Bends in the River

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1997

Bends in the River

Time and man roiled his boyhood waters, yet memories still flow unchecked
By John Jerome

We name places, places name us, whether we want them to or not. I'm an Oklahoman, although I left in childhood and seldom go back. Place names have the same power as music or scent to stir the memory, to bring back a mood, an incident, an entire era. The first place name I remember is "Kiamichi." In 50 years it has never lost its emotional pull.

Outside of Oklahoma I've not met anyone who has even heard of the Kiamichi (pronounced "kai-uh-MISH-ee") Mountains. Oklahoma is supposed to be a prairie state, but in fact it's moderately lumpy, and tucked away in its southeast corner, in the heart of the Choctaw Nation, is one of America's rare east-west mountain ranges. The Kiamichis rise 1,500 feet above the surrounding flatlands, a wild patch of relief on the edge of the Ouachitas, which in turn border the Ozarks.

Relief was why we went there, back in the forties, but for relief of a different kind. My father was an alcoholic and a fisherman, in that order, the fly rod from time to time almost rescuing him from drink. Wandering through the Kiamichis was the Mountain Fork, a dark little river that he loved above all others.

Actually, it was Mother, as eager for a cool swim as Dad was for fishing or alcohol, who got us there. When the drinking got out of hand, she would load us up and strike off for the mountains, making the long drive through the hot summer nights, Dad asleep beside her, my older brother, Jud, and me in the back, canoe and fishing tackle roped to the top of the car. By age four, I could recite in order the last towns — Hugo, Idabel, Broken Bow, Bethel — before we reached the river. Our destination was always one of the small cabins (outdoor plumbing, kerosene lanterns, hand-pumped water) owned by a quarter-blood Choctaw named Coleman Ward.

So the Mountain Fork was my first river. All I really knew of it was the stretch directly across the dusty road from Coleman's place, where a ledge made a waist-high waterfall. I remember floating above my father's naked back, his whiskers scratchy on my arms around his neck as he breast-stroked out to a rock in the middle of the pool above the falls. Decades later, I would swim with my own small children the same way, and the memory always came back. The river represented purest freedom. Whatever pleasure I take in the natural world began for me there.

This time my approach is not southeast from Oklahoma City but north out of Texarkana, the nearest airport. This corner of Arkansas is dirt-poor, flat, closed-in: scrub oak and big pines, red-dirt gumbo roads torn by logging trucks, stinking paper mills. Just across the Oklahoma line I spot Weyerhaeuser's Kiamichi Tree Farm, the first occurrence of the name that I've come to regard as a secret password. A few miles farther a sign points to Mountain Fork Park — the river I'm here to see, although I am still 30 miles too far south. I whip off the highway onto a gravel road through extensive clear-cut; the park, in an oak grove, consists of a strip of parking spaces with charcoal grills. One camper is in residence, its owner gone fishing. I stick a hand in the river; it's cool, blessedly so. Upstream of the camping area, behind a good-size concrete dam, lies a drowned forest, one of those awful-looking backwater messes that have become something of a standard feature in the southern landscape.

Back on the highway I hook a right at Broken Bow, not one particle of which is remotely familiar. My topo shows a reservoir, a huge one, backing up the Mountain Fork to within a few miles of Coleman's place, but his establishment is still on the map, a collection of small dots. I spot it immediately, the one remaining boarded-up cabin now flanked by two neat, modern, middle-class houses. A sign reads, Joe Ward's Poultry Farm. Good, it's still in the family.

No sign of life, though, so I pull up across the road and make my way down to the river, where I stare in horror at a sun-blasted, sluggish, gray-green sump. A low-water concrete bridge now crosses a few feet downstream of the ledge that once made my perfect swimming hole. The smell is rank.

