Driving in Arkansas is wearisome. There are no throw-away miles, on account of any number of glorious, simple things. God made the northwest with His thumb pressed on the Arkansas River. Divine crevices left rolling mountains and sharp canyons – a hunting ground for the Osage, a weening cradle for the Caucasian, a cove and a hollow for the Unionist hold-out. The southeast came under the knuckle, drug from Memphis to Texarkana. God created the heavens and the earth, in six days, and on the seventh day, he rested in Arkansas. This land is the quintessential sabbath.
All the wonders of the earth got packed together. In one place, yawning hills swell into high peaks, and not 10 miles away, rice farms cake flatlands. Climb a mountain after breakfast and explore a cavern before lunch. This diversity is impressive by itself, but mesmerizing in how everything stays glued together. Arkansas is not a rainbow of natural beauty; that’s when you line up the colors in sequence. I’m talking about one place – like white. Every color blended into one. That’s Arkansas. The Natural State.
I can demonstrate this with small talk. “Fine weather we’re having,” you might say, which could mean anything here. There are the arctic streams that lash with the end of a cold front, like the crack of a whip. There are the dry, Rocky winds that move things eastward. There is the high humidity moderated by the Gulf. If something atmospheric happens over the United States, Arkansas probably knows. We’re at the intersection of tornado alley and hurricane avenue. And just to prove the point, this deep red state gave you all the Clintons.
We’ve got everything. It’s the kind of country that quenches the spirit. It’s where people are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Highways join wilderness and civilization in holy matrimony. Ancient, fired clay pottery hides beneath young pine canopies, a reminder that the Louisiana Purchase is not fully settled. One of the key differences, I suppose, between here and wherever, is that wilderness grows-up with the Arkansan. Five minutes down Highway 7 will show case seven deer, a bob-cat, the Methodist church house, and a little league baseball tournament. Step onto the back-porch to see the hogs. Pull off the interstate to visit the untouched waterfall or the glade where bears walked not two hours ago. Pause before bed to hear the coyotes. Man and nature are all mixed-in together, which is not something you get at Niagara or Rushmore. Those places are for visiting. Arkansas is for living.
I imagine anyone here longer than two decades will wake up one morning to knees that creak sooie, an itch for hot-water cornbread, and an inclination that gun control means using both hands. You simply cannot resist the unadulterated wonder of creation displayed in this state. It beats the tar out of the misnomer that you’ve got to be liberal to care about the earth. Next time you’re driving through, lift your right foot and be baptized in the Red Sea, for the remission of your Yankee sins, whether by 50 shades of November oak, spewing up from ditches and falling out of clouds, or by earnest petals of Spring wood, sprinting in the wind through a country greener than envy.
That’s Arkansas. In the midst of it all, embodying it all, is Patchwood. The town sits in a forest, with one road in and out. There is another road (keenly named “The Dirt Road” on account of it being made of dirt) that runs from the North Mill to the highway, but everyone who takes it seems to get a flat tire. A few years back, the school was supposed to consolidate with a larger district ten miles west. Everyone pretended like the order had never been given, and the Governor never asked twice. The population sign leveled at 712 for three decades. A babe toed every grave; an optimistic family followed every “for sale” sign. The town seemed frozen in time. We will have no need of Hope or Lonoke, Vilonia or Cherokee Village, Little Rock or Jonesboro. So, just prepare yourself, I guess. You’re stuck in Patchwood.
Most small towns in Arkansas are easy to figure. They’re either planted in the 70’s or too introverted to get that way. Every hundred miles or so, there’s a place that just doesn’t sit right… rail-road tracks you dare not cut across… forests with stingy shadows even loggers won’t touch… churches that sing on cold nights… whispering creeks you can never seem to find… strays that yap you down on the street, looking over your shoulder…
Such towns are molded by people who’ve long abandoned Christendom for paganism. I think it has something to do with their not-nearly-near proximity to large cities, which negotiates valuable heavenly displays. The stars always shine bright in these sort of places – stars, as you surely know, which have masters and keepers. It is right and proper to behold the glory of God in the glory of the stars, to see the Creator’s beauty in the heavens as one man might another in a mirror. An age-old trick is to flip this on its head. Look at the stars for the stars’ sake. Worship their beauty (as if it were theirs) and nothing else.
This is the twisted theology of idolatry, and why idolatry twists people. “Normal” folk become contorted and nasty when God gives them over to such dishonor. With the worship of heavenly spheres comes the worship of heavenly beings. Zeus, Aphrodite, Poseidon – do you doubt their existence? They are not real as Homer depicted, but does that make them unreal altogether? They exist – more sneaky, less sovereign, and now certainly dethroned – but very much alive. Tales and legends are not the problem. These are well and good. The trick is to differentiate between the tall and the true. Davy Crocket did not kill a bear when he was only three, but I’m sure he did kill a bear. These gods, though bound, are alive, and so they may be worshiped furiously and ecstatically.
Living under clear sky with a hatred for God in your bowels is the perfect recipe for pagan covenants. You see the wonder above and dare not thank God for it, but you must thank someone or you’ll go mad. Whether explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or ignorantly, you end up joining yourself to a heavenly master.
This is my theory, anyway. It’s far-fetched, but it certainly packs explanatory power. All of that to say: when I speak of “mysterious towns,” I’m not setting up a Paranormal Activity thriller, or a Stephen King mystery. I mean this in a careful, ancient, powerful way. There are things afoot in such places that we dare not trifle with. So, if you come across one of these towns, you had better keep your wits about you.