Small Town Decay and a Beautiful River

Tomorrow we will saddle up and move to Tenkiller Ferry Lake in Oklahoma. It’s a Corps of Engineers park, and we hope to prolong spring in our northbound wandering. I’ll miss Cossatot Reefs. Its forest of blooming dogwoods, all those just beginning to leaf hardwoods, and this beautiful noisy river make this by far the nicest place we’ve camped in our Airstream.

We did laundry and made groceries (an old New Orleans usage) in De Queen yesterday. On the way there I noticed the Gillham cemetery. It must have a thousand tombstones, quite a few for a burg whose most recent census counted 188 among the living. Years ago, maybe 60 or 70, this was much more of a town. The much larger De Queen has seen better days itself. Its downtown is drying up, and the coin-op laundry we used was so nearly worn out neither words nor pictures can describe it. I grew up in a north Louisiana village, a place even now thrice the size of Gillham. Mooringsport, also built on a lake, once had a bank, a movie house, a dry cleaner, a dry goods store, and five groceries. That was just before the Great Depression. After that the bank and movie theatre were forever gone, but the others fought it out for decades. These days decay and rust is everywhere in Mooringsport, as in De Queen and Gillham. Those elements that sustain life, oxygen and water, conspire to rust and decay all of man’s creations. Without constant maintenance, it’s gone all too soon. Somewhere in there is a lesson for us trailer people.

Back at Cossatot Reefs, I talked about Gillham’s past with Reba, our camp host, who grew up here. I asked if the trend of kids moving from Gillham to Texarkana, and from Texarkana to Little Rock, and from Little Rock to New York was what’s killing her little town. And she told me “Oh, I dunno. Yeah, people left for all kinds of reasons. And Gillham used to be something. Back then, we had three stores!”

Yep, there’s no point philosophizing about the past. We live in the here and now. And so tonight, after dinner, Kat and I sat in the gathering dusk listening to the river laugh at our imminent departure. We sipped cognac out of real glass snifters. If you haven’t sat beside a rushing river chasing your Snickers bar dessert with Hennessey, now’s the time.

We only live once.

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