already mastered a flashing gypsy look from her full brown eyes.
i sit back in the wagon, always stroking leah, unable to keep my hands off her skin that’s so soft it surprises me often when i touch it.. we hop off the wagon to let her pee. i lean over a gate leading to a green pasture in the rolling ozark hills. i look at her admiringly out of the corner of my eye, not wanting to make her nervous with my stare. she’s so tough, ready and unblanched by any situation. we race along the unpaved road and i beat her by running barefoot through the grass before we hop into the still moving wagon.
after a few hours moving slowly through the hot ozark june, we reach the house of nat’s aunt and uncle. a typical laidback and friendly southern home with sprawling outbuildings in various states of repair. hunting dogs howl pleadingly from cages and other dogs run free around the property chasing squirrels and shoving their heads into favorite laps for petting. uncle bo’s vegetable garden stands near the house as he happily welcomes the rain and lightning we see out in the distance. the mules get tied up along the split rail fence and we head in for supper.
his aunt presses cornbread and beans on us. “are you sure you have enough?” a plate of tasty deer meat sits by the sink. nat pokes, “you yankees probably call it venison.” we sit on a bench under the pine trees by some broken down four wheelers. i teach the kids tricks on killing flies, catching them in my hand and throwing them against the table. leah kills eight at one blow with a flyswatter. his aunt brightly asks about our trip, enjoying the adventure of it. “do it while you’re young and you can” says uncle bo.
he paid for this place and raised his family by driving truck all over the country. he invites us to come boating down the buffalo river next time we pass through. he looks like a laidback southern version of hunter s Thompson and begins a speech on the impossibility of a group of women getting along. his wife nods in agreement because the topic arose from all the trouble she has from the girls under her at fedex. he says in a high impassioned voice with the words rolling out slow, “you have six men float the river, they’re gonna have a good time. catch some fish, we gonna play poker. but with women, somebody won’t want to camp in that spot. one won’t like that. in’s in their genes. i have not never seen, you cannot get six women to get along. you get six, eight, hell ten men, together and give ‘em a keg of beer, hell, they’ll get along. that is truth the bubba. you’re younger than i am telling you to remember that.”
the south is a wonderful place aside from the racism, homophobia and slavish nationalism. but these crop up little when you enjoy the endless hospitality and slow adventures of the day. people devoted to family who spend much time together in cookouts, mule rides and beer in barns. i like the pace down here. i like how everyone throws a slow wave as they drive past. i pick up the drawl quickly and feel like i fit. but its not the place for me to put down roots.