I cross the bridge and climb the opposite hill into what should be deep natural forest but is now perfect rows of uniform pines eight feet tall. I turn around and walk back over the bridge, looking for the rock we used to swim to, but can't find it. The heat is suffocating; after ten minutes out of the rental car I dodge back in and crank the air conditioner on high. It occurs to me that I might not be tough enough for this country anymore. There used to be wild places that were paradise; soon, I find myself thinking, the only wild places left will be the hells.

As a child i had two heroes, Tarzan and Robin Hood. Out of the entire pantheon of children's literature I chose the two who got to live in the woods. The Kiamichis were responsible. When I was 16 I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and was swept away by the opening scene, Hemingway's hero lying on the floor of a pine forest, scouting the enemy. I could smell the pine needles under his chin, but in my mind I wasn't in the Pyrenees, I was in the Kiamichis.

How our family first connected with Coleman Ward is now lost to memory. His "tourist court" was little more than a subsistence farm with a few extra cabins. He was about 60 when I knew him, with stark white hair and a weathered face. He was fiercely proud of his Choctaw heritage; he wore a single feather twisted into his hair, and taught me how to do the same. He had a large extended family that he ruled absolutely, handing down prickly Indian wisdom, the patriarch as amiable contrarian. I had no living grandfathers and elected him to the role, following him around like a puppy. Jud, six years older than I, said he was a clown, which he was, the trickster version. His Indian name, Gray Fox, was perfectly apt.

After my parents were divorced I saw the Kiamichis one more time, on a camping trip with Jud and his Boy Scout patrol, chaperoned by Dad and our new stepmother, Evelyn. Dad's role was de facto scout leader, but drink kept him to the cabins, leaving the scouts on their own. It was a summer camp run by the kids, Brigadoon with ticks and poison ivy. I was only occasionally permitted to stay overnight with the older boys, but I swam across most mornings to join them, to play all day on the riverbank rope swing that they'd put up. Each night, I had to undergo a strip-search for ticks. I would stand naked, squirming, beside a table with a kerosene lantern on it, while Evelyn methodically inspected every inch of my hairless 11-year-old hide. When she found one she would pluck it gently and scrape it from her fingernail into the chimney of the lamp, where it would sizzle and make a tiny flare in the dark cabin. It was humiliating, but also titillating.

When I wasn't with the scouts I played with Coleman's grandson, called Teacup, who was about my age. We roamed the woods behind the cabins, usually playing Indians against imaginary cowboys. (I refused to play the white man.) Teacup's older sister, Felicia — "Witchie" — joined in when we'd let her, a natural in the role of dark-eyed Indian maiden. I was extremely conscious that I was playing with Indians, of whom I was a little frightened. They were tougher, faster, stronger than the kids I knew. It was a peculiar early introduction to a kind of benevolent racism. They knew from their grandfather that Indians were superior to white men, and there I was demonstrating to them, as they demonstrated to me, that he was correct. I didn't mind a bit; I'd have preferred being Indian myself.

I go around back of the living quarters to the chicken farm. Joe, Teacup's older brother, doesn't remember me or Jud, but does recall Dad. At 63, he is reticent, shy, not terribly interested in the state of the river 50 years ago. He tells me that Teacup, now called Leon, is a retired college professor in Denison, Texas; Felicia, a former dancer and widow of a World War II aviator, lives in Norman, Oklahoma.

The conversation is heavy going, so I say good-bye and drive off. A dome of late-summer high pressure is hammering the state, making a peculiar glaring haze. I planned to camp along the river but find that unimaginable now. I have a strange reluctance to get out of the car, to get into the Kiamichi country. I keep thinking of ticks and chiggers. The rattlesnake scene in True Grit was set just a few mountains to the north. When I came here with the scouts, one of them got poison sumac in his mouth, of all places. This timidity toward nature developed after my Kiamichi years, the unfortunate product of a land where every live thing I came across seemed to carry a six-gun in its holster: thorns, fangs, claws, venom, barbs, poisonous secretions, bloodsucking mouths. It has taken decades in more kindly New England woods to overcome this hesitancy.

