Originally published on Richland Source, 1/19/20.
“Over 500 diamonds been foun’ by the public this year, alone,” said the sullen teen working the gift shop at Crater of Diamonds State Park.
Climbing mountains was cool and all, but finding my fortune in loose gems seemed like a better idea. In the southwest corner of Arkansas, we stumbled upon the only public diamond mine in the world.
Locals in knee-high waterproof boots carrying 5-gallon plastic buckets filled with hope were passing us on the way to the open air mine, which was really just a plowed field on a 100-million-year-old volcanic crater. What the hell was going on in Arkansas 100 million years ago? Dinosaurs were hopping lava fields and kicking around rare stones while commenting on how cool that meteor in the sky looked.
Day 1, Friday
Christmas 2019 had just ended, and my climbing partner cousin Dusty and I wanted peaks for presents; that’s how we found ourselves deep in Razorback country, in an attempt to summit the highest points in Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana.
Two days after Christmas, my alarm went off at 2 a.m., and I was on I-71 south at 2:35 a.m., full of coffee and adrenaline and loving the night solitude and darkness of the drive.
“You’re not ready,” Dusty first said when I picked him up at his house in Columbus.
“Can’t believe you’re stupid enough to go on another climb with me,” I said.
The early start was a necessity to break through the initial midwest barrier of the boring farm-field-filled states of Indiana and Illinois (merge those states already! Chicago is an amazing city-state and is exempt from my disdain list).
The only speeding ticket of my 17-year driving career came on that same stretch of road in Missouri, going to go pick up a friend in Colorado from Cincinnati. The officer pulled me into the front of his cab to write the ticket, and because it was a Ford Escape full of college kids, he wanted to let me know I could trust him.
“You can just tell me where the drugs are, son, you can just tell me and it won’t be an issue,” the officer said.
“Not us, no way. Drugs? I’ve heard of people doing those sorts of things, but golly gee, not us,” I said. Was the car full of my friend's Hunter-esque plethora of earth-altering substances? Perhaps. But he'd never know.
Anyone who’s ever made the cross-country trek on I-70 will always recall the moment the hills parted, unveiling the mighty Mississippi and the St. Louis skyline and that oh-so-symbolic silver, river-gleamin' Arch.
Nelly’s “Country Grammar” was blasted, like it was when I past that city while moving out to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, refusing to finish college and running away from life and pulling snowmobiles with a ‘93 Dodge Intrepid, named “Dirty Sanchez.” If you don’t have a name for your car, you’ve officially grown up.
An hour southwest of “St. Lou-wee” and after eight hours of driving, we were finally off the interstate and were ready to experience the humans of this geographical zone.
The farms had faded and the rolling terrain now appeared, with sprinkled spruce and leafless limbs as we dipped the nose of my Nissan Rogue into the Arcadia Valley region of Missouri.
Off to the left, the crest of the Pilot Knob mountain could be seen across the river with the remnants of the mining--slashed hills and the indented rock entrances you could drive a truck through. The dirt banks of the river still encased the dried blood from the The Battle of Pilot Knob.
During the Civil War in 1864, Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price was leading a cavalry campaign through Missouri in an attempt to take St. Louis for the South. Price, however, ran into some “hard, pipe-hitting” honkeys from the North at Fort Davison in Pilot Knob.
The brave Northerns were outnumbered by 10 to one, according to some estimates, and held off the initial wave of attacks. During the night, realizing defending the fort further was Alamo-like, the Blue Jackets retreated and snuck out through southern siege lines. Price took the fort the next day, but had depleted his supplies and men so severely that he couldn’t continue his purge. He was no General Sherman, that’s for sure.
The highest point in Missouri was Taum Sauk Mountain, in the Saint Francois Mountains. While far from a true mountain range, the views were expansive and had all the horizon gazing you would need.
We took the waterfall loop trail and actually got a little turned around as we didn’t consult a map or do any real planning. We were too “elite” for that. Haha, nature loves when you underestimate her. Highpoint #39, Missouri.
The outhike was along the becoming-more-popular Ozark Trail, which when completely finished, will be 700 miles long, from St. Louis to Arkansas.
Dusty had done large sections of the Appalachian Trail, and we talked about how quickly nature can become disgusting when humans and commerce intersect at every junction. But you don’t get to complain if that’s what you chose, as there are millions of trails devoid of imprints.
Back to the car and we cruised south toward the Arkansas state line, guided by the thick pines of Mark Twain National Forest.
From Dusty's account:
"We talked about the limited options the folks in this area might've had, and what factored into their choice to stay or leave. And how some people seem to blindly accept their lot in life while others rebelled against it. I mentioned an episode of "Rick N Morty," a sci-fi cartoon for adults, where the two title characters were playing an immersive, virtual reality video game that allowed the user to live an entire lifetime as Roy, a mild-mannered carpet store salesman. During Morty's play-through, his Roy character beat cancer, a traumatic event that broke the rut of his existence and gave him an opportunity to change everything. But instead, he ultimately returned to his sad sack existence at the carpet store, where he eventually died. Observing this, Rick commented with disdain that Morty was a 'carpet store mother******,' or the type of person who blindly accepts rather than fighting or rebelling."
Never go back to the carpet store.
Route 67 to Beebe and as we closed in on northern Little Rock, Arkansas, all the corporate chains and neon signs and familiarity came back. Luckily, intense fog, that would be stalking us throughout the trip, drowned I-64/I-40 in pure opaque, and all we could see were highway lines and the hundreds of hawks perched on all the confusingly purple fence poles and trees.
“This phenomenon began in Arkansas in 1989 as a way for property owners to signify their divide between public and private land for others. Soon, nine other states adopted the same token purple tree,” TexasHillCountry.com reported.
Set the cruise and my eyes began to melt. It was nearing hour 15 of driving and it was night again.
“How far do you want to go? Looks like there are places to camp around Magazine Mountain,” Dusty said.
“Gibberish, gibberish, blah, blabh,” was my incoherent response.
“Are you still good to drive, want me to do a shift?” Dusty asked.
Puddles were trying to accumulate in the corners of my ever-drying eyes and the rain drops on the windshield added another layer of blur.
“Forecast is 100% rain tonight, low 40s. Listen, I don’t think it would be cheating to think about getting a hotel room. I could cover it, not an issue,” Dusty offered.
The ice was broken and my brain wasn’t sure how to process stepping out of the car and into the motel lobby that was still soaked with smoke from before the indoor ban had taken effect.
Some young boys from Tennessee were speeding around the small parking lot in their trucks and I grabbed my Ka-Bar knife and headed towards our first floor room just off the lot. The bottom of the motel door showed its scars from all the human attempts to kick it down.
There was a restaurant attached, and we quickly were at the bar.
“Two Shiner Bocks with sidecars of Old Grand-Dad,” Dusty ordered.
“What’s a sidecar?” a man with a Ozark accent sitting beside us asked. I studied him through the mirrored bar backsplash, not wanting to engage.
Mac n Cheese was the only vegetarian option and little did I know that would be my dinner for the next three nights as southern menus tend to feature meat stuffed meats.
Day 2, Saturday
With the time change, our minds had us up at 7 a.m. and on the road out of Russellville, crossing the Arkansas River with the beaches of Dardanelle State Park flanking our side mirrors.
We only had an hour of backroad travel to Magazine Mountain and when we began climbing the mountain roads, the intense fog took over.
The eerie whiteout hiking had me thinking about how this atmosphere would transform Dusty into the vicious murderer I’ve always known him to be. My knife was in the car. Keep a safe distance from that freak, I thought, you’ll hear him coming, knife positioned in a striking motion above his head, a Joker smile on his face. And there was a good chance my ankle was still fractured from an earlier incident and thus, I couldn't outrun his festering blood lust.
The speckled graying-black rocks were top-covered in pond-green moss, indicating the relentless moisture in the area. If there’s not a time to dry out, it all rots. Arkansas has never been able to fully evaporate.
Finally, I was in the 40s. Highpoint #40, Arkansas.
My grandparents lived in Rogers, Arkansas, not far from where we were, actually. We’d do the I-70 crawl and visit for Christmas and Easter. Loved my grandparents, but the state never spoke to me. Never had a desire to return. My childhood self always frustrated at all the sweaty caucasians with no rush to get anywhere.
The next four hours, we’d be driving through the heart of the Arkansas and the southern Ozarks, totally off the main roads and highways. I noticed a great mix of freedom and falling-in roofs.
There just weren’t a lot of larger cities and communities, so everyone had to exist somewhat off the grid. And there’s supreme liberation in that -- they know how to fix their own cars, grow and can food, be more self-sufficient, goals that all the delusional yet well-intentioned city gardens that eventually fail, attempt to achieve.
But the other side of that is the grind, living day-to-day, just on the cusp of poverty, wondering about funding for college and medical expenses and vacations. Where are the jobs? And forget about the mom and pop shops and the five and dimes. Dollar General has completely gridded-out the entire state, so no matter where you drive in any direction, you will hit one within 15 miles. If only all that top-line revenue went back to the community, instead of the corporate office in Tennessee.
At the “Hill Top Grocery,” I didn’t have to prepay for gas, and a group of pre-teens were running their mud-coated quads up and down the roads, while showcasing childhood obesity and mullets and one was wearing a rebel flag for a t-shirt. But those passive aggressive indictments aside, they seemed so happy and free and way more in touch with the human experience than the screen-based curriculum I witness for children in Ohio.
There were also a lot of dogs tied-up outside, and the brown patches surrounding their Snoopy-like doghouses suggested that was a life sentence. And carports. So many carports. But not a single one had all the roof panels intact and the cars still parked under it.
Mostly trucks, not cars in Arkansas. And anyone that didn’t have a lift kit, was speeding around in a 90s Ford Mustang with a scraped hood or door.
Through the gas station cash exchanges, we began studying the Ozark accent. These people were descendants of the German and Dutch migrations from the east, still setting up mills, farming and trading. The accent is Midwest with twang and a lot of mid-sentence analogies to prove a point. The tongue is dramatically different than the deep draw of Alabama and Georgia, nothing like the lips of Appalachian West Virginia. And the let’s be real, Kentucky and Tennessee are just faking it.
Outside Ouachita National Forest we ran into the diamond mine at the start of the story. But it was cold and raining and we were on hour 18 of driving.
“I dunno, we could go in the mud, dig around with all the other people, not find anything, and be just like the rest of the suckers. I hate that feeling of getting got,” Dusty said.
“I just need one diamond, cash that in, move to the mountains of Utah,” I said.
“But we both know it won’t happen. It’s like the false hope of the lottery. When I was going through the drive thru with Dumpster and I got a lottery ticket, and Dumpster was like, ‘You pay the dummy tax?’”
Billions were left in our rearview mirror as we continued down the single-laned roads for three more hours to Driskill Mountain, Louisiana.
A family from Mississippi was just returning to their car at the trailhead, and I was by myself as Dusty had gone to use the bathroom.
“Don’t take the shortcut; you’ll run into private property,” the dad said as his teenage son showed me a sign on his phone.
“OK, like, OK,” was the best response I could give. Due to the endless driving, 20 hours so far, and hiking and travel, coffee would only go so far.
As a secret life-saving hack, I packed a plant from the far east that rice farmers eat while working the fields all day. It’s kinda like the coca leaf, where Inca potatoes farmers that survived that genocide in Andes Mountains would chew on throughout the day for energy and to help blood move more quickly through the oxygen-depleted highlands.
But I ingested too much, and was trying to focus on the glow of my own brain, while the family was giving me “tips” concerning a “mountain” that was 535 feet high.
“It’s easy to get turned around up there,” the mom offered me.
“Ya I’m a mountaineer or highpointer or whatever,” I said, staring at them all with intensity and off-putting gazes.
“Really, we just started. This is our third highpoint, going for four tomorrow in Arkansas,” the dad said.
“You won’t survive,” I said, desperately searching the woodline for my cousin’s return.
“What?!” the mom said.
“Highpointing is great, be careful though, as it can consume you, and you may not make it through the process. I'm at 40 state highpoints. If I get this today, I’ll have 41,” I said.
They were impressed as they hopped back into the 2019 GMC SUV.
Dusty and I got separated early on the hike up Driskill Mountain. He thought I took the shortcut, but I was actually waiting for him. Then he started racing me to the top, to teach me a lesson about shortcuts. We both enjoyed the solitude of the hike, the green hues that existed in the south during winter, thick hardwoods in a forest that had never been gutted from logging, and finally getting a break from the fog shroud.
Instead of setting up camp, we got back into the death machine, the car confinement that was warping my shoulders in the ever-slouching steering wheel-grip pose. On I-20 and passing vehicles and them passing us, but seemingly on a car treadmill, and again, the darkness appeared for the second time in consecutive days while on the road, and the come down from caffeine and energy and the soul-eating plant from Seoul.
Once again, the rains came, and we debated camping and driving more and kept looking at the map and thought about going further--but to where? And what was the rush?
“Lady Luck Casino, bud, on the Mississippi river, it calls to us,” Dusty said looking at his phone.
I would have driven directly into the river if it meant getting out of the car, 23 drive hours logged in two days.
“Vicksburg, bud, big Civil War battle there,” Dusty said.
“What? Never heard of that, or that, or whatever you’re talking about. How much longer?” I said.
“50 minutes, bud, ‘till we make up our diamond losses at the casino tables. Hold strong for just a bit longer,” Dusty said.
The backlight from the speedometer had been burned into my cornea, and as we floated down the levy to water level where the casino was, it was all a magnificent twirl of flashing lights and I limped into the lobby, needing to remove the two Dos Equis roadies from the bladder.
At the front desk check in, Dusty would later tell me he’d never seen a more zombie-looking freak, as I hovered and swayed behind him, barely existing.
But don’t worry; the casino had free drinks for those playing table games, and energy was restored through an IV of Red Bull vodkas and the thrill of winning--me at Blackjack and he at three-card poker.
Betting the pass line on craps was profitable, but I had to excuse myself from the table. Inside the casino, it was refreshing to be the racial minority for once, along with northern accents and I was wearing a pink shirt with a red heart in the middle with text that said, “I’m scum.” And the vodka jokes were flowing and a guy pulled me aside and said, “Listen, I bet a lot of people think you’re funny, but we don’t.” Fair enough.
Ended the night on the banks of the river, watching barges slow pass with their blinking warning lights fading into the south.
Contemplated puking up my entire esophagus before the continental breakfast and found slot machine winning tickets in my pockets. Was too ashamed and disgusted with my substance intake to return to the casino to cash them in and thus left a nice tip for the maid service.
We planned on doing the whole 13.5-hour drive home in one shot, but hit insane rain from Jackson, through Memphis and finally, at Nashville, called it quits for a final hotel stay.
After four days, we drove 40 hours, longer than it would have taken to go to San Diego. The mileage was around 2,187.
Fortune favored us, even though we never made our fortunes.