I first went to Ravenden Springs in July of 2010 with my late brother-in-law, Bobby Flye as part of my research for my novel Lost Apple. You can read about it in these posts: Finding the School Cave, Part I, Part II, and The Town Without Children, Part I, Part II. As for this post, partly a postscript to my three part series on Bobby, I posted it on December 29, but was unhappy with it. This is a fully revised version.
Unexpectedly I was able to return to Ravenden Springs on this, my last full day in Arkansas. I had hoped to visit the hamlet again, but weather and family obligations made it unlikely. For my family, experiencing the death of my brother-in-law, Bobby Flye, Arkansas has been a winter cocoon. Despite the loss I feel, I also feel rejuvenated in a way I couldn’t have imagined before arriving; Bobby’s reassurance has been with us all along, and I feel his presence palpably. In my school of Buddhism we view death as a temporary state of latency in one’s eternal life. There is no afterlife so to speak. When someone dies, their consciousness remains close to loved ones for a while before fading out and transitioning into their next existence. Perhaps I will say more about this in a future post, but for now let it suffice that one essential difference between the living and the dead is that a living person can make causes through thoughts, words and actions. While in a state of death, or latency, one cannot make causes. It is for this reason that Buddhist prayers for the dead are vital to the deceased. One leaves life in whatever mind-state one is in at that moment, whether it be fulfilled contentment, joy, fearful uncertainty, or hellish suffering. How one goes out is how one stays between lives, and this same mind-state affects how you re-enter the world of the living. The prayers of loved ones have the power to ease this passage and deeply encourage the one who has passed. One connects heart to heart with the deceased, and there is a sublime joy amid the sorrow of loss. This is a very personal experience, and one that I cannot explain fully or completely. All I can do is show how it plays out in the life that I am living. And so, my return to Ravenden Springs.
After days of almost continuous cloud cover, I was encouraged to see sunlight breaking through in the early afternoon. I tell the boys, “We’re going to Ravenden Springs and the School Cave.” Their enthusiasm isn’t high, but I bribe them with a promise of burgers at the Side Pockets Cafe. We drive west past soggy brown fields intersected by dark curtains of leafless woods. We pass through the depressed silo hamlets with their trailers, crumbling flea markets and boarded up restaurants. Then we take the high bridge over the Black River as interweaving skeins of geese pass over us heading south. The Black is the dividing line between the delta land and the Ozarks. Abruptly we are rising into wooded hill country, and a very different realm. This is Randolph County, a remote, isolated place that today is well off the grid, but historically had quite a bit going on, from the legacy of slavery and the Trail of Tears, to the Civil War.
Passing through several towns along U.S. 63, the main route to southwest Missouri, we come to Ravenden and the turn-off to Ravenden Springs. This was the point of confusion four years ago when I first sought out the School Cave: two towns called Ravenden. Later I would learn that in the heyday of Ravenden Springs, when it was a well-know resort, the lower town of Ravenden was the rail junction, then called “Ravenden Junction”. It was here that wellness-seekers caught the coach six miles north to the town and its healing waters. Making our way north, the hills rise quickly, and the road takes a few hair-pins among dense oak woods and small pastures. Signs of poverty are ubiquitous in the Ozarks, and Ravenden Springs is a good example of the perennial economic depression in the region. Rounding the last bend, I see the village clustered around its knoll, virtually unchanged since my first visit in the summer of 2010.
Pulling up in front of the Side Pockets Cafe and I am disappointed to find that it is shuttered. I peer through the glass door into the dark interior and see the same tables and faux wood paneling, the counter where Paul had proudly displayed my framed note and five dollar bill. Nothing looks any different, and I suspect the place was closed not long after I came through. Paul and his disabled wife weren’t doing well and clearly couldn’t hold onto the business. Like the boys, who had been looking forward to burgers, I too am discouraged. This was the only business in town. Now there’s no place to meet and connect with people. Side Pockets, as tenuous as it was, had been the heart of the village. I step back into the gravel street and scan around. Just like the interior of the cafe, nothing looks any different. Aside from the change in season, I could have been here yesterday. I do notice that the cylinder water tower is much faded and rusted since my last visit, but that’s about it. Suddenly a kid on a bike pulls around the corner and gives us a stare before riding off toward the church and a few ramshackle homes. A kid, in the town without children; a good sign. In 2010, I had described the town as dying. I now realize it is neither living nor dead, its just still here.
The moment the boys and I piled out of the car every dog for a half a mile began barking. Without the cafe to make myself known, I feel like a trespasser. I consider going over to the Marshall’s house, there’s a Sheriff’s car in the yard and a freshly killed deer strung up on a rack so I know he’s home. But I lose my nerve. We start walking toward the old school on the knoll that Alma Simmons, the Marshall’s mother, so kindly took me through, and filled out a Ravenden School library card for me as a souvenir. Within a few minutes the dogs have all stopped barking and an uncomfortable silence settles among the houses and bare trees. I explain to the kids that this means people have quieted them down and everyone knows we’re here. I can’t decide if my reluctance to knock on a door is misplaced fear, or common sense. Bobby cautioned me about backwoods towns: you don’t just arrive and start poking about; you find where people are and let them know your intentions. I was glad I at least had the boys with me.
We make our way up to the old Craftsman style school on the knoll, today the town’s community center and museum. There are two cars in the yard and the doors are open. Inside, two women work at folding tables in the auditorium, creating decorations for an upcoming wedding. They have two children with them who are shrieking and giggling on the tiny stage. I explain who I am, a teacher and writer who came here four and a half years ago. I ask about Alma, assuming they’ll know her. They did, and tell me that she died a couple years back in a vehicular accident during a family fishing trip. I don’t know what to say. The boys and I look around the room a bit, but I suddenly don’t have the motivation to explore the building again, even though the women tell me I am free to look around. Nothing is changed, but everything is different. That is the way with death, and the great mystery of death. Even in 2010 I’d had the feeling that I was experiencing a one time event on a magical summer afternoon. Now I am seeing this intuition borne out as we step back out into the bracing winter air under an again overcast sky.
We drive across the road to Hall’s Creek and park where Bobby and I parked his truck. We scramble down the same slope, now muddy and treacherous after all the rains. The absence of leaves allows me to see the creek bed more fully than I could in the height of summer. The springs are that odd color of pale jade, the old retaining wall as intact as ever, although now spray painted with the moniker “Devil’s Bathtub”. We find a good deal more graffiti painted in the cave below, as well as evidence of a recent fire built against the 19th century foundation wall. As before, there is a great deal of trash: an empty daquiri container, plastic bags, a crumpled card table, a hot dog roasting fork. The School Cave–almost two centuries after Caleb Lindsay established it in the years after the Louisiana Purchase–remains a place known only to locals who regularly desecrate it. I thought seriously about pulling some of the trash out of the creek, but there was no way I’d get back up that muddy gulch with it safely, and besides, it will all be back after next Saturday night.
The air is cold and dank, and we don’t linger long. After a few pictures we scramble back up to the car and head down the road; we’ve spent barely an hour in Ravenden Springs. Rounding the first sharp bend in the road, the sun emerges from the clouds illuminating the hills in a resplendent golden glow. There is something mystic in the timing of this sudden change of light. I am not suggesting that Bobby is acknowledging us in some way, simply that he lived his life fully and completely, and, as a result, those who knew him are able to do the same in their own lives. I do not feel that my time with Ravenden Springs is done. I want to go back again, finish my research, do something more in my writing concerning this remarkable little place. This visit has been the completion of a particular round, and the gilded trees and light-softened fields past which I am driving are testament to the endless cycling of our lives.
Photos of the town and cave from both my 2010 and 2014 visits can be viewed in my Flickr album.