The nearest town is Smithville, a few miles upstream. When I stop at a small general store to inquire about the Wards, the face of the woman at the counter lights up. Evidently they were town favorites. What happened, I ask, to the Wards' beautiful stretch of river? Well, that was the highway department, the woman says. When they built the road, they cut down the big walnuts that used to make shade. And yes, it is unpleasant along there now, isn't it? A huge Jim Thorpe look-alike has been listening quietly to our conversation. As I turn to leave, he speaks. "Weyerhaeuser," he says, "and beavers."

U.S. 259, the major north-south route in eastern Oklahoma, was built in 1962. The state not only cut down the walnuts but bulldozed the riverbanks for fill. There was nothing the Wards could do. Then Weyerhaeuser clear-cut the surrounding hills, and the resulting runoff and sedimentation mucked up the waters. So the fine new road that provided all that handy access up and down the eastern part of the state, that now brings the tourists to the dammed waters of Broken Bow Lake, wiped out the Wards' little kingdom.

I find Smithville's small cemetery: Coleman J. Ward, 1883-1961; Willy P., his wife, 1886-1972. At least he died before the river was ruined. I head back south, in a snit because 400 yards of my childhood have been made ugly. Easy come, easy go: It couldn't have mattered much to anyone but the Wards, and my family, and me, and the few others — a few hundred, a few thousand — who still remember it. The entire Mountain Fork is only 60 miles long. Reservoirs are more democratic recreation — and easier on the country, at least, than the institutionalized mayhem of clear-cutting.

Coleman's standard fisherman's lunch: sprinkle a little salt onto some waxed paper, fold it, put it in your shirt pocket. When you get hungry, splash some minnows onto the bank, dry them on a rock in the sun, salt and eat them like canapës. That's what he said, but I never saw him do it. I never succeeded in splashing up a single minnow. I doubt I'd have eaten it if I had.

Near the end of the scouts' stay, Coleman organized a daylong group hunt. His four adult sons joined in, plus some other male relatives and Teacup. Jud and his scout patrol were invited, and I talked my way into tagging along. We started in the morning "noodling" — wading nose-deep in a nearby slough to grapple fish by hand from under logs and mud banks. I was advised that there were snakes and snapping turtles as well as sharp-finned catfish under there — which, as intended, turned it into the most frightening act I've ever performed, before or since. The afternoon was given over to deer hunting, just as illegal in the off-season as the noodling had been.

My assignment was to stay with Jud and keep out of trouble; Teacup went off on horseback with an uncle to fish a stock pond with rod and reel. The uncle hooked a good-size bass, but it took his plug, so he sent Teacup in to grapple the fish to land. Just about the time we arrived at the hole, Teacup stood up in knee-deep water, dripping wet, with a largemouth bass flapping from his forearm, one hook in the fish's mouth, another embedded in his wrist. Somebody got the fish off the hook. Teacup listened impassively while the adults argued over whether or not the hook had snagged a tendon. If not, it could simply be cut out. If a tendon was involved, the hook would have to be pushed on through the flesh so that the barb could be clipped off and the hook backed out. Finally they decided to let the women solve the problem and sent Teacup home on his horse. My last sight of him was riding off toward the cabin, the bass plug still dangling from his arm.

Below the dam at Broken Bow is quaint little Beavers Bend State Resort Park, built in 1937 by CCC crews. Rental cottages overlook a manicured swimming hole — replacing a spot downstream, a ranger tells me, that had been beloved by locals for decades but now is subject to dangerous surges from the dam. Canoes and paddleboats are for rent; there is a riding stable and the usual nature trails, and plenty of access to the regularly restocked trout. (Trout were unheard-of in Oklahoma in my father's day, the rivers being far too warm for their survival. The depth of the reservoir, however — over 80 feet — keeps the water cool enough to allow hatchery fish to stay alive, at least long enough for anglers to haul them out again.) A small, self-serving museum celebrates the lumber industry's contribution to the local economy.

I rent a canoe and sign up for a group pickup at the end of a ten-mile run below the dam. At the put-in we wait while a state fish hatchery truck dumps in a load of trout, then slide our canoes into the water. The river smell that was too strong back at Coleman's is just right here. I pull over into a cypress grove to let the others go, wanting the river to myself. While I wait I slip over the side into delicious water. It's 11 in the morning, and I have a picnic lunch and no other responsibility than to be at the pickup point at five. Once I'm wet the heat is no longer oppressive. In fact it's a gorgeous sunny day on a cool clean river just like the one I remember. Maybe, I think, they didn't destroy the Mountain Fork, they just moved it downstream.

Kingfishers dip and dart ahead as I paddle; cicadas scream. The river is fine canoeing, muscular in its green upwellings, a tumbling, caressing delight. Between riffles I gawk at huge cypresses, of which I have no memory. (Their northernmost range mysteriously stops just below the Wards' place.) Whenever I need air-conditioning I slide into the water. Once I stop to photograph some bankside Indian paintbrush and let the canoe get away from me; I chase it across a gravel bank, thigh-deep, holding my camera high out of the splash. For a few minutes I'm 11 years old again, the river as wild, endearing, and rich with possibilities as it ever was.

At five o'clock, happily exhausted, I pull my canoe from the water. On the way home the driver tells me that the Mountain Fork offers the best smallmouth bass fishing in the state. People catch a hundred fish a day. They don't eat them, though. Over near Mena — just over the border in Arkansas, which the license plates brag is "The Natural State" — there was a treatment pit where they soaked logs in poison to keep rot from getting into the lumber. It was designated a Super Fund site and allegedly cleaned up. Chemicals, the driver says, still seep into the river. I didn't consider things like that when I was swimming.

I locate Teacup by telephone in Denison. He remembers me well. His full name is Juddson Leon Ward, I'm surprised to learn, after my brother; his mother had stayed with my parents in Oklahoma City during the last stages of her pregnancy. For years he taught literature at a local community college and is now a tournament bridge player.

I ask him about his parents. Leon surprises me by saying that Coleman and Willy happened to be distant cousins: Their grandfathers had been brothers, white men who came to the territory to teach in Indian schools and took Indian wives. Coleman spoke fluent Choctaw, but he wrote newspaper columns, in English, for the Daily Oklahoman and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He was a voracious reader and, according to his grandson, "something of a twentieth-century Thoreau transcendentalist." Maybe that's where the contrariness came from.

The incident with the bass plug was less dramatic, perhaps, than I remember. Leon doesn't recall the removal of the hook and has no scars from it. But he was a small kid at the time; how could his uncle send him in to grapple the bass? "Well," says Leon, "you have to understand, we were practically amphibious." This, I realize, is exactly right: How could you not be, with a river like that on your doorstep?

Shortly before he died of cancer in 1991 at age 64, Jud reminded me of the Zen advice: Don't push the river. Perhaps that's what I am doing with the Mountain Fork. My father was a tale-teller, my brother a poet, and I surely inherited the habit of exaggeration. The Kiamichis were perhaps never as idyllic as I remembered, and their river probably not as devastated as I perceive it now; perhaps Coleman's old stretch is simply a bad segment. Surely it is I who have changed, more than the river, losing the child's ability to hunker down and explore every nuance of a stream, every pothole and rock surface, with bare feet and hands. It was the best river because my father said it was. I had my grievances with him, but I didn't go there to find out that he was a fool. It was the best river at the time, the best he or any of the rest of us knew. I've been enjoying it in my mind ever since. There's no reason to stop that now, even if the river I remember no longer exists.

John Jerome is a longtime contributor to Outside. His book Blue Rooms, about the Mountain Fork and other memorable bodies of water, will be published in June by Henry Holt.

Illustration by Mike Reagan